The power our mental health has over our physical and spiritual health is immense, and nourishing and keeping it in check is essential. With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, let’s highlight some of the hormones, like cortisol, our body produces that affect our mood and how to maintain – and boost – production.
Serotonin is technically a neurotransmitter that acts as a hormone in our bodies. Functionally as a neurotransmitter, serotonin carries messages between the nerve cells in our brain throughout our body, thus telling our body how it should work.
In our bodies, a majority of our serotonin is found within our gut. About 90% of the hormone is found in the cells that line our gastrointestinal tract, thus releasing them into our bloodstream to be absorbed by platelets. However, because serotonin is made from the essential amino acid tryptophan, it cannot be made by your body and has to be obtained from the foods we consume. This leaves only around 10% of serotonin production up to our brain.
Just a handful of the roles serotonin plays in our body include helping with our happiness, learning, and memory and affecting bodily functions and feelings, including regulating our body temperature, hunger, and sleep. Serotonin in our brains helps regulate our mood; when at a normal level, we often feel focused, happier, and stable. Naturally, because most serotonin is located in our gut, it can also aid digestion by controlling our bowel function and protecting the gut. It may also benefit bone health, managing nausea, and wound healing.
When we don’t have enough serotonin — which can be caused by a lack of hormone production or its effective use — we may experience mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, or mania. It’s also common to experience sleep problems as well. To boost the production of serotonin, it’s important to get more sunlight, exercise to minimize stress levels, and eat foods that contain tryptophan. These foods range from cheese, egg whites, milk, peanuts, pumpkin, sunflower, sesame seeds, and soybeans to chicken, fish, and turkey.
Dopamine is another type of neurotransmitter that acts as a hormone. Created in our brain, it is a chemical messenger that works as a “reward center” throughout several bodily functions, including attention, memory, mood, movement, and motivation. Dopamine is created by our adrenal gland — located atop our kidneys — and is released by the hypothalamus — the “coordinating center — in the brain.
We may know dopamine best as helping us feel pleasure — whether from shopping or sex — in what we call a “dopamine rush.” While it affects our mood, it also plays a role in maintaining our heart rate, kidney function, pain processing, and sleep.
Though high levels of dopamine may have us feeling energized and euphoric, too high levels can also cause us to struggle with aggression and impulse control and cause problems with sleeping. On the opposite end of the spectrum, low dopamine levels may make us tired, unhappy, and unmotivated and cause concentration problems, mood swings, and memory loss. Low dopamine levels are also associated with several disorders, including ADHD, Parkinson’s, and restless leg syndrome.
To maintain a healthy level of dopamine in the body, we should ensure we’re eating a diet that contains the non-essential amino acid tyrosine, which helps with the production of neurotransmitters, including dopamine. These foods include avocados, bananas, cheese, milk, pumpkin and sesame seeds, soy, yogurt, chicken, and other poultry.
Endorphins are another hormone our body produces that can help improve or stabilize our moods, generally seen as a “feel good” hormone. They are created in our brain in our pituitary gland — an endocrine also known as the hypophysis — and the hypothalamus. Endorphins act as a messenger and are released when we feel pain or stress to help reduce the side-effects of those experiences.
Our bodies release endorphins as a means of survival. When our body reacts to pain and stress, it releases the hormone to block the nerve cells that receive the pain signals, allowing us to persevere through these types of situations. Thus, endorphins can ease feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress, can help improve our self-image and aid in weight loss. Endorphins aren’t just released when we experience pain or stress either — they also release during exercise, massage, and even sex.
Without endorphins, we can experience addiction, chronic headaches or migraines, depression, fibromyalgia, other mood disorders, PTSD, and sleep issues. There are several means of boosting endorphins in the body, including acupuncture, eating (especially dark chocolate), exercise, giving back, laughing, listening to music, meditation, sex, and yoga.