Mental Health

How to hack your happiness hormones

Happiness, as it turns out, isn’t just a feeling. By maintaining the hormonal balance of the body’s four happy hormones, you’ll keep your mood and mind functioning optimally. 

Most researchers on the topic of happiness agree that both nature and nurture play a role. A well-known 2005 study by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon M Sheldon and David Schkade devised a happiness pie chart, which suggested that happiness was made up of 50% genetics, 10% life circumstances and 40% intentional activities.

This is good news as it gives you considerable leeway to improve your happiness levels, no matter where you find yourself on that scale. Nutritional medicine practitioner Beatrice Rabkin explains how to improve the chemicals in the brain that make you happy. 

Dopamine: The Motivational Hormone

What does dopamine do? 

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that enables motivation, learning and pleasure and gives you the determination to accomplish your goals, desires and needs. 

Do you have low dopamine? 

‘This chemical is usually well regulated in the body, but if you struggle with low self-esteem and energy, fatigue, anxiety, depression and mood swings, your body could be lacking in it,’ explains Beatrice. 

Foods that increase dopamine levels 

Beatrice recommends eating foods rich in L-Tyrosine, like chicken, fish, turkey, milk and yoghurt, along with the all-important coenzymes magnesium, zinc, vitamin D, critical B vitamins and antioxidants. ‘High-protein foods, along with an abundance of nutritious vegetables, spices and herbs, can also increase dopamine levels.’

Boost your dopamine: One three-month study found that performing one hour of yoga six days per week significantly increased dopamine levels. Other strategies include safely getting enough sunlight, getting quality sleep and regularly meditating, which can increase dopamine by 64%. Research also shows that listening to music that evokes intense pleasure increases natural dopamine.

Oxytocin: The Love Hormone

What does oxytocin do? 

‘Oxytocin functions as the bonding hormone in childbirth, breastfeeding, sexual intimacy, empathy, compassion, love and cuddles,’ says Beatrice. ‘The wonderful thing about oxytocin is that it is produced naturally, but you can boost it naturally.’

Do you have sufficient oxytocin?

If you crave addictive substances, sugar and highly processed carbohydrates, your body might be low in oxytocin. Because the stress hormone adrenaline blocks oxytocin release, it is important to build stress resilience, which reduces the impact on your body. Besides emotional stress, human beings also experience nutrient deficiencies, digestive malabsorption, infection, inflammation, exposure to environmental toxins and food intolerances, which are also categorised as stress. While quality sleep can greatly reduce stress, diet also has a significant influence on stress reduction.

Foods that can trigger oxytocin 

According to Beatrice, avocados, figs, watermelon, spinach, pumpkin seeds and green tea are just some of the foods to eat to help boost oxytocin levels. ‘Eating nutrient-dense foods that contain magnesium and vitamin C is recommended, as well as a good probiotic, prebiotics like onions and garlic, and fermented foods like kombucha, yoghurt and kimchi. These nutrients can help boost the action of oxytocin production in the body.’ 

Boost your oxytocin: Get a massage! Research shows that 15 minutes of massage can boost levels and reduce anxiety and stress. Sexual intimacy is another key way to flood your body with this essential hormone. 

Serotonin: The ultimate mood booster

Why do you need serotonin? 

Serotonin is the body’s sleep and mood regulator and stabiliser. Research has shown that it is linked to wellbeing and longevity. 

Do you have low serotonin?

If you are experiencing extreme moodiness, your tryptophan levels may be depleted, which can sometimes result in depression and anxiety, explains Beatrice. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that creates niacin, which is important in the production of serotonin.

If only you could eat serotonin… 

Egg yolks from naturally reared, free-range chicken, as well as nuts and seeds, are very high in tryptophan, she says. ‘A recent study also showed that pineapples and ripe tomatoes are serotonin boosters.’

How else can you increase your serotonin? 

‘Regular exercise has antidepressant effects, as does a daily dose of safe sunshine, which is recommended for SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder),’ says Beatrice. ‘A healthy gut with an abundance of diverse microorganisms goes a long way in ensuring good health – but it also boosts serotonin and improves your emotional wellbeing.’

Endorphins: The pain and pleasure hormone

Why do you need an endorphin release? 

Without it, you would not be able to cope with pain. Endorphins also awaken feelings of euphoria with activities like eating, exercise and sex, and simultaneously lower stress levels. 

Are your endorphin levels sufficient? 

You might need to increase endorphins if you find yourself depressed, overweight, stressed and anxious. If you have trouble sleeping, engage in impulsive behaviour or substance abuse, and have an addiction to food, try to fill the void with exercise, hobbies or volunteering

How can you get that natural high?  

Luckily, there are ways to induce an endorphin rush naturally. Studies show that group exercise, acupuncture, as well as having a good laugh, all result in increased levels of the chemical, and indulging in an aromatherapy massage also increases the amount of the hormone in your body. 

 What can you eat to boost happy endorphins? 

‘Dark chocolate contains the N-acylethanolamine group of chemicals, which is shown to heighten endorphin hormone release for three minutes, so be sure to not have all your chocolate in one go,’ says Beatrice. Other foods she recommends are apples, asparagus, eggs, spicy foods (especially turmeric), dark-coloured berries, coffee, dark chocolate, oranges and walnuts. 

Life Mental Health has nine dedicated facilities in four provinces across South Africa. If you need professional help, reach out to an expert who can help you diagnose and treat your condition, or help you sort through your emotions.

The content provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and does not cover every aspect of mental health. Consult a doctor or your nearest emergency unit if you are concerned about your own or a loved one’s mental health. The information is shared on condition that readers will make their own determination, including seeking advice from a qualified healthcare professional. E&OE. Life Healthcare Group Ltd does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage suffered by the reader as a result of the information provided.