By Ammi Midstokke
We ought to be equal opportunity hormone appreciators. We like them all, primarily because they are responsible for some key body functions — things like desire and rewards, feeling hungry or full, and even that post-orgasmic glow we so much love.
Often grouped together as our happy hormones, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin run the funhouse most of the time. Sometimes they get some help from things like endorphins – the one that gives us that zen moment feeling.
Dopamine is an easy one for us to stimulate because it’s like the blunt instrument of joy. Chocolate, sex, frosting, scrolling your phone (yes, checking Facebook biochemically emulates sex, but if you reduce the former you may actually get more of the latter), alcohol, potato chips, gambling and even some healthy foods and habits all stimulate dopamine.
Oxytocin is the love hormone. It happens when you stop having relationships on social media and start having them with real humans. Or you get a dog.
And serotonin, this darling of happiness is thought to be responsible for a myriad of functions, both as an inhibitory (see: calming) neurotransmitter in the brain and a stimulating hormone in the gut. In fact, most of our serotonin is found in the gut. Which is why if you are suffering Seasonal Affect Disorder or even just February Is The Longest Damn Month Disorder, taking care of your gastrointestinal system is going to be key to your happiness.
In the brain, serotonin aids us by stabilizing our moods, reducing anxiety, regulating sleep patterns, improving clarity of thought and our ability to learn, oh yeah, and increasing our sexual desire.
In the gut, serotonin helps us regulate satiety, manages food cravings, aids with nutrient absorption, and stimulates peristalsis (digestion). Anyone having any trouble with the above?
In short, you want serotonin, and you want appropriate amounts of it. Seeing as we’re in America, it is of course possible to facilitate this with a pill or four, but creating healthy hormone levels through lifestyle change and food might be the funner way to go about it. Plus, you can get some additional dopamine and endorphins in the same deal.
The key precursor hormone to serotonin is tryptophan — that big word that is in turkey and we think makes us sleepy after our fourth helping of mashed potatoes. But tryptophan can be found in all kinds of foods such as meat, eggs, fish, spinach, seaweed, dates, bananas, oats, pumpkin and sesame seeds, and so on.
Unfortunately, we cannot just stuff our faces with seaweed, nor do most of us want to. We need some co-factors and other vitamins to help us actually convert tryptophan into serotonin. We need a gastrointestinal tract rich in probiotics (eat fermented food, avoid lots of hard liquor and take probiotics). We need vitamin B6 (salmon, eggs, carrots, beef, cheese, veggies) and zinc (pumpkin seeds, oysters, beans), and Omega 3s (salmon, nuts, flax meal).
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Oreos were not listed anywhere. As always, the diet that best supports our mental and physical health is one that is rich in variety, healthy fats and proteins and a ridiculous amount of fruits and vegetables.
And don’t forget to take a minute to eat those foods in gratitude, surrounded by the laughter of your friends and family, preferably a few hours before you go to bed. By then, all your happy hormones should be mingling with your sleepy hormones and laying the foundation for you to start another great day.
Ammi Midstokke is a nutritional therapist and author. When she isn’t saving people with vegetables, she is trying to get lost in the mountains. She can be contacted at [email protected]
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