I’ve been meaning to read and write about this topic for a while. It’s intriguing, fascinating and warrants some time to explore the topic.
From personal experience, I feel that perceived rush or release of something with certain types of exercise. I feel that warmth and comfort that comes with hugging a loved one. I have definitely found the buzz and excitement playing roulette at a casino or when I receive an email telling me i’ve had a win on the lottery the night before (I’m very much still waiting for that life changing jackpot).
The most consistent type of exercise for myself to get the natural “high” is running. I would describe the feeling as euphoric at times.
That question led me to today’s post about hormones, specifically the happy ones.
How are we describing happiness and is it important?
Research in the field of positive psychology often defines a happy person as someone who experiences frequent positive emotions, such as joy, interest, and pride, and infrequent (though not absent) negative emotions, such as sadness, anxiety, and anger.
Happiness has also been said to relate to life satisfaction, appreciation of life, and moments of pleasure, but overall it has to do with the positive experience of emotions.
It’s important to note here that happiness isn’t the absence of negative emotions. Positive and negative emotions exist on a spectrum and a “happier individual” may experience, more often, more positive emotions than negative ones. One theory focusses on perception – a “happier individual” may experience the same life experience but may process and respond to said experience in a different way.
Lastly happiness has many different underlying factors such as biological, cognitive, behavioural, social, cultural, economical and geographical to name a few. It’s complex and can’t always be “hacked” or “fixed” as we’re so often led to believe.
But there are some really really simple, low cost ways to try to improve some of the hormones often linked with happiness and joy. Welcome to your happy hormones.
What are our “happy hormones”?
Firstly they are endogenous (produced within our body) chemicals or neurotransmitters. Their function is to communicate between two glands or between a gland and an organ. The system responsible for production and release of hormones is your endocrine system.
The endocrine system relies on interactions between glands, hormones and cell receptors. The overall function is to regulate our bodily processes and keeps us in a state of balance or “homeostasis”.
The glands and organs featured in the endocrine system include your adrenal glands, pituitary gland, kidneys, pancreas, ovaries, parathyroid and thyroid, testes, pineal gland, thymus and hypothalamus.
Levels of these hormones fluctuate throughout the day such as a surge of cortisol in the morning to wake you up. Different hormones produce different effects such as feeling hungry, full, happy, and sad. Other critical functions include, growth and development, metabolism and reproduction.
The happy-specific hormones include:
Serotonin – responsible for regulating the neuro-hormonal system, modifying mood, appetite, joy, sleep, digestion and effective cognitive activities in learning and memory. Researchers have described this as a molecule that has a little role in everything, but is responsible for nothing. Referring to mood specifically, studies have found low serotonin levels in people with depression; however increasing serotonin in individuals with depression doesn’t necessarily improve mood. Confusing, huh? Either way, it’s definitely worthwhile trying to boost your levels of this marvellous molecule.
Dopamine – pleasure and the motivational role in the brain’s reward system. It gives us a reason to go back for more. Commonly linked with addictive behaviours such as substance misuse and gambling. Dopamine can be responsible for our decision making, our impulse control and is key in our memory and attention. An issue with dopamine transmission has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s
Oxytocin – bonding, love, trust. Oxytocin production is linked to touch and eye contact. It is there to create and strengthen our bonds with one another. It also has roles in regulating the immune system, healing and even in pain perception. During childbirth oxytocin stimulates contractions. It has roles in regulating our stress response and calming the nervous system.
Endorphin (some clever individual combined the words “endogenous” and “morphine” to create endorphin) – pain relief (this pain relief has been determined to be greater than morphine), runner’s high, relaxation. Endorphin inhibits the transmission of pain signals in the central nervous system by binding to opioid receptors. The process of blocking the opioid receptors leads to dopamine release (by suppressing release of a substance called GABA). They’re also released by the pituitary gland and used as a peptide hormone with links to mental health issues such as autism and depression. Endorphin has been associated with states of pleasure including such emotions brought upon by laughter, love, sex, and even appetising food.
Another heavy hitter molecule in the exercise-high world is BDNF or Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor. This molecule plays a role in the exercise-induced antidepressant effect of exercise (there is some discussion and contradictory information when it comes to which type of exercise works best for releasing this molecule i.e. endurance vs strength).
Where are they produced?
These marvellous molecules are produced and released from different areas of the body as described above.
Interestingly, up to 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut. Our amazing bacterial microbiome actually produce two molecules, short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), butyrate and acetate, which have been shown to increase serotonin production in the gut. Another molecule, essential amino acid (meaning we have to source this from our diet) tryptophan, is a pre-cursor in the synthesis of serotonin and melatonin.
Exercise has been shown to promote tryptophan and serotonin levels, as well as boosting the diversity of your gut microbiome.
Approximately 50% of all dopamine is also produced in the gut and 50% in several areas in the brain. There have also been studies, albeit conducted in mice, that have shown that gut microbes can simulate oxytocin production too. Oxytocin is also released from the pituitary gland.
How can we boost these amazing hormones?
Aristotle once quoted:
“Happiness is a state of activity”
Exercise: aerobic exercises such as running, cycling and swimming affect serotonin release significantly. The mechanism remains unclear but an increase in serotonin improves an individuals mood. In most cases, there doesn’t appear to be a link between strength training and serotonin release. A comprehensive review of the relation between exercise and mood concluded that antidepressant and anxiolytic (lowering anxiety) effects have been clearly demonstrated.
Diet: our gut microbiome and our enteric nervous system play a huge role in production of these hormones. Therefore looking after our microbiome must be paramount. Seek advice from a dietician or nutritionist if you need detailed and specific advice (I am not a nutritionist) but try adding per-biotic, high fibre food that promote the good bacteria and foods that naturally contain tryptophan such as turkey/chicken, eggs and oats. Some suggest a chemical named tyrosine may be instrumental in dopamine production and sell this as supplements. However research currently doesn’t clearly show an advantage when using tyrosine supplements to boost dopamine.
Tasks: finish a task or project that you’ve started or break it down into smaller chunks – even completing a smaller task can give you a hit of dopamine.
Some other ways of releasing endorphin can include eating dark chocolate, watching a comedy (it has to be funny), doing the horizontal floor tango (having sex) and burning essential oils.
Human interaction: oxytocin – hugging, playing with a pet, hold hands, give or receive a massage, or even say or do something kind for someone else.
Bright light therapy: exposure to bright light has positive links with serotonin production. One study found the mood-lowering effect of acute tryptophan depletion in healthy women is completely blocked by carrying out the study in bright light instead of dim light.
A happy ending… to the post!
Hopefully you find joy in trying a few of the suggestions above. They are harmless and could be helpful so give them a try.
For more info surrounding nutrition and exercise, I recommend giving Ben Steele-Turner a follow on Instagram @physiutrition.
P.s. Here is a picture of a Quokka – my interpretation of the happiest animal on the planet (they might be anything other than happy but they always have a smile of their faces).