By now, many people have heard that our body produces various chemicals that significantly influence our mental state. While this is a very complicated subject, there are four specific chemicals that are of predominant importance. These are serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphin. There a many products in the drug industry based on the manipulation of one of these chemicals. For instance, one of the first popular drugs in mental health, Prozac, is based on creating an environment where there is ample supply of serotonin in the body. Zoloft attempts to do the same.
When looking at the research, it is interesting to find that there are non-prescription approaches that can impact the supply and function of these chemicals in the body. While it’s hard to find quality research that compares natural approaches to ones created in the laboratory, it certainly does not hurt to be aware of what role these chemicals play and how you can influence them.
Please note that we make no statement about the effectiveness of drugs provided by the pharmaceutical industry. This is not the purpose of this article.
Let’s look at these four compounds a bit:
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter and is directly linked to your mood. Both good and bad moods have serotonin in their underpinnings. Neurotransmitters are used to govern emotions, and other cognitive functions, including memory. It is believed that they are tied to the human’s perceived availability of resources. Resources could be food or something more complex like social dominance. In other words, serotonin is directly tied to survival.
What’s particularly interesting about serotonin is that, while it is created in a couple of areas in the body, it is estimated that about 90% of serotonin is generated in our gastrointestinal (GI) track and is directly involved in our intestinal processes.
Serotonin is made from the essential amino acid tryptophan. This amino acid enters our body through our diet and is found in various meats, nuts, and cheese. A tryptophan deficiency, therefore, can result in a bad mood and feelings of anxiety.
How to naturally increase serotonin
Oxytocin is a neuropeptide hormone that is created in a gland in the brain. Oxytocin plays a role in the feeling of social bonding and is also released naturally during childbirth. One of the reasons this is tied to mental health is because this social bonding sensation is tied to the feelings of trust and belonging – both of which are very important in our mental state. Oxytocin, in fact, is often referred to as either the “bonding chemical” or the “love hormone”. It is also a natural antidepressant.
The feelings of trust and belonging influence the secretion of oxytocin. One interesting study found that oxytocin levels role both in humans and in pats, after a petting session. Other research has shown that increase in oxytocin reduces fear and also increase the feelings of empathy between people.
How to naturally increase oxytocin
- Loving touch
- Participating in close relationships
- Hug (just 20 seconds a day releases enough oxytocin)
- Cuddle while watching TV
- Pet an animal
- Spend time with someone you trust
- Start building trust by meeting the expectations of others.
- Engage in sexual activities with your loved one
- Get a massage
More recently, research is being done on the effect of oxytocin to the metabolic functions. It appears that oxytocin plays some role in weight loss, though researchers are not yet in agreement on what is taking place.
Endorphin is another neuropeptide hormone created in the brain. It is a type of morphine that is created in response to pain and is considered nature’s pain relief. It is believed to be a part of the survival instinct of humans and is created to allow us to go on under pain, particularly in life-threatening situations. Endorphins also bring about a feeling of well-being and even euphoria.
Many have heard the so-called “runner’s high”, which is supposed to be the equivalent of endorphin generated in response to strenuous exercise. In recent research, it is not so clear that endorphin is what causes this feeling of well-being. Rather, there seems to be some more complex function happening during exercise that also reduces stress and releases serotonin.
How to naturally increase endorphin
- Some aromas can increase the production of endorphin, including the smell of ginger, vanilla, and lavender.
- A good laugh from your belly (e.g., watching a good comedy)
- Rigorous exercise, especially to the point where you are feeling challenged.
- Walking 30 minutes per day
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is synthesized in the kidney and brain. It is tied to the motivational component of the human reward-motivation system. The anticipation of any type of reward releases dopamine in the body. While it was believed that dopamine is tied to pleasure, the latest research suggests that it is more precisely tied to the pleasure received from achieving a certain reward. In a survival situation, dopamine helps with the motivation of the organism to achieve certain rewards, such as hunting for food, or fighting for securing a mate.
Dopamine, similar to serotonin, is derived from amino acids. Dopamine, in particular, is derived from L-Tyrosin. Tyrosin is found in protein-rich food sources and is also tied to improved memory and general cognitive functions.
Low levels of dopamine in the body are linked with procrastination, self-doubt, and lack of enthusiasm.
How to naturally increase dopamine
- Protein-rich foods, such as eggs, chicken, avocados.
- Tyrosin supplements.
- Set goals and work towards achieving them.
- Create small and frequent rewards tied to activities you undertake.
- Acts of kindness.
- Volunteer work and acts of giving.
- Vitamins B6, A, and C
As stated in the beginning of this article, the chemistry of our bodies is quite complex and the impact of these chemicals on mental health is a very broad subject. In fact, we are still learning through new research about the effects of various chemicals in the body, as well as their interactions.
There are many prescription drugs in the market that look to optimize various functions in the body. What we are highlighting above is that many of these same functions can be optimized in natural ways through various foods and actions. Broadly speaking, our mental health is closely tied to what we eat, our gastrointestinal processes, as well as what we do. Various actions, such as exercise, hugging someone, and volunteering our time, are also closely tied to improved mental health.
When it comes to general mental wellbeing, our recommendation is to stack the odds in your favor with maximizing all these areas of your life.
Author: Dr. Seda Gragossian
Dr. Seda Gragossian is the Clinical Director at the Talk Therapy Psychology Center. She has worked in the mental health field in clinical leadership roles in private practice, at multiple outpatient facilities, as well as at large psychiatric hospital settings.
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