(4 min read)
Happiness is something that we as humans are always reaching for. Often a goal strived towards, but more accurately the side effects of fulfilling moments – reaching a milestone, earning a reward, falling in love etc.
We know what it feels like to experience happiness and we often know what we can do to experience it more often.
For many the need to understand such a fundamental emotion in a scientific and chemical way may seem unnecessary and even somewhat counterintuitive, however the research into ‘happy’ chemicals is a growing branch of neuroscience which is becoming increasingly more useful in helping us as individuals understand ourselves.
So lend me your focus for a moment and let’s discuss the science of happy.
The Main Happy Chemicals:
- Dopamine – Pleasure & Reward
- Oxytocin – Love
- Endorphins – Pain Reliever
- Serotonin – Mood Stabilization
These four chemicals are in fact hormones and they each play their own unique part in helping us feel happy.
They are all incredibly important, however the significance of serotonin as a mood stabiliser, in a society today which is ravaged by depression, will require some extra attention.
Dopamine is our pleasure and reward hormone. When we experience things such as sex, winning a game or getting a good grade, even just smelling a delicious pastry baking away in the oven – our bodies release dopamine and in turn we experience a ‘dopamine rush’. This feeling is distinctive and very common on a day-to-day basis. Dopamine release and dopamine rushes are also very prevalent when it comes to addiction. Wanting to always feel the rush and pleasure can lead to a dependency and addiction to drugs, sex, food and gambling.
Dopamine plays an important role in many bodily functions outside of the brain including movement, sleep, heart rate, kidney function and blood vessel function.
Deficits can lead to inhibited muscle function and also contribute to depression.
Too much production of dopamine, often as a result of substance use, can lead to mania, insomnia and anxiety.
Dopamine is produced when Tyrosine (an amino acid) is converted into L-Dopa (a different amino acid) which is subsequently converted into Dopamine.
Eating foods which are rich in these amino acids (or stimulate their production) can assist in increasing dopamine production.
Mucuna Bean is a rare superfood from South America which contains the only naturally occurring L-Dopa, and is a wonderful supplement to improve dopamine production.
Foods high in Tyrosine include Avocado, Banana, Pumpkin Seeds and Sesame Seeds.
Oxytocin is commonly known as our love hormone. Perhaps because it’s because it is released during childbirth, or when we meet someone we connect with.
Oxytocin is produced in the brain in the Hypothalamus. It’s colloquial name as the ‘love drug’ or ‘cuddle chemical’ very simply originates from the fact that it is in fact what is released when we experience these feelings of falling in love or being aroused by a sexual partner.
Boosting Oxytocin levels independently can be tricky, however exercise has been shown to help. The main boosting agent of this happy chemical is human connection, socialising and developing relationships with others.
Endorphins are released from the same parts of the brain as oxytocin and are often referred to as our body’s painkillers. This is because they mimic some of the effects of common opioids and help relieve stress and physical pain.
They are released when we exercise, laugh, make love and even eat a good meal.
As their title suggests, endorphins are a group of hormones. There are about 20 different types of endorphins in our body but the most significant of these is called beta-endorphin. This is the endorphin commonly related to the ‘Runner’s-High’.
The most common ways to increase the release of endorphins is exercise, sex, acupuncture and laughter.
Serotonin is our fundamental mood stabilising hormone. It is the most significant of the happy chemicals in maintaining a stable mental health. The interesting thing about serotonin is its innate connection to our gut. 90% of all serotonin is produced in our gut biome and this is one of the focal points in many of today’s Gut-Brain Studies.
Serotonin regulates our mood and helps us maintain a balanced foundation of happiness on a day-to-day basis.
Serotonin is a very powerful neurotransmitter and assists in sending signals between neurons. It also plays an important role in digestion, and also sleep (as it is a precursor molecule to Melatonin).
Because serotonin has been found to exist in nature in both plants, animals and fungi – we can often turn to these resources as a source of boosting or managing our serotonin levels. Psilocybin Mushrooms and Sceletium Tortuosum are two very interesting and powerful allies from nature assisting in treating serotonin based illness.
Tryptophan is an amino acid which has been shown to bolster serotonin levels and so consuming foods high in tryptophans (eg. eggs, salmon soy) can also assist in boosting serotonin.
In the case of Psilocin (P.Mushrooms), the molecule’s structure mimics the molecular structure of serotonin and so its introduction to the body assists in proliferating the effects of serotonin in the brain.
Sceletium (S. Tortuosum) assists in inhibiting the reuptake of 5-HT, a chemical which forms from Tryptophans and goes on to convert to serotonin. This action assists in helping keep a steady supply of these chemicals in the brain and maintain a stable mood.
This mechanism is the crux of modern day antidepressant medications.
It is the combination of these four hormones which put the smiles on our dial, make us feel happy, and ultimately govern our mood.
With this knowledge you are more empowered than ever to spend your days in the most euphoric ways.