Your brain is essentially a factory that constantly manufactures neurotransmitters—chemicals responsible for passing signals between neurons, impacting mood, perception, outlook and how you experience happiness. Four feel-good brain chemicals, what they do, and science-backed ways to make more of them.
1. Serotonin. Associated with happiness, positive emotions and a sense of well-being, serotonin also plays a key role in social status, pride, accomplishment and recognition from others. How to make more:
• Have a turkey sandwich. Lean protein is crucial for serotonin production; turkey is especially rich in tryptophan, required for serotonin synthesis, and studies show high-tryptophan foods measurably increase levels. For vegans: soybeans, walnuts and pumpkin seeds are excellent plant sources.
• Baby your belly. Nearly 95 percent of the body’s serotonin is made in the intestines, and research links disturbances in gut bacteria with lower serotonin levels and a greater risk of mood disorders. Baby your belly and promote a balanced microbiome with probiotic-rich foods (yogurt, kimchi, tempeh, kefir), or take a quality probiotic supplement.
• Sprinkle on saffron. It’s high in compounds that interact with the brain’s serotonin system, and in studies, saffron significantly reduced depression—in some cases, almost as well as prescription anti-depressants. Add it to foods, drink saffron tea, or take a concentrated supplement.
• Tame tension. Stress sucks the joy out of life, and research links chronic anxiety with lower levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters. Play calming music, get a massage or meditate—it’s been shown to significantly increase serotonin, as well as other feel-good brain chemicals.
2. Endorphins. Triggered by enjoyable activities (like a “runner’s high”), endorphins are associated with feelings of pleasure, gratification, even euphoria. They’re also released in response to physical discomfort; it’s thought the sense of bliss prompted by endorphins helps mask pain. How to make more:
• Hike with friends. Physical movement encourages endorphins, and it’s even better with company; studies suggest group exercise promotes more endorphins than solitary pursuits. Being outside maximizes the effect; exposure to sunlight amps up production of endorphins, plus serotonin. Shoot for a lengthy walkabout; sustained movement leads to more endorphins than short bursts of activity.
• Take a cold shower. Icy water activates the sympathetic nervous system, triggering the body’s fight-or-flight response, and the shock of cold water prompts a surge of endorphins; in one study, a five-minute cold shower boosted mood and significantly improved symptoms of depression. If that’s just too much, plunging your hands in icy-cold water leads to similar results.
• Have a bowl of spicy curry. Hot peppers contain capsaicin, a compound that stimulates endorphins; it’s thought that the burning sensation urges the brain to release those pain-blocking chemicals. And turmeric, the primary spice in curry, is rich in curcumin, shown to elevate dopamine levels.
• Go to a comedy club. Raucous laughter eases tension and encourages a cheery outlook, in part by increasing dopamine. It’s better if you go with a group of friends; studies suggest social, rather than solo, laughter was most effective in promoting dopamine release.
3. Dopamine. Associated with pleasure-seeking behaviors, motivation and feelings of reward and satisfaction, dopamine is triggered during (or even in anticipation of) enjoyable activities, or upon the successful completion of a task. How to make more:
• Trim the fat. Research suggests saturated fats disrupt dopamine signaling in the reward regions of the brain, and high intake of animal fat is linked with a greater risk of mood disorders and cognitive impairment. Monounsaturated fats (olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds) support more balanced production of neurotransmitters, including dopamine
• Start (and finish) a new project. Studies show new or novel activities (studying a language, taking a painting class, learning to play an instrument) provoke chemical changes in the brain, enhance dopamine. But it’s important to finish; completing tasks triggers feelings of reward that stimulate dopamine, so embark on something manageable.
• Have a cup of tea. Both green and black tea are rich in L-theanine, a soothing compound that eases stress by impacting neurotransmitters; research links L-theanine with elevated levels of dopamine (plus serotonin), and fewer “excitatory” brain chemicals associated with tension and anxiety.
• Adapt, with herbs. Traditional adaptogenic herbs support the body’s own systems to reach a state of balance and equanimity. Three proven to influence dopamine production, tame tension and promote pleasure: rhodiola rosea, ashwagandha and mucuna pruriens—high in a compound called L-dopa, a precursor to dopamine.
4. Oxytocin. Associated with physical affection and bonding, oxytocin inspires feelings of calm, connection, trust, safety and love. It’s key in relationships, and in the bond between mother and child. How to make more:
• Cuddle with a dog. Playing with pets elevates well-being, and cuddling with a dog measurably increases oxytocin levels; the effect is similar with cats. If you don’t have a pet, take a neighbor’s pooch for a walk, or visit a dog park; some studies suggest even seeing a dog prompts the release of oxytocin.
• Start a dinner club. Being with friends boosts happy brain chemicals, and studies link positive social stimulation with higher levels of oxytocin and improved mood. Plus, pleasurable experiences with food further enhance its release. Make it a potluck; the act of sharing amps up oxytocin for both giver and receiver.
• Schedule a massage. Relaxing bodywork eases tension and encourages tranquility, and research shows massage significantly increases oxytocin production (as well as other feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine). Even better if you get a massage from a partner or devoted friend; trust and familiarity enhance oxytocin.
• Fall in love. Physical affection and emotional connection prompt the release of oxytocin; the results are amplified when you’re in love. Intimacy (kissing, snuggling, having sex) triggers higher levels of oxytocin, and orgasm promotes dopamine. If you’re not in a romantic relationship, hug friends; any kind of trusting contact supports oxytocin.