Happy Chemicals: The hormones that make us smile
Updated: Jan 3
Serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin: most of us have heard of at least one of these before. We hear that these chemicals in your brain make you happy. But do all three do the same thing, or are they different? Let’s talk about how these molecules work to make you smile, in a time where we could all use a little extra happiness in our days. Serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin are all hormones that act as neurotransmitters: chemical messengers that travel throughout our nervous system. Neurotransmitters act by receiving an electrical signal from a neuron and relaying the message to the next neuron or the targeted tissue. The neurotransmitter stays in the synapse, or the area between the two neurons, until the message has been fully communicated as indicated by the brain. Eventually, the signal elicits the response resulting in what we consider to be happiness. Serotonin is what most people think of as The Happy Chemical, likely due to SSRIs—or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which are drugs commonly used to treat mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and more. SSRIs work by keeping serotonin molecules in the neuron synapse longer, resulting in an increased stimulus from the serotonin (medications that affect dopamine and oxytocin have also been shown to have antidepressant effects, though they are less common). The stimulus from the serotonin, whether normally or increased by SSRIs, has effects on many different psychological and physiological functions. Serotonin is thought to help regulate our mood, sleep, appetite, sexual drive, and even things like digestion and bone density. There are many ways to increase your body’s serotonin levels naturally. Tryptophan is an amino acid that is essential for the synthesis of serotonin, so increasing your levels of tryptophan is a great way to stimulate serotonin production. Exercise, for example, induces the release of tryptophan into our bloodstream. You can also eat foods that are high in tryptophan—usually protein-rich foods—along with carbohydrates that help the tryptophan reach your brain more easily. Dopamine serves many important functions in humans, along with other animals and even plants. Dopamine is released into our systems when we are in anticipation of a reward. This can range from seeing a cute dog to smelling your favorite food. When that reward is received—when you get to pet the dog or eat your favorite food—your brain associates the reward with the production of dopamine and the feelings that came with it. Therefore, your brain forms a neural connection between the emotion and the action, ensuring you’ll produce dopamine the next time you see a cute dog. If you want to increase your dopamine, the obvious thing is to do things you enjoy. Listen to good music, treat yourself to something fun, or indulge in your favorite hobby. But you can also increase your dopamine in less immediate—but longer-lasting—ways. Similar to the relationship between serotonin and tryptophan, dopamine is made from another amino acid called tyrosine, which you can get from eating protein-rich foods. Getting enough sleep is also very helpful. Your body releases a rush of dopamine when it is time for you to wake up, but if you aren’t getting enough sleep and are jolted awake from your alarm before your body is done resting, you won’t experience the same feeling of alertness that you get from dopamine. Finally, oxytocin: the love hormone. At least, that’s what people call it. And the people are right! Oxytocin is released during social bonding, wanted sexual encounters, and even childbirth—all working to form emotional connections with other people. It helps us to create feelings of trust and intimacy with the people in our lives. But now, you might be asking, how do we get more oxytocin in a pandemic, when we’re not supposed to be touching people we don’t live with? You might not be able to hug as many people right now, but since our brain is capable of abstract thought, communication with loved ones through texting and video chat will still cause a release of oxytocin. If you still are craving a hug, reach for your roommate, family members, or furry friend. As you can see, there are many ways in which you can have higher levels of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. Fortunately, a lot of these actions are ones we already take in our day-to-day lives. During this time of stress and uncertainty, we could all use a little more happiness in our lives, and it never hurts to know how to get that.