Chemicals & Happiness
Each of these 4 chemicals plays a huge part in the way our bodies function: physically, mentally, and emotionally. I’ve only touched the surface, and I really encourage you to learn more on your own. By understanding the role these hormones have, you can better understand how they are affecting you in everyday situations. The more you know, the more you’ll be able to take control of those effects and enjoy a healthier, happier life.
The 4 brain chemicals:
- Serotonin – The “leadership hormone.” Heavily related to pride, loyalty, and status.
- Dopamine – The (good & bad) habit former. An incredible tool when used appropriately
- Endorphins – The natural painkiller. The runner’s high!
- Oxytocin – The hugging drug or “love hormone.” Oxytocin makes us social and builds relationships with trust and loving feelings.
Serotonin is a chemical messenger (neurotransmitter) that helps the brain and nervous system cells communicate. Its main function is to stabilize your mood, as well as your feelings of happiness and well-being. Serotonin also plays a role in the digestive system and sleep cycles.
The body needs serotonin, but too much or too little can lead to health issues. For example, too little serotonin can cause depression. Too much, however, can cause a rare condition called serotonin syndrome.
Serotonin syndrome is a serious drug reaction. It is caused by medications that build up high levels of serotonin in the body.
Serotonin is a chemical that the body produces naturally. It’s needed for the nerve cells and brain to function. But too much serotonin causes signs and symptoms that can range from mild (shivering and diarrhea) to severe (muscle rigidity, fever, and seizures). Severe serotonin syndrome can cause death if not treated.
Serotonin syndrome can occur when you increase the dose of certain medications or start taking a new drug. It’s most often caused by combining medications that contain serotonin, such as a migraine medication and an antidepressant. Some illicit drugs and dietary supplements are associated with serotonin syndrome.
Milder forms of serotonin syndrome may go away within a day or two of stopping the medications that cause symptoms and, sometimes, after taking drugs that block serotonin.
Symptomatology Triad Associated With Serotonin Syndrome
Drugs That Can Cause Serotonin Syndrome
Serotonin syndrome symptoms usually occur within several hours of taking a new drug or increasing the dose of a drug you’re already taking.
Signs and symptoms include:
- Agitation or restlessness
- Rapid heart rate and high blood pressure
- Dilated pupils
- Loss of muscle coordination or twitching muscles
- High blood pressure
- Muscle rigidity
- Heavy sweating
Severe serotonin syndrome can be life-threatening. Signs include:
- High fever
- Irregular heartbeat
Serotonin is another social chemical, but it functions in an entirely different way. Serotonin plays a role in the dynamics of pride, loyalty, and status. When we feel a sense of accomplishment or recognition from others, we are experiencing the effects of serotonin. This could be from receiving your diploma, crossing the finish line in a race, or being appreciated for hard work in the office. Serotonin can create strong, positive emotions.
Interestingly, serotonin can help build both sides of social dynamics. Serotonin is what motivates a leader to excel and grow their influence – to win awards and become popular in the news. But serotonin also compels their followers to do well – to not let down their leader, parent, or teacher and to excel in life.
“That’s why when someone receives an award, the first people they thank are their parents, or their coach, their boss or God—whoever they felt offered them the support and protection they needed to accomplish what they accomplished. And when others offer us that protection and support, because of serotonin, we feel a sense of accountability to them.”
Serotonin also plays a role in many crucial systems in our body beyond just our well-being and happiness. It’s believed to affect digestion, bone growth, and even organ development.
Herbal Drugs/Dietary Supplements
It is important to be aware that some herbal drugs and dietary supplements can have an effect on serotonin levels.
- St. John’s Wort (hypericum perforatum): St. John’s wort is a type of flower plant that is sometimes used as an herbal remedy, particularly to relieve symptoms of depression. It is also utilized for other conditions including anxiety, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), menopause symptoms, smoking cessation, and seasonal affective disorder. Researchers are not entirely sure of exactly how St. John’s wort works to elevate mood, but it is believed to increase neurotransmitter levels in the brain, including serotonin.3
- Ginseng: Ginseng is a root that is often utilized as an herbal supplement. Purported benefits include boosting immunity, increasing energy, and improving cognition. Ginseng acts on serotonin and other transmitters and also affects hormones, receptors, and signaling molecules. Research suggests that ginseng is associated with interactions with some psychotropic medications, including SSRI and SNRI antidepressants.4
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Dopamine is a chemical released in the brain that makes you feel good. Having the right amount of dopamine is important both for your body and your brain.
Dopamine helps nerve cells to send messages to each other. It’s produced by a group of nerve cells in the middle of the brain and sends out messages to other parts of the brain.
What is the role of dopamine?
Dopamine is responsible for allowing you to feel pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation. When you feel good that you have achieved something, it’s because you have a surge of dopamine in the brain.
It’s possible, however, that you start craving more of this dopamine ‘reward’, which is caused by many pleasant experiences, including eating nice food, having sex, winning a game, and earning money. Alcohol and many illegal drugs cause a surge of dopamine too, which is partly why people get addicted to them.
Dopamine also has a role to play in controlling memory, mood, sleep, learning, concentration, and body movements.
What happens if I have too much or too little dopamine?
Having low levels of dopamine can make you less motivated and excited about things. It’s linked to some mental illnesses including depression, schizophrenia, and psychosis.
Having too much dopamine — or too much dopamine concentrated in some parts of the brain and not enough in other parts — is linked to being more competitive, aggressive, and having poor impulse control. It can lead to conditions that include ADHD, binge eating, addiction, and gambling.
In Parkinson’s disease, the nerve cells that produce dopamine gradually die. Because dopamine helps control the muscles, this leads to problems with muscle stiffness and movements.
The symptoms of a dopamine imbalance depend on what is causing the problem. They include:
- muscle cramps, spasms, or stiffness
- digestion problems, such as constipation or reflux
- trouble sleeping
- moving or speaking more slowly than usual
- feeling tired and unmotivated, or sad and lacking hope
- having low libido (sex drive)
How can I adjust my dopamine levels?
You can boost a low level of dopamine by addressing the cause of the problem. This could be a mental illness, stress, not getting enough sleep, drug abuse, being obese, or eating too much sugar and saturated fat. Low dopamine can also be caused by a problem with the adrenal glands.
The adrenal glands are small glands that sit above the kidneys in the upper abdomen. They produce and release several hormones in the body.
The adrenal glands have two parts: the cortex and the medulla.
The cortex is the outer part of the gland. It produces the hormones cortisol and aldosterone. The medulla, meanwhile, is the inner part of the gland. It produces the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline.
These four hormones are essential to normal functioning in the body. They control many important functions, including:
- blood sugar levels
- blood pressure
- salt and water balance
- sexual development before and during puberty
- stress response
- the balance of sex hormones, including estrogen and testosterone
A range of medical conditions can affect the adrenal glands. These include Addison’s disease, Cushing’s syndrome, and adrenal cancer, as well as high blood pressure due to the overproduction of aldosterone.
You can increase your dopamine levels naturally by eating a healthy diet, including foods rich in L-Tyrosine (the protein needed to make dopamine). These include almonds, avocados, bananas, beef, chicken, and eggs. Turmeric, vitamin D, magnesium, and omega-3 supplements are also claimed to increase dopamine levels.
Activities that make you feel good will also raise dopamine. These include exercising, meditating, having a massage, and getting enough sleep. Thinking about your achievements and all the good things in your life can also help.
If low dopamine is causing depression or schizophrenia, your doctor may give you medicines such as antidepressants or mood stabilizers, as well as other treatments for mental illness.
People with Parkinson’s disease are usually given medicines to boost their dopamine levels. These can often cause a big improvement in symptoms.
(Pronounced: doh–puh-meen) -noun
You’ve probably heard of dopamine if you’ve been listening to ongoing news about tech addiction. Dopamine causes that little happy feeling when someone likes your post on Instagram, fills in a checkbox, or completes a small task.
Despite the bad press, dopamine is an incredible drug! It’s meant to motivate your body toward a distant goal, one step at a time. Without dopamine, early humans never would have had the motivation to hunt down large mammals and benefit from investing effort into long-term goals. Today, dopamine is what helps you get through your to-do list or motivates you to start a new habit.
However, dopamine is becoming a real problem because of its addictive nature and how closely tied it is to our bad technology habits.
Even worse, the effects of dopamine are fleeting. This isn’t the type of long-lasting happiness you’ll be able to savor, and it’s likely not the goal of your quest for happiness. It will last just long enough to get you to check another social feed on your phone or beat another level of Candy Crush.
- A monoamine neurotransmitter is formed in the brain by the decarboxylation of dopa and is essential to the normal functioning of the central nervous system. A reduction in its concentration within the brain is associated with Parkinson’s disease.
- A neurotransmitter associated with movement, attention, learning, and the brain’s pleasure and reward system.
- a monoamine neurotransmitter found in the brain and essential for the normal functioning of the central nervous system; as a drug (trade names Dopastat and Intropin) it is used to treat shock and hypotension
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- Any group of peptide hormones that bind to opiate receptors and are found mainly in the brain. Endorphins reduce the sensation of pain and affect emotions.
- Any group of peptide hormones found in the brain that act as neurotransmitters and have properties similar to morphine.
- a neurochemical occurring naturally in the brain and having analgesic properties
Do you know that feeling that runners talk about getting on long runs? The “runner’s high?” That feeling comes from endorphins. (A lot of endorphins.)
Endorphins are essentially released in response to pain. They help us push our bodies beyond their comfort levels and persist when we might otherwise want to give up.
Once you remove the pain part of the equation, endorphins can feel like a “high” or even just a nice relaxing feeling. Taking a freezing cold shower in the morning, for example, can give you a huge boost of endorphins if you can stand a minute or two of physical discomfort.
It’s even been argued that the joyful feeling you get from deep belly laughs is caused by endorphins! The contracting of stomach muscles is enough “pain” to release a few feel-good endorphins into your body.
So where do endorphins fit in with the other happiness drugs? Endorphins are the reason exercise is often suggested to help with stress. They’re the reason why starting a gym routine can help you relax after a long day at work. The predictability of endorphins makes them especially useful!
Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers. Endorphins are released by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in response to pain or stress, this group of peptide hormones both relieves pain and creates a general feeling of well-being.
The name of these hormones comes from the term “endogenous morphine.” “Endogenous” because they’re produced in our bodies. Morphine refers to the opioid painkiller whose actions they mimic.
About 20 different types of endorphins exist. The best-studied of these is beta-endorphin, which is the one associated with the runner’s high. We also release endorphins when we laugh, fall in love, have sex, and even eat a delicious meal.
How to release endorphins
You can increase your body’s endorphin release by engaging in these activities:
- Exercise. A moderately intense pace, whether you’re walking fast or doing another form of aerobic activity, seems to be best for releasing endorphins.
- Acupuncture. An effective way to release endorphin is with pressure points. Placing fine needles into the skin at specific points around the body triggers the release of endorphins.
- Meditation. Breathing deeply and focusing your brain calms your mind and eases pain.
- Sex. These hormones are the reason for that blissful feeling many of us get after having sex. Experts believe that endorphins promote the release of other hormones that are involved in feelings of love.
- Playing music. When you sing, dance, or bang on a drum, you do more than entertain others. You also release a rush of endorphins, which research suggests might increase tolerance to pain.
- Laughter. A good belly laugh can do wonders for your state of mind. Along with releasing endorphins, laughter alters levels of serotonin and dopamine.
- Ultraviolet light. It’s no wonder that some people feel happy when they spend time outdoors in the sun. Ultraviolet light stimulates the release of beta-endorphins in the skin.
Endorphins are chemicals naturally produced by the nervous system to manage pain or stress. They are often called “feel-good” chemicals because they act as pain relievers and happiness boosters. The exact mechanism of endorphins can be perceived through development in the peripheral nervous system (PNS) and the CNS through two distinct features. The illusion of pain relief in the PNS is produced by beta-endorphins that bind to opioid receptors. In the CNS, mu-opioid receptors are more abundant in descending pain control circuits including the amygdala, mesencephalic reticular formation, periaqueductal gray matter (PAG), and rostral ventral medulla. As for the Endorphins functions, they are found in high concentrations in certain regions of the brain that help in the transmission of pain sensations, breathing, motor activity, secretion of pituitary hormones, and mood. The relationship between the secretion of endorphins and the stimulating adrenal cortex hormone came through behavioral studies that indicated that stress increases the concentrations of endorphins in the blood and brain. With parallel changes in the pain threshold. Histochemical studies suggest that opiates have important relationships with cells that contain noradrenaline and cells that contain dopamine.
While research is ongoing, there are many benefits of endorphins
- reduce pain and discomfort
- increase pleasure
- reduce stress, depression, and anxiety
- attenuate inflammation
- improve mood
- boost self-esteem
- may support a healthy immune system
- may support memory and cognitive function
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(Pronounced: ok-si-toh–suh n)
Oxytocin is often affectionately referred to as the “hugging drug” because it is released by the brain during physical contact with others. It’s also the feeling behind love, friendship, or deep trust.1 If humans are social animals, oxytocin is one of the main reasons why.
“Oxytocin boosts our immune systems, makes us better problem solvers and makes us more resistant to the addictive qualities of dopamine. Unlike dopamine, which is largely responsible for instant gratification, oxytocin gives us lasting feelings of calm and safety.”1
How can you increase your oxytocin levels? Positive social interactions tend to be the best way to increase the output of this hormone. Working together with others, sharing a meal, giving a gift, opening up emotionally, providing full attention while listening to someone, and long hugs.
What’s especially great about oxytocin is that it often works two ways. Those long hugs give both you and the hug-receiver a dose of oxytocin. A kind gesture delivers a little oxytocin to both you and the gift receiver.
In your search for happiness, oxytocin may be your best friend. It can help fight stress, improve your relationships, and promote long-lasting positive emotions. There’s even some evidence that oxytocin could assist in physical wound healing!
Biological discussions about romance rarely fail to mention oxytocin, which has been nicknamed the “love drug.” A prosocial hormone that underlies the warm, cozy feelings of stability and trust, oxytocin is released when people hug, touch, and orgasm — — which, in turn, facilitates positive feelings between lovers. However, a new study reveals that oxytocin is also released in a far less romantic situation: When the relationship starts to head south.
“The idea behind the prediction was that oxytocin might promote attention and motivation toward the relationship when it was both important and threatened,” University of Minnesota psychology professor and study University of Minnesota psychology professor and study co-author [Steven Gangestad, Ph.D., said in a statement about the new paper published in Hormones and Behavior. His fellow author, Norwegian University of Science and Technology psychologist Andreas Aarseth Kristoffersen, Ph.D., added that this “crisis mode” release of oxytocin may occur when people in a relationship are “waffling need to engage more.”
It seems that the brain, in these situations, encourages you to do exactly what your friends tell you not to do — that is, when the relationship seems like it’s going to end, try to even love your partner. In those dire moments, oxytocin makes the switch from being a “love drug” to a “crisis hormone.”
To better understand the role of oxytocin, the researchers examined its levels in 75 American couples and 148 Norwegian individuals who were in a relationship. Study participants were asked to think about their partner and how they wished their partner would connect to them romantically. The scientists measured the participants’ oxytocin levels both before and after they were asked to think about their love lives.
Across the board, all individuals showed elevated levels of the hormone when they felt a strong personal investment in their relationship. Crucially, however, individuals also released oxytocin when they felt they were more invested in the relationship than their partner.
Gangestad theorizes that the sudden release of oxytocin, while perhaps not ideal for someone in a sinking Titanic a relationship, maybe a natural response because it benefits people in different kinds of relationships, like mothers and their children. In that case, it could serve the relationship well for a mother to show her love even greater when she feels like the child may be slipping away.
Luckily, the brain doesn’t totally betray you when it comes to romantic relationships: The researchers also found that if people felt sure the relationship was absolutely going to end, their brains didn’t release a noticeable amount of oxytocin.
This doesn’t mean that the brain in love works in any predictable way. Even the study authors admit that when it comes to love, how the brain works are far from rational.
“It seems contradictory that you would release more oxytocin both when things are going well and when they’re not,” says Kristoffersen, “but that’s how it is.
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