If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that we want to feel good. We want to wake up feeling optimistic, have a positive mindset throughout the day, and feel calm and satisfied as we move into the evening hours. Unfortunately, happiness can sometimes be elusive and many of us don’t feel quite as light and bright as we want to.
But here’s the thing that many doctors—and even many mental health professionals—often neglect to tell you: You have more control over your mood than you might think. How? Because your mood is mainly regulated by a group of hormones, often called your “happy hormones.” By learning about these hormones, how they work, and how you can produce more of them, you can bring more feel-good vibes into your life. Here’s how:
Meet the Happy Hormones
“There are so many hormones that are involved in how a person feels physically and emotionally that mood is created by a cocktail of hormones,” says Jennifer Glassman, MD, a certified family medicine physician and functional medicine doctor at Parsley Health in New York City. Almost all hormones have some influence on mood—including sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone as well as stress hormones like cortisol—but a small group of hormones has a particularly large amount of influence. These hormones are appropriately nicknamed “happy hormones” and include:
- Serotonin: Serotonin is known for regulating mood as well as sleep, appetite, digestion, and memory. Serotonin receptors are the target of SSRIs, the most commonly prescribed class of anti-depressant drugs. So when you are walking down the street and the sun is shining and you feel bright and relaxed, you have serotonin to thank.
- Dopamine: Dopamine is another feel-good hormone that’s intricately involved in your brain’s reward system. It plays a big role in your ability to feel pleasure, as well as plan and execute tasks. When you feel an intense feeling of satisfaction after crossing items off your to-do list or crushing a presentation at work, that’s dopamine at work.
- Oxytocin: Sometimes referred to as the “love” or “cuddle” hormone, oxytocin is released in response to physical affection and plays a huge role in interpersonal relationships, especially child-parent bonding. When you feel warm and fuzzy after cuddling with a puppy or a baby, you can thank oxytocin for those feelings.
- Endorphins: Endorphins are produced by the central nervous system and work via the opioid system in our body. The main job of endorphins is to make us feel less pain. When you feel invincible after a workout, a surge in endorphins is to blame.
Together, these happy hormones are largely in control of your mood and feelings of confidence, pleasure, happiness, love, and satisfaction on a daily basis.
How to Attract More Feel-Good Vibes in Your Life
The connection between your hormones and mood is impossible to deny, so now onto the more important question: How can we use this connection to our advantage? The good news is there’s a long list of lifestyle factors that can boost your happy hormones to bring more good feelings into your life.
Eat a gut-friendly diet
Many medicines that conventional doctors prescribe for mood disorders adjust serotonin. But Dr. Glassman tells us, “It’s interesting to note that more serotonin is made in your intestines than in your brain, which means that food, nutrition, digestion, and optimizing your gut health play an enormous role in mood.” If you want to increase your serotonin levels, start by adopting gut-healing lifestyle tips like eating a diverse diet and avoiding excess alcohol and sugar. Certain foods have also been shown to help with serotonin production, including eggs, turkey, and healthy complex carbs like oats and sweet potatoes.
Add more play
According to Dr. Glassman, “One of the most important things we can do to boost oxytocin is to play.” As she explains it, “That means enjoying playtime with your kids, or running around at the park with your pet.” Research shows when animals and humans interact, both species release oxytocin, which facilitates bonding and emotional and decreases stress. The same is true for interacting with children. In fact, research even shows that highly involved play with your children can help them develop a healthy oxytocin system as well. Next time you find yourself holding back your playful side, lean in fully instead.
Embrace the sun
You may have heard about the benefits of sunlight, probably in the context of vitamin D, which we get from sun exposure on the skin. But the truth is, sunlight can benefit our health in more ways than one. Research has shown that sun exposure can increase the production of serotonin. This explains why many of us feel down during the winter months when there is less daily sunlight and colder weather.
Sunlight also has a powerful effect on regulating the body’s circadian rhythm (the natural, internal process that regulates sleep). Ample doses of sunlight during the day, and honoring the sun’s cues later in the evening, synchronizes the body to its natural wake and sleep pattern.
Explore your nurturing side
Oxytocin is known as the “love” hormone, which, yes, can mean romantic love, but also love in all forms. Oxytocin has the ability to regulate our emotional responses, and that’s the “feel good” rush we experience when taking care of others. So try connecting to your nurturing side by sending a care package to a friend, cuddling with your pet, cooking dinner for a loved one, or even starting a garden. “Anything you can do to nurture or take care of other people and things will work,” says Dr. Glassman.
Connect with others
Human connection can help boost all of the happy hormones and unfortunately with the pandemic still raging, we’re in short supply of connection these days. But according to Dr. Glassman, we still have to find ways to connect if we want to feel our best: “It’s all about connection and community.” She recommends an app called Meet Up. “There are dozens of Meet Up groups for every interest—History, Trivia, Architecture, Hiking, even Pokemon Go—and all these have been shifted to save, online versions. There’s something for anyone,” she says. And while it can be frightening to take the first step to meet new people, all of your happy hormones will thank you.
Move your body
When it comes to feeling good, movement is one of the most important factors. According to Dr. Glassman, “Movement has been shown to lower cortisol and raise endorphins.” Dr. Glassman makes it clear that “movement” can be anything—gentle stretching, yoga, or walking outdoors among nature. “It does not need to be vigorous, hard, or intense all the time,” she says. Even better, workout with a friend outside or on Facetime because studies have shown that working out with others tends to lead to higher endorphin levels compared to working out solo.
Spend time in nature
“There’s a tremendous amount of research showing that spending time in nature can help lower stress hormones and increase happy hormones,” says Dr. Glassman. And you don’t have to pack up all your belongings and move to the middle of nowhere, either. “Bringing plants in your home, hiking in the woods, setting up your desk by a window, taking a walk in the park, or even using essential oils like cedar can promote the release of happy hormones,” says Dr. Glassman.
Turn it up
Music has incredible power over our emotions. In fact, studies have shown that listening to music can increase dopamine production in the brain. Even better, put on your favorite music (you know, the kind that gives you chills!) and dance your heart out. Dancing has also demonstrated an ability to increase not just dopamine but also serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins, the happy hormones.
The best thing about the steps above is that you can combine them to optimize their benefits in the shortest amount of time. Work out in a park while surrounded by trees; walk with a friend while the sun is shining; or put on your favorite song while you eat a gut-friendly lunch. These are all perfect recipes for a major release of happy hormones and mental health boost. Try for at least two of the above life hacks every day, and then thank us for the feel-good upgrade.
As always, your mental wellbeing is a key component to vibrant health, and the care providers at Parsley Health can help you develop tools for managing the physical and emotional consequences of stress, burnout, anxiety and more. Our holistic approach caters to your lifestyle, helping you stay accountable and proactive in your health journey.