Brain Chemistry

The Basics: Taking Charge of Your Happy Hormones

Building a fulfilling life without understanding your brain chemistry is like cooking without understanding your ingredients, which is limiting if you want to be a gourmet chef. A little knowledge in this area will go a long way toward improving your sense of well-being for the rest of your life.

Virtually everybody would like to be as happy as possible, so let’s take a look at your “happy hormones” to see what they do and what you can do to increase their levels in your brain in a healthy, sustainable manner.

Happy Hormones: D.O.S.E.

For the most part, your day-to-day happiness level is dictated by four neurotransmitters: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. This quartet of neurotransmitters is often called “happy hormones,” which ebb and flow throughout the day in response to inner and outer cues. They can boost your moods and foster general well-being.

However, their purpose is not just to keep you happy. Instead, they are all about survival. That is to say, their function is to keep your mind directed toward accomplishment and away from pain. Why? If your ancestors did not have a chemical “will to survive,” you would not be here.

DOSE is a handy acronym that will help you remember the four happiness hormones. And here is a description of each along with suggestions on how to increase their presence in your brain.

D is for Dopamine

Dopamine is responsible for our brain’s reward system. It motivates us to seek pleasure and achieve goals. When you have enough dopamine it drives you forward when the going gets tough. When you have too little you may lack enthusiasm, doubt yourself, and procrastinate.

We all have a dopamine baseline. That is, the level of dopamine present in our brains day-to-day. Various activities can cause dopamine spikes, which in turn give us a temporary pleasurable feeling. The problem is that after the spike, there is a letdown that can cause listlessness or some degree of depression.

Here are some of the activities that affect our dopamine levels:

  • getting a reward
  • working toward a reward
  • overeating
  • gambling
  • drinking
  • taking drugs

The downside to dopamine is that it can lead to addictive behaviors, and with time, need more and more of the same behaviors to yield the same results. For example, if you eat a portion of chocolate, it can increase your dopamine baseline 1.5 times and you might notice a pleasurable feeling. But an hour later, if you eat another portion, you may not notice anything.

There are really very few ways to increase your dopamine baseline. Behavior that causes spikes will cause a subsequent letdown. The best way to naturally lift your healthy dopamine levels is to be kind, helpful, and working toward a goal. The completion of an achievement gives you a temporary spike, but methodically improving your skills while working toward a goal will gently lift your baseline.

S is for SEROTONIN

Serotonin is thought to regulate sleep, anxiety, appetite, happiness, and mood. When you have enough serotonin it helps you feel emotionally settled. When you have too little you can feel anxious, depressed, irritable, and have difficulty sleeping.

A popular pharmacological method of increasing your serotonin is to take selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) drugs, such as Prozac, Zoloft, or Paxil. But these have side effects and should be used with caution.

The best natural ways to increase your serotonin levels include getting enough sleep, exercising, drinking adequate amounts of water and eating food that contains tryptophan (cheese, chicken, egg whites, fish, milk, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, etc.) It is best to follow the tryptophan with food containing carbohydrates. The tryptophan enables the production of serotonin and that carbohydrates drive the tryptophan across the blood-brain barrier. Ideally, the carbohydrates should be ingested a half-hour or more after the tryptophan. To make the serotonin boost last more than a couple of hours, choose complex carbohydrates, not simple sugars or refined flour products.

O is for OXYTOCIN

Oxytocin is often called the “love hormone" because it is instrumental in the emotional bond between a mother and her child. It is also released by both men and women when they are in love.

Increased oxytocin levels reduce stress, inflammation, and help us to build satisfying relationships. But when you have too little you may feel depressed, anxious, lonely, and uncomfortable in social situations.

Some of the best ways to naturally increase your oxytocin levels include acts of kindness, giving compliments, socializing, music, yoga, meditating, sex, hugging, dogs, and eating certain foods such as fatty fish, mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, spinach, avocados.

E is for ENDORPHINS

When you exercise regularly, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. This neurotransmitter is best known for reducing your perception of pain. However, it also triggers a positive feeling in your body, similar to an opiate. You have probably heard people say they have a euphoric feeling after vigorous exercise, sometimes calling it a “runner's high.”

When you have an adequate or high level of endorphins, you might feel positive, energized, optimistic, and have few aches and pains. When your endorphin levels dip, you might feel anxious, lethargic, and more likely to feel the minor aches and pains we sometimes live with.

The best way to increase your endorphin levels is to find an exercise you like or love and do it regularly. Other natural ways include chocolate, spicy foods, laughter, sex, dancing, and listening to music.

Interactions

While reading the above descriptions, you may have noticed some of the activities mentioned actually increase the levels of more than one happy hormone. For example, exercise is known to increase serotonin and endorphins. Eating fish is known to increase serotonin and oxytocin.

Most interestingly, increasing your oxytocin stimulates certain brain pathways that are responsible for delivering dopamine to the rest of the brain. According to Dr. Louis Cozolino in his book The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy - Healing the Social Brain (2017), oxytocin and dopamine have a very special and important relationship.

When we see something that stimulates our dopamine reward center, say a new car, buying the car makes us feel good. After a month, the car is just another car because we've habituated to it. But if we see something that activates both dopamine and oxytocin release, say a new baby, after a month he or she is still very special. This is because the simultaneous activation of oxytocin and dopamine inhibits dopamine habituation. This is why fads come and go and we grow tired of possessions, but we continue to look forward to seeing those we love.

So there is another good reason to be kind and helpful to other people, animals, and the planet. Not only will you feel better from the increased oxytocin, but you will get more pleasure and drive from your dopamine!

Controlling Your Dopamine For Motivation, Focus and Satisfaction by Andrew Huberman


This is your mammal brain by Loretta Breuning