The Pros and Cons of our Neurobiological Reward System

Brain met

Brain met (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tonight’s post won’t be as creative as last night. Tonight I am just plain exhausted.

After missing four of my martial arts classes in a row because of the wedding, etc… I went to Karate for the first time in over a week tonight. I loved every minute of it, and once again, by the end I was dripping sweat, out of breath, and my muscles felt like jelly.

I know I’ve talked about this before, but the satisfaction I derive from this type of physical exhaustion it’s…well… to avoid going into topics that might be not family-friendly, let me just talk about the neurobiological component.

You see, our brains are wired to give us pleasure producing hormones and neurochemicals when we do something necessary or useful to sustain life. Thus eating, drinking, sleeping, and, of course, reproduction, all create a sense of pleasure in the brain, which is there to help keep us on track. Biologically, we are meant to keep ourselves alive and to continue the human race. And our brains are constantly trying to help us do just that.

Interestingly enough, scientists have found that strenuous exercise releases similar reward-producing chemicals in the brain. It may not be exactly the same as what you feel when you eat chocolate, for example, but the brain recognizes the benefit nonetheless.

Perhaps it is just a holdover from a time when our biological ancestors had to spend their days running through the forest tracking and hunting game and gathering food from various places. Whatever the reason, it is clear that our bodies still want to reward us when we allow them to move to the point of exhaustion.

There is, of course, a line to draw here, as with everything that stimulates the pleasure centers of our brains. There is always the possibility of “too much of a good thing”.

And I can see, very clearly, how exercise could become an addiction: when I got home right after my class, I sank into a chair, looked up at the ceiling, and honestly felt a better, truer high than I ever got from any external substance I put into my body.

Perhaps it had to do with the fact that I not only pushed myself to the point of exhaustion this evening, but I also pushed myself through a two mile run and a long set of strength and endurance building exercises this afternoon.

Plus I had been up since about six in the morning, so possibly I was also feeling the effects of sleep deprivation (which studies show can impair someone’s judgment significantly more than alcohol).

Either way, my body may have felt like it had just been hit by a truck, but my brain was telling me, “good work, let’s do it again on Thursday”.

I feel like the chemicals in my brain are finally beginning to level out to a point where my own endorphins kick in and the natural reward system is beginning to function once more.

The question I have to ask myself, no matter what it is, be it anything from food, exercise to sex – am I overdoing it? Am I doing this activity because I know it supports my wellness goals, or am I doing it strictly because it is pleasurable?

That is not to say that there is not a time and place to engage in activities strictly for pleasure. But for me, I just need to be on my guard.

I am of the opinion that one can become addicted to just about anything (including blogging….hmmmm). All that means is that I need to be aware of the balance of activities in my life, and make sure that that balance supports my goal of optimal wellness.

Thanks for reading, and I promise tomorrow’s post will be more… let’s say “interesting”.

Goodnight, and peace to you,

-Nathan

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3 responses to “The Pros and Cons of our Neurobiological Reward System

  1. As long as you eat sufficiently to not become underweight, don’t keep going if you actually injure yourself (different to pushing through good pain) and have at least 1-2 full rest days a week, it would be very hard to over do it.

    • Well, that wasn’t quite what I meant. I know what happens when I actually PHYSICALLY overdo my workouts. But the problem is the underlying one – my potential to become obsessed with anything that gives my brain that pleasure response.

      And yes, it is pretty tough to overdo it, and, by the way, I’m not losing weight. Or injuring myself.

      But being able to workout HARD without injuring oneself and without becoming underweight as you said can be tough if you don’t have the knowledge and the knowhow. That’s why I read up at places like http://www.feelgoodnow.com (I freelance for them too, so this is an unashamed plug for their site) where they can help connect healthcare and fitness professionals with those who want to achieve fitness and wellness goals!

      Thanks for the comment, Danielle!

  2. Pingback: The Bits and Pieces | The Wellness Quest

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