Eat positive: happy hormones and a fig focaccia recipe

Fig focaccia recipe by Ink SugarSpice

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

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
  • Nuts
  • Chocolate (specifically dark chocolate)
  • Eggs
  • 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.

Links

https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/basics/dopamine

https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/what-dopamine-diet

https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/food-facts-food-and-mood.html

https://www.parkinsons.org.uk/information-and-support/what-causes-parkinsons

https://www.additudemag.com/adhd-neuroscience-101/

Fig focaccia bread recipe by InkSugarSpice

Oxytocin

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!

Links

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5868755/

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-26543427

Current findings on the role of oxytocin in the regulation of food intake – University of Birmingham

Oxytocin, feeding, and satiety – University of Edinburgh

https://www.nct.org.uk/labour-birth/your-guide-labour/hormones-labour-oxytocin-and-others-how-they-work

Serotonin

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:

  • honey
  • chicken and turkey
  • dairy produce
  • mushrooms
  • brassicas and legumes
  • figs, bananas and avocados
  • eggs
  • olives/olive oil
  • leafy green vegetables
  • sunflower and pumpkin seeds
  • nuts

Links

Chichester Wellbeing Weight Loss

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2077351/

Nottingham Trent University student guidance

https://www.pcrm.org/good-nutrition/food-and-mood

Endorphin

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

Links

https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-increase-endorphins

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320839

https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-athletes-way/201709/one-surefire-way-release-endorphins-your-brain

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0196645

Recipe

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!

Fig focaccia

Pleasingly alliterative as well as delicious!

Equipment

  • Large bowl
  • Scales
  • 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)

Method

  • 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
Fig focaccia bread recipe by InkSugarSpice
  • 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

Fig focaccia bread recipe by Ink SugarSpice
  • 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

Fig focaccia bread recipe by Ink SugarSpice

Using analogue, creative hobbies for mental wellbeing – and a HUGE list of hobby ideas

From previous posts in here or comments on my Instagram or Twitter feed you may have come across me owning up (occasionally and discretely) to having been diagnosed with both anxiety and panic disorder. I am also, in general, an advocate for looking after positive mental health and I am a trained mental health first aider.

Key to managing my own stresses are all my hands-on, lo-fi, non digital hobbies. I don’t use any medication for my anxiety (I have tried in the past: it just doesn’t suit me) and apart from the occasional blip, I handle my situation by having these tools to turn to when I need both distraction and mindfulness – and supportive people (this is crucial but I won’t address this here).

Looking after your good mental health with activities isn’t confined to those who have an issue! If you consider that you have great mental health these activities will still bring you benefits.

It’s been well documented that creative outlets are great for good mental health and can even help with much more severe conditions (I’ve tried to find a few reputable sources and I’ve listed these at the bottom of the article). It doesn’t take, or need, a PhD research paper to be able to work this out yourself though.

It’s the full engagement that really helps I think: what has (for the past few years) been described as mindfulness. When I was younger I’d describe it as ‘me getting happily lost’ in what I was doing. The same level of immersion also works with many non-creative activities (even clearing out a cupboard, labelling or vacuuming the car can be engrossing) but I find that creative hobbies provide another positive layer as well as the mindfulness.

However – and it’s a big however – a skill level for being creative is immaterial. You do NOT need to have any kind of ‘gift’ to engage in a creative hobby to benefit from it.

A creative hobby isn’t necessarily art or craft related. Cheese making, gardening, playing a musical instrument, sport and fitness, being a model railway enthusiast or going fishing are all examples. I’ve written a big list of ideas of creative and immersive hobbies below.

Your creativity is just for you, less you choose to share. You don’t need to inform anyone about your hobby nor does anyone need to see you doing it or your end result (unless you want them to). That said, engaging friends or family (your children for instance) in the same activity may help you start something new if you are better in a group environment.

Although this will vary for you, I’ve found my own benefits of engaging in a creative project might be (not all apply, depending on the type of activity):

  • Mindfulness/that sense of being lost in something
  • Peace and tranquillity
  • That total immersion and concentration on one thing
  • An abatement/lessening of symptoms of anxiety or panic
  • That it is a period of time where other external factors are forgotten for a while
  • A sense of completion/achievement/progression
  • A sense that I have made something tangible and lasting
  • The chance to learn and grow
  • The chance to try something new
  • The ability and time to fail and make mistakes (and therefore learn from those mistakes) without anyone needing to criticise you
  • Pride in a job well done, or at least in the learning of something new and overcoming obstacles in its completion
  • Achieving the milestones I’ve set for myself – however small (eg the first time you’ve run continuously for 10 mins, finishing a new hiking route, producing a loaf with an unusual flour, using a new tool etc)
  • An excuse to obtain, make and use nice materials and tools (where finances allow)
  • The tactile nature of physical hobbies – feeling different materials, especially natural ones is a positive experience
  • Getting outdoors
  • Getting away from the digital world for a while
  • Re-engaging with old traditions and skills

I aim to increase the craft and art posts in my website (as well as continuing with the recipes and food-based information) to provide little easy projects. Whatever you try, it doesn’t matter if you are brilliant or dreadful at a thing or anywhere in between. All that matters is the process: the act of creatively completing something. And if you find you don’t enjoy one activity, there will most certainly be something out there that will suit you.

Hands on bread making - here I'm plaiting a boule - Lynn Clark - inksugarspice

My BIG list of ideas for creative hobbies for immersion / mindfulness / to get happily get lost in

(I’ve created three areas that relate to the subject matter of this website: crafts, food and lifestyle, but find what works for you!)

Note: updated March 2020 following the Covid-19 pandemic. All hobbies in BLUE can be done indoors or in your garden/on your balcony (such as birdwatching). Also remember that here in the UK at present you can exercise outside (running, walking, cycling) once a day at the moment if you adhere to the social distancing guidelines. Get supplies online.

Arts and crafts

  • Crochet
  • Sewing
  • Knitting
  • Embroidery
  • Leatherworking
  • Basketry
  • Weaving
  • Spinning wool
  • Tufted rug making
  • Macrame
  • Papier mâché
  • Decoupage
  • Upcycling old furniture/restoration/upholstery
  • Watercolour / gouache
  • Acrylic or oil painting
  • Clay sculpture
  • Pot throwing
  • Lino printing
  • Wood whittling
  • Carving – wood, clay, shop etc
  • Carpentry
  • Model making
  • Origami
  • Illustration
  • Felting
  • Pastel or chalk drawing
  • Calligraphy
  • Quilting
  • Stop motion filming
  • Block printing (fabric or paper)
  • Blacksmithing (you’ll need a course and access to a forge but it is possible!)
  • Silversmithing / metal jewellery making
  • Qulling/paper sculpture
  • Enamelling and resin jewellery making
  • Bead work
  • Miniature model painting
  • Tie dying
  • Making paper
  • Paper marbling (oil paint on water – like on book fly leaves)
  • Pyrography
  • Engraving

Food

  • Bread making
  • Sourdough bread making
  • Pasta
  • Flower sugarcraft / modelling
  • Character sugar craft / modelling
  • Hand painting cakes
  • Preserve making
  • Cheese making
  • Brewing
  • Wine making
  • Fermenting
  • Decorating iced biscuits

Lifestyle

  • Rambling
  • Foraging
  • Wild flower bombing
  • Bird watching
  • Flower identification
  • Flower pressing
  • Gardening
  • Vegetable growing
  • Herb growing
  • Photography
  • Soap making
  • Running/jogging
  • Yoga
  • Pilates
  • Tai Chi
  • Juggling
  • Keepy-uppy / hackysack football skills
  • Dancing lessons / sessions
  • Flower arranging
  • Singing – along or a group (choir / rock choir)
  • Bonsai
  • Creative writing
  • Blog writing
  • Poetry
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Astronomy
  • Model planes/boats/cars
  • Jigsaw puzzles
  • Scrapbooking and journalling
  • Fishing
  • Geo caching (including setting up geo caches for others)
  • Geneaology / family tree tracing
  • Collecting
  • Bee keeping

Psychology papers and academic articles

Psychology Today (online) article “Recent Art Therapy Research: Measuring Mood, Pain and BrainPsychology” written by Cathy Malchiodi PhD, LPCC, LPAT, ATR-BC, REAT. Looks at two studies:

  • Art therapy improves mood, and reduces pain and anxiety when offered at bedside during acute hospital treatment (Shella, 2017) focuses on the role of art therapy in possible improvement of mood and reduction of pain perception in patients hospitalized for medical conditions;
  • Cortical Activity Changes after Art Making and Rote Motor Movement as Measured by EEG: A Preliminary Study (King et al, 2017) uses a common neurological instrument to compare cortical activity after art making with rote motor movements.

Frontiers in Psychology (online) paper “Creative Arts Interventions to Address Depression in Older Adults: A Systematic Review of Outcomes, Processes, and Mechanisms” by Kim Dunphy,  Felicity A. Baker, Ella Dumaresq, Katrina Carroll-Haskins,  Jasmin Eickholt,  Maya Ercole, Girija Kaimal, Kirsten Meyer, Nisha Sajnani, Opher Y. Shamir and Thomas Wosch (see article for author details).

The Health Benefits of Knitting – by Knit for Peace (findings by Harvard Medical School)

Other resources of interest

TED talks ideas website on “Why grown-ups love [sic] coloring books tooExcert: Just what is the adult coloring book craze all about, anyhow? Anyone who has appreciated a meditative mental drift while knitting or mowing a lawn knows that there is something calming about engaging in a familiar, low-impact activity that requires minimal thought and bestows a clear sense of progress.

Hobbycraft blog on ‘How to practice mindfulness through craft‘ written by Sandra Owen, a Creative Teacher and Grief Recovery Method Specialist.

Huff Post article (2014) on ‘How baking could help stressed Brits access mindfulness and relieve anxiety’

University of East Anglia: How singing your heart out could make you happier Researchers examined the benefits of singing among people with mental health conditions including anxiety and depression. They found that people who took part in a community singing group maintained or improved their mental health. And that the combination of singing and socialising was an essential part of recovery because it promoted an ongoing feeling of belonging and wellbeing.

Mental Health First Aid England

I’ve been trained as a Mental Health First Aider – please follow the link below if you’d like to know more about this, to train yourself or encourage your workplace to investigate supporting this.

Find out more about Mental Health First Aid England

No Panic – registered UK charity which helps people (or those they care for) suffering from panic attacks

I’d love to know what works for you… especially if you have any additions for the three lists above under arts/crafts, food and lifestyle headings that I could include or additional online resources.

Hugs 💚