Last Updated on July 26, 2022 by Valarie Ward
Pleasure Chemicals Series
Over the past couple of months, we’ve been running a series on pleasure chemicals. Here’s what we’ve learned!
Let’s get some technical terms out of the way first. There are three different kinds of chemicals that transmit messages from one part of the body to the other (but keep in mind that some chemicals can have more than one property):
- Hormones usually travel a long distance; think like your brain telling your stomach that you’re hungry or full. Serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin are all hormones.
- Neurotransmitters usually travel a much shorter distance and burn out quickly. It’s like the short burst of joy you get from making an impulse purchase. Serotonin, dopamine, and GABA are neurotransmitters.
- Neuropeptides also travel a short distance, but they last longer. Ever had a phone call with a friend that left you smiling all the next day? That was probably because of neuropeptides (specifically Oxytocin). Endorphins are also a neuropeptide.
Another key term is the blood-brain barrier. The cells in our blood have a lining that some chemicals can pass through, while others cannot. This lining makes it so that only certain pre-approved chemicals can make it into our brain. So, while some foods may contain serotonin, this serotonin will not pass directly into your brain (though its precursor tryptophan might).
The neurotransmitter serotonin is most known for its role in the first-line antidepressant medications known as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, or SSRIs. Indeed, serotonin has many implications for behavioral health, including stress, memory, addiction, and sexuality. That said, it has many other regulating effects throughout the body, such as temperature control, your circadian rhythm (sleep/wake cycle), and others.
You can get or absorb more serotonin through medication (probably–we still don’t understand SSRIs very well), sleep, exercise, meditation or yoga, sunlight, touch, and talking to people.
Dopamine–another neurotransmitter–is thought to be the chemical responsible for rewarding your brain when you complete a task. However, it’s more appropriately called a motivation chemical. Regulation of this chemical is particularly important for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and the dysregulation of dopamine is one reason why ADHDers (myself included!) struggle to start and complete tasks. Many ADHD medications work on the dopaminergic system, including the amphetamine Adderall (which is not the same as methamphetamine).
Sleep, exercise, meditation, sunlight, and massages can all increase or regulate your dopamine. (That said, there is a high correlation between ADHD and sleep disorders; if you have ADHD and are struggling with your sleep, talk to your doctor.)
Oxytocin is a hormone and a neuropeptide and is essential in forming social bonds. It assists with things like childbirth, lactation, and arousal. (It is not the same as Oxycontin; they just have some similar letters.)
Social interaction can help increase oxytocin, but the effect is not as strong with text communication vs. in-person or phone communication. Things like music, sex, massages, and meditation or yoga can all increase your oxytocin and have you feeling a little more connected to everyday humans.
Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an inhibitory neurotransmitter; it doesn’t send messages in the body so much as stop them. More specifically, it stops the messages being transmitted by stress chemicals like cortisol, thus bringing you more calm. We’re not sure yet whether or not GABA can cross the blood-brain barrier, so we don’t know if supplements or foods said to increase GABA actually help.
That said, there are medications that can increase GABA, such as benzodiazepines. Other sources of GABA throughout your day include sleep, exercise, yoga or meditation, sunlight, and massages.
Endorphins are hormones, and they are a special kind of neuropeptide known as an opioid peptide. The opioid system of the body is responsible for reducing pain and stress; while endorphins and opioids are not the same chemical, they both work on the opioid system, and therefore achieve similar effects. Despite common belief, endorphins are not responsible for the “Runner’s High” you get during intense aerobic exercise.
That said, exercise–especially dance–does help increase endorphins. Other ways to increase endorphins include yoga or meditation, sunlight, and laughter.
Hacking your body’s chemical systems
Did you see a common denominator in how to increase all of these pleasure chemicals? It’s meditation/yoga, which can increase all of them! Based on all of our research, we’ve compiled this handy guide on how to get more pleasure chemicals throughout your day.
- Sleep: Serotonin, Dopamine, GABA
- Exercise: Serotonin, Dopamine, GABA, Endorphins
- Meditation or Yoga: Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, GABA, Endorphins
- Sunlight: Serotonin, Dopamine, GABA, Endorphins
- Touch (Pets, Massage, Cuddle, Sex): Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, GABA
- Speech (Family, Friends, Therapist): Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, Endorphins
Getting more pleasure in your life–especially if you’ve been feeling depressed or agitated lately–is an important part of mental stability. It’s always a good idea to talk to a doctor or therapist if you’ve been feeling down for more than a couple of weeks. Many of the lifestyle changes we’ve suggested above become difficult or impossible without the help of a therapist or medication. However, those lifestyle changes–sleep, exercise, meditation or yoga, sunlight, touch, and talking to your friends, family, or therapist–can be a great supplement to your mental health care routine, and can build habits to keep you more mentally healthy throughout your lifetime.
In fact, given our research, a mindful walk outdoors may be an excellent routine to add to your day; this one just takes ten minutes, though it’s always fine to increase that if you want! Studies suggest that you can get the benefits of meditation from 10-20 minutes of practice per day, so feel free to combine it with a walk on nice days and take it inside for rainy ones.