How to make the most of your happy hormones

Some chemicals your body produces create a real feel-good factor. These are the simple steps you can take to boost your ‘happy hormones’.

Happy not only feels good, but is genuinely good for you, research shows.

A few different factors contribute to happiness – everything from genetics to beyond-your-control life events.

But a decent chunk of how happy you are comes down to the things you choose to do day in, day out.

One explanation for that comes down to those little things called neurotransmitters.

What are ‘happy hormones’ and neurotransmitters?

Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals, some of which also function as hormones, which send signals between neurons, the cells of the brain and nervous system.

A variety of things influence their production, but among them are diet and lifestyle habits.

“Serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine are the most important neurotransmitters when it comes to mood-related disorders,” Dr Hajara Aslam, of Deakin University’s Food and Mood Centre, says.

While serotonin is also known as the feel-good hormone, dopamine is responsible for allowing you to feel pleasure, satisfaction and motivation.

Feel happy when you achieve something? That’s due to a surge of dopamine.

Norephinephrine is also important for emotions, and low levels are associated with anxiety and depression.

They often work in sync and despite being known as brain chemicals, that is not the only place they are produced.

“An ideal example is serotonin,” Dr Aslam says.

“It helps regulate your mood, as well as your sleep, appetite, digestion, learning ability and memory. Nearly 90 per cent of serotonin is produced in the gut.”

And serotonin is not the only neurotransmitter the gut plays a role in producing.

“Several studies have shown that gut bacteria can also directly produce dopamine and norepinephrine,” Dr Aslam says.

So what about endorphins?

They’re the poster child when it comes to neurotransmitters and mood, and often credited for delivering that much sought-after runner’s high.

While recent research confirms that exercise does encourage endorphin production, Breathe Education exercise physiologist and chief executive Raphael Bender says the jury’s out on whether it is endorphins that deliver that post-workout high.

“The idea of exercise increasing endorphins, that’s true, but when we do experiments to figure out whether that’s what causes the mental health benefits associated with physical activity, there’s a lot of conflicting evidence,” he says.

“What we do know is that endorphins probably play multiple functions in exercise, one of which is to help us cope better and care less about the pain and discomfort that exercise, particularly intense exercise, can cause.”

Three ways to boost happy hormones

Scientifically proven happiness habits come in all shapes and sizes, but when it comes to optimising your body’s production of neurotransmitters specifically involved in mood, you could try to:

  1. Eat a gut-friendly diet

“Gut bacteria can influence neurotransmitter production in two ways,” Dr Aslam says. “Firstly, by directly producing neurotransmitters and secondly by interacting in pathways that are implicated in neurotransmitter production.”

One way to increase the number of good bacteria in your gut is by eating foods that are rich in prebiotics, a type of fibre that’s able to pass undigested through to the large intestine, where it stimulates the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria.

Good sources of prebiotics include certain types of fruit and vegetables (including garlic, onion, leek, asparagus, sweetcorn, snow peas, watermelon, grapefruit and nectarines) and some legumes (specifically chickpeas, lentils and red kidney beans).

Pasta, couscous, oats and wheat and rye breads also contain prebiotics.

  1. Listen to your favourite music

A study published in 2019 not only found dopamine helped make listening to music a rewarding experience, but that listening to the music you love stimulated your brain to release more of it.

  1. Exercise

Some research suggests that exercise bumps up the production of both dopamine and serotonin.

Regardless, Raphael stresses the importance of physical activity for mental health.

“Even if the pathways by which exercise works in this regard aren’t quite clear yet, the benefits of exercise on mental health are very well documented,” he says.

“There’s so much research showing how both regular and one-off exercise can reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms and improve mood.”

Written by Karen Fittall.