My students are used to hearing me talk about getting their “mood-enhancing, feel- good chemicals” flowing. Many experiences can trigger the release of these “happy” neurochemicals or hormones. Rather than being in the passenger seat, we can intentionally turn on the faucet and cause them to flow.
As we fully engage in mindful practices and sacred rituals to nurture ourselves, heightened well-being and deep healing ensues. Such rituals please the senses, elevate the mind and uplift our spirit, releasing a flood of feel-good chemicals into the bloodstream.
There’s a branch of science called psychoneuroimmunology that studies the interaction between the mind and the body, and how this relationship affects our blood chemistry. We can change our neurochemistry. Inside us is a natural pharmacy of neurochemicals that can help us feel good and heal: natural antidepressants, tranquilizers, painkillers and growth hormone, along with immunomodulators, vasodilators and so much more.
Perhaps you’ve heard “our issues are in our tissues,” or “our biography is our biology.” According to renowned neuroscientist Dr. Candace Pert, author of the landmark book Molecules of Emotion, every thought we have creates a molecule in our bodies. Certainly this speaks to the mind-body connection. Happy thoughts create happy cells in our bodies; angry thoughts, angry cells; sad thoughts, sad cells; and so on.
Notable here is that Pert and Solomon Snyder, of Johns Hopkins University, researched the mood-enhancing, pain-reducing neurohormones known as endorphins. Endorphins, short for “endogenous morphine” (a built-in painkiller), are released when we breathe deeply, exercise, receive a massage, make love, eat certain foods or enjoy a host of other pleasurable activities.
Here’s a look at how to make the most of these natural mood-boosters.
This “feel-good” hormone and neurotransmitter motivates us to seek out life’s novelties, and also inspires us to create and innovate. It’s an important part of our brain’s reward system and gives us the drive to set goals, as well as gives us a feeling of accomplishment and even euphoria, when said goals are met.
Anticipating, engaging in or remembering pleasurable experiences boost dopamine. It can also be a habit former—whether good or bad, healthful or not (i.e., addictions). Dopamine is also critical for learning, memory and motor system function.
Listening to favorite music (which can also boost serotonin and endorphin release); regular physical activity, especially dance; optimal sleep; a daily gratitude practice; massage, which has benefits linked to increased dopamine, serotonin and endorphin production; sex; or celebrating our life’s achievements can all
be dopamine boosters. Cook and enjoy your favorite meals with a loved one to boost all four happy hormones.
This natural antidepressant is also called the “love hormone.” Whether giving loving care to ourselves or others, this neurochemical enhances bonding, trust, empathy, resilience and loving feelings in relationships, making us feel happy and even euphoric. When released into the bloodstream, it can dim anxiety, depression, anger and pain.
Oxytocin is an essential hormone for childbirth, breastfeeding and strong parent- child bonding, and oxytocin levels can increase with physical affection like appropriate, loving touch (including self-massage), hugging, kissing, cuddling and sex. Further, giving a furry friend an affectionate pat is a great way to boost oxytocin levels for both you and your pet companion. Research has shown both humans and their pets see an increase in oxytocin when they cuddle.
Serotonin is the key hormone for stabilizing our mood, directly impacting feelings of well- being and happiness. A natural antidepressant, it supports and helps with depression, anxiety, panic attacks, PTSD and more. It allows our brain/nervous system cells to communicate with each other. This communication impacts our entire body, regulating sleep, appetite, digestion, learning ability, memory and more.
Heading into nature, soaking up some sunshine, enjoying mindful movement and deeply meaningful music, as well as eating a nutritious, colorful, whole foods diet— including probiotics—all contribute to increased serotonin production.
You may have heard of the “runner’s high.” Endorphins are our bodies’ natural painkillers, produced in response to stress or discomfort. Endorphins work like opioids to cause feelings of euphoria, heightened energy and levity. They’re a potent, natural reward for any form of vigorous exercise that gets our blood flowing.
Levels also tend to increase when you engage in consciousness-raising, reward- producing activities, like meditation and yoga, making love, eating certain foods (especially spicy foods, dark chocolate, a glass of red wine), and laughter.
Laughter really is great medicine. It also boosts dopamine and, when shared with a loved one, is an oxytocin-booster, too.