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. The happiness occurs to support 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 your brain’s reward system. It motivates you 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
- taking drugs
To underscore the importance of dopamine in working toward a reward, consider a study described in Andrew Huberman’s podcast, How to Increase Motivation and Drive, designed to separate pleasure from motivation.
Two groups of rats were offered food they particularly liked. They were motivated and would press a lever to receive a pellet. Next, they eliminated the dopamine neurons from one group by injecting a destructive neurotoxin.
When placed next to the lever, those rats would press it and they still enjoyed the food. But if they moved them literally one body length away from the lever the dopamine-deficient rats would not move toward it to get the food.
Dopamine, therefore is not about the ability to experience pleasure, it is about motivation for pleasure. This has been repeated in humans in a variety of different scenarios.
The downside to dopamine is that it can lead to addictive behaviors, and with time, you will 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 if you eat another portion 10 minutes later, you may not notice any uplift.
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.
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
- eating certain foods such as fatty fish, mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, spinach, avocados
Adding to the list is compassion, not only for others and the planet but for yourself. Dr. Kristin Neff, who has made a career of researching self-compassion says,
“Because thoughts and emotions have the same effect on our bodies whether they're directed to ourselves or to others, research suggests that self-compassion may be a powerful trigger for the release of oxytocin.
Self-criticism appears to have a very different effect on our bodies.”
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 way to increase your serotonin levels is by engaging in positive social interactions, such as talking with friends, spending time with loved ones, or participating in group activities.
The resulting release of serotonin contributes to feelings of happiness, relaxation, and well-being. But, as with oxytocin, serotonin levels are also increased when you have a positive relationship with yourself.
Other natural ways to increase your serotonin levels include getting enough sleep, exercising, drinking adequate amounts of water, and eating food that contains tryptophan, such as:
- egg whites
- sunflower seeds
- pumpkin seeds
It is best to follow the tryptophan with food containing carbohydrates.
The tryptophan enables the production of serotonin and the 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.
Additionally, you can lift your serotonin levels by instituting a gratitude practice, which could be writing down things you are thankful for, once or twice per week.
Or, instead, think of things that people are thankful to you for. Studies show the latter works even better! More about this is on the Gratitude page.
E is for ENDORPHINS
When you exercise regularly, your body releases endorphins. This neurotransmitter is best known for reducing your perception of pain.
However, it also triggers positive feelings, 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 often live with.
These effects are attributed to the brain's pain management and reward network, known as the "Opioid Circuitry." Using substances to artificially mimic endorphin production can have significant drawbacks.
These substances include alcohol, anabolic steroids, heroin, synthetic opioids like fentanyl, and prescription pain relievers.
For instance, opioids mimic natural endorphins and attach to brain receptors, reducing the release of GABA, a neurotransmitter that typically acts as a "brake" on the system.
By diminishing GABA's inhibitory effect, opioids unleash a surge of dopamine, resulting in intense pleasure that surpasses natural rewards.
With repeated use, the brain decreases its dopamine receptors' sensitivity, necessitating higher opioid doses to achieve the same pleasure level.
Essentially, prolonged opioid use disrupts the natural reward system, leading to tolerance, potential overdose, and diminished pleasure from everyday activities.
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.
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.
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.
Scientists discovered another interaction when they conducted a study in 2008 to measure the brain activity of people thinking and feeling gratitude. What they found was
... gratitude causes synchronized activation in multiple brain regions, and lights up parts of the brain’s reward pathways and the hypothalamus. In short, gratitude can boost
the neurotransmitter serotonin and activate the brain stem to produce dopamine.
So now you have some good reasons to be kind and helpful to other people, animals, and the planet, and to be thankful for what you have. Not only will you feel better from the increased oxytocin and serotonin,
but you will get more pleasure and drive from your dopamine!