Many of us only believe we are happy when we feel like we are on top of the world. Achieving big goals like graduating from college, or getting a promotion can produce those feelings of euphoria. However, according to the Secret Society of Happy People, the originators of Happiness Happens Month every August, there are 31 kinds of happiness which include everything from exuberant joy to peace, satisfaction and contentment.
Let’s talk about satisfaction and contentment and the brain chemical that gets us there--Serotonin.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate your moods, appetite, and sleep patterns. Neurotransmitters are special molecules that allow nerve cells to communicate and interact with each other. Allyson Lewis in The 7 Minute Solution says when the body generates enough serotonin you experience a sense of well being. You feel safe. However, low levels of serotonin can cause binge eating and drinking, migraines, insomnia and depression.
While there are a number of drugs that manipulate the serotonin system, Secrets of Serotonin by Carol Hart is a guide for making small lifestyle changes to boost serotonin naturally by adopting a serotonin friendly lifestyle.
According to Hart, there are natural and healthy ways to keep the brain supplied with serotonin. Tryptophan, an amino acid found in a wide variety of foods, is essential for the production of serotonin. Tryptophan cannot be synthesized from other substances and must come directly from protein we eat. Foods containing Tryptophan include nuts, seeds, some vegetables and all animal protein including dairy products.
One might think eating lots of protein will increase your serotonin level. However, as Hart explains, Tryptophan and other amino acids are very large molecules that cannot pass directly into the brain. They need to hitch a ride on a specialized transport system. When you eat a meal high in protein, this creates what Hart describes as “rush-hour competition for space on the brain-based protein shuttle.” Think of New York City’s subway system at 8:00 on a weekday. Sometimes you may have to let a train or two go by until you can squeeze on. Similarly, Tryptophan is jostled around, crowded out and must wait in line in order to reach the brain.
Instead of focusing on protein, Hart suggests you make it easier for Tryptophan to reach the brain by eating a well-timed meal consisting entirely of carbohydrates. Eating carbohydrates causes the pancreas to release insulin which stimulates muscle tissue to take up large amino acids--not including Tryptophan. With the other amino acids going to the muscles, this clears the way for Tryptophan to make it’s way to the brain.
Healthy serotonin-enhancing carbohydrate snacks and meals include whole-grain muffins, fruit, salad, small quantities of raisins, and meatless low cheese pasta dishes.
Reflect on happy events
An article on psychologytoday.com says that you can boost your serotonin levels by remembering positive events you have experienced in your life. According to the article, the act of thinking about good times “increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is a region just behind the prefrontal cortex that controls attention.” Conversely, remembering sad events decreased serotonin production.
Studies show that exercise can make you feel better. According to Hart, people who engage in regular exercise find that after a workout they feel relaxed, focused and alert. “Moderate to vigorous exercise will release tension, counteract depressed or anxious feelings and combat food and alcohol cravings,” writes Hart.
According to Hart other serotonin-enhancing activities include knitting, painting and playing a musical instrument.