4 Feel-Good Chemicals In Your Body…And Ways To Boost Them
A happy mind and good mood are well within reach!
The warm fuzzy feelings after hugging a loved one? The satisfactory rush after doing an intense workout? That sense of achievement after winning a game?
Special chemicals in your body, called hormones, are responsible for all these positive feelings and emotions. Hormones are released into the bloodstream by glands, and they travel to different target organs to regulate your body functions, mood, and behaviour.
These small chemicals can have huge effects on how well your body works. Check out four of these important feel-good chemicals, and how you can maximize their benefits on your body, mind, and mood.
#1: Dopamine — the “pleasure” chemical
How it works
Dopamine is made by your brain and acts as a neurotransmitter. This means it sends signals between the neurons in your brain. Dopamine binds to special proteins called receptors, and this kicks off pathways that affect several body functions.
Dopamine is involved in your brain’s reinforcement and reward system. Performed well in an exam? Enjoying your favourite cake? The dopamine released during these instances is behind these feelings of pleasure and satisfaction.
So how does reinforcement come into play? You’ll be motivated to do well in your next exam. After that one slice of your favourite cake, you may want another slice (or two!). So you’ll chase that dopamine rush that gives you those intense feelings of reward.
The dark side — harmful substances like nicotine also leads to feelings of pleasure and reward, which can result in addiction.
Dopamine is a master multi-tasker. It’s also involved in learning and attention, heart rate and blood vessel function (during the fight-or-flight response), pain processing, sleep, and movement. Low levels of dopamine are even linked with Parkinson’s disease.
How to boost your dopamine levels
- Eat foods high in tyrosine like poultry; dairy products like milk, cheese, and yoghurt; avocados; bananas; pumpkin seeds; sesame seeds; and soy products.
- Body massages
- Playing with your furry friends
- Walking in areas with lots of greenery
- Reading a book
#2: Serotonin — the “happy” chemical
How it works
Serotonin is also a neurotransmitter that’s produced by your brainstem (the lower part of your brain that connects to the spinal cord). It binds to specific receptors, which results in different responses in the body.
Serotonin is also produced by your gut. Around 90% of serotonin is made in your gastrointestinal tract, which is then released into your bloodstream and travels to the target organs.
This chemical plays a major role in regulating your mood. When your serotonin levels are normal, you feel happy, calm, and emotionally stable. Low serotonin levels are associated with clinical depression. Certain antidepressants, like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin–norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), work by keeping serotonin in your brain for longer.
This mood-boosting chemical is also involved in sleep, digestion, memory, your body’s stress response, wound-healing, regulating blood pressure, and maintaining bone health.
How to boost your serotonin levels
- Get 10–15 minutes of sunlight exposure.
- Exercising helps your brain tryptophan, an amino acid used to make serotonin.
- Eating foods with tryptophan (like poultry) and complex carbohydrates (vegetables, fruits, whole grains) may help boost your serotonin levels. However, a lot more research is needed to understand the link between eating certain foods and serotonin levels.
#3: Endorphins — the “pain-relief” chemicals
How they work
Endorphins are released by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in your brain when your body is going through stress or pain. They act as both hormones and neurotransmitters.
The word endorphin tells you a lot about this hormone’s functions — it comes from the term endogenous morphine. Endogenous means originating from inside the body, and morphine is the opiate pain killer commonly used after surgery. So, endorphins are your body’s natural pain relievers.
When endorphins are released, they bind to specific receptors called opiate receptors in your nervous system. This prevents the transmission of pain signals, leading to pain relief and feelings of well-being.
Your body produces around 20 different types of endorphins, but beta-endorphin has been the most researched one. Have you ever been swept by those feelings of euphoria when you run long distances or when you complete a high-intensity workout? You can thank beta-endorphins for this “runner’s high”!
Endorphins are also released when you experience something pleasurable, like laughing, falling in love, and eating a delicious meal.
How to boost your endorphin levels
- Aerobic exercise, or even walking at a moderate pace, is the one of the most effective ways to get that rush of endorphins.
- Acupuncture, which involves placing fine needles into specific areas of your skin, can trigger endorphin release.
- Meditation can help increase your endorphin levels, bringing about a sense of calmness and pain relief.
- Singing, dancing, or playing an instrument are fun ways to boost your endorphin levels.
- Laughter is another fun way to ramp up your endorphin levels.
- Going outdoors helps you get ultraviolet light exposure, triggering the release of beta-endorphins in your skin.
#4: Oxytocin — the “love” chemical
How it works
Oxytocin is a hormone made by your hypothalamus in the brain and is stored in the pituitary gland, from where it’s released. It binds to oxytocin receptors to exert its effects.
Oxytocin plays special roles in women — it’s involved in childbirth and breastfeeding. During childbirth, oxytocin stimulates the contractions of the uterus during labour. It also raises the production of prostaglandins, which are involved in uterine contractions as well. During breastfeeding, oxytocin causes the breast tissues to contract, which pushes breast milk to the nipple.
Given its central role during and after childbirth, oxytocin helps foster the mother–child bond, which is considered the purest form of love. Oxytocin also regulates your emotional responses and how you perceive your social relationships. It plays a role in building trust and empathy, developing romantic attachments, and processing bonding cues. Those warm, fuzzy feelings when you’re with your loved ones? All thanks to oxytocin!
How to boost your oxytocin levels
- Give a warm hug to a family member or friend
- Exercise is effective in raising your oxytocin levels
- Music can also boost oxytocin release, especially in group settings (like singing in a choir or playing in a band)
Remember, the only person who can keep YOU the healthiest is YOU!
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