Can you hack your happy hormones?
We all want the key to happiness, whatever that looks like, right? We all wish we could study the formula, jump through the right hoops, crack the perfect code, and just… bam! Be happy! But, as we grow up, we learn pretty damn quickly that few things in life work like that. Happiness can’t be distilled down to a mathematical formula, or hacked by completing certain tasks in a certain order every day (though fitness fanatics who never shut up about endorphins would probably tell you otherwise!). But happiness, it turns out, isn’t a total mystery. And those fitness fanatics? Well, they might actually be onto something.
Happiness is incredibly closely linked to hormones. Now, there are a staggering number of hormones in the human body – some 50-odd – though here at ohne we spend a lot of time dissecting the ins and outs of just a few of them: the key hormones which govern the reproductive cycle. While those hormones – think testosterone, oestrogen, and progesterone – are actually pretty powerful movers and shakers when it comes to determining our overall happiness, they’re not the be all and end all of our moods and emotions.
The difference between hormones and endorphins
But first, back to those fitness fanatics for a sec. I’m sure we all remember the infamous line in Legally Blonde about how ‘endorphins make you happy! And happy people don’t kill their husbands. They just don’t.” But, at the risk of annoying any biology majors out there, do we all know what endorphins actually are? And how are endorphins different from hormones?
Endorphins are the neurochemicals produced by the central nervous system and pituitary gland; they act as a natural pain reliever and increase our feelings of pleasure. They’re released in response to pain and stress, but can also be released after exercise, eating, or having sex. They contribute to our overall sense of well-being and happiness (I’ll refer you back to the whole happy-people-don’t-kill-their-husbands thing). They reinforce social attachment and our survival instinct as well as enabling us to continue functioning even after injury or potentially traumatic event – endorphin levels surge during childbirth.
Conversely, hormones are produced by endocrine glands all over the body. Hormones travel through the bloodstream, acting as little messengers helping to regulate and control a whole host of bodily functions – such as growth, metabolism, regulating our reproductive functions, and controlling our moods.
Meet the happy hormones
First up, allow me to introduce you to dopamine. You probably know dopamine as the ‘feel good hormone’, because it helps to govern what we know of as the brain’s rewards system – playing a role in pleasurable sensations, learning, and memory, to name a few.
Dopamine is often confused with serotonin, a hormone and neurotransmitter often credited as the ‘happy hormone’, particularly on social media. Serotonin share some of dopamine’s traits, working to support learning and memory, but also shines all by itself, however, working to regulate moods, digestion, appetite, and sleep schedule.
Oxytocin. Ah, the love hormone – the Aphrodite of the body, if you will. What can’t oxytocin do? It helps promote trust, build empathy, supports parent-child bonding – well bonding in any kind of relationship, actually, and levels of oxytocin increase during and after physical affection, kissing, and sex.
How to increase your endorphins
Do you need to boost your endorphin levels? Signs of an endorphin deficiency include trouble sleeping, mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, increased muscular aches and pains, as well as increased impulsivity.
Looking to hack happiness? Going after an endorphin boost is the best – and most fun – place to place to start. Channel your inner Elle Woods and move your body! Have sex! Eat something you love! Seriously, you can make yourself chemically happier by doing things you enjoy, making your body feel good, and satisfying your hunger (literal or sexual, take your pick).
Listening to music, especially when accompanied by dancing, singing, or drumming, has been shown to lead to increased endorphin levels. The best part is that you can feel the positive vibes from all aspects of music – creating it, sharing it, listening to it alone. It can even increase serotonin production!
How happy hormones work
Hormonal imbalances can really throw your whole life outta whack. In people who experience a menstrual cycle, these hormonal imbalances can look like: bloating, fatigue, irritability or mood swings, hair loss, irregular periods, weight gain, and acne. The stress hormone, cortisol, and the thyroid hormone, thyroxin, are also responsible for helping to maintain balanced stress levels and a consistent, healthy sleep schedule.
Your hormones all work in tandem with one another; when one spikes or dips drastically, it can throw off the whole careful balance. For example, an imbalance of oestrogen and progesterone levels can impact your libido; you may find that you have a lower sex drive if your oestrogen levels are low and your progesterone levels are higher. Not having as much sex as you usually do could impact your oxytocin levels, which will have a knock on effect on your feelings of trust, empathy, and intimacy with your loved ones, which can, in turn, impact your cortisol and dopamine levels… and so on and on and on.
Fortunately, there are several ways we can take control over our bodies and harness our hormones through our lifestyle, actions, and even diet.
How to hack your happy hormones
Did you know that getting more sunlight on your bod is scientifically proven to increase serotonin levels? If you’re susceptible to the winter blues, this might not come as too much of a surprise. Low serotonin levels have been linked to depression, seasonal affective disorder, and even PMDD. As well as affecting endorphins, you can also boost your serotonin levels by committing to a regular exercise schedule. Added bonus? This will also increase your dopamine levels! Three for the price of one sweat sesh – anyone else fancy a run?
Practise mindfulness. It’s not just yogis who reckon meditation is good at reducing stress levels – there’s actual research to back it up. Meditation has been shown to have links with increased dopamine levels, even after sessions as short as five minutes long. It can also produce similar effects to a workout in terms of endorphin production. Win-bloody-win.
I reckon you’ll like this one: socialise. Yep, simply hanging out with your friends, sharing laughs, and strengthening your social bonds will have a hugely positive impact on your endorphins and dopamine levels, both in the short and long term. It’s even thought to have a positive impact when it comes to boosting your levels of oxytocin (remember the aforementioned bonding?). Laughter can relieve stress and anxiety and lift your mood. Sure, I feel like this may be obvious to many of us, but it does feel good to know there’s literal science backing it up, right? So next time you want to cancel on a friend because you’re in a bad mood, stop to consider whether it may in fact be just the thing you need to feel like yourself again. What’s that they say about laughter and medicine…?
So, our top tips for boosting those happy hormones? Do what you love! Dance and sing, lie in the sunshine, cook delicious meals for your best friends, have sex with wild abandon, and don’t cancel a work out just because you’re down in the dumps – it could be just the thing you need.