The ‘happiness hormones’ – dopamine and serotonin – work synergistically to create a feeling of happiness. From a physiological perspective, these two neurotransmitters (chemicals that carry signals from one neuron to another) work in tandem to bring us an overall sense of wellbeing by regulating short and long-term contentment.
Though happiness and pleasure are often used interchangeably, and both are associated with positive emotions, they have two distinct physiological underpinnings. Pleasure is usually associated with physical and temporary sensations while happiness is more of an inert sensation associated with mental wellbeing and inner peace.
A deficiency of these two neurotransmitters has been observed in individuals diagnosed with depression, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia, fibromyalgia, insomnia and a host of others disorders.
To understand how certain activities can boost your mood, it is important to understand the role of Tryptophan – an amino acid which is a precursor to serotonin. Both dopamine and serotonin play an important role in regulating your mood.
Simple activities can help boost the happy hormones
Dopamine plays multiple roles in our body. As a neurotransmitter, it is involved with movement, memory, reward and motivation, behaviour and cognition. As a hormone, it regulates our “fight-or-flight” reaction. It also plays a role in the relaxation and constriction of blood vessels. Increased activity in the parts of the brain that dopamine activates has been linked with the feeling of pleasure – this is why it is often called the “feel good hormone”.
“From exercising, listening to music, being surrounded by natural greenery, and playing with a pet are a few such activities which are known to increase the dopamine and serotonin levels in the body naturally,” points out Madhuri Navin, a clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS).
Symptoms associated with low serotonin/dopamine levels
Both these neurotransmitters share similar symptoms in their deficiencies.
Low serotonin levels can cause:
- mood swings
- drastic change in appetite
- sleep related difficulties
- loss of libido
- compulsive behaviours
Low levels of dopamine could show up as
- loss of attention span
- decreased motivation towards everyday tasks
- a lack of enjoyment in activities that were previously pleasurable
- decreased sex drive
- muscle cramps
Ways to boost dopamine and serotonin levels naturally
- Load up on protein and good fats:
95% of serotonin is produced in the gut, which is modulated by what you eat. Proteins and nuts contain high amounts of amino acids like tyrosine and tryptophan, which are required in the production of dopamine and serotonin. Some of the foods rich in tyrosine and tryptophan include almonds, peanuts, eggs, fish, legumes, bananas and chicken.
- Get moving: It doesn’t matter if your choice of exercise is running, lifting weights or a brisk walk. Physical exercise in any form has been shown to remodel the pleasure and happiness pathways in the brain, leading to higher levels of circulating dopamine-serotonin. A March 2013 study showed that three neurotransmitters, namely dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline are modulated by regular exercise.
- Visit the spa: We don’t need to question if a massage can help with relaxing the mind and body, but can we quantify the positive effects? A 2005 study noted an average decrease in the stress hormone cortisol by 31% with a massage, while dopamine and serotonin increased by 31% and 28% on an average, respectively.
- Get more sleep: Dopamine is also a modulator of regular sleep cycles through working on the central nervous system (CNS) hence sleeping for a less than ideal time is said to block the dopamine receptors in the brain thus reducing the dopamine levels. Practicing sleep hygiene by keeping a set time to sleep and wake up, reducing noise, avoiding CNS stimulants such as caffeine post 5 pm and having a dedicated sleeping space, can help dopamine and serotonin stay at healthy elevated levels, thereby reducing stress.
More evidence needed
Health professionals across the spectrum suggest significant lifestyle changes, such as fixing sleep cycles, and following a diet rich in protein and good fats, along with compulsory exercise, to naturally mitigate some of the symptoms associated with low levels of dopamine and serotonin. However, there isn’t enough evidence yet to suggest that they can work as substitutes for medication/ anti-depressants.