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How You Can Benefit from Happy Chemicals

While you may not think twice about walking and talking at the same time or laughing at a joke while watching television, the brain is hard at work calculating every move to help regulate thoughts, feelings and emotions.

At the core of these feelings are brain chemicals that affect your happiness. As part of Mental Health Awareness month, we analyze these happy chemicals, provide you with tips on how to stimulate them and offer dietary suggestions to help maximize their production.

How do neurotransmitters affect mood?

Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that carry signals from one neuron to another. A neuron is a cell that transmits information to other cells, muscles or glands. Structurally, neurons consist of a body, axon and dendrites.

These chemicals work together every second of your day to regulate your mood, perception and view on life.

A complex process occurs whenever you experience a thought or feeling. First, an electric signal in the neuron travels through the axon where molecules bind to receptor sites. A second neuron either accepts or rejects the signal. The first molecule can then take back some of the remaining molecules, a process known as reuptake.
The end result is what makes us experience emotions such as joy, laughter, happiness, sadness, anger or enthusiasm.

Chemicals in the brain that make you happy

Four main brain chemicals, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins, all play a role in how you experience happiness.

Dopamine

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced by the hypothalamus, a small region of the brain that helps you feel pleasure. It’s an important part in your reward system, meaning the brain releases dopamine when you do things that feel good or pleasurable or when you complete a task. Dopamine also helps with movement and motivation.

Serotonin

Serotonin is another neurotransmitter produced when you feel satisfaction or importance. It also helps regulate your sleep, appetite and mood. Many anti-depressant medications are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) that help boost levels of serotonin.

Oxytocin

Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the hypothalamus and released by the pituitary gland that produces feelings of love and connection. Also known as the cuddle hormone, the brain may produce oxytocin during sex or maternal behavior such as childbirth or breastfeeding.

Endorphins

Endorphins are opioid peptides produced by the hypothalamus and pituitary glands that operate as neurotransmitters. They trigger positive feelings when you do something you enjoy such as having sex, laughing or exercising. They also stimulate pain relief, which is the same reaction that occurs chemically when taking prescription opioids. The euphoric feeling endorphins produce helps mask pain.

Hacking into your happy chemicals

Since your brain already has these neurotransmitters and hormones, it makes sense to maximize them, right? But doing so doesn’t require a secret code. All it takes is a few simple tasks and basic planning to boost these chemical messengers.

For starters, eat well and incorporate exercise into your diet. A 20-minute workout or a light jog can help stimulate dopamine due to the pleasure you receive from accomplishing a feat. Exercising can also stimulate serotonin and endorphins by causing you to feel  satisfied and enjoy the positive results of a workout.

Exercising primarily influences boosting endorphins, but remember to laugh, too.

A simple meditation can help boost serotonin. There are ways to achieve this even without physical activity. Self confidence can go a long way in stimulating serotonin. The feeling of believing in yourself will translate to others respecting you, which ultimately promotes serotonin production.

To boost dopamine, complete simple tasks that make you feel good or set a goal you can easily achieve. The simple fact of even approaching a reward will stimulate these neurotransmitters. This explains why seeing the finish line at the end of a race activates dopamine.

For oxytocin, give someone a compliment. You may not see this as building trust, but communicating with others — even strangers — in social settings can reward you with positive feelings. Being kind also can boost serotonin and dopamine.

Mood boosting foods

When you think of foods that can impact on your mood, things like ice cream or macaroni and cheese may come to mind. Yes, comforting items may provide you with happy feelings, but this is due to behavioral association or psychological response from something like sugar or other simple carbohydrates — not a digestive response.

Serotonin and dopamine play a role in how you feel and are produced in the gastrointestinal tract. In fact, about 95 percent of serotonin production comes from your GI tract, which is lined with millions or nerve cells. The good bacteria in your gut help these neurons function and also help produce serotonin and other neurotransmitters. This explains why stress can cause issues with your digestive tract, such as an upset stomach or nausea.

There’s research that indicates probiotics can help with gut and brain health. Yogurt, kombucha, pickles and sourdough bread are common foods that contain probiotics. Sauerkraut or kimchi are both tasty side dishes that double as probiotics.

Beyond that, there are many everyday foods that can help stimulate neurotransmitters. A study by the World Journal of Psychiatry identified folate, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, potassium, selenium, thiamine, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin C and zinc as nutrients that can treat and prevent depressive disorders. These disorders are caused by serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine imbalances.

Leafy greens, peppers and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, etc.) boast many of these nutrients and received high scores from the study. For animal protein, seafood such as oysters and mussels and organ meat also received high sores.

The truth is, many of the food suggestions are the same options that make up the core of healthy eating. In other words, you don’t need a fancy diet or supplemental magic pills to stimulate dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins.

For starters, eat whole foods and avoid processed foods. Whole foods and gut bacteria go together, but processed foods full of additives can become problematic. Load up your plate with fruits and vegetables, two foods groups that contain fiber.

When it comes to animal protein, focus on lean poultry and seafood and limit intake of fatty meats high in saturated fat. High-protein foods contain tryptophan, an amino acid that your body converts to serotonin.

It’s common for people to experience problems or imbalances with brain chemicals. As many as one in four adults have a diagnosable mental health disorder. If you or a loved one struggle with mental health, please view our mental health resource page for more information.  

 

 

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