I am a dopamine junkie. Want proof? I've got a dopamine necklace. Not impressed? I've got it tattooed on my freaking arm.
Dopamine is produced in the brain and regulates our pleasure and pain. That's right - although they seem like opposites, the brain has difficulty discriminating between the two. Don't believe me? Remember this article the next time you are voluntarily suffering through Fran. It also has a hard time differentiating between different types of rewards. When it comes to the basics - food, sex, exercise and drugs, the brain reacts in similar ways. When a human, or any animal, is confronted with one of these basic rewards, there is a dopamine pump from the brain. The size of the dopamine release is determined by the strength, frequency and duration of the reward. The bigger the reward, the bigger the release of dopamine.
Beer or burpees?
I studied the effects of drugs of abuse, namely alcohol and cocaine, on centers of sleep and arousal in the brain for my dissertation and continue to be fascinated by the subject. In the field of drug addiction, we like to talk about "hedonic substitution" or the idea that one reward can easily be substituted for another. Exercise is very much a perfect candidate for this. Several scientific studies have found that exercise regimens can help combat drug abuse and relapse in younger and older adults. This is fantastic because as a neuroscientist, I'm very much opposed to using pharmaceutical drugs to treat drug abuse. Pharmaceutical drugs re-wire the brain just like harmful drugs. Basically, it doesn't take having a PHD to know that "um, drugs are bad. Drugs are very bad" as Mr. Mackey says.
The Secret Lives Of Alcoholic Hamsters
While we are on the topic of hedonic substitution, neuroscientists like to use non-human models of drug addiction in order to characterize how and why exercise can serve as a gateway drug at the level of the brain. So what's the best animal model for studying this? Which animal can drink you under the table and yet voluntarily run 8-9 miles a day much like the indigenous Mexican tribe documented in Christopher McDougall's book Born to Run? The hamster.
That's right, hamsters can drink 50-times more alcohol than the average adult human (based on bodyweight) with nearly no long-term damage to their livers. the hamster eats fermented fruit in its natural (desert-dwelling) environment. These drunk little rodents will bury fallen fruit from cacti, let it ferment, and then dig it up for consumption.
My colleagues and I took advantage of this peculiar lifestyle of the hamster and decided to see what would happen if we gave hamsters access to either a running wheel or alcohol. The results were crystal clear: when you let hamsters run on their wheels, they chose water over alcohol. When you locked their wheels, they chose alcohol over water and became really ornery too. This happens in both young and old hamsters. What could be responsible for this seemingly schizophrenic behavior? You guessed it -dopamine. We didn't investigate this in our study, but it is readily known that both exercise and alcohol cause a dopamine pump in the brain. Of course, exercise is almost always a better way to unleash the "pump dragon" than alcohol. Your abs will thank you alone.
Exercise as a Gateway Drug?
High-level athletes are freak shows both physically and mentally. Physically, many are endowed with great genes and physiology as nicely discussed in David Epstein's The Sports Gene. Elite Athletes are always trying to push themselves to the next level and gain an advantage over their opponents. Some of these athletes even resort to PEDs when natural methods don't produce the desired results. What the general public doesn't realize is that many athletes aren't using PEDs because they are lazy and want a shortcut, but rather to train longer and harder. That's not exactly ethical, but as a neuroscientist, I understand.
For high-level athletes, dopamine pumps have to work harder and longer to get the same "runner's high." What this means is that an athlete will refuse to rest, push through injury, over train, and enter a long-term vicious cycle of physical and mental destruction. In the field of drug addiction, we refer to this state as "hyperhedonia." This is the reason why depression and mental illness is largely prevalent after professional athletes retire from their respective sports independently of having suffered concussions. I will admit that I am calling the kettle black because I will often ignore some flared up tendinitis in my shoulder and hips in order to train regularly and intensely. So just be careful is what I'm saying. However, if you are faced with a serious injury and can't train for some time, find another adaptive sport or seek out less harmful rewards like socialization with people (in person not on Facebook)!!
too much of a good thing?
So exercise can be used to replace the dopamine pump from drugs and alcohol but can also be abused? Why can't anything be simple? How are you supposed to know when too much is too much? Probably the same way you know that drugs or alcohol have become a problem. When exercise starts negatively affecting your professional life and personal relationships, there is a good chance you have taken things too far. If you are blowing off your kid's birthday party for a squat session, it is time to reevaluate your priorities. Make sure that fitness is part of an overall healthy lifestyle and not an unhealthy obsession.
About Allison Brager:
Professional: Academic Researcher with a focus on neurobiology @ Morehouse School of Medicine and professor at Morehouse College
PHD Info: Kent State with a focus on neurobiology (PHD from Department of Biological Sciences)
CrossFit Games Experience: 2015 Regionals - Team, 2014 Regionals Athlete, 2013 CrossFit Games - Team, 2012 Regionals Athlete
Collegiate Athletic Background: Brown University Track & Field, 4 year varsity letterman, specialist in pole vault and hurdles
Facebook: Meathead: Unraveling The Athletic Brain
Allison's Blog: www.dormivigilia.com
Instagram and Twitter: @beastlyvaulter
Like this article? Check out Allison's book Meathead: Unraveling The Athletic Brain