There is, quite literally, no other way I could start this story than with a quote from the classic film Legally Blonde (you know where I'm going with this): "Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy."
But endorphins aren't the only hormone that can give your mood a boost—oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine all play an important role in regulating your mood as well. So if you're feeling a bit meh lately (hey, the news cycle is consistently pretty grim), you might consider hacking your system by way of your "happiness hormones." It won't make those news alerts any less terrifying, but it will help your body be able to cope with them better—and also help you generally feel happier and more fulfilled.
We'll get into specifics in a moment, but one general, major way you can boost all your happiness hormones is to improve your gut microbiome. "Hormones are synthesized, inhibited, and regulated by your gut microbiome," explains Callie Exas, MPH, MS, RDN, of The Wellthy Plate. "If your microbiome is off balance, your ability to regulate and produce these happiness hormones will be impacted." She recommends eating a diet full of healthy fiber and fermented foods and supplementing your diet with prebiotics ("like Miracle-Gro for your microbiome," she calls them) and probiotics to ensure your gut is full of good bacteria. "When your microbiome is happy, it will absorb nutrients more efficiently in order to make your happiness hormones and communicate effectively with your brain to regulate your body's hormone function," she explains.
After you look to your gut, there are specific ways you can boost each of these happiness hormones. Keep reading to see what they are.
What it is: Oxytocin is colloquially known as the love hormone. "Oxytocin is a very powerful hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain and regulates social interaction and sexual reproduction," explains Bryan Bruno, medical director at Mid City TMS. Basically, it's the happiness hormone that helps you bond with other people.
How to recharge it: "Have more sex!" NYC-based holistic health and wellness specialist Natalya Fazylova says. "Oxytocin and endorphins released during sex have a great effect on decreasing your stress levels. This feel-good hormone affects pleasure centers in your brain and helps you to relax and calm your mind," she explains. It can also help you relax and sleep better, she tells us, thanks to the combo of oxytocin and prolactin that are released.
What it is: "Serotonin is a chemical brain cells produce that regulates mood, appetite, and sex drive," Bruno explains.
Also interesting to note, "90% of it is made in the gut by bacteria by specific cells called enterochromaffin cells. These cells interact with specific a handful of gut bacteria types to make serotonin," Exas explains. "In a nutshell, the gut bacteria make 'food' for the enterochromaffin cells, which helps them up-regulate serotonin production." Ah, the wonders of the human body.
How to recharge it: There is a "direct relationship between serotonin levels and some of the symptoms of PMS, including mood swings, food cravings, depression, and anxiety," Fazylova says.
So one of the major ways you can recharge your serotonin is by monitoring your PMS symptoms. "Nutritional supplements such as vitamin B6, calcium, vitamin D, and magnesium have been shown to decrease symptoms of PMS," she explains. "Some studies suggest that these chemicals are paramount for the proper production of brain neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine."
You can also eat more tryptophan-containing foods, like dairy, poultry, fish, eggs, soy, nuts, and seeds, Bruno says. Exercising and getting out in the sun (with proper SPF, obviously) are two other ways to boost your serotonin.
What they are: "Endorphins are hormones that interact with receptors in your brain to reduce the perception of pain, along with triggering a positive, euphoric feeling in the body," Bruno says. They're responsible for that rush you get after exercising.
How to recharge them: Hey, cool—having more sex also applies to boosting your endorphins, as they are released along with oxytocin during sex. Other methods for boosting your endorphins are exercise, laughter, and aromatherapy, says Bruno.
What it is: "Dopamine regulates mood and sleep but also plays a key role in energy, focus, memory, and pleasure," Bruno explains.
How to recharge it: Fazylova says one of the main ways to increase your dopamine is to decrease stress (admittedly, this is easier said than done). "Every negative thought, belief, and feeling forces your body to release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones switch your body's mechanism to fight/flight mode while simultaneously shutting down your body's self-repair mode," she explains.
However, when you think positive thoughts and laugh, your body will actually release more dopamine. "We can fuel our dopamine levels by increasing protein intake as well as eating more dark, leafy greens," Bruno adds. Studies have also suggested that supplementing with mucuna pruriens (aka velvet beans) can help increase dopamine levels.