By Carissa Weber
I’ve had a lot of requests since I put out Neurotransmitters: The Language of the Brain to make a post about ways to naturally release serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin (better known as the “feel good” neurotransmitters). I love all the requests and that people want to learn more about how to improve their brain health! I decided to write a short post (okay, shorter than some) about things you can do to release more of these feel good neurotransmitters and start feeling better!
I’m going to start us off by talking about serotonin. Serotonin is one of the most memorable neurotransmitters. If you recall, serotonin is produced in our digestive tract from the amino acid, tryptophan. Foods rich in tryptophan can help naturally increase serotonin production. If you mix these tryptophan-rich foods with complex carbohydrates (like sweet potatoes for example), your body will process it more effectively, meaning more tryptophan will turn into serotonin!
But what good is a healthy diet if your gut is having issues? It is no secret if you struggle with stress, anxiety, and/or depression, you are no stranger to stomach issues. Harvard Medical School recently did a study that showed if you add a probiotic to your diet, it can help aid in the health of your gut. What does that mean for serotonin production? It improves!
Another way to improve serotonin production is by exercising. Before you say “I don’t have the time” or “I don’t have the energy,” hear me out. By increasing your heart rate to 120 beats per minute, 15 minutes a day, you increase tryptophan release into your blood stream. This means there is more tryptophan for serotonin production! These activities don’t need to be balls-to-the-wall crazy. Going for a short walk on your lunch break, taking a bike ride with the kids, or even a bowling game with friends is enough to help: socialize (which releases oxytocin), decrease pain levels (thank you to endorphins), and make you feel good (shout out to dopamine for doing that!).
Another way to increase natural serotonin is by imagining happy things. Better known as mood induction in the therapy world, taking time during your day to visualize something that makes you feel happy (like coming home to dinner being made and the kitchen being clean), a positive interaction with someone, or even reading a feel-good news story, can assist in the production and reuptake of serotonin.
There are supplements that you can take that also assist in serotonin production. I will not go into these supplements as many are not FDA approved and could have some not-so-nice side effects (and other medication interactions). It is best to talk to your doctor about natural supplements that could best help you with serotonin production.
On to dopamine! If you recall, dopamine is released when we experience something pleasurable or when we need that extra reward for our hard work. It isn’t too different from serotonin, but with it being produced directly in the brain, there are different techniques to help naturally release it.
When it comes to dietary needs and dopamine release, high protein sources are where it’s at. If you look at the list above, you will see a lot of foods that are rich in protein. The other dietary tricks for releasing dopamine is reducing how much saturated fats you eat. Foods like butter, bacon, sausage, and delicious chocolate cakes, all have high saturated fats. It is really tough to cut them out when our stressed-out body is screaming “let me eat the double bacon cheeseburger for God sake!” Although it will help us feel good in the moment, that increase in saturated fats decreases the production of dopamine. Who knew?!
We know that when we exercise dopamine is released. But did you know that getting enough sleep also helps with dopamine production? It is no secret that humans today are quite sleep deprived. When we are sleep deprived, the receptors that take up dopamine shrink. Why is that? Because our energy is going into the release of stress neurotransmitters to keep us functioning. Getting your beauty sleep will improve dopamine’s ability to be released (and help you be bright-eyed and bushy tailed in the morning when you do wake up).
There are some other physical activities that increase dopamine production. One of them is listening to music. Science is shown that listening to music increases the production of dopamine by 9%. 9% is huge when you think about not being able to experience the joys of dopamine! This same number holds true for when you practice meditation. With practicing meditation (whether you are taking time to do it or are just repeating the mantra “I love my kids, I love my kids” after discovering they found your secret stash of chocolate) you can increase dopamine production by over 64%! Keep in mind, these numbers go up when you actively practice consistent meditation and listening to music.
One activity that releases multiple feel good neurotransmitters is being outside in natural light. Spending 10 minutes in natural sunlight naturally lifts our mood by increasing the digestion of tryptophan, increasing dopamine production, and releasing endorphins. If you live in a place where sunshine is not readily available, or weather changes frequently (or you have long Wisconsin winters), investing in a day lamp provides the same effect. Before you get a light therapy lamp, please be aware that the exposure to the lamp is like exposure to the sun. If you are someone who has sun sensitivity or burns easily (like myself), you may want to gradually expose yourself to the light and not start with 10 minutes right away.
Endorphins are that awesome neurotransmitter that is released right before dopamine is released. They are super special because endorphins naturally lowers our stress and pain levels, heighten our feelings of pleasure, and reinforce the behaviors that give us pleasure.
When it comes to naturally releasing endorphins, there are several ways to accomplish that task. Just like serotonin and dopamine, there are dietary ways to increase endorphins. One of the best ways (in my eyes) is by eating dark chocolate. No lie, the amount of cocoa in the chocolate you eat releases different levels of endorphins. If you are not a chocolate fan, you can eat your favorite food. The pleasure of eating your favorite food will release endorphins into your brain and makes your darn amygdala smile. Science is still on the fence, but it is said that an 8 ounce glass of red wine also assists in releasing endorphins into the brain.
Exercise is another activity that transcends the feel good neurotransmitters. With endorphins, a study conducted by the University of Turku and Turku University Hospital in Finland showed a hour of moderate-intensity exercise (so elevating your heart rate for a hour) increased endorphin rate by almost 19%! Even if you exercise for 30 minutes a day, you are still going to release more endorphins than if you just sat around. All of this could explain why athletes are so darn happy once they are done with their workouts.
One exercise that should get mentioned is sex. You got it, the horizontal hokey pokey! Do you ever wonder why orgasms feel so good? Have you notice how the act of coitus allows you to forget all about your troubles? Did you forget all about that arthritic knee? That is all because endorphins team up with oxytocin to push us into that euphoria of release. Sex (and masturbation) are a great way to let the endorphins fly, control your pain, and allow yourself to be comfortable in your own skin for a while.
Along similar lines, a massage lends itself to an endorphin release, as well as the release of the other feel good neurotransmitters. The muscle manipulation involved in massage (by a professional, a friend, or your significant other) relaxes tension, increases blood flow, and just feels good. Add your favorite essential oil scents to that massage for a greater impact on your endorphin release.
One final way to naturally release endorphins is to take time to laugh. 15 minutes of laughing each day will help dump endorphins into that darn amygdala and relax it. The chuckle you have also allows you to focus on positive things from your day, which increases the communication and connection between your prefrontal cortex and that darn amygdala will ensure the feel good neurotransmitters keep flowing.
“You know, there’s endorphins in laughter, as there are endorphins in running in the park.”
~ Marlo Thomas
We finally made it to oxytocin! Personally, this is my favorite neurotransmitter as it is responsible for us connecting to other humans, enjoying a good cuddle, and wanting intimacy in our relationships. Just because it is responsible for these things, doesn’t mean these connections are the only way to release oxytocin.
A study done in 2013 showed that oxytocin is release while participating in yoga for one month (Jayaram et. al., 2013). With each day practiced, the higher the oxytocin release. For those of us you cannot keep up with that moderate-intensity exercise, yoga (and meditation) can be a safe alternative to help boost those feel good neurotransmitters.
Another way to help release oxytocin is to spend time with your fury friends. Have you noticed after a tough day at work or school you feel better after petting your cat or dog? Petting or touching your pet for five minutes (that’s right, 5 minutes) will release oxytocin into our brain. That bond we have created with them really does help us feel better!
One thing that releases both oxytocin and endorphins that is often overlooked is doing an act of kindness. By caring for another person, our brain rewards us by giving us a heaping dump of endorphins and oxytocin into our limbic system and says “job well done!” This act of kindness can be simple and small (like making dinner for your parents or shoveling the sidewalk for a neighbor). This is why when people buy your morning coffee you are more likely to pay for the person behind you: it actually feels good!
This leads into looking at reaching out to people you care about and actually doing stuff with them. Rekindling that bond with someone special, like a friend or parent, gives your brain a chance to release even more oxytocin.
Now, this is not an all-encompassing list of things that increase all your feel-good neurotransmitters, but it is a start. By using some of these activities (and giving yourself time to reflect on how they make you feel), you can slowly help your brain feel better and heal some of the damage that stress does to it. Not to mention, taking part these fun activities will also help boost self-confidence and esteem (which is a natural anxiety and depression fighter).
Thank you so much for taking time to invest into your mental health and improve your overall health. It is such a journey to take, mental health. It is amazing to see people take this information and put it into practice. I hope you take time to leave a comment below on which one of these activities you have done and how it made you feel. Please feel free to follow me on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram for reminders throughout the week to take time to keep your brain moving towards health.
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- Harvard Health Publishing (2019). Probiotics may help boost mood and cognitive function. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/probiotics-may-help-boost-mood-and-cognitive-function
- Jayaram, N., Varambally, S., Behere, R. V., Venkatasubramanian, G., Arasappa, R., Christopher, R., & Gangadhar, B. N. (2013). Effect of yoga therapy on plasma oxytocin and facial emotion recognition deficits in patients of schizophrenia. Indian journal of psychiatry, 55(Suppl 3), S409–S413. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.116318. Retrieved from Effect of yoga therapy on plasma oxytocin and facial emotion recognition deficits in patients of schizophrenia (nih.gov)
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- Raypole, Crystal (2019). 6 Ways to Boost Serotonin Without Medication. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-increase-serotonin
- Raypole, Crystal (2020). 12 Ways to Increase Oxytocin. Retrieved from 12 Ways to Boost Oxytocin Naturally (healthline.com)
- Raypole, Crystal (2019). 13 Ways to Increase Endorphins. Retrieved from How to Increase Endorphins: 13 Tips (healthline.com)
- Salimpoor VN, Benovoy M, Larcher K, Dagher A, Zatorre RJ. Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nat Neurosci. 2011 Feb;14(2):257-62. doi: 10.1038/nn.2726. Epub 2011 Jan 9. PMID: 21217764. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21217764/
- Saanijoki, T., Tuominen, L., Tuulari, J. et al. Opioid Release after High-Intensity Interval Training in Healthy Human Subjects. Neuropsychopharmacol. 43, 246–254 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/npp.2017.148. Retrieved from Opioid Release after High-Intensity Interval Training in Healthy Human Subjects | Neuropsychopharmacology (nature.com)
- Volkrow, et. al (2012). Evidence That Sleep Deprivation Downregulates Dopamine D2R in Ventral Striatum in the Human Brain. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3433285/
- Whitbread, Daisy (2021). Top 10 Foods Highest in Tryptophan. Retrieved from https://www.myfooddata.com/articles/high-tryptophan-foods.php
- Carissa Weber at www.thatdarnamygdala.com
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