Despite what Valentine’s Day décor shows, we now know that the real “Headquarters” behind our emotions is the brain. But have you ever stopped to think how your brain can create these very real, often overpowering feelings?
Turns out, it’s not so different from the way it tells you when its time to sleep, eat or exercise: that is, via hormones. And just like we can tweak our internal clocks by drinking coffee or adjusting our lights, we can also get our brain to “send the order” for happier moods.
What Are Happy Hormones?
Hormones are body-made chemicals that carry messages from the brain into the rest of the body. Most hormones are used to regulate the unconscious (or “autonomous”) functions in the body: there is no hormone for speaking, but there are several that control growth, development, reproduction, and mood.
Many hormones can impact many organs and carry out several tasks at once: for example, progesterone controls the menstrual cycle, but it can also tweak your digestion.
Here, we are going to explore some of the hormones that have the strongest impact on moods and mental health.
Often nicknamed “the happiness hormone”, serotonin is probably the most important player for those seeking to recover from clinical depression and anxiety. A boost of serotonin can immediately uplift your mood. However, this hormone also has a handful of more discreet, but equally important, effects: it can improve memory function, energy levels, appetite, and pain perception.
Dopamine is strongly linked to what psychologists called the “risk and reward” system in our brains. When we accomplish something, win a bet, or receive a compliment, our brain immediately produces an extra dose of dopamine. This makes us feel good, energized and motivated. Because of this, it drives us to pursue the same behavior.
In many ways, we grow to love our hobbies because we relate them to the rushes of dopamine they produce. On the other hand, low dopamine levels can make us feel unmotivated and lethargic.
Oxytocin drives us towards emotional attachments and love. When we hug our friends, kiss our lovers, and pet our furry friends, it creates a deep but subdued sense of joy. Oxytocin also lowers our stress levels, lowers our blood pressure and lowers our pain levels, especially those from childbirth.
Possibly the fastest-acting of all happy hormones on this list, endorphins can produce euphoria, pleasure, and sexual arousal. This hormone is linked to our “fight or flight” system, so it is occasionally produced to help us face a critical situation ahead. Because of this, it also lessens pain sensation and makes us feel momentarily more confident. However, it also raises our heartbeat.
GABA is the acronym for gamma-Aminobutyric acid. This is the least known of all happy hormones, as it doesn’t produce an immediate feeling of happiness. On the contrary, most of the effects of GABA are related to inhibition: if endorphins are your mood’s gas pedal, GABA gently hits the brakes.
For people who are suffering from chronic stress, GABA can act as a calming agent. It can also improve your sleep quality and diminish symptoms of anxiety disorder.
5 Ways to Boost your Happy Hormones
Now that you know the pieces, it’s time to learn how to play them. These simple tips will help boost your production of happy hormones:
1. Brain foods
What does it boost? All happy hormones!
Although our entire body requires a healthy and varied diet based on whole foods, some are known to be particularly good for brain function. In particular, foods with zinc and unsaturated fatty acids can help your brain produce happy hormones more efficiently.
These include tree nuts, seeds, avocados, extra-virgin olive oil, and beans
2. Outdoor exercise
What does it boost? serotonin, endorphins, oxytocin
All cardiovascular activity can trigger a quick rush of endorphins to re-energize you. Plus, when you exercise outdoors and surrounded by nature, you stand to gain some additional benefits. In particular, green and coastal landscapes can help your brain produce more serotonin
3. Take in the sun
What does it boost? serotonin, GABA
The sun itself also plays a role in the benefits of nature. This is because UV rays are needed for your body to produce Vitamin D, which in turn will help your brain function overall.
Studies show that spending at least 10 minutes in the sun, at least 3 times a week, can lower signs of depression and anxiety.
4. Book a massage
What does it boost? Oxytocin
Getting a massage helps you leave stress behind as you relax. A massage’s effects on relaxation and stress will go beyond the session: the personal touch required for a massage will trigger a steady dose of oxytocin.
5. Make a To-Do List, and complete it
What does it boost? Dopamine
It makes sense for the “reward hormone” to act as a main driver of productivity. Whenever your brain is feeling foggy, or you get overwhelmed by all the work you need to do, dopamine can help you turn this around.
Simply take a few minutes to create a to-do list with tasks you can complete in the next hour. Then, get them done and cross them off as you go along! The rush of dopamine will put you back on top of your game.
Your brain produces a myriad of happy hormones that help carry messages of joy, calm, and accomplishment under specific triggers. Now that you know how they work, you can start tweaking your routine to get a steady release of completely natural happiness.