How happy are the "happy brain chemicals"?

Updated: Oct 22

by Diana Kastner, co-founder of ADB


If you are active in the social media dog community, you have probably come across one of them at some point. They are pretty to look at and easy to remember for their colors and various 4-element designs and mostly consistent contents across the board. We are talking about the widely circulating infographics of the "happy brain chemicals".

Today, we have decided to take a closer look at the narrative surrounding these chemicals to see just how "happy" they are and to give said narrative more scientific volume. To begin with, here is something to keep in mind:


No single neurochemical is responsible for "happiness"

If there is one thing a neuroscientist would tell us about the label "happy brain chemicals", it is that no single neurochemical is responsible for "happiness". In fact, the brain, and the nervous system as a whole, is much too complex to set aside a single neurochemical for any one particular feeling or behavior, not to mention that the type and the location of the receptors these chemicals bind to play a significant role in their functions. While we, as non-neuroscientists, are trying to keep it simple, we do want to make sure that our readers understand that there is much more to the story of neurochemicals than what is conveyed on these infographics. In the following, we will discuss each of the 4 chemicals: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins.


Dopamine

Currently in circulation:

Dopamine is the "reward chemical".

Dopamine can be hacked by:

  • completing a task

  • doing self-care activities

  • eating food

  • celebrating little wins

Science says dopamine is not associated with rewards, but released to motivate us to pursue something beneficial, be it food, an activity, safety, even finding a solution for a problem, to name just a few. Since dopamine is responsible for anticipation and expectancy, excessively high levels of dopamine lead to manic behaviors, and excessively low levels are associated with depression. Which means that, after you achieved or accomplished something or you ate something, the immediately following release of dopamine motivates you to do it again, anticipating or expecting an equally beneficial or rewarding outcome. While this may sound appealing, there is a flip side to the whole process, as this process lays the foundation of addiction, forming habits and building a routine, in which case, unfulfilled or delayed expectancies will lead to frustration by arousing the brain circuit that is responsible for more excitatory behaviors. While dopamine is always being released, high, prolonged and multiple excitement experiences can cause "dopamine depletion" in some areas of the brain, requiring longer downtimes to recover. Imagine the extreme high you may be feeling during the moments leading up to a highly anticipated chain of events, followed by a deep need to rest moments after the actual experience. The dopamine process in dogs is the same as in humans, and dogs require the same downtimes to help regulate their dopamine levels. Another vital aspect about dopamine to keep in mind is that when dopamine release increases, so does adrenaline (amongst others) to prepare the body for action, which means that the need to move or do something increases.

Image description: Dopamine is "the motivation and anticipation chemical"

Dopamine is always released, high, prolonged and multiple excitement

experiences require longer downtimes to prevent "dopamine depletion",

High levels can lead to manic behaviors

Low levels can lead to depression

Caution - understand dopamine before manipulating its release


Serotonin

Currently in circulation:

Serotonin is the "mood stabilizer".

Serotonin can be hacked by:

  • meditating

  • running

  • sun exposure

  • walk in nature

  • swimming

  • cycling

Science says serotonin has many functions. In addition to mood regulation, serotonin also helps modulate cognition, reward, learning and memory (Serotonin - Wikipedia), as well as plays key roles in physiological processes such as sleep, digestion, nausea, wound healing, bone health, blood clotting and even sexual desire (clevelandclinic.com). And to further complicate the understanding of serotonin, it is important to know that the prolonged release of serotonin (during aversive stimuli) in a specific area of the midbrain is what causes the passivity when an organism is in the survival state of "learned helplessness"

(Learned Helplessness at Fifty: Insights from Neuroscience - PMC (nih.gov)

Another interesting tidbit to know is that approx. 95% of serotonin is produced in the intestine.

Image description: Serotonin is the "mood stabilizer with a twist"

Serotonin is released by eating well, enjoying the sun, exercising,

managing stress; also released with aversive stimuli (can lead to a

passive state known as "learned helplessness"), and more


Oxytocin

Currently in circulation:

Oxytocin is the "love hormone".

Oxytocin can be hacked by:

  • playing with a dog

  • playing with a baby

  • holding hand

  • hugging your family

  • giving a compliment

Science says oxytocin - just as the majority of neurochemicals - has many functions. While its involvement in bonding earned it the title of "love hormone" in the past, oxytocin is now better known as a confidence booster. Oxytocin in and by itself does not facilitate bonding; however, it helps us be more confident in our relationships with those we already have a positive relationship with or those in our inner circle. On the flip side of the relationship coin, oxytocin makes us feel confident in our prejudice or biases towards those that are not part of our inner circle. Oxytocin is involved in gloating and envy. Additionally, oxytocin inhibits the brain from building a tolerance to endogenous opioids, and released during stress, oxytocin helps repair stress-related injury to the heart, while it also plays a key role during childbirth.

Image description: Oxytocin is the "confidence booster"

Oxytocin is released through social/emotional interactions, CARE,

comfort touch, connection, eye contact (caution: oxytocin released

during eye contact with a strange dog may lead to a bite), stress,

and more

Facilitates greater bonding with those we love or prejudice towards

outsiders, also gloating and envy


Endorphins

Currently in circulation:

Endorphins are the "pain killer".

Endorphins can be hacked by:

  • laughter exercise

  • essential oils

  • watching a comedy

  • dark chocolate

  • exercising

Science says endorphins are only one of several types of endogenous opioids (endogenous = produced within the organism; likewise, endorphins are a type of morphine that is produced within the organism). While endorphins are certainly our natural pain killer, they are not acting alone but within an entire endogenous opioid system, which consists of several types of endogenous opioids (primarily endorphins, enkephalins and dynorphins) as well as opioid receptors (mu, delta and kappa receptors). All of the endogenous opioids are involved in a variety of functions, including social/emotional bonding, modulating emotional and physical pain, stress, learning, even modulating dopamine activity and many others. These functions are not only determined by the type of endogenous opioid released, but by the types and locations of the receptors the opioids bind to at any given moment. While we used to think of oxytocin as the "love hormone" for its perceived importance in bonding, endogenous opioids are the true foundation to our social existence - without the endogenous opioid system we would not pursue social/emotional connections. As with all opioids or opiates, our endogenous variety is very addictive, causing painful withdrawal symptoms when we are separated from someone dear to us. It's the pain of withdrawal, which causes us to reach out for emotional connection.

To learn more about the process of the endogenous opioid system and how it affects us socially and emotionally, please read "The secret ingredient to social bonding".

Image description: Endogenous opioids are our "pain killers" (emotional

and physical pain)

They help us feel cozy warm inside; they inhibit excitatory arousal;

a decrease causes us to seek connection; they are released through

CARE, comfort touch, connection, repetitive & rhythmic behaviors, eating,

music, dancing, stress, pain, and more; endorphins are only one of

several types



How happy are the "happy brain chemicals"?

So, how happy are the "happy brain chemicals"?


In general, it is fair to say that each of them is somehow involved in helping us feel better ... happier? - Maybe, and more content, upbeat and confident. But the biggest takeaway should be that these neurochemicals don't act alone, and that manipulating them without having a deeper understanding may have unexpected and unfavorable consequences.


Preferred reading list

Dr. Jaak Panksepp - Affective Neuroscience

Dr. Jaak Panksepp - The Archeology of Mind

Dr. Kelly McGonigal - The Upside of Stress


To learn more about Affective Dog Behavior (ADB) and how to apply it, please reach out through www.affectivedog.com


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