Got The Blues? Happiness is in your feel-good brain chemicals.

We're headed for a new Autumn season, and the darkening skies are tough on a lot of people. Energy levels wane, and it feels as though our happy brain chemicals follow the bears into hibernation, come wintertime. The blues, melancholy, or just plain tired. Call it what you may. Know, however, that you do not have to capitulate to the experience, because you can influence your inner environment even if you cannot influence the weather. 

So, what is it that we can influence with our efforts? The answer is our 'feel-good' neurotransmitters. Without delving into the complicated biochemical details; let's take a look at our happy brain chemicals in an easy to understand, easy to remember kind of way. Before we can accommodate and influence our internal systems, it's essential to understand the target of our efforts.

Your basic four chemicals are; Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin, and Endorphins. When your brain releases one of these chemicals you feel a sense of well-being. You feel happy. Now, the synthesis, biochemical pathways, and mechanisms of these chemicals can be difficult to understand; however, just remember that much of our behavior aims to release a flow of these chemicals. They do not flow all of the time. They have specific functions, and when their jobs are done, they turn off. 

We partake in behavior to ensure their flow. I'm sure you have all heard of the 'reward' concept, and that's basically what it means. We tend to repeat behavior that worked in the past to feel good, and even though it may not be constructive, or safe. Also, keep in mind that many of these behaviors were learned at a much earlier age than most realize, and old habits can be challenging to change. Not impossible, but it takes effort.

These four happy chemicals are hormones, and neurotransmitters. Hormones are produced by the body to control and regulate activities in our cells and organs. They are necessary for all phases of reproduction, growth, metabolism, digestion and mood control. Neurotransmitters are chemical substances that transmit nerve impulses across synapses, which are the spaces in between nerve cells.

Let's keep this simple, and take a look at the behavioral aspects of the issue:

DOPAMINE: Dopamine revolves around the happy feeling that you will succeed at meeting your needs. Dopamine turns on when you work step-by-step, or succeed in achieving a goal. It involves the expectation of reward when you invest effort. It also turns on when you observe someone else work toward a goal.

Just imagine how many activities this mechanism involves; for example, health and fitness goals, a work promotion, academic degree, etc. When you ensure your survival and meet your needs through activities, dopamine connects neurons and turns on each time you see signs of these things happening. It's a powerful reward system.

SEROTONIN: Plain and simple, serotonin flows when you feel important. Originally, the state of importance supported survivial. This is because we build self-reliance throughout life having been born helpless. Our brains equate attention with survival. However primitive it may seem, our brains still work at creating these circuits. The brain keeps seeking importance no matter how much you have, because the serotonin feels so good! 

Serotonin regulates mood, appetite, sleep, and sexual desire. It's mainly found in the GI tract, platelets, and central nervous system. This is a hormone that many turkey lovers have heard of because it's biochemically derived from tryptophan, and that good stuff will help you sleep like a baby. 

OXYTOCIN: Oxytocin lends that great feeling of 'trust'. You experience the flow of oxytocin when you are together with someone near and dear, and it feels good because social alliances promote survival. Trust takes time to build, but it does so each time expectations are met. Oxytocin is also what you feel when you fall in love. It connects people physically and emotionally, and serves the biological purpose of bonding, and procreation. It is more popularly termed, 'the love hormone'. It has also been called the 'monogamy hormone'.

ENDORPHINS: There are at least twenty types of endorphins. These neurotransmitters are created in the pituary gland, spinal cord, and other parts of our brain and nervous system. Endorphins were named to reflect the amazing ability of the body to produce its own pain killers. The endorphin experience is a brief euphoria that masks physical pain. The bodies of our ancestors relied on it for survival when injured. The system is triggered when we exceed our physical limits, or experience pain or stress. That's right, endorphins are what people talk about when they mention, "runner's high". It is a biochemical response to distress.
Fun fact: Did you know that laughing and crying can also stimulate small bursts of endorphin?

Those are the basics of your fabulous four feel-good hormones/neurotransmitters.

A couple of key points to remember:

  1. Just as your car won't operate without fuel, nor will your body optimally function without the proper type of fuel. In order to support production of these hormones you must provide your body with the necessary building blocks through good nutrition. Stay tuned for a follow-up post about nutritional support.
  2. There is always a choice between helpful and harmful behaviors, of which both can stimulate the flow of these hormones. This may especially pertain to the reward system of dopamine. Invest the time to reflect about important aspects of your life. Your habits, preferences, and responses.
We can always choose and work at best supporting our well-being using all available knowledge and tools.

Stay safe and warm wishes,
Tamera Daun

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