Ever feel a surge of happiness just come on all of a sudden? Maybe you remember the warm fuzzy feeling you had when you first held your child after giving birth. Or maybe it was that tight embrace you had from your mum when you were having a hard day, and she made it all feel better.
Happiness is made in the brain by four main chemicals: serotonin, dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin.
Each chemical is released by your brain to help evoke sensations of pleasure and satisfaction. They also help control stress and anxiety.
Serotonin – the mood chemical
Serotonin helps regulate your mood as well as emotions, appetite and digestion. If you don’t produce enough of this, it can lead to you feeling depressed.
It’s actually affected by sunlight. When sunlight enters your eyes, it stimulates parts of your retina and then brain to produce serotonin.
It also helps you sleep better at night. Being in the sun or nature, meditating and being mindful helps trigger this chemical.
Dopamine – the reward chemical
Dopamine plays an important role in your memory, motivation and even your movement. Without it, you have no drive, you feel tired, can’t concentrate and may feel hopeless and anxious.
Low levels of dopamine also may cause a lower sex drive. Dopamine is released when your brain is expecting a reward, completed a task or has reached a goal. food, shopping and other things you may enjoy can help trigger this chemical.
Oxytocin – the love hormone
This chemical is released by the brain during physical contact and is often referred to as the ‘hugging drug’ or ‘love hormone’.
Oxytocin helps boost our immune system and also makes us feel calm and safe. Connecting with others, hugging, petting animals and spending time with loved ones helps release this chemical.
These are the body’s natural painkillers. They are produced by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland if you are in stress or in pain. Exercise, having sex, dancing, getting a massage, laughing, meditating and drinking wine can help release these endorphins.
However, drinking too much alcohol or being overweight can cause a lower levels of endorphins. A person is more likely to be depressed with low levels of endorphins.
How nutrition and exercise can help trigger these happy hormones
“Without the right nutrition, you won’t be able to make the neurotransmitters in your brain, like serotonin, dopamine, endorphins or oxytocin, which help you feel good about yourself,” says Clare Marcangelo, who is a qualified nutritionist who specialises in children and family health.
“This is why new mums tend to feel like this. After having a baby, their body is depleted of essential nutrients.
“But rather than address that, women are expected to just soldier on and we normalise it. It’s time we stop and support ourselves the best we can. We may not feel like we have the time to eat well or sleep and then it’s a vicious cycle, as we are too tired to make good health food choices.”
In order to make neurotransmitters, minerals, vitamins, magnesium and zinc are taken from the food we consume and then created into these ‘feel-good’ chemicals.
“If you are not absorbing enough of these nutrients, it may cause an imbalance in your brain. For example, if you have an impaired gut function, your intestines aren’t taking in all the minerals and vitamins it needs,” explains Clare.
By taking the time to make better food choices, exercising, planning ahead and changing any bad habits, it could be your first step in overcoming any stress or anxiety you are feeling and in turn boosting those happiness-inducing brain chemicals.
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