Happy Hormones Explained: What They Are and How to Increase Them

Neurotransmitters are the brain's chemical messengers, playing a crucial role in communicating signals within the brain and to the body. There are four key chemicals linked to feelings of happiness: serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin. The first three are actually neurotransmitters that can act as hormones in the body. Exploring these compounds, understanding their functions, and how they can impact our mood gives us valuable insights into the science of happiness and how we can manage our mental health.

4 hormones of happiness

There are four main hormones connected to helping us feel happy. While these all contribute to positive feelings, each works in different ways.

Serotonin

Known as the 'feel good' hormone, serotonin is known to promote feelings of calm, focus, and contentment. Additionally, it also balances our mood. It has different important functions in the body, including managing emotions, gut function, supporting sleep, and blood clotting.

Serotonin comes from tryptophan, one of the essential amino acids in the body. Unlike the other happiness hormones, serotonin is produced both in the brain and the gut. Actually, 95% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the intestine.

It plays a key role in the brain-gut axis, a bi-directional pathway between the gut and the central nervous system that communicates and can influence each other. In fact, the gut is made up of a microbiome of different types of bacteria that keep our gut healthy. When these bacteria are imbalanced, it can lead to some mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder. Some studies also have shown elevated serotonin levels in children with autism.

Due to its link to emotions and mood, serotonin and its receptors are common targets in many treatments for mental health conditions that are thought to involve low serotonin levels. These include anxiety, major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Serotonin is also a precursor to melatonin, helping regulate sleep.

Dopamine

Dopamine is known as the 'feel good' neurotransmitter, as it boosts feelings of pleasure, motivation, and reward. It’s important for sending signals between neurons or nerve cells. It gets released when doing something pleasurable, like eating a nice meal, overcoming a challenge, drinking, or having sex. Nowadays, researchers are trying to connect the action of dopamine to responses and 'likes' on social media, which may make it hard to not want to continually check our accounts.

Dopamine also plays an important role in movement, emotions, and the reward center of the brain. When we experience something rewarding, the flood of dopamine is what makes us want to go back for more. This is where dopamine can be linked to addiction, creating a loop that can be hard to break.

Dopamine is produced by three brain structures near the bottom of the brain — the substantia nigra, ventral tegmental area, and hypothalamus. It comes from the amino acid tyrosine, which is converted into dopamine. The mesolimbic dopaminergic pathway is the primary way dopamine regulates reward behavior.

Stress has been shown to negatively affect this dopamine pathway, leading to less satisfaction or a lower sense of reward than normal. Chronic stress can lead to long-term decreased dopamine function, resulting in feelings of depression. In medical literature, low levels of dopamine are linked to Parkinson's disease, depression, and restless legs syndrome, but it's important to know that even though these diseases and conditions are associated with low levels of dopamine, there is no such diagnosis as 'dopamine deficiency' — there are only conditions that are linked to it.

Endorphins

Endorphins can act as your body’s natural pain relief and can regulate your well-being. One of the most common connections we have to endorphins is the feeling we get while exercising. The idea of a 'runner’s high' is one of the things associated with endorphin release. It’s one of the reasons exercise is often encouraged as a way to help reduce symptoms of depression.

Endorphins are released from the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland in response to stress or pain. Their name comes from 'endogenous morphine.' This refers to the fact they are hormones that are created by the body and can act to reduce pain, just like morphine would. In fact, endorphins act on morphine receptors, which is how they help manage pain levels in the body.

This hormone is related to different states of happiness and pleasure. It is released during exercise and when feeling love, laughing, having sex, listening to music, and other experiences that bring us joy. Participating in more of these activities can help you combat stress, anxiety, and depression.

Oxytocin

Commonly known as the 'love' or 'cuddle' hormone, oxytocin is a compound that creates bonding and connection between people. Its key role is in female reproduction, where it is released from the pituitary gland during labor to signal a series of events, including contractions and milk production.

It’s also released during sex and when we are physically close to someone we love, creating a deeper, more meaningful connection. Because of its role in connection, it is also linked to social interaction and behavior. However, the effects of oxytocin on the brain and its connection to various disorders are still being researched.

How to increase happy hormones in the body

There are several ways that may potentially help increase our happy hormone levels from diet, exercise, and sleep. But, it's important to note that scientific evidence is still emerging on how to do it naturally. Here are some tips for each one.

Serotonin
Dopamine
Endorphin
Oxytocin

Can you naturally boost happy hormones?

It’s never too late to want to take control and try boosting your happy hormones. How long it takes to feel the benefits of these changes can vary, depending on the feelings you are struggling with. Unfortunately, insufficient scientific evidence makes it difficult to tell how much time it will take. More serious emotional challenges may require additional help — for example, a visit to a mental health specialist.

Intense exercise is shown to elicit endorphins that boost the mood and act as natural painkillers. Generally, physical activity is considered an effective way to feel the happy benefits of these hormones, as serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins increase with exercise.

One study found that oxytocin was higher in saliva just 10 minutes after sexual arousal and orgasm in both men and women.

Can you identify happy hormone deficiency?

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as 'deficiency of happiness hormones' in medical terminology. There are conditions and diseases that are associated with altered levels of these chemicals, but they are diagnosed according to the symptoms. There are no routine tests to diagnose deficiencies of these hormones.

If the natural approaches to boosting your happy hormones don't work, it may be time to take a more medical approach. If your healthcare provider suspects a mood disorder, they might recommend medications and suggest talk therapy.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are one of the most common medications to treat depression. They act by blocking the reuptake of serotonin into neurons in order to increase the amount of available serotonin in the brain. SSRIs have positive effects on lowering depression and anxiety.

Speaking of dopamine, it's important to know that low dopamine levels do not cause medical conditions. Instead, we know that they are linked with some conditions and diseases, as mentioned above in the article. Treatment of diseases that are associated with lower levels of dopamine depends on the condition. For example, dopamine replacement therapy (DRT) is used as a standard treatment for Parkinson's disease. If you're experiencing symptoms that are linked to such diseases, you should see your healthcare provider.

The science behind happy hormones

Research continues to shed light on the benefits of these four hormones, how they can contribute to managing mental health, and how lifestyle changes can make a difference. While the basics appear to be understood, new information is constantly uncovered. It's important to note that these neurotransmitters work together — understanding them is still a complex subject, even to researchers.

It can feel great to take control of your life by making changes you can feel. Exercising, changing your diet, creating a mindful routine, and spending quality time with people you love are all great ways to boost your happiness, combat stress, and improve your overall well-being. However, if you feel your mental health is stuck and your symptoms aren’t changing, it may be time to talk to a professional. Not only can they support you in the natural methods you’re already working on, but they can provide additional tools such as therapy or medication if needed.

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