Understanding the Hormones Surrounding Happiness
We all want happiness in our lives, but what does this actually mean, and how (and when) does it appear in our bodies? The feeling of happiness is difficult to describe, but we all know it when it appears. Defining happiness involves many complex bodily actions that have been scientifically studied for years. There are chemical substances that our body produces to help to make us feel happiness. And too much or too little of these substances can lead to unwanted feelings. Over time, they can lead to a vast range of health issues.
Before we look at some of the more common “happiness chemicals,” we must first understand the difference between a hormone and a neurotransmitter.
Hormones are chemical substances produced by various organs of the endocrine system. They travel through the blood, circulating to other parts of the body. They travel to targets in all areas of the body and may take only minutes, or even a few days, to act.
Neurotransmitters are chemical substances produced within the nervous system. Their purpose is to transmit messages along the nerves. Neurotransmitters are local, and where hormones may take some time, these act immediately.
The main difference between them is their site of release and their site of action. Some hormones such as endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin can also act as neurotransmitters. (1)
From the term “endogenous morphine,” endorphins are endogenous opioid hormones produced and stored in the pituitary gland. They work similarly to a class of drugs called opioids which relieve pain and stress and can produce a feeling of euphoria. They are also released during other activities like eating, exercise, or sex. You can increase your happiness with the following activities.
- Exercise. Produces an endorphin high often called “runners high” from vigorous exercise that increases your heart rate. It also gives you a respite from incessant cravings for drugs, alcohol, or junk food. This mood boost does not require strenuous exercise, just enough to get your heart pumping.
- Eat chocolate. You already know that eating a piece of dark chocolate can make you feel pleasure and even lift your mood. Do you know the reason? Chocolate contains two compounds responsible for this. One is tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin. The second is tyramine, a precursor to dopamine that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. So, don’t feel guilty about eating some chocolate every day. Just make it 75% or more dark chocolate! (2)
- Eat chili peppers. They possess a chemical substance called capsaicin that acts as a trigger for producing endorphins that relieve the pain of the chili’s fire.
- Drink wine. A study from 2012 concluded that endorphins play an enormous role in the desire to keep drinking once the initial rush of feel-good chemicals has been released. This is true for social and problem drinkers, though those who are prone to addiction will be more likely to drink to excess. (3)
- Have sex. In addition to increasing your endorphins, sex can stimulate the production of dopamine and oxytocin, the “love hormone.”
- Get a massage. This will also stimulate the production of oxytocin.
- Meditate. Meditation helps to calm feelings. One study found the effects on mood of running and meditation to be very similar—both activities produce endorphins and lead to positive feelings. (4)
- Laugh. Studies have shown that relieving tension with a good laugh actually sends endorphins throughout your entire body. (5)
Dopamine produced in the brain is associated with how we feel pleasure, reward-motivated behavior, motor control, and working memory. It also plays a role in learning, heart rate, kidney function, and pain response. (6)
Numerous studies have been done to understand dopamine. Its role in mental health conditions may include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, ADHD, and drug addiction. Drugs inhibit the production of dopamine leading to emotional lows. As your body craves more emotional highs, drug substitution can lead to eventual addiction.
Non-mental health diseases such as Parkinson’s may be due to neuron degeneration that produces dopamine. This chemical imbalance causes physical symptoms including tremors, stiffness, slowness of movement, poor balance, and poor coordination.
Another example, and one of the leading causes of death today, is obesity. Research has shown that some obese people may have problems with their natural reward systems thus affecting the amount of food they eat before they feel satisfied. This condition may be caused by an impairment in the release of dopamine and might act in combination with serotonin. (6)
Serotonin helps stabilize mood and impacts feelings of well-being and happiness. It enables brain and nervous system cells to communicate with each other. Serotonin also helps with sleeping, eating, digestion, and maintaining bone health. It is estimated that 90 percent of the body’s serotonin is made in the digestive tract from foods that contain tryptophan such as nuts, eggs, salmon, cheese, pineapple, and turkey. (7)
When your serotonin levels are normal, you should feel more focused, emotionally stable, and happy. Studies have shown that low levels of serotonin can lead to depression, anxiety, suicidal behavior, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Too much serotonin can cause mild symptoms such as shivering, heavy sweating, confusion, restlessness, headaches, high blood pressure, and diarrhea. (8)
This is the “love hormone!” Levels of oxytocin increase during hugging, orgasm, and skin stimulation such as touching and stroking. It is also associated with empathy, trust, and relationship-building and can influence social behavior and emotion including social recognition and group memories. In women, it is involved in childbirth and breastfeeding. In men, oxytocin plays a role in moving sperm and in the production of testosterone.
Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus and secreted by the pituitary gland at the base of the brain. Typically linked to warm, fuzzy feelings, oxytocin research has shown to lower stress and anxiety. Consequently, it may have benefits as a treatment for conditions like depression, anxiety, and intestinal problems such as irritable bowel syndrome. (9)
So love, laugh, exercise, and eat some dark chocolate. Your “happiness hormones” will thank you.