Your Brain Controls Your Mood: How to Naturally Boost Feel-Good Neurotransmitters
If you’re happy and you know it, raise your hand! Guess what affects your mood and feelings? Brain chemistry, that’s what! Brain chemicals can take you from grumpy to elated in just a few minutes, and brain chemicals are influenced by all kinds of external and influences. If you’ve ever completed an intense workout, you’re probably familiar with the rush of endorphins that come over you and leave you on cloud nine. Would you rather feel sad or cheerful? Hopefully you picked cheerful.
Your heart beats faster, your cheeks flush, and you break out in a cold sweat. Either you’re being chased by a bear, or you’re falling in love. That feeling is due to adrenaline and cortisol, when your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis gets activated. When you get “turned on,” so does your brain-adrenal communication, flooding your body with these hormones of intensity. Your brain releases dopamine – your pleasure hormone – when you are in love triggering an intense rush of pleasure. Dopamine has much the same effect on the brain as cocaine! The euphoria felt from this neurotransmitter is why new love can feel so addictive.
Another reason is that the peaceful neurotransmitter, serotonin, actually gets lower when you are newly in love, and this dip in serotonin (1) is almost identical to what people experience who have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). About a year into the relationship, serotonin starts to rise again and you start to feel less obsessed and calmer (this is also when you start to notice all their annoying habits!)
Love is intoxicating, addictive, and….good for your health? Yes indeed! Many studies have shown that people who are in enriching, loving relationships tend to live longer, healthier lives. But what is the science behind the health benefits of love?
Primal urge hormones
First (and perhaps most obvious), healthy testosterone and estrogen levels can help spark that initial attraction and trigger the primal hunt for a mate. It is no wonder that for both men and women, low testosterone or imbalances of the estrogen isomers E1, E2, and E3 are common culprits in low sex drives, among other health problems.
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You know that warm and fuzzy feeling you get when you’re in love? Like you just want to be with that person all the time? Thank oxytocin for that. Oxytocin, released by your brain’s pituitary gland, is the powerful hormone that surges during orgasm. This was one of the main biological reasons why sex is a bonding experience for couples.
Studies (2) have even shown that the rush of this hormone actually increases monogamy in couples! Oxytocin also gives you that “butterflies in your stomach” feeling when you are with your amore, another highlight of the gut-brain connection and more evidence for why your gut really is your “second brain.”
Thankfully, there are plenty of things you can do to influence your own brain chemistry and boost your mood naturally. These activities are already enjoyable on their own but also benefit your brain throughout the day.
12 Ways To Naturally Boost Your Feel-Good Neurotransmitters
1. Turn up the beat
All of us have a favorite band or song that resonates with us in a special way. We connect with it on a deep level and find the mix of beats and instruments so pleasurable that we can listen to it on repeat. According to a study (3) published in Nature Neuroscience, the brain releases dopamine when you are listen to music that you particularly enjoy.
2. Treat yourself to an aromatherapy session
Essential oils have become more popular than ever for all kinds of wellness needs, and that includes mood boosting. Lavender essential oil has been shown (4) to produce a calming effect similar to anti-anxiety medications like lorazepam, which work by stimulating serotonin production. This neurotransmitter is actually produced in the gut, also known as your “second brain,” and is responsible for regulating your mood. Low levels have been linked (5) to increased levels of anxiety and depression, so place a few drops in your diffuser at work or home for a constant stream of feel-good hormones.
Who doesn’t love a good joke? The more you laugh, the more endorphins you release. Laughing acts a little like vigorous exercise, contracting your abdominals and triggering those endorphins to flow. So find humor in your every day. Hang out with your funniest friends, watch more cat videos on YouTube, chill out to your favorite comedy, or even attend a comedy show.
4. Add in adaptogens
Natural herb and plant medicines, called adaptogens, have been used for centuries but are finally getting their turn in the spotlight in the mainstream wellness world. Certain adaptogens are used to target specific areas of your health that need a boost, and brain health is no exception. Mucuna pruriens contains the dopamine precursor L-DOPA, which is able to increase (6) dopamine through crossing the blood-brain barrier. In addition, rhodiola also helps support dopamine by keeping your levels stabilized. Keep these on hand and add to your morning smoothie to start your day off on a high note.
5. Light up
No, not a cigarette. I mean light up the room with a blue-light therapy box. The winter days give us ample time indoors to cozy up and get our hygge on. But with more time indoors comes less time out in the sun. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can leave us feeling lethargic and depressed. SERT levels (serotonin transporters) are higher in the winter causing serotonin levels to be low, which leave many to feel just plain sad. Blue-light therapy boxes are great for boosting serotonin when getting outside isn’t an option.
6. Hit the snooze button
As if you need one more reason to stay in bed a little longer. Dopamine signals your body to wake up and bring down levels of your sleep hormone, melatonin. This system only works with properly functioning receptors and studies have shown that lack of sleep corresponds to a decrease in the wakefulness D2 receptor. So those feelings of sluggishness throughout the day can be blamed not only on fewer hours of sleep but what that specifically does to your dopamine levels.
7. Spice up your life
Pass the peppers, hot sauce, and jalapenos: the hotter the better. Capsaicin, the chemical found in spicy peppers is responsible for that satisfying burning sensation on your tongue after a spicy meal. Your body recognizes this heat as pain and releases endorphins to help you cope until the intensity subsides. Bring on the salsa!
8. Boost your protein intake
The amino acid tyrosine found in protein sources like meat and fish helps your body make DOPA, which then converts to dopamine. Support the production of this neurotransmitter by including enough tyrosine-containing foods in your diet. This nutrient is particularly high in grass-fed beef, wild-caught salmon, and tuna as well as cage-free organic eggs. For those who are not big meat eaters, you can still get this through seeds, nuts, and legumes.
9. Learn something new
If you’ve been putting off learning a new language, trying a new recipe, or perfecting a new song on the guitar, the time is now. Dopamine is associated with being rewarded, and when we learn something new and feel accomplished, dopamine is released, (7) which makes you feel motivated and good about your new skill. This effect isn’t as pronounced when activities are too easy or too hard, so make sure to pick activities that provide just enough of a challenge.
10. Fire up your sex hormones
Try hormone-balancing adaptogens such as shilajit and ho shou wu, to wake up the sleepiest of sexy-time hormones. You and your love bunny can make delicious adaptogenic elixirs to try together!
11. Take your secret love potion
Another adaptogen called mucuna pruriens is rich in L-DOPA, a precursor the the love drug hormone dopamine. I sprinkle a little bit into my tea every day.
12. Reconnect physically
Simply connecting with your partner, emotionally and physically, increases oxytocin, dopamine, and adrenaline. As relationships mature, it gets easier to take love for granted, but you can keep the fire burning by:
- Holding hands intentionally
- Kissing a little longer
- Being thoughtful
- Speaking words of affirmation to each other
- Showing love in new, creative ways
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- Marazziti D, Akiskal HS, Rossi A, Cassano GB. Alteration of the platelet serotonin transporter in romantic love. Psychol Med. 1999;29(3):741‐745. doi:10.1017/s0033291798007946
- Dirk Scheele, Nadine Striepens, Onur Güntürkün, Sandra Deutschländer, Wolfgang Maier, Keith M. Kendrick and René Hurlemann Oxytocin Modulates Social Distance between Males and Females The Journal of Neuroscience 14 November 2012, 32 (46) 16074-16079; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2755-12.2012
- Salimpoor, V., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K. et al. Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nat Neurosci 14, 257–262 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.2726
- López V, Nielsen B, Solas M, Ramírez MJ, Jäger AK. Exploring Pharmacological Mechanisms of Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) Essential Oil on Central Nervous System Targets. Front Pharmacol. 2017;8:280. Published 2017 May 19. doi:10.3389/fphar.2017.00280
- Saldanha D, Kumar N, Ryali V, Srivastava K, Pawar AA. Serum Serotonin Abnormality in Depression. Med J Armed Forces India. 2009;65(2):108‐112. doi:10.1016/S0377-1237(09)80120-2
- Kathleen Jade, ND Dopamine Supplements May Improve Depression Symptoms, Mood, and Motivation UHN MARCH 31, 2020 https://universityhealthnews.com/daily/depression/dopamine-supplements-for-improving-mood-and-motivation/
- Arias-Carrión O, Pŏppel E. Dopamine, learning, and reward-seeking behavior. Acta Neurobiol Exp (Wars). 2007;67(4):481‐488.
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.