Two years ago (two years!! Blimey) I looked at analogue hobbies, that was all about putting down your device and doing something mindful and encompassing.
Lately, I’ve been reading extensively into the four ‘happy hormones’. These chemicals are neurotransmitters; chemicals that transmit messages from a neuron (typically but not always) across the brain to a target cell and directly affect our mood in a positive way. Conversely, a lull in the availability of these neurotransmitters can have detrimental effects on us. Although there are also some instances where an excess can be problematic too, in general it’s great for positive mental health to look to ‘activate’ or increase these four neurotransmitters.
These four are:
- the “feel good” or “runner’s high” hormone: dopamine;
- the “love” hormone: oxytocin;
- the “happy” hormone: serotonin, and;
- the “pain relief” hormone: endorphin
Of course I’m no expert whatsoever, but this is what I’ve gathered together on food/eating and “happy hormones”. At the end of this article I’ve included a recipe for a focaccia which includes many ingredients experts have identified as promoting or producing one or other of these hormones.
It is possible to identify activities, foods and more that encourage the production of these neurotransmitter chemicals. This can help us better understand what makes us happy, contented, relaxed and help us promote those positive feelings.
After each round of up the hormones, I’ve given links to more scholarly and in-depth articles so you can research more and read advice from experts.
Dopamine is produced in situations where we’ve rewarded ourselves, it makes us feel great and contented and is there in evolutionary terms to help us to repeat activities that are safe and enjoyable (and therefore stay away from things that would imply danger).
Dopamine triggers in circumstances such as being told we’ve been praised but interestingly also when we praise others. So, start spreading the joy and pass on a nice, genuine compliment (hopefully karma will ensure you receive similar in return). We feel dopamine’s effects when we indulge ourselves in some self care or ‘me time’ or treat ourselves with food. Listening to our favourite music or participating in a celebration of some sort also raises your dopamine levels. In short, it’s a chemical pat on the back.
No foods actually have dopamine, but foods do look for foods that are rich in an amino acid called l-tyrosine, which is crucial to the body’s functions that produce dopamine. Foods rich in l-tyrosine include:
- Unprocessed meats and fish
- Dairy foods
- Chocolate (specifically dark chocolate)
- Peas, beans and pulses of all kinds
- Dark green vegetables (particularly the leafy ones)
Studies show that low dopamine may be associated with addiction, perhaps because the individual is always chasing that great feeling. Dopamine is also beginning to be linked with ADHD and Parkinson’s disease.
Oxytocin is often described as the ‘love hormone’ as our bodies release it when we have those intimate, compassionate or empathetic moments. Although it is released during sex, it’s not all about that – think of the good feelings you get when spending time with your pet, bonding with your children (including apparently during childbirth to facilitate bonding and it also is brings on contractions), hugging a friend a walk in an oak forest on a sunny day. They’re all instances when oxytocin is released and you feel that rush of warmth and contentment.
There have been recent studies to research whether oxytocin can help those with anorexia and eating disorders/body dysmorphia and that it may help those with an autism spectrum disorder to overcome social anxiety.
No foods directly contribute to the production and release of oxytocin, however there is a food link: oxytocin can be produced when preparing food together, eating a family meal, going somewhere romantic to eat, sharing food and meals with children and enjoying a glass of something with your loved ones. All these situations help release oxytocin. So, if oxytocin be the food of love, play on!
The mood stabilising or ‘happy hormone’. The relationship we have with the production of serotonin is mood regulation (including lowering anxiety), keeping to balanced sleeping patterns and feeling that sense of happiness.
You can easily boost your own serotonin levels but spending some time (safely) in the sun, getting some exercise, being meditative or, similar to oxytocin, getting our into nature and really appreciating it.
You can’t actually eat foods that directly affect serotonin levels but do find foods that are rich in the amino acid tryptophan, which has a direct correlation to oxytocin production (similar to the dopamine-L-tyrosine relationship).
Foods rich in tryptophan include:
- chicken and turkey
- dairy produce
- brassicas and legumes
- figs, bananas and avocados
- olives/olive oil
- leafy green vegetables
- sunflower and pumpkin seeds
This is the one that can have a euphoric effect, despite being only nicknamed the pain relief hormone.
Do you experience ASMR? Auto Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is a very pleasing tingling effect starting on your scalp and moving down your neck, shoulders and into your back when one or more of your senses is triggered. Scientists are tentatively beginning to link the release of endorphins as a cause of these pleasant sensations in individuals (not everyone experiences ASMR).
Even if you don’t get ASMR, an increase in endorphin levels will make anyone feel great. It’s believed that they are the body’s response to help you manage pain and as a reward system when you do something good. Evolutionarily speaking, it soothes when times are difficult or stressful and encourages you to repeat positive experiences by linking them to a natural high.
Simple things can boost endorphin levels from having a good laugh, indulging in your favourites scents and smells, exercise and being kind to others (what a fabulous way! That’s a win:win situation) .
Foods that encourage the release of endorphins:
- Chocolate – the darker the better
- Wine, specifically red wine
- Spicy foods
Taking in to consideration as much of the above as possible, I’ve come up with a little recipe incorporating happy hormone encouraging ingredients. I hope you enjoy: on many levels!
Pleasingly alliterative as well as delicious!
- Large bowl
- Sharp knife
- Baking tray
- Rolling pin
- Clean tea towel/cling film/food safe bag for proofing time
Ingredients – dough
- 300g strong white bread flour
- 200ml water
- 1 teaspoon of dried yeast
- 15ml of a good extra virgin olive oil (plus extra for drizzling and preparation)
- 8g fine salt
- 20g of seeds (such as sesame, linseeds, pumpkin etc)
Ingredients – topping
- 2 figs
- 1 tablespoon of pine nuts
- 6-8 walnut halves
- 1- 2 tablespoons of fresh herbs, such as oregano, marjoram and rosemary (these are the three herbs I used)
- 1-2 tablespoons honey
- Semolina, chickpea or other coarse flour for dusting (if you don’t have any of these extra bread flour can be used)
- Mix the ingredients for the dough (flour, water, yeast, oil, salt and seeds) in the large bowl until it’s a rough mix. Leave for 10 minutes
- Tip out on to a floured surface and knead for 8-10 minutes until the dough is glossy and smooth
- Oil the bowl and place the dough back in. Cover the bowl and leave for about 50-60 minutes for its first proof
- Dust the baking tray thoroughly and have close to hand
- On a surface dusted with the semolina (or whatever you’ve got instead), tip out the dough and knock it back (that is press down with your fingers to burst the larger air bubbles)
- Press out the dough with your hands or a dusted rolling pin into an oblong shape. The dough should be quite thin: no more than 1cm / less than 1/2 inch high
- Carefully transfer to the baking tray
- Slice the figs into four (at least) and place on the dough
- Cover the dough and leave to proof a second time, for about 30 minutes
- Warm your oven to 110C (fan) or 120C (conventional/non-fan)
- Uncover the focaccia and place the walnuts on, sprinkle over the soft leave herbs (marjoram and oregano) and drizzle over the honey and then the olive oil
- Once the oven is up to temperature, place the focaccia in and bake for 20 minutes
- After 20 minutes, retrieve the focaccia and sprinkle on the pine nuts and rosemary leaves
- Place back in the oven for another 5 minutes (if your focaccia already looks done, turn off your oven when putting the focaccia back in for the last five minutes)
To maximise the happy hormones, serve with a leafy green salad