Boost your "happiness hormones"


Being in the company of loved ones will prompt the release of happiness hormones. Photo: dpa

We all get out of bed on the wrong side some mornings: The coffee tastes bitter, the commute is exasperating, and our co-workers seem bent on getting under our skin. What’s wrong? It’s probably the day’s mixture of our body’s chemical cocktail.

Chemical messengers – neurotransmitters and hormones – determine how we feel. Neurotransmitters carry signals from one nerve cell across a small gap to the next nerve, muscle or gland cell, while hormones are conveyed via the bloodstream.

Some chemical messengers act as both neurotransmitters and hormones, interact with each other and influence our mood. Four of them – dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins – are often dubbed “happiness hormones”.

“The ‘motivation hormone’ dopamine, for instance, is released when we tackle new tasks, are surprised or are looking forward to something positive,” says neuroscientist and author Friederike Fabritius.

“Serotonin, on the other hand, is a neurotransmitter that keeps us even-keeled and content. Our body produces it when we socially interact – or feel like a winner.”

Oxytocin, for its part, is released during pleasant physical contact, while endorphins are, in effect, endogenous opioids.

A feeling of well-being depends on the mixture of the body’s chemical cocktail at a particular moment. Many of the processes involved in the production and release of feel-good chemicals are highly complex and haven’t been studied in detail. Be that as it may, is it possible to give them a boost?

Happily, the answer is yes. But if you’re looking for a magic formula, you’ll be disappointed. When it comes to hacking your happiness hormones, there’s no getting round well-known health recommendations such as exercise and sport.

“When we push our body to the limit, it releases endorphins,” says Dr Andreas Michalsen, chief physician in the Department of Internal and Naturopathic Medicine at Immanuel Hospital in Berlin. “We know this from ‘runner’s high’ and the mild euphoria that arises on the second or third day of fasting.”

Sport also elevates dopamine levels, according to Fabritius, “but not, unfortunately, when you engage in it very reluctantly.” So don’t expect to feel a high if you’ve got to drag yourself out the door in nasty weather to go for your run.

There are other ways to get a dopamine kick though: Set goals, whether personal or job-related, and work towards them. Or plan pleasant undertakings.

“Dopamine is released in anticipation of something positive,” Fabritius says. “Beforehand, in other words, when you’re planning an activity.”

Food and our mood

Diet can affect your body’s chemical messengers too. “We know that some foods don’t do people good and put a damper on their spirits,” points out Michalsen. Among them, he says, are highly processed foods with saturated fat or sugar, so fast food is bad for your mood.

Other foods are mood-enhancing. “Foods such as soya, cashews, bananas, dates, avocados, legumes, oat flakes and mozzarella contain L-tryptophan,” says Michalsen, explaining that it’s an essential amino acid – meaning it can’t be synthesised by the body and must therefore come from our diet – and helps to normalise serotonin levels.

A homemade guacamole made from avocado not only tastes good, but also helps the body build up its serotonin levels.A homemade guacamole made from avocado not only tastes good, but also helps the body build up its serotonin levels.

Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, yogurt, kimchi and kombucha are beneficial as well. The reason is that many chemical messengers are produced in our gut, and these foods have a positive effect on the processes involved.

“There’s now even a branch of medicine called nutritional psychiatry,” notes Michalsen. “It studies the connections between diet, the gut microbiome and mood.

Well-being isn’t just about what you’ve got on your plate though, but also who’s at the table with you. If you’re in the company of loved ones, laughing and feeling comfortable, this will prompt the release of happiness hormones too. – dpa/Francois Hauser

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