Happy man playing ukulele

The Happy Hormones: How to Feel Good

Did you know there are chemicals in our brains and bodies that make us feel happy—and our lifestyle can help support their production?

Turns out, our bodies can be tuned to a "happy frequency" through everyday actions that make us feel good. Everything from the smell of clean laundry to finding a penny on the ground can give you the boost you need to turn that frown upside down.

So is there a way you can deliberately summon these chemicals—every day? Yes, there is. Follow these simple tips…and get ready to feel happy today!

What are the "happy hormones"?

Happy woman celebrating outside with friends

To get technical, our "happy hormones" are neurotransmitters: chemical messengers within the body. They are designed to help communicate thoughts, feelings and emotions—such as pleasure, contentment, desire, euphoria, empathy, and connection—along the information highway that stretches from the brain to the heart to the gut and beyond.

What chemicals make you happy?

We've got four main happy chemicals, and they each work in a different way to contribute to feelings of pleasure, contentment, and positive mood…aka, happiness:

  1. Dopamine, the happy hormone

    —That feeling when you check a task off your to-do list or take a bite of your favorite dessert? That's dopamine, your "reward reaper."
  2. Serotonin, the mood hormone

    —"Satisfaction central" kicks in when you laugh, smile up at the sun, or spend time in nature.
  3. Oxytocin, the cuddle hormone

    —Physical touch, such as hugs and caresses, or even just holding hands, can help fire up your "love connection." Oxytocin isn't just for romantic lovers. That special bond between mother and child is all thanks to the cuddle hormone.
  4. Endorphins, the euphoria hormone

    —Spicy foods and exercise, among other things, can give you the rush of these comfort-enhancing compounds.

So how do you encourage these feel-good hormones in your life? Let's explore natural ways to support them...and let the positive feelings start flowing.

1. Dopamine: The Happiness Hormone

Happy couple taking a selfie

In contemporary slang, "dope" means something good, whether it's a "dope" movie or a "dope" pair of shoes. If the word dope is shorthand for "dopamine," the cool kids might be onto something…because indeed, watching a great film or buying new kicks can support your dopamine levels!

What is dopamine?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced in the brain and nervous system, and is considered part of your "reward system." It is associated with euphoria and feeling good. It also plays a role in learning, memory and movement.

When is it released?

Dopamine kicks in when your brain is experiencing a sense of reward. It can be anything you've been wanting: decadent food, lush wine, intimate sex, finally getting to buy something you've been wanting, getting a good job review, etc.

How does dopamine make you feel?

Dopamine is all about feeling good, explained Life Extension's Education Specialist, Dr. Crystal M. Gossard, DCN. "Remember that feeling you have when you first do something great? That's dopamine. It's about pleasure. It's also about motivation and desire (in part because you want to feel good again)."

Dopamine's feelings of pleasure and satisfaction help us form habits—both good and bad—as we seek to recapture those feelings.

How to support dopamine levels with food

Dopamine is derived from the amino acid tyrosine, so making sure you are eating enough healthy proteins is important, Dr. Gossard noted. "Protein is going to give you these amino acids, which will ultimately be used to create these necessary, feel-good hormones."

Would you believe that chocolate—known mainly for supporting serotonin production—may also support dopamine levels? Sweet!

Other dopamine-friendly food choices

  • Coffee and tea

    , because caffeine can increase the availability of dopamine receptors in the brain
  • Almonds and walnuts

    , which contain tyrosine
  • Fish and eggs

    , and other healthy proteins, are all-natural mood-boosters

Can supplements help support dopamine production?

Along with nutrients that support brain health, Dr. Gossard recommends B vitamins, such as B6 and B12. "B vitamins can help with the metabolism and production of many of our happy hormones," she explained.

Life Extension's Dopamine Advantage contains a neurologically active form of vitamin B12 to do just that. It can help support the motivation and focus that dopamine brings to your brain.

Dopamine-boosting lifestyle tips

Woman with healthy dopamine levels

Seeking healthy ways to promote your dopamine levels? Try these easy tips.

  • Regular exercise

    : Physical activity and daily workouts have a positive effect on dopamine levels.
  • Restful sleep

    : Lack of sleep may inhibit production of dopamine receptors in the brain, so not only will you be tired, you won't be happy about it.
  • Get some sun

    : Sunlight may help you maintain your happy hormone level.
  • Start a hobby

    : The anticipation of putting your puzzle together or other activity can boost dopamine levels.

2. Serotonin: The Good Mood Hormone

Dopamine isn't the only game in town when it comes to happiness. Your serotonin levels play a critical role in your overall mood—and because the mind and gut are connected, healthy serotonin levels influence digestion.

What is serotonin?

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter known for helping your mood. Unlike dopamine, serotonin is found mostly in the gut, and it plays a big role in the movement of food there.

When is serotonin released?

Men meeting about serotonin balance

Serotonin is released by things like laughter, exercise, or even just a positive memory. But it is also released as part of your normal digestive process.

How does serotonin make you feel?

"Serotonin makes you feel satisfied and provides an overall sense of well-being," Dr. Gossard explained. It can also help you feel happier, calmer and less worried.

How to support serotonin levels

Your lifestyle has an impact on your serotonin levels—starting with what you eat. Serotonin is made from the essential amino acid tryptophan. Since our body can't make tryptophan, we must get it from our diet. Dark chocolate and cocoa, which contain tryptophan, help support serotonin levels. But other foods can help as well:

Beyond these specific foods, focusing on a nutrient-rich diet is a good way to support healthy serotonin levels; Dr. Gossard recommends the Mediterranean diet.

Exercise is also important—for your mood and mental well-being, as much as it is for your weight, heart, muscles and bones. The CDC recommends 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity, along with strength training at least twice a week.

And if all else fails, you can turn that frown upside down by taking your troubles outside. "Step out and get some sunshine. There's something to it," Dr. Gossard said.

Can supplements support serotonin levels?

Tryptophan supplements and the amino acid L-theanine may help promote healthy serotonin synthesis. But for these to do their job, other vitamins and minerals are needed, too, according to Dr. Gossard—specifically, vitamin D, iron and vitamin B6, which help turn tryptophan into serotonin. You want to make sure you don't have low levels of these key nutrients. "So when we talk about serotonin production, you may get tryptophan from eating turkey, but if you are dealing with an iron deficiency, you may not be able to make that happy hormone," she explained.

Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are also thought to promote serotonin release and signaling and help improve mood. They also have brain-boosting benefits.

3. Oxytocin: The Love Hormone

Woman with newborn and high oxytocin

There are lots of ways to feel happiness—there's the thrill of a reward (thank you, dopamine) and there's the "good vibes" you may feel when your serotonin levels are balanced. But what about the joy of physical and emotional connection—one of the most beautiful parts of the human experience? This is where oxytocin comes in.

What is oxytocin?

Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the brain that is often referenced for its role in childbirth and breastfeeding. But this "love" or "cuddle" hormone is also involved in empathy, trust, relationship-building and sexual activity.

When is oxytocin released?

Oxytocin is released in response to physical contact, such as hugging, cuddling or even spending time with your dog. It can also be triggered by eating food, receiving a compliment, and enjoying sexual intimacy and orgasm. You also get a dose of oxytocin when you hold or breastfeed a newborn baby.

How does oxytocin feel?

Oxytocin delivers all the warm and fuzzy feels, like when couples cuddle on the couch on movie night, or bask in the warm afterglow of sex. It helps you feel empathy and trust in your relationships with others. It also helps you bond with your baby.

How to support oxytocin levels

Consuming healthy levels of certain minerals and vitamins can help maintain oxytocin levels. Try these foods:

  • Magnesium-rich spinach, nuts (such as almonds and cashews), and beans.
  • Bright plant foods such as red peppers, oranges, and broccoli, which are high in vitamin C.
  • Vitamin D powerhouses, such as fortified dairy products, eggs, and fatty fish like salmon. If you don't eat animal products, vegan vitamin D can be sourced from algae instead.

What supplements support oxytocin levels?

Because magnesium is so important to oxytocin receptors, supplements such as Neuro-Mag® Magnesium L-Threonate may support increased receptor sensitivity.

Dr. Gossard's two other recommendations:

Other tips to live an oxytocin-friendly lifestyle:

  • Get hands-on, literally

    —Soothing, skin-to-skin physical contact helps release oxytocin. That means hugs, massages and sexual intimacy can kick it into gear.
  • Cuddle with your dog

    —Those belly-rubs and ear-scratches encourage oxytocin in you AND your dog.
  • Enjoy your food

    —Oxytocin can be released in response to eating as you take in your food's taste, smell, and texture.
  • Exercise and meditate

    —Help your body manage stress by prioritizing self-care. "Stress can inhibit oxytocin, so you want to try to manage your stress as best as possible," Dr. Gossard explained.

4. Endorphins: the Euphoria Hormones

Women with heightened endorphins celebrating basketball victory

A rush of endorphins is usually what's behind the most intensely pleasurable moments of our lives—but they also tend to occur in response to pain or stress.

What are endorphins?

Endorphins are hormones produced in the brain that act as the body's natural comfort enhancers. You read that correctly: comfort, meaning a response to discomfort or stress, which can include exercise.

When are endorphins released?

Endorphins are released due to your body's stress response caused by events such as occasional discomfort or a spicy pepper on your tongue. But they can also be prompted by exercise (a form of "healthy" stress on the body), meditation, and sex.

How do endorphins feel?

Endorphins trigger a positive and euphoric feeling in the body. "It's that rush you get when you do something daring," Dr. Gossard explained.

How to support endorphin levels

Woman boosting her endorphins with yoga
  • Eat foods that trigger endorphins

    : Get a "spicy high" with endorphins, which are released in response to the capsaicin in spicy peppers. Or grab some chocolate. It can encourage your endorphin release in addition to stimulating your other happy hormones.
  • Supplements can support healthy endorphin levels

    : Taking a supplement to support the endocannabinoid system, which influences hormonal balance, may encourage endorphin release. As with your other hormones, endorphins must be supported by nutrients. Dr. Gossard recommends vitamin C, niacin (B3) and magnesium. According to a recent study, vitamin D might also promote endorphin levels.
  • Exercise regularly

    : You can support similar endorphin levels with a good aerobic workout (plus, let's not forget the other health benefits of a regular sweat session!).
  • Meditate

    : Experiencing less stress and living in the moment can help you get that endorphin release. (If you've never tried to "get mindful" before, don't worry—meditation is easy and only takes a few minutes!)
  • Have sex

    : Endorphins are one of the reasons for that euphoria you can feel after sex.
  • Laugh

    : Along with releasing endorphins, laughter can also boost levels of serotonin and dopamine.
  • Get some sun

    : Along with boosting your other happy hormones, sunlight is thought to release endorphins.

References

By: Jennifer Jhon, Health & Wellness Writer

Jennifer Jhon graduated from Auburn University with a degree in journalism and communications. She established her career as an editor, designer and writer at several newspapers and magazines. She has been writing about wellness, health and nutrition for 10 years.

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD