If you have a condition that’s marked by abnormally low levels of one of these hormones, a doctor can recommend medication to treat it.
Hormones are your body’s chemical messengers. Once released by glands into your bloodstream, they act on various organs and tissues to control everything from the way your body functions to how you feel.
One group of hormones is nicknamed the “feel-good hormones” because of the happy and, sometimes, euphoric feelings they produce. They’re also considered neurotransmitters, which means they carry messages across the spaces between nerve cells. What are the four feel-good hormones? Dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin.
You can boost levels of these hormones with some simple lifestyle changes, like diet, exercise, and meditation, and possibly improve your mood in the process.
Do you need a supplement?
There are many natural ways to increase levels of feel-good hormones in your brain, including diet, exercise, and spending time with the people you care about. In a quest to feel better and prevent depression, it’s tempting to reach for a supplement as a quick pick-me-up.
For most people, supplementing these hormones isn’t necessary. And in some cases, supplements can cause unwanted and even serious side effects. For example, 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) supplements help to raise serotonin levels in the brain. However, their use is linked to liver and brain damage, as well as a rare but potentially fatal condition called eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS) which affects the muscles, skin, and lungs.
Before taking any supplements, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor to make sure the product you plan to buy is safe for you. You may not even need a supplement unless you are deficient in a particular hormone. And if you have a condition that’s marked by abnormally low levels of one of these hormones, such as Parkinson’s disease, a doctor can recommend medication to treat it.
Here are the links to articles looking at each of the four feel-good hormones and how they work:
Dopamine: The pathway to pleasure
Dopamine can provide an intense feeling of reward.
Dopamine is most notably involved in helping us feel pleasure as part of the brain’s reward system. Sex, shopping, smelling cookies baking in the oven — all these things can trigger dopamine release or a “dopamine rush.”
This feel-good neurotransmitter is also involved in reinforcement. That’s why, once we try one of those cookies, we might come back for another one (or two, or three). The darker side of dopamine is the intense feeling of reward people feel when they take drugs, such as heroin or cocaine, which can lead to addiction.
Dopamine also plays a role in these functions:
- learning and attention
- heart rate
- kidney function
- blood vessel function
- pain processing
Where is dopamine produced?
Neurons in the region at the base of the brain produce dopamine in a two-step process. First, the amino acid tyrosine is converted into another amino acid, called L-dopa. Then L-dopa undergoes another change, as enzymes turn it into dopamine.
Too little dopamine causes stiff movements that are the hallmark of Parkinson’s disease. Although depression is more often linked to a lack of serotonin, studies find that a dopamine deficiency also contributes to a down mood. In particular, people with depression often suffer from a lack of motivation and concentration.
Because dopamine is made from tyrosine, getting more of this amino acid from food could potentially boost dopamine levels in your brain. There is evidence that a diet rich in tyrosine also may improve memory and mental performance.
Foods high in tyrosine include:
- chicken and other types of poultry
- dairy foods such as milk, cheese, and yogurt
- pumpkin and sesame seeds
There is also some evidence that the brain releases more dopamine when we meditate. The change in consciousness that occurs during meditation may trigger its release.
Serotonin: The natural mood booster
Serotonin can stave off depression and provide a feeling of euphoria.
When you feel happy and all seems right with the world, you’re feeling the effects of serotonin. This hormone is responsible for boosting mood, as well as a host of other functions.
Where is serotonin produced?
An area in the center of the brainstem produces serotonin, which then acts on many different parts of the brain to affect a variety of functions and behaviors, including:
- the stress response
- body temperature
How to increase serotonin
Low levels of serotonin are linked to depression. The most commonly used antidepressants, the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain.
It’s also possible to increase serotonin levels without taking medicine. One natural way to increase serotonin is by working out. When you pedal your bicycle or lift weights, your body releases more tryptophan, the amino acid your brain uses to make serotonin. This boost in serotonin (along with other endorphins and other neurotransmitters) is why many people get that feeling of euphoria known as a “runner’s high” after an intense workout.
Exposure to either the sun or to the bright light meant to replicate it is another way to naturally increase serotonin levels. Light therapy is one of the main treatments for the seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the winter blues that may be triggered by a drop in serotonin levels.
Getting extra serotonin from foods is a bit trickier. Protein-rich foods such as turkey are high in tryptophan, but our bodies don’t convert it to serotonin very efficiently. And when you eat turkey together with other high-protein foods, the protein breaks down into amino acids, which compete with tryptophan to get across your blood-brain barrier (the border that prevents potentially harmful substances from reaching your brain). As a result, less tryptophan gets in.
One way to sneak more tryptophan into your brain is to get it from complex carbohydrate sources, such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. When you eat these carbs, your body produces insulin, which helps your muscles pull in more amino acids, giving tryptophan a better chance of reaching your brain.
Endorphins: The brain’s natural pain reliever
Endorphins can also release stress and create a feeling of well-being.
Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers. Endorphins are released by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in response to pain or stress, this group of peptide hormones both relieves pain and creates a general feeling of well-being.
The name of these hormones comes from the term “endogenous morphine.” “Endogenous” because they’re produced in our bodies. Morphine refers to the opioid painkiller whose actions they mimic.
About 20 different types of endorphins exist. The best studied of these is beta-endorphin, which is the one associated with the runner’s high. We also release endorphins when we laugh, fall in love, have sex, and even eat a delicious meal.
How to release endorphins
You can increase your body’s endorphin release by engaging in these activities:
- Exercise. A moderately intense pace, whether you’re walking fast or doing another form of aerobic activity, seems to be best for releasing endorphins.
- Acupuncture. An effective way to release endorphin is with pressure points. Placing fine needles into the skin at specific points around the body triggers the release of endorphins.
- Meditation. Breathing deeply and focusing your brain calms your mind and eases pain.
- Sex. These hormones are the reason for that blissful feeling many of us get after having sex. Experts believe that endorphins promote the release of other hormones that are involved in feelings of love.
- Playing music. When you sing, dance, or bang on a drum, you do more than entertain others. You also release a rush of endorphins, which research suggests might increase tolerance to pain.
- Laughter. A good belly laugh can do wonders for your state of mind. Along with releasing endorphins, laughter alters levels of serotonin and dopamine.
Ultraviolet light. It’s no wonder that some people feel happy when they spend time outdoors in the sun. Ultraviolet light stimulates the release of beta-endorphins in the skin.
Oxytocin: The love hormone
Oxytocin can help us bond with loved ones and can be released through touch, music, and exercise.
Oxytocin is a hormone that’s produced in the hypothalamus and released into the bloodstream by the pituitary gland. Its main function is to facilitate childbirth, which is one of the reasons it is called the “love drug” or “love hormone.”
Oxytocin both stimulates the muscles of the uterus to contract and boosts the production of prostaglandins, which also increase uterine contractions. Women whose labor is slow to proceed are sometimes given oxytocin to speed the process. Once the baby is born, oxytocin helps to move milk from the ducts in the breast to the nipple and fosters a bond between mom and baby.
Our bodies also produce oxytocin when we’re excited by our sexual partner, and when we fall in love. That’s why it has earned the nicknames, “love hormone” and “cuddle hormone.”
How to increase oxytocin
Low oxytocin levels have been linked to symptoms of depression, including postpartum depression. Researchers have been studying whether giving oxytocin in a pill or nasal spray might help to ease anxiety and depression, but so far the results have been disappointing. In part, that’s because it’s hard for this hormone to slip across the blood-brain barrier.
A more promising way to boost oxytocin naturally is with exercise. One study noted a jump in oxytocin levels measured in participants’ saliva after high-intensity martial arts training. Music also seems to have the ability to increase oxytocin levels, especially when people sing in a group, which adds the element of bonding.
Just the simple act of touch seems to boost oxytocin release. Giving someone a massage, cuddling, making love, or giving someone a hug leads to higher levels of this hormone and a greater sense of well-being.
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