Can you imagine your life without emotional peaks and valleys? Sounds impossible, right? What’s possible is to increase your emotional control through enduring changes in lifestyle.
When you wake up relaxed and energized from a good night’s sleep, ready to take on the day – that’s serotonin kicking in.
When you feel depressed, overwhelmed by your daily responsibilities and challenges, you may have a deficit of serotonin.
What is serotonin?
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that carries messages between neurons. It plays an important role in regulating your mood, controlling your appetite, helping your blood clot, helping you concentrate, regulating your body temperature, and ensuring a good night’s sleep. As a result, when we have normal levels of serotonin, we feel emotionally balanced and alert.
On the other hand, if we have low levels of serotonin, we may have trouble remembering things, feel depressed, crave sweet or starchy foods, feel anxious or irritable, have trouble sleeping or have feelings of low self-worth.
What is the link between serotonin and depression?
Researchers have linked low levels of serotonin in the brain with depression. Back in the 1960s, researchers hypothesized that low levels of serotonin in the brain led to depression. However, this hypothesis has now been debunked.
Instead, it appears that several other factors are also involved in depression. These include:
- Having a family history of depression
- Having a hectic lifestyle and having a high level of stress in your life
- Your relationships at home and in the workplace
Nevertheless, if you have low levels of serotonin, you may be at increased risk of depression. This is where SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) may be helpful. SSRIs are medications which increase the uptake of serotonin in your brain.
Too much of a good thing is bad for us though. Serotonin syndrome is a potentially life-threatening condition that can occur if you take too much of an SSRI or if you take many SSRIs at the same time.
If you are looking to recharge your batteries, and need a little extra boost, here are 4 simple ways to naturally boost your serotonin levels:
Bask in bright light
When you go outside for a stretch or even just to gaze at nature, you may have noticed that you tend to come back recharged and better able to concentrate. This is because our brains produce more serotonin when we spend time in bright sunlight.
Is it cloudy outside? Still head outdoors! Even on a cloudy day, the light intensity is still typically brighter than your typical indoor lighting. Alternatively, invest in a high-intensity luxe lamp that simulates bright sunlight.
Eat a healthy diet
Adding more fruits, vegetables and legumes can contribute to a healthy gut. But did you know that having a healthy gut can also boost your serotonin levels?
More than 90% of our serotonin is produced in our digestive tract. Thus, by eating fiber-rich foods which promote gut health such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes we are naturally boosting our serotonin levels.
Foods that are high in tryptophan can also boost your serotonin levels. This is because tryptophan is converted to serotonin in your brain. What foods tend to be high in tryptophan? Protein containing foods such as nuts, lentils, tofu, chicken, fish and eggs.
However, boosting your serotonin levels is not as simple as incorporating protein-rich foods. This is because tryptophan has to compete with other amino acids, in particular the branched chain amino acids for access to our blood-brain barrier, before it can be converted to serotonin in our brain.
How can one overcome this obstacle? Eat more plant-based proteins such as seeds and nuts. Plant-based proteins contain less branched chain amino acids, hence they are better absorbed through the blood brain barrier.
Engage in regular exercise
It can be hard to get into exercise mode, particularly if you are down in the dumps. Everything seems like a struggle, particularly working up the motivation to break a sweat. When we exercise, both aerobic and strength, the activity of serotonin in the brain is revved up and the levels of tryptophan in our brain rise.
If fitting exercise into your daily routine seems too difficult, begin with baby steps. Commit to just 5 minutes of a vibrant walk a day for one week. Then the next week, increase it to 10 minutes. Before you know it, you will have built up to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day, and reap not only increased serotonin levels but numerous health benefits as well.
Be mindful of your thoughts
Just like the saying goes “You are what you eat”, you also become what you think! In a study conducted on healthy participants, those who were told to recall happy memories showed increased serotonin production in their brains. On the other hand, those who were told to recall sad memories showed decreased serotonin production in their brains.
It can be very tempting to ruminate on sad events when we are suffering from depression. But by finding happy things to focus on, we may be able to achieve a happier state of mind.
To think happy thoughts, begin a gratitude journal, practice mindfulness, focus on your strengths rather than your perceived weaknesses, and reminisce about the good times in your life.
Life has its ups and downs. By naturally boosting your serotonin levels, you will be able to experience more “highs” than “lows”. Start right now on the path to feeling happier, more alert, and refreshed every day.
We may not even realize it, but dopamine rules the roost when it comes to our sense of wellbeing. How is one neurotransmitter so crucial to the feeling of joy?
When you first wake up in the morning, and you smell that fresh pot of coffee brewing, you probably feel excitement. This anticipation is dopamine.
If you receive a raise at work, your sense of accomplishment will most likely be accompanied by a set of pleasant psychological and physical sensations – that’s dopamine.
When you enjoy your favorite music, laughing with friends, or experience an immense rush of adrenaline while playing a sport, dopamine is kicking in.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that sends signals between neurons and is a precursor of adrenaline. It plays an important role in a range of brain and body functions that are critical for your success, including motivation, memory, attention, focus, learning, creativity, and mood. When we experience the positive effects of dopamine, we feel well, excited and energized.
However, if we experience low levels of dopamine, we can become fatigued, apathetic and can suffer from addiction. poor memory, disrupted sleep, and even Parkinson’s disease.
What is the link between dopamine and addiction?
In the 1950s, scientists designed an experiment where they placed electrodes along the dopamine pathway in the brain of rats. When the rats entered into a particular corner of their cages, they received an electric shock. The discomfort of the shock therapy led scientists to believe that the rats would avoid entering the area where the shock occurred – but just the opposite happened.
Rather than avoiding the shock, the rats craved the dopamine so severely that they continued going back to experience the shock up to 700 times in one hour.
This compulsive behavior can be seen in people, too. Take substance abuse or gambling for example. Doing anything in excess may not feel good after the fact, but the dopamine rush can be so intense that a person will crave for more.
Quick dopamine fixes are tempting and appear everywhere in our modern world. Some examples for sources of a dopamine rush include caffeine, alcohol, video games, social media addiction, impulsive eating, mindless working or compulsive shopping.
To achieve mental, emotional and physical wellbeing, we should boost our dopamine in healthy and balanced ways that nourish our sense of self-worth and reinforce our connections with others.
Have you ever felt that warm tingling sensation of love and compassion take over when you feel gratitude for someone or something happening in your life?
Being grateful for all of the blessings you have in your life is a simple, inexpensive and practical way to enhance your dopamine levels. It also works to keep your life in perspective when times get tough.
One way to easily maintain a momentum of appreciation is to keep a daily gratitude journal. Remember, when difficult storms arrive, and you have troubles finding things to appreciate, it’s okay to be grateful for simple pleasures like a snuggle with a pet or a smile from a stranger.
Focusing on the present moment and practicing self-reflection offer us enormous amounts of benefits. When we pay attention to the environment, calm our thoughts and center ourselves, we experience a relaxed state-of-mind, so that we can fully relax and recharge.
Not only does the practice of mindful framing and mindfulness help us to let go of stress, but studies have shown the potential to increase the release of dopamine.
It can be tempting to reach for a junkie TV show to distract yourself from daily problems instead of retreating into pondering and reflecting about our ideas and experiences. In the long run, embracing a ritual of self-reflection will increase your dopamine levels in a positive, more profound way.
There’s no need to sign yourself up for a spin class that you are going to dread if spinning isn’t your thing. But finding an outlet to exercise that you genuinely enjoy can increase your dopamine and boost your physical wellbeing.
Whether you take up martial arts, dance or play fetch with your dog, your mind and body will thank you. Dopamine is released when you get your heart pumping.
For an extra rush of healthy dopamine, combine your activity with reaching a goal (such as increasing steadily you daily steps).
Exercise brings many other fantastic side effects into your life. Perhaps you lose a couple of pounds, look healthier and meet new like-minded friends during your activity.
White sugar and fast food can be highly tempting if you desire a surge in energy. But the mood-elevating spike caused by these foods is short-lived and often comes with an energy crash.
Our earth is abundant with fresh fruits, veggies and fiber for us to indulge in daily. And did you know that a healthy gut seems to be directly related to balanced dopamine levels?
Some foods that can support your dopamine levels are apples, bananas, beets, chicken, eggs and cheese. So start your day with a delicious cheesy omelet or fresh fruit salad to elevate your mood early on.
Life is dynamic, a steady source of experiences and ideas, and dopamine mobilizes your brain and body to be motivated, creative and achieve peak performance. Don’t waste this precious elixir by disrupting the fine-tuned alchemy of neurotransmitters and hormones. Be gentle with yourself and let the natural processes in your organism take over without ‘artificial sweeteners.’
Can you imagine a workplace full of intelligent machines and robots but no warmth, no emotional bonding? This environment can be very productive but psychologically devastating. We are human beings, not human doings. We need to be emotionally connected with family, friends, coworkers, even with pets, to achieve mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.
When we hold hands with our loved one and have a feel-good sensation throughout our bodies – that’s the hormone oxytocin kicking in.
When we regularly distrust other people’s intentions and withdraw from them, it may signal a deficit of oxytocin.
What is oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a hormone that is formed in the hypothalamus, a region of the brain important for controlling many bodily functions.
Without oxytocin, we would become extinct- literally; it is essential in human reproduction. Oxytocin is necessary for contraction of the womb during delivery, as well as breastfeeding.
Oxytocin is also important for our social wellbeing. It helps us bond with others and maintain eye contact with them, remember faces, show empathy, trust others, have a sense of self-worth and good social skills. We feel more connected and in tune with others.
Oxytocin improves our tolerance to pain and reduces stress and anxiety by controlling the release of cortisol, the stress hormone.
If we have low levels of oxytocin, we may be afraid, anxious, depressed, and aggressive toward others.
Oxytocin as a drug
Oxytocin, which means ‘quick birth’ in Greek, is used as the prescription drug Pitocin to induce labour and reduce bleeding after delivery.
Oxytocin has also been used to improve symptoms of Asperger syndrome, autism and schizophrenia. Additionally, it has been shown to help with withdrawal from alcohol and drugs.
These are 4 simple ways to naturally boost our oxytocin levels.
Physical and emotional love
Life is busy. With work, running errands, looking after kids, preparing supper… the list goes on, the last thing in your mind at the end of the day is to cuddle with your partner.
Oxytocin helps us stick together creating emotional bonds. A study conducted in men found that those who were given a dose of intranasal oxytocin were more interested in emotional instead of physical bonding when meeting for the first time an attractive woman.
What’s more, physical proximity with our loved one releases oxytocin. Studies show that oxytocin increases our sex drive. When we make love, we also feel less anxious, calmer, and have an improved sense of overall wellbeing, these are effects of oxytocin.
Have you ever felt the weight of the world drop right off your shoulders after listening to soothing music? This is because our brains produce more oxytocin when we listen mindfully to a bird’s song, natural sounds or relaxing music.
Mindfulness meditation and mindful framing have been shown to increase serotonin levels with regular practice. Anyone can benefit from just a few minutes of self reflection in a quiet place, listening to silence or soothing sounds.
So, take a break, relax and listen to some classical, jazz or smooth music, whatever tunes you find soothing for your soul, and watch your cares melt away.
Do you feel stiffness in your neck? A massage may be just what the doctor ordered! Research shows that oxytocin levels increase both in the person receiving the massage, as well as in the person giving the massage!
When you get a massage your anxiety level decreases, your sense of well-being improves, you feel less pain, and your cortisol and blood pressure level drop- all effects of oxytocin.
So, go ahead and treat yourself to a massage, even a self massage- you deserve it!
Dogs have been called man’s best friend for a reason- they provide us with unconditional love, and don’t take much to please!
Having a pet at home makes us feel less lonely, forces us to leave the couch, and even helps us develop relationships with others, all factors that lead to emotional wellbeing. It’s no wonder that so many people talk about dogs and cats as if they were real people!
Did you know that petting a dog releases oxytocin? It also boosts dopamine and serotonin- other feel-good hormones, while decreasing stress-producing cortisol.
Life is too short to live in fear and distrust. By naturally boosting our oxytocin levels, we can feel a deeper connection with others and increase of sense of self worth. Take a first step today and follow the path to more meaningful, deeper relationships.
I failed many times after trying different types of meditation, including mantras, mindfulness or body scanning, My mind wandered most of the time, mostly ruminating anxious thoughts. Meditation was somewhat relaxing but felt like a waste of precious time. I was eager to get back to my to-do list, check my newsfeeds or simply move around.
I came to the conclusion that a silent mind, empty of thoughts, was probably easier to achieve when these meditation practices were developed over two millennia ago. Nowadays, each of the 1,440 minutes in a day can be an eternity. Our busy schedules and information overload are continuously triggering our monkey minds.
I discovered that what I needed was a daily routine of personal time for self-reflection. I developed a 15 minutes practice I call mindful framing. It consists of playing with your mind’s eye 5 scenes of fast-paced images. It starts by confronting, not avoiding, my sources of anxiety. Next leveraging my senses to reflect on the nature-mind-body connection. I explored my emotional strengths and weaknesses to ensure harmonization with the emotional worlds of others. I thought about best approaches to invigorate my body and mind.
After years of successful practice, with minimal mind wandering, I decided to write this book, try it yourself.
Why should cancer patients struggle financially, despite their major contributions to cancer care? Why should families undergo economic distress while caring for the front-line soldiers of the cancer battle?
Although progress is very encouraging, cancer will remain one the leading causes of death in developed countries. We know how to prevent some types of cancer and we can cure many early-stage cancers. However, we still cannot defeat most advanced cancers, just extending survival by mere months or a few years.
A human right
The World Health Organization (WHO) Constitution of 1946 declared that the “enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being.” The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 states, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including medical care and necessary social services.”
Translating this set of rights into cancer care, every human being should be able to access key discoveries on prevention, early detection, and management of cancer. If this is a war, we need to have commanders and soldiers united with a single purpose, coordinating efforts and supporting each other.
An economic right
The costs of cancer care are staggering. When several procedures and expensive cancer treatments are required in a short period of time, financial hardship or medical bankruptcy are all-too-frequently the result.
Cancer patients should be fairly compensated for becoming the center of the so-called digital health revolution. Combining electronic medical records, genomics, and demographic data makes every single patient a formidable source of scientific and medical knowledge. As the most vulnerable and least organized group, the society should recognize and reward financially contributions of cancer patients.
A healthcare right
Progress in cancer care would not take place without patients participating in clinical trials and cancer registries, potentially sacrificing their lives or enduring serious adverse events. Data sharing, integration and collaboration requires trust and better communication, as well as a legislative framework to define the healthcare rights and duties of every stakeholder.
Cancer is not just a disease. It is a plague that can cripple individuals, families, and social networks. Not confronting the disease at its core, the cancer patient, will lead over time to a more fragile society.
What would go through you mind if you were told today that you had leukemia with a 2-year life expectancy? Wouldn’t you consider the impact of work disability, family care, maxed-out insurance deductibles, and significant out-of-pocket costs? Wouldn’t you feel at ease if you and your family were promised a financial safety net in exchange for your contribution to the advance of medical and scientific knowledge?
A Cancer Care Act would be a fair act of human solidarity.
Oscar Segurado, MD, PhD, Director of Medic Affairs Consulting LLC, has extensive global experience covering oncology, immunology and molecular biology in academia and industry settings.
This is an excerpt of an article originally published in The Hill on May 10, 2017