A Word on Mental Health

Get Yourself Some Happiness Chemicals

By Michael Kimmel

This is not a column about psychedelics (I already wrote that column a while back). Nope, this is a column about something even better: chemicals – substances – that make you happy. Are you sitting down? It gets even better: they’re free, legal and have no side effects.

No, this isn’t a trick. I want to talk about four of the most powerful chemicals around: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins. 

You may not know a whole lot about them, but you’ve probably heard of them and know that they make you feel “good”, but I’m here to tell you more.

To write this column, I went into heavy research mode, wading through mountains of biological/medical information. Since I’m a psychotherapist and not a doctor, I’ve given my best shot at simplifying all the complex stuff I’ve read. 

There are four primary compounds in the brain that stimulate happiness, decrease stress, and give you a ‘boost’. Sounds good, right? But, how can you get more of these free and delightful happiness chemicals? Let’s start with dopamine: 

Dopamine is a ‘get up and go’ compound in the brain that helps us stay motivated and productive. Low levels of this brain chemical are related to procrastination and self-doubt. Dopamine acts on areas of the brain to give you feelings of pleasure, satisfaction and motivation. 

Easy ways to get more Dopamine:

  1. Eating enough protein from foods like turkey, eggs, beef, legumes, soy and low-fat dairy helps ensure that your body has what it needs to maintain the proper dopamine levels. 
  2. Get an appropriate amount of sunlight (use sunscreen).
  3. Reduce saturated fat consumption. High levels of saturated fat from foods like full-fat dairy, butter, animal fat, palm oil, and coconut oil can disrupt dopamine signaling. 
  4. Get enough sleep. A lack of sleep can disrupt the normal cycle of higher dopamine release in the morning and less dopamine release in the evening, which supports normal wakefulness and sleepiness.
  5. Listen to music you enjoy. 

Oxytocin is the brain’s ‘cuddle’ drug: it promotes feelings of intimacy and trust. In addition to being a natural ‘love’ drug, it also creates stronger social bonds and healthier social interactions. 

Oxytocin increases both your sense of calm and your threshold to pain. Oxytocin is released in response to experiences like seeing, hearing, smelling, hugging, socializing with or thinking of another person – or animal – that you love.

As oxytocin is released from neurons within the amygdala, our reactivity to fear and stress decreases. Oxytocin is also released in response to activation of somatosensory nerves, which are induced by touch, stroking, warmth, and light pressure on the skin. 

Serotonin is known as nature’s antidepressant, it helps alleviate feelings of loneliness, depression, and stress. People sometimes call it the “happy” chemical because it contributes to well-being and affects mood, emotions, appetite, and digestion. How to get more of this natural anti-depressant?

  1. Exercising triggers, the release of tryptophan into your blood, and tryptophan is the building block for serotonin.  
  2. Spending time in nature has been shown to increase serotonin. 
  3. Massage therapy may increase your levels of serotonin. You can see a licensed massage therapist, but you could also try swapping twenty minutes of massage with a partner, family member, or friend.
  4. pending time with loved ones – human or animal – can increase serotonin levels. Hug a friend, a pet or someone you love.
  5. Kindness can increase serotonin. Be willing to help somebody today and watch your serotonin rise!

Endorphins are nature’s pain and stress relievers. When the body experiences pain, physical stress, or exertion, it responds by releasing endorphins—neurotransmitters designed to take the ‘edge off by reducing stress,

Here are five ways to get that pleasurable endorphin rush:

  1. Chocolate – it contains the compound phenethylamine, which encourages neurotransmitter activity, and theobromine, which promotes relaxation.
  2. Raise your pulse – cardio, moderate exercise, and weight training can all signal your brain to release endorphins. If you aren’t getting a happiness rush, then increase the intensity. 
  3. Sex – a great endorphin-boosting activity (enough said).
  4. Spice it Up – when you eat spicy food, like hot peppers, your brain interprets the heat as painful stimuli and releases endorphins to counteract the feeling. 
  5. Uncork the wine – after drinking alcohol, endorphins are one of several chemicals released in the brain that give you a feel-good sensation. But don’t overdo it, overconsumption actually disrupts the production of endorphins.

Now that you know about four of the most powerful chemicals around – dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins – let them help your brain to stimulate more happiness, decrease stress and give you an energy ‘boost’. They’re free, legal and easy to get…so give them a try and feel better naturally.