There are many different chemicals floating around your body right now (don’t worry, they’re supposed to be there). But which ones are involved in keeping you happy and healthy, and how can you harness the power of these biological pick-me-ups to improve your mental and physical health?
Today we ask the question, what is the chemical recipe for happiness?
Oh, and for those of you who just said ‘alcohol’ with a grin and a chuckle, you are not entirely wrong… only mostly.
What is it?
Dopamine is a multi-functional neurotransmitter that is involved in everything from your emotions to your motor reactions. The chemical is closely related to the more widely known Adrenaline and indeed the two function in very similar ways and have similar effects. That buzz you get after your workout? There’s more than just Adrenaline at play there.
Dopamine is one of the hormones involved in our internal reward mechanisms. Basically, when you do something that makes you feel good, that’s dopamine at work. Food, sex, exercise and social interaction can all stimulate the release of dopamine and the good feelings that come with it. Sounds nice, right?
It makes sense that these kinds of activity should be rewarded, after all. Eating keeps you alive, sex propagates the species (in a very fun way), exercise keeps you healthy and social interactions keep your mind stable and sharp. All useful traits that our brains have evolved to encourage.
Whilst it is true that this hormone can live up to its reputation as the body’s ‘happiness chemical’, Dopamine is unfortunately involved in ALL of our reward mechanisms, which includes the systems that cause addiction. Though you might think addiction is not a problem for you, studies have shown that the dopamine feedback loops created by social media and smartphones have resulted in a kind of addiction to the short term gratification from likes and shares, with up to 73% of people actually experiencing anxiety when unable to find their phones.
And, as with any hormone, too much or too little can result in serious health issues; in the case of Dopamine, these issues include Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia and other mental afflictions.
What can you do about it?
Scary stuff aside, how can you harness the power of Dopamine to make you happier?
Well, social media doesn’t always have to be something negative, for a start. Staying in touch with our loved ones, even those who are far away, is really good for our health and dopamine levels.
Research like the Harvard Adult Development Study has shown that good quality social relationships are essential not only for our mental health, but our physical health as well. Any way in which you can keep those you love close, even if it’s digital, is worth it. But remember, just getting a like from someone or sending a friend a meme is not enough, to gain the benefits of social interaction it has to be high quality and meaningful.
Apart from that, a healthy diet and regular exercise should help regulate dopamine levels and keep you feeling happier and brighter. Perhaps not directly after a workout, but I promise it will kick in eventually! A healthy sex life is also important for the release of mood-boosting hormones, be it on your own or with a partner/partners. The chemicals involved in sex are incredibly complex and not a topic for this article, but dopamine is in there. Technically, I suppose that counts as exercise as well… and social interaction too if you’re lucky enough to have a willing other.
What is it?
Sleep is great. I always find that extra 5 minutes in the morning, just after you’ve hit snooze and rolled over, to be the best, don’t you? Well, along with other hormones such as cortisol and melatonin, serotonin forms part of our Circadian Rhythm, the internal biological clock that keeps our body in line with the outside cycle of night and day and dictates when and how we sleep.
Like dopamine, serotonin is a multi-faceted chemical which is involved, one way or another, in nerve cell activity, eating and digestion, nausea, blood clotting and bone health, as well as sleep and mood. In fact, this hormone is so complex that some studies seem to indicate that it is involved both in our sleep, but also in keeping us awake. Either way, it has also been linked to the regulation of happiness and anxiety, with low levels being involved with depression and OCD, among other things.
What can you do about it?
So how can we control our Serotonin levels?
Well, firstly, we have to be careful with this particular hormone, as too much of it can also have some nasty effects, including decreased arousal (not useful if you're trying to keep your dopamine up, see above), high blood pressure and even osteoporosis, or brittle bones. Some of these symptoms come under a particular designation, known as Serotonin Syndrome.
Obviously then, simply flooding the body with this particular chemical is really not a great idea. However, Serotonin does still contribute to our mood and happiness, and though too much or too little is bad, we still have to take action to ensure the right amount is coursing through our bodies.
As with many hormones, a healthy diet and regular exercise are key to maintaining a balanced Serotonin level in the body. Interestingly though, light exposure is also a factor, with greater exposure to bright light (like the sun, for example) serving to balance out and stabilize serotonin levels and therefore improve mood. Indeed, therapy using bright lights for this exact purpose have been used to treat Seasonal Depression for a while, and with some success.
So, if you take that jog in the park on a nice sunny day, not only will you be getting your exercise in, but your serotonin levels will also respond to the light beating down on you from way up in the sky. And as a bonus, you’ll get a nice hit of vitamin D as well. So what are you waiting for? Get those trainers on… I would join you but… I’ve got a haircut… or something…
What is it?
Yes, Oxytocin is the so-called ‘Love hormone’. Let’s have a closer look at what this oh-so-famous chemical actually does.
It is true that oxytocin is indeed involved in sexual pleasure and relations, as well as social bonding and maternal behavior. In fact, due to its key involvement in motherhood and breastfeeding, oxytocin was once thought to be a ‘female hormone’, but it has since been shown to exist in both sexes.
The hormone is also understood to be released during socially stressful times, including during isolation or unpleasant interactions with others, such as in dysfunctional relationships. Though this may seem counterintuitive, scientists believe that this may be the body’s way of encouraging you to seek out better, more fulfilling social interactions.
Oxytocin isn’t just a love hormone then, but a social hormone. Studies have shown that the chemical makes us more open and more prone to generosity and trust, as well as contributing to pain management. Yes, you read that right, oxytocin has been shown to not only reduce discomfort by affecting the brain’s processing of pain, but also by reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, which are known to contribute to worsening existing pain.
It sounds like a bit of a miracle, this stuff, doesn’t it?
To be honest, Oxytocin doesn’t have quite the same kinds of downside that our previous hormones do. There is some evidence that, depending on how you form social attachments, Oxytocin might contribute to impairing memory in some way, but this is not fully understood as of yet, and the negative effects only appear to be in regard to short term memory. Essentially, there are very few caveats to the fact that this hormone is generally a good thing, with no notable side-effects from having too much of it.
What can you do about it?
So it’s great, but how do you get this stuff pumping?
Well, unsurprisingly for the ‘love hormone’, sex is a good place to start. Sexual climax stimulates a massive release of Oxytocin, along with a cocktail of other assorted chemicals, including our old friend dopamine. Thankfully, for those of us still marching through a single existence, that hormone hit doesn’t necessarily require anybody else to be involved, so you’re free to access the wonders of Oxytocin whether you’re paired up or not.
But if the above isn’t an option for you, or you’re just tired from having made the most of the situation already, there are plenty of other ways of getting that oxytocin rush. More PG affectionate behavior, such as hugging and cuddling family members, friends or even pets is a great way to get the happiness hormones flowing, as is watching an emotional film or video, or actually consuming any kind of emotional media should do the trick.
A final way to get that oxytocin high is to give birth and breastfeed. Obviously, this is not an option that is available to everyone, and even the biological females who can take this route may not wish to do so. If your only motivation for having a baby is to get that sweet hormone hit, I might suggest giving it a bit of extra thought before going ahead with the arduous task of parenthood. However, if you do have a child, oxytocin will be instrumental in the birth, in the breastfeeding and in the formation of your bond with the baby.
What are they?
Up until now, we’ve always been talking about single hormones which, even though they often work together with other chemicals, all have their own particular effects on the mind and body.
Endorphins, on the other hand, are not a single hormone, but rather a group of hormones that all work in similar ways. The ways in which endorphins can be separated from one and other and how we then categorize them is a story for another time (and for after I go and quickly get a biology degree), but it is safe to say that, as a group, we humans like them very much.
Endorphins activate the same receptors in the body as opioids do. These are illegal narcotics such as heroin and opium, as well as drugs used in healthcare, like morphine and codeine. It’s unsurprising, then, that people are rather fond of the way endorphins make them feel. Despite how wonderful endorphins can be, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that we started to get a handle of what was actually going on.
A study all the way back in 1984 talks about possible relationships between endorphins, pain management and exercise. That study, as it happens, was not wrong. We now know that endorphins play a crucial role in our nervous system, in particular in response to stimuli such as stress, pain or fear. These chemicals are especially good at blocking pain and controlling emotions, both of which can improve happiness.
Like other hormones, endorphins condition our behavior towards things that we need, like food, sex and social interaction. Scientists believe that the chemicals give you a feeling of happiness and satisfaction in order to
- Let you know that you have had enough of the good thing that you were doing.
- To encourage you to go after that good thing again in the future.
What can you do about it?
If you’re looking for that ‘runner’s high’ endorphin rush, a good start might be to… you know… go running. Or actually any form of exercise will do. This is probably the most well known and popular way of triggering an endorphin reaction in the body, and it is those hormones that make the frankly diabolical experience of working out just that little bit more palatable. They’re also the reason why you keep going back to the gym, even though you felt like death warmed over after the last time you went.
Other ways to get those chemicals flowing include meditation, alcohol, spicy foods, UV light and childbirth (not an option for all, as we’ve already discussed).
Clearly, there are plenty of ways to get that beneficial high, so why not hit the treadmill under a UV light with a curry in one hand and a beer in the other, all the while giving birth?
(Disclaimer: Do not, under any circumstances, actually try this. And if you do happen to be giving birth please seek out your physician immediately.)
Seriously though, endorphins are a great way to get your mood up and your heart pumping. So, if you are feeling a bit rough, try a run or a quick bike ride. You’ll be amazed at what a difference it could make.
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There you have it! Four different kinds of hormones, all coursing through you body at this very moment (maybe quite a lot of them, depending on how excited you got about this article) and now you are armed with the knowledge you need to harness those chemical powerhouses to make yourself happier and healthier. And if you want to cash in on those extra social hormones, why not take up exercise with a friend? Two birds with one stone, right?