You know that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you think of someone you love? It feels like magic, but your body manufactured that. In its complex (and even magical) intelligence, the human body makes several “feel-good” hormones and neurotransmitters supporting emotions and physical feelings of ease, contentment, love, and euphoria – dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin.
Each has its role in shaping our view of the world and consequent actions. Marketers in several industries have taken special notice of dopamine and serotonin in aid of selling products from computer games, ads, apps, and drugs. The excess or deficit of these powerful hormones can contribute to addiction, depression, anxiety and disease. Let’s look at what each of these can do, and how understanding them can boost your happiness and health.
Dopamine: The reward rush
Known as the body’s endogenous (self-made) “pleasure drug,” dopamine bestows a feeling of pleasure in the brain’s reward system. “Sex, shopping, smelling cookies baking in the oven” can all trigger a dopamine rush, writes Health.harvard.edu. This release reinforces our desire to repeat the sequence. In the short term, dopamine can increase attention, energy, and focus while boosting your mood with the thrill of the chase and anticipation of the teased reward.
Dopamine is formed when an amino acid named tyrosine is converted into another, L-dopa, and enzymes change that into dopamine. The reward system is a very old, integral process to human function. This conversion is happening in neurons at the base of the brain – our ancient “lizard brain” as its sometimes called. It was the reward we got for finding a cache of sugary food or running down a mammoth. It gave us the focus to remember where we found the blueberries and the motivation to push past exhaustion. It helps coordinate movement, keeping us searching, consuming, accumulating, and expanding. Novel experiences and achieving goals release dopamine.
Computer programmers have learned to use this system to keep us playing video games, staying engaged with web content or apps. Food scientists make food hyper-palatable so that we “can’t eat just one.”
The downside of running the dopamine system on repeat is that the body, always looking for efficiencies, progressively down-regulates the reward given. The baseline downshifts as your body becomes conditioned to a certain level of reward, and it doesn’t feel as good. The spike of the rush shrinks. Now you need two, then three “wins” to get the same reward you got the first time. This contributes to many addictions, from eating, gambling, shopping, online gaming, and alcohol and drugs.
Some healthier ways to raise dopamine include meditation and eating foods high in tyrosine, including poultry, dairy, avocadoes, bananas, pumpkins and sesame seeds.
Serotonin: The contentment chemical
We think of serotonin as a brain chemical, but 90-95% is made and stored in our digestive tract, from the amino acid tryptophan.
Serotonin teams up with endorphins after a good workout to produce the feeling of elation called the “runner’s high”. It’s a slower build, but longer lasting than the spikes of good feelings we get from dopamine.
Linked to digestion, it also works with melatonin and cortisol to support healthy sleep patterns.
Serotonin is perhaps most well-known today for what we think happens when levels dip. An imbalance or deficit of serotonin is often blamed for depression and used to support the widespread prescription of SSRI anti-depressants – but that theory is being challenged.
A meta-analysis of multiple studies by the journal Nature published in July 2022 concluded that “there is no convincing evidence that depression is associated with, or caused by, lower serotonin concentrations or activity.” It posits that positive effects from SSRIs may come from numbing emotions rather than improving serotonin levels and adds that some studies show long-term SSRI use lowers rather than raises serotonin levels in the body over time.
Steady serotonin levels make you feel balanced, calm, and content. The buzz created by serotonin may be milder than the rush of dopamine, but it’s more sustainable than that of dopamine.
So how can you increase serotonin?
Get outside – especially early in the morning. According to Shawn Stevenson’s “Model Health Show” podcast, studies show sunlight exposure is connected to higher serotonin levels. It’s especially optimal to get your dose of sun as soon as you wake up, as close to dawn as possible to help calibrate your circadian rhythms. Morning sunlight will help increase melatonin and decrease cortisol production in the evening, helping you relax and sleep. (Note that electronic blue light from our phones and computers disrupts melatonin significantly – consider changing your monitor settings on your devices for three hours before sleep.)
Exercise – whether walking, weightlifting or cardio – will build serotonin, possibly by increasing the availability of tryptophan.
Eating certain foods can help too. Although we’ve heard about eating turkey for tryptophan, protein can slow down or lessen the tryptophan absorption. Eating plant-based tryptophan in the form of complex carbs like sweet potatoes and pumpkin is more effective. Tryptophan needs vitamin B6 and magnesium to help synthesize serotonin, so Stevenson says your best bet is to ensure you are also getting those in your diet. Spirulina and avocado are sources of all three.
Human touch in the form of massage is also a serotonin booster. One study showed it can raise serotonin by 28% and lower cortisol the hormone associated with stress and tension by an average of 31%.
We know this intuitively, but laughter proves to be one of the best medicines once again – you can watch a funny show, or fake it till you make it and make yourself laugh. Stevenson says it improves levels of serotonin and endorphins.
Better yet, laugh with friends or family – a 2017 study indicated spending time with loved ones gives serotonin levels a bump.
Enjoying and focusing on happy memories is said to increase serotonin, while gratitude practices increase both serotonin and dopamine. So try spending less time on social media or watching tv, and plan to get outside, see a friend, exercise, laugh, and take a minute to be grateful for it.