Do you have the January blues? If so, you’re not alone. Many people find this time of year hard, as the countdown to Christmas is over and we face many weeks of grey and miserable weather before the Spring (in the UK at least!). So it seems like the perfect time to talk about happy hormones, and how we can get more of them!
Hormones are chemical messengers that are released into the bloodstream and sent around the body to regulate a number of bodily functions. They are critical in a huge amount of processes, from digestion and reproduction to sensory perception. From a psychological perspective, the role of hormones in mood regulation are of particular interest, as hormones are involved in the experience of both positive and negative emotions. For example, cortisol and adrenalin are two of the hormones related to stress responses.
In this blog, we’re focusing on “happy hormones”, a family of hormones which promote positive emotions such as happiness and pleasure, and reduce negative ones like anxiety and depression. While each of these hormones play additional roles in relation to other bodily systems, let’s look at each one with a specific focus on mood.
Serotonin is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter which modulates the regions of the brain responsible for regulating mood (the hippocampus, amygdala, pre-frontal cortex, and hypothalamus). As such, it is often known as a “feel-good” hormone and can improve mood; on the other hand, low levels of serotonin have been associated with depression and anxiety.
Serotonin is synthesised from tryptophan, an essential amino acid. Therefore, an easy way to increase serotonin levels is to eat a balanced and nutrient-dense diet that is rich in dairy products, fish, chicken, and nuts and seeds. Regular exercise is another excellent way to increase serotonin.
Often known as the “love” or “cuddle” hormone, oxytocin is triggered by physical contact such as holding hands and sex. It’s also released during childbirth (and may be responsible for the euphoria some women feel after giving birth) and breastfeeding to promote attachment and parental care. Oxytocin is associated with social awareness and is important in pair-bonding via empathy, trust, and the recognition of facial expressions and body language. Interestingly, oxytocin also plays a part in managing stress as it decreases activity in the amygdala when responding to fear- or anxiety-inducing situations.
To increase oxytocin, physical contact is key, and can come from contact with others, such as hugging and massage, as well as warm temperatures. You can even give yourself a hug and still feel the benefits!
You may have heard of dopamine in recent years in relation to the addictive nature of social media. Dopamine is associated with learning, memory, attention, and motivation. Dopamine is also released in response to any type of reward, which is why we often feel a boost when we receive notifications from social media sites – any time someone likes or comments on a post, we experience a “dopamine hit”. This can result in dopamine addiction, where we crave more and more rewards (and therefore spend more time on social media!). Perhaps unsurprisingly, this can make us less tolerant to challenging tasks as we become accustomed to relatively easy rewards – so we may find ourselves choosing to post a carousel of beautifully filtered images on Instagram rather than devote time to a difficult work or study project.
So what are healthier, and more natural, ways to increase dopamine? Getting enough sleep can really help (ideally between 6 and 8 hours), as can exposure to natural light and in particular to sunlight, exercise, meditation, and eating a balanced diet.
You may also have heard of endorphins – often discussed as a positive psychological response to exercise – but did you know there are more than 20 types of endorphins in the body? Endorphins are commonly known as natural painkillers, as they have pain-relieving properties and can help us to manage stress. They can also enhance our mood, increase our self-confidence and perceptions of ourselves and our abilities. This is in part because endorphins help us to persist in challenging or even painful situations, which increases cognitive rewards such as more positive self-perceptions.
It won’t surprise you to learn that endorphins are released during exercise, but you can also increase them via a healthy balanced diet, massage, and sex.
The bottom line
Although each of the happy hormones plays a particular role in relation to mood, the methods for increasing them are broadly similar: exercise, a balanced diet, and physical contact such as massage (ahhhhhhh) or sex (woohoo!). And while the science is complicated, the practical implications are simple: make it a part of your New Year’s resolutions to get more of these things in your life!
Thanks to Nadia Butt, Dance in Mind placement student from Middlesex University, for compiling the research that informed this blog. If you would like to find more balance in your life but aren’t sure where to start, get in touch and find out whether coaching might be for you.