7 brain molecules that make you feel great
Life in the human body is designed to be a blissful experience. Our evolutionary biology insures that everything necessary for our survival makes us feel good. All animals seek pleasure and avoid pain. Therefore, our brain has a wellspring of self-produced neurochemicals that turn the pursuits and struggles of life into pleasure and make us feel happy when we achieve them. This biological design is generous, but lays dormant in many. As a follow up to part 1 on happiness hacking, in this post I will look at 7 brain molecules linked to happiness and offer simple ways you can trigger their release in your daily life.
Through daily physical activity and other lifestyle choices we have the power to make ourselves happier. One of the side-effects of living in a digital age is that we are increasingly removed from our physicality and each other. Our biology is short-circuiting. The balance of neurochemicals that evolved for millennia has been disrupted by our modern lives, making us more prone to depression, anxiety and malcontent. Pharmaceutical companies are eager to readjust this imbalance with a pill.
However here my goal is to describe simple lifestyle choices and changes in behaviour that can improve your brain chemistry, make you feel better and motivate you to maximise your human potential.
Our body produces hundreds of neurochemicals. Only a small fraction of these have been identified by scientists. We will not know in our lifetime exactly how all of these molecules work. Albert Einstein believed that, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Based on this philosophy here are simple tags to 7 brain molecules and general descriptions of how each is linked with a feeling of well-being.
THE NEUROCHEMICALS OF HAPPINESS
1. Endocannabinoids: “The Bliss Molecule” Endocannabinoids are self-produced cannabis that work on the CB-1 and CB-2 receptors of the cannabinoid system. Anandamide (from the Sanskrit “Ananda” meaning Bliss) is the most well known endocannabinoid. Interestingly, at least 85 different cannabinoids have been isolated from the Cannabis plant.
A study at the University of Arizona, published in April 2012, argues that endocannabinoids are, most likely, the cause for runner’s high. The study shows that both humans and dogs show significantly increased endocannabinoids following sustained running. The study does not address the potential contribution of endorphins to runner’s high. However, in other research that has focused on the blood–brain barrier (BBB), it has been shown that endorphin molecules are too large to pass freely across the BBB, and are probably not responsible for the blissful state associated with the runner’s high. So to increase levels of bliss, try doing some sustained exercise.
2. Dopamine: “The Reward Molecule” Dopamine is responsible for reward-driven behaviour and pleasure seeking. Every type of reward seeking behaviour that has been studied increases the level of dopamine transmission in the brain. If you want to get a hit of dopamine, set a goal and achieve it.
Many addictive drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, act directly on the dopamine system. Cocaine blocks the re-uptake of dopamine, leaving these neurotransmitters in the synaptic gap longer. There is evidence that people with extroverted, or uninhibited personality types tend to have higher levels of dopamine than people with introverted personalities. To feel more extroverted and uninhibited try to increase your levels of dopamine naturally by being a go-getter in your daily life and flooding your brain with dopamine regularly by setting goals and achieving them.
In a cyber world, where we are often ‘alone together’ on our digital devices, it is more important than ever to maintain face-to-face intimate human bonds and ‘tribal’ connections within your community. Working out at a gym, in a group environment or having a jogging buddy is a great way to sustain these human bonds and release oxytocin.
In a 2003 study, oxytocin levels rose in both the dog and the owner after time spent ‘cuddling’. The strong emotional bonding between humans and dogs may have a biological basis in oxytocin. If you don’t have another human being to offer you affection and increase oxytocin your favorite pet can also do the trick.
4. Endorphin: “The Pain-Killing Molecule” The name Endorphin translates into “self-produced morphine.” Endorphins resemble opiates in their chemical structure and have analgesic properties. Endorphins are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus during strenuous physical exertion, sexual intercourse and orgasm. Make these pursuits a part of your regular life to keep the endorphins pumping.
In 1999, clinical researchers reported that inserting acupuncture needles into specific body points triggers the production of endorphins. In another study, higher levels of endorphins were found in cerebrospinal fluid after patients underwent acupuncture. Acupuncture is a terrific way to stimulate the release of endorphins.
5. GABA: “The Anti-Anxiety Molecule” GABA is an inhibitory molecule that slows down the firing of neurons and creates a sense of calmness.
A study from the “Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine” found a 27% increase in GABA levels among yoga practitioners after a 60-minute yoga session when compared against participants who read a book for 60 minutes. The study suggests yoga might increase GABA levels naturally. So, to increase GABA, try practicing yoga, meditation or “The Relaxation Response.”
6. Serotonin: “The Confidence Molecule” Serotonin plays so many different roles in our bodies that it is really tough to tag it. For the sake of practical application I call it “The Confidence Molecule.” Ultimately the link between higher serotonin and a lack of rejection sensitivity allows people to put themselves in situations that will bolster self-esteem, increase feelings of worthiness and create a sense of belonging.
So, to increase serotonin, challenge yourself regularly and pursue things that reinforce a sense of purpose, meaning and accomplishment. Being able to say “I did it!” will produce a feedback loop that will reinforce behaviours that build self esteem and make you less insecure and create an upward spiral of more and more serotonin.
7. Adrenaline: “The Energy Molecule” Adrenaline, technically known as epinephrine, plays a large role in the fight or flight mechanism. The release of epinephrine is exhilarating and creates a surge in energy. Adrenaline causes an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and works by causing less important blood vessels to constrict and increasing blood flow to larger muscles.
An ‘adrenaline rush’ comes in times of distress or facing fearful situations. It can be triggered on demand by doing things that terrify you or being thrust into a situation that feels dangerous.
A surge of adrenaline makes you feel very alive. And it can be the antidote to boredom, malaise and stagnation. So to trigger the release adrenline in health serving ways, try consciously taking risks, facing fears and doing scary things that force you out of your comfort zone is key to maximising your human potential.
There is not a one-size-fits-all prescriptive when it comes to creating a neurochemical balance that correlates to a sense of happiness. Use this list of 7 neurochemicals as a rudimentary checklist to take inventory of your daily habits and to keep your life balanced. By focusing on lifestyle choices that secrete each of these neurochemicals you will increase your odds of happiness across the board.
Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, political activist as well as author of The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss