The Effects of Exercise on Serotonin Levels


Exercise and serotonin have been linked in studies, indicating that serotonin levels can be increased through exercise. Overall, exercise has a positive effect on the mind and body when done in proper doses.

Serotonin increases with exercise. Credit: Hero Images/Hero Images/GettyImages

Depression, Exercise and Serotonin

According to Health Direct, serotonin levels can be increased naturally by exercising, and increased serotonin can help combat depression, anxiety, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

One 2014 study in the European Journal of Psychology and Educational Studies found that even mild to moderate levels of exercise, two to three times a week, can reduce symptoms of depression, though the quantities of blood-level serotonin tested in a small sample size of individuals were not found to be highly significant.

Serotonin has a long history of being linked to depression. However, recent studies have demonstrated that the link is not as straightforward as thought. According to a June 2015 paper in World Psychiatry, simple biochemical theories that link low levels of serotonin with symptoms of depression are no longer viable. The connection between exercise and serotonin is a complex one that doesn't necessarily denote correlation despite widely held beliefs.

Read more: The 8 Activities That Have the Most Benefits for Your Brain

Serotonin and Dopamine Differences

What's the difference between dopamine and serotonin? Like serotonin, dopamine plays a role in mood and can be boosted with exercise. According to Health Direct, low levels of dopamine have been linked to certain mental illnesses, such as depression.

In terms of function, dopamine allows nerve cells to pass messages to each other and helps you feel pleasure, satisfaction and motivation. Similarly, serotonin helps your body to send messages between nerve cells. It serves several different functions, explains Health Direct, including controlling mood and happiness.

Exercise and Mental Health

When it comes to exercise and well-being, there's plenty of evidence pointing to physical activity as a mood booster. Mayo Clinic explains that the psychological and physical benefits of exercise can help boost mood and minimize anxiety.

Likewise, Mayo Clinic points out that exercise can relieve stress, and provides some tips on how to stick with an exercise regimen. Tips include setting goals, such as reducing stress, working out with a friend, changing up your routine and exercising in increments.

The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes to 300 minutes a week of moderate intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes to 150 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic exercise per week. Adults should also do strength training activities of moderate to vigorous intensity twice a week.

According to Better Health Channel, people who exercise regularly have fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety than those who don't exercise. Moreover, 16 weeks of exercise was found to be just as effective as antidepressant medicine in treating older patients who were not exercising prior to beginning their workout routine.

Read more: 12 Exercises to Improve Your Mood

Vitamin D Regulates Serotonin Synthesis

Though there aren't "serotonin vitamins," there are vitamins and supplements known to affect serotonin regulation. According to a research review article published in The FASEB Journal in February 2015, serotonin is important for proper brain functioning and vitamin D has been shown to modulate normal levels of serotonin.

Therefore preventing vitamin D deficiency can help protect from serotonin deficits associated with certain psychiatric disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder.

Moreover, fish oil supplementation rich in omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown to have potentially beneficial effects on the brain, optimizing serotonin signaling.

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