Happy Hormones

Hormones play an important role in how our bodies work, sending and receiving chemical signals that keep our life-support systems working. Hormones are also part of an inner information network that regulates and affects our mental well-being. Here's a look at what the four known as the 'happy hormones' are - and how you can support  the important work they do to maintain or boost your mental wellbeing.

What are the happy hormones?

Often nicknamed, 'the happy hormones,' four key hormones play a crucial role in maintaining our emotional wellbeing. Oxytocin, dopamine, endorphins and serotonin are your body’s secret weapon when it comes to feeling good.

These four hormones help regulate everything from your appetite to energy levels, as well as your emotional response to things in life – from love and laughter to anxiety, fear and  sadness.

Hormones not only play a vital part in helping us stay physically healthy, but also have an impact on our state of mind. Some hormones are able to reduce our levels of anxiety or feelings of depression, while others can trigger feelings of love, joy, trust and calmness.

It can be helpful to be aware of how our happy hormones work and the role they play in both our physical and mental health. It can be good to know, too, that healthy friendships and relationships, physical activities we enjoy, as well as a variety of foods, can support our body's natural chemistry and make a positive difference to our mental wellbeing.


Vital signs

Hormones are the body's messengers. They're produced by various glands within our bodies, and their primary function is to communicate between a gland and an organ, or a gland and another gland. Your hormone levels, and their activities are part of the endocrine system. This information and hormone-production network runs throughout your entire body and  is controlled by the pituitary gland in the brain.

During the course of a day, different hormones play different roles and send out signals that tells your body what to do. In the morning for instance, a surge of cortisol helps to wake us up, while in the evenings, melatonin is released to help us to sleep. As you go through the day, other hormones will tell you you're hungry, full, sad or happy.


Oxytocin

Oxytocin is sometimes nicknamed 'the cuddle hormone' because it promotes feelings of trust and bonding. It's been recognised as a key hormone in helping humans build relationships and communities. Higher blood oxytocin levels have been linked to greater feelings of love and a sense of connection. During childbirth, a woman's body is flooded with oxytocin, helping her to bond with her new baby.
As well as this bonding role, oxytocin functions as a transmitter that calms the nervous system. This hormone regulates our stress response, preventing anxieties from going into overdrive in situations where we should feel calm.
Feelgood activities can help support your endocrine system to produce the oxytocin it needs to keep your body and mind healthy
Oxytocin is generated when we engage positively with others,whether that's  a romantic relationship, friendships or as part of a community. Becoming more involved in our local community, caring for a neighbour, or even something as simple as making a donation to a charity, can all raise our levels of oxytocin. Giving someone a hug, or stroking a pet can also help oxytocin to be produced.
While we are socially distancing, checking in on a friend over the phone, having someone to call, or even an exchange of greetings while out on a walk is a valuable boost for our emotional wellbeing,

Dopamine

Dopamine is part of the brain's chemical reward system, and plays a key role in keeping us healthy, happy and alert. It plays a role in the motor control that keeps our body parts moving, as well as our brain function. Dopamine is the hormone that keeps  us motivated, too. It helps us make decisions and gives us control over our impulses. It also plays a part in how our memory functions, and helps us anticipate pleasurable experiences - from treating yourself to a favourite snack, to having sex. Dopamine signalling can decrease, especially as we age. Around a half of your body's dopamine is produced in your gut, and it's believed that a healthy balance of good bacteria in your intestines can create or boost  the optimum conditions for producing dopamine.
A healthy, varied and balanced diet plays a key role in good mental health. Foods rich in tyrosine are believed to aid the production of dopamine in your stomach. These include foods such as cheese, meat protein, eggs and dairy. It can also be found in vegan friendly sources such as nuts, whole grains, oats, wild rice, seed and soybeans.

Endorphins

Perhaps the best known of the happy hormones, are endorphins. Often associated with exercise, they actually function as a natural painkiller.
Endorphins reduce the amount of pain signals that inform our central nervous system that something hurts. They do this by binding to opioid receptors which are located on nerve-endings and are part of our body's messaging system. When endorphins bind to these receptors, it  triggers the release of feelgood hormone, dopamine. So anything that helps to produce endorphins, will also aid the production of dopamine.
It may seem surprising, but endorphins are generated when your body is put under extra physical stress. Most commonly, this is through exercise. The so-called 'runner's high', a feeling of elation and well-being generated by runners after a period of activity, is actually triggered by high-levels of endorphins being released into the body.
It's not just running that triggers endorphins, strenuous walking, lifting weights, cycling and even dancing can all give us this natural feeling of wellbeing. It's one reason why regular runners or gym-bunnies will feel hooked on their chosen physical activity.

Oxytocin

Oxytocin is sometimes nicknamed 'the cuddle hormone' because it promotes feelings of trust and bonding. It's been recognised as a key hormone in helping humans build relationships and communities. Higher blood oxytocin levels have been linked to greater feelings of love and a sense of connection. During childbirth, a woman's body is flooded with oxytocin, helping her to bond with her new baby.
As well as this bonding role, oxytocin functions as a transmitter that calms the nervous system. This hormone regulates our stress response, preventing anxieties from going into overdrive in situations where we should feel calm.
Feelgood activities can help support your endocrine system to produce the oxytocin it needs to keep your body and mind healthy
Oxytocin is generated when we engage positively with others, be that through a romantic relationship, friendships or as part of a community. Becoming more involved in our local community, caring for a neighbour, or even something as simple as making a donation to a charity, can all raise our levels of oxytocin. Giving someone a hug, or stroking a pet can also help oxytocin to be produced.
While we are socially distancing, checking in on a friend over the phone, having someone to call, or even an exchange of greetings while out on a walk is a valuable boost for our emotional wellbeing,

Serotonin

Last, but certainly not least in the quartet of happy hormones is serotonin. As well as help regulate our mood, it plays a key role in vital body and brain functions including our digestion, and the circadian rhythms  that control our sleeping and waking patterns. Seratonin also enables your brain cells and other nervous system cells to communicate with each other. This happy hormone functions a bit like oil in a machine, helping to keep all the component parts working as they should.
If your brain has too little serotonin, it can lead to depression. When your serotonin is at a normal level, it should increase your feelings of well-being, keep you focused, calm and able to control your impulses.
Nearly all of your body's serotonin is produced in your stomach. From there, it can be put to use in one of two ways: It can enter your nervous system as a signal messenger, known as a neurotransmitter, or be released in your bloodstream where it will help maintain your body's tissues.
Your gut bacteria, and what you eat,  plays an important role in the production of serotonin. These good gut bacteria produce a natural chemical called tryptophan, and that's what serotonin is made from. But the bacteria needs to be fed the right ingredients in order to manufacture tryptophan.
Tryptophan production can be boosted by eating fibre-rich foods such as leafy greens and stringy vegetables. So getting as many as you can of your five a day can be a good building-block for mental wellbeing as well as physical health, giving your body the boost it needs  to produce more of the happy hormones that nurture your mind.

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