Happy chemicals

As covered in my post The dopamine epidemic – dopamine is the feel good chemical, important in influencing motivation. When we experience a taste, touch, sound, or a visual, dopamine travels as a neurotransmitter in the brain, making us feel a pleasurable sensation. It helps us form habits, for better or for worse. Having properly regulated dopamine levels, is crucial for stable mental and physical health.

But, what about the other D.O.S.E chemicals?

D.O.S.E is an acronym, which stands for dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins.

Let’s take a look.

Oxytocin is sometimes referred to as the love hormone. It is a neurotransmitter, that is released into the bloodstream as a hormone during lovemaking, childbirth and when the nipples are stimulated during lactation. It has been described as having an important role in lust and love emotions, including orgasm and maternal behaviour, as well as also being connected to recognition and social bonding. Women usually have higher levels of oxytocin than men.

Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus and secreted by the pituitary gland, found at the base of the brain.

During labour, oxytocin is released into the body, aiding contractions in the womb, causing a release of more oxytocin into the blood, causing further contractions, and so on.

Image credit: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk

Breastfeeding stimulates the release of oxytocin from the brain. When a baby latches on to their mothers breast, the nerve cells send a message to the mothers brain, letting it know to release oxytocin. Oxytocin will then connect the signal, to contract the muscles surrounding the milk glands, pushing breast milk into the milk ducts. As with labour, as the stimulation continues, more oxytocin is released, the milk is let down, more stimulation, more oxytocin, more milk. The perfect cycle of give and take. This breastfeeding process is called the “let down reflex”.

That’s different to the reflex you get when your mother-in-law texts about coming over at the weekend.

Oxytocin can also help create strong emotional bonds, that are especially potent with a mother for her baby, establishing a desire to nurture. Low levels of oxytocin may affect a woman’s ability to let down milk for breastfeeding and has been linked to autism spectrum disorders and depression.

Oxytocin can be administered as a drug – often to induce labour. There is also a nasal spray and over the counter medicines.

It would have played a role in early human survival, as it does now, by connecting humans via social bonding. Humans don’t come out the womb running – a mother who protects and nurtures her offspring will lead to lower infant mortality rates, meaning more productive hands for the tribe later on. Beyond reproduction, social bonds are needed to synthesise an urge to protect one-another against predators, hunt in groups, form more elaborate social structures – furthering brain development and pushing humanity into the future.

Serotonin, most of those young-once will be somewhat familiar with this one. At least, there’ll be those who know what I mean, you know what I mean?

UK acid house scene started in 1988, image credit: Dave Swindells

Anyway, what’s serotonin all about? Found most prevalently, with 90% of the bodies total, stored in the gastrointestinal tract – the digestive system-, this chemical neurotransmitter sends signals between nerve cells. It is also produced in the central nervous system – in the brainstem, certain skin cells, taste receptors cells in the tongue and stored in blood platelets.

It is important in many natural functions in the human body. Found primarily in the intestines and stomach, it helps regulate proper digestion and healthy bowl movements. It is also helps to excrete upsetting food more quickly from the body, by vomited or diarrhoea.

Blood platelets release serotonin, causing arteries to narrow and form blood clots, to help heal wounds. It is also a factor in bone health, as excessive levels of serotonin are connected to the weakening of bones.

Serotonin is key in mood stabilisation, with normal serotonin levels attributed to lower anxiety, improving focus, and calm. Levels affect sleep and wakefulness. High levels of serotonin may decrease in libido, with lower levels causing an increase in libido.

You can help regulate healthy serotonin levels by getting plenty of exercise and sunlight and boosting your intake of foods that contain tryptophan, such as nuts, cheese, eggs, red meat, salmon and tofu, among others.

Endorphins are chemicals the body releases when it is under stress or in pain. They’re primarily produced in the pituitary gland and carry messages throughout the brain and nervous system. There have been over 20 types of endorphins identified in humans. Beta-endorphins are the ones that contribute to pain relief.

When we feel pain or stress, endorphins act on the opiate receptors in our brains – they reduce pain and result in a feeling of pleasure. They’re also released during other activities, such as sex, exercise and eating. Certain foods, such as chocolate or chillis enhance secretion of endorphins. That explains why we love these two foods, and perhaps, why we crave them more than others.

If you’re a runner, you may have experienced the coveted “runners high” – that euphoric feeling where you’ll be overloading with happy chemicals, feel light and full of energy. This is actually a result of multiple hormones, including endorphins and dopamine. Endorphins are released to help quell that muscle ache, setting off a dopamine release, which gives you that happy feeling.

The London Marathon

For those who are super curious to know what it feels like, as I was – and I can only say that I have legitimately felt that runners high once, and I run a lot (long distance too, which, I would have thought, increased the chances of experiencing this phenomenon maybe a tiny, weeny bit. Alas! It had eluded me thus far – but, not for much longer!).

My experience was this – it finally happened closing in on the 15km mark, on a sun lit run through the beautiful city of Perth, Australia. It was Boxing Day, and I had just had a dry Christmas for the first time since I was 15, maybe earlier. I had been laying off the booze for the past few months, and I felt great. As I approached the foot of a bridge, my podcast, which had been playing through my headphones, switched to the next queued track. Queen’s eclectic “Don’t stop me now”, channeled the spirit of Freddie Mercury straight through my speakers and into my soul. As I mouthed along to the anthem, the words reverberated through my psyche – “don’t stop me now, i’m having such a good time”. As I peaked the rise of the bridge, I looked around at the twinkling gleam, dancing off the idyllic blue water. People passed underneath, on their boats, enjoying their day off with the family, beaming smiles illuminated faces. Their gestures hooted exuberantly. The Aussie way of life is truly awesome, I thought. I was really appreciating the moment. I started to feel oddly whimsical. A giddy laughter bubbled up from inside me. I felt light, yet powerful, as if I could sprint, and wanted to. I was full of energy. I felt simply transcendent! It really did feel like an overload. I laughed and laughed. It was real unsolicited laughter, why? I felt so good I wanted to cry. I did cry a little bit. I had no idea where it was coming from – it was pure euphoria.

I felt like a bit of a nutter, running down the descent of the bridge and out onto the road, laughing and crying away to myself. I was grateful. I had finally felt that runners high! And man, it did it not disappoint. When I set out that day, I hadn’t really set a goal that I wanted to achieve. I’m not sure how much the “runners high” played into it, but I ended up running 42.2km. I haven’t felt it since – but when I do, I’ll know about it. The body is amazing.

The pain relief from beta-endorphins is said to be stronger than morphine. The word endorphin comes from endogenous, meaning, originating in the body, and morphine, which is an opiate pain reliever used in medicine. Endorphins = the natural painkiller. Use them wisely and to full advantage.

The over arching trend in advice, when it comes to getting enough of any of these happiness chemicals, seem to be simple enough – ample exercise, sex, deep connections, sunlight, sleep, and healthy, considered food choices. So, all the good stuff then – as if it wasn’t obvious.

Now, go and enjoy life.

What is life without community? I would love to connect with other nicecissists out there. Seeing as you’ve got this far, that’s probably you! Reach out, drop me a message and let me know what you think in the comments, and of course, give me a follow for more – nice!

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