Your body is a finely designed machine containing everything you need for total wellbeing. But as with most intricate designs, a degree of balance and care is required for it to remain in good working order. This is difficult, even without the stresses, strains and temptations of the modern world.
Psychologist Robert Thayer describes mood as a product of two dimensions: tension and energy, wherein a person can feel at once energetic and tired, or tense and calm. The preferred state of being would be energetic-calm. Different to the concept of emotion, and perhaps contrary to the intensity of mood disorders, our frame of mind is most often described as good or bad, positive or negative, happy, sad or neutral. But what actually dictates your mood? Is it mere circumstance or does biology play a role?
Your brain’s communication network is a maze of millions of connections capable of performing trillions of calculations per second – all of this incredible capacity is managed by neurons, which power the messages; neurotransmitters that create the messages; and receptors that receive the messages. And it’s electrifying – a single neuron can produce nearly one tenth of a volt and your brain activity can easily be measured by an electroencephalogram (EEG). The speed at which these messages travel is around 240 km/hour.
WHAT’S IN STORE?
Your brain is a veritable storehouse of chemicals, all working towards ensuring your body and mind are in top working order and that you react to situations appropriately. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that kick things into gear – when endorphins attach themselves to a part or parts of your nervous system, that’s the signal to get going – from pain relief to pleasure, and of course, happiness. Your body and brain receives endorphins through opioid receptors, which are located throughout your body.
There’s a downside to endorphins, though. If you’re experiencing too much stress and strain that triggers them into action, your body can become flooded with them, triggering the fight or flight response for even small events and leading to anxiety and depression. While endorphins are responsible for getting everything going, there are a few other neurotransmitters that are responsible for your state of mind.
Dopamine is the keeper of your brain’s pleasure centres and is the precursor to two other neurotransmitters, adrenaline (for bursts of energy, increased heart rate, constricted blood vessels to minimise bleeding and dilated air passages) and noradrenalin (increases focus and alertness). A lack of dopamine has been associated with Parkinson’s disease and a lack of noradrenalin has been found in children with ADHD.
Serotonin is created in the brain, but it travels into your body, with 80% of it ending up in your gut where it regulates your intestinal movements. The chemical tryptophan in conjunction with tryptophan-hydrolase builds serotonin. It’s believed that a shortage of tryptophan in your body will lead to a shortage of serotonin. Although serotonin has been linked to depression, science is still unsure if a depletion of serotonin leads to depression or if depression leads to a depletion of serotonin. Nonetheless, increasing serotonin levels does help alleviate depression, even if it’s not clear why. Tryptophan also triggers the production of the hormone melatonin, which is released at night and suppressed during the day – assisting in regulating your sleep-wake cycle. With modern lifestyles that integrate a lot of artificial lighting, its believed that melatonin production isn’t as efficient as its supposed to be, leading to less effective sleep and then to depression.
A poor diet, lack of exercise, too little sleep and too much stress all cause your brain’s chemicals to become unbalanced and your neurotransmitters to start firing in the wrong order, too often or too little. Some keys that assist in keeping the balance in check and everything finely tuned are:
Power boost - Ginseng is a great energy booster and many athletes take it to enhance their endurance – but it also helps balance the release of stress hormones, keeping you calm and focused.
Laugh - It’s a well known axiom that laughter is the best medicine and its actually been proven to assist in healing numerous diseases and ailments – just 10 minutes of giggles a day brings about a wonderful feeling of general wellbeing.
Under cover - Sex is a fantastic stress buster and mood enhancer. When you’re anxious, stressed or depressed, however, it may be difficult to feel the necessary desire to get going. But, sex is known to release numerous feel-good chemicals, not the least being oxytocin, which has been proven to assist in healing anything from the common cold to severe depression.
Chocolate - Most chocolate lovers will know that it’s a proven mood booster. However, you actually only need a small block every two or three days for it to be effective (choose dark, high cocoa organic chocolate), so feeling down isn’t a good excuse for an all out binge – in fact, too much may just have the opposite effect.
Tune up - Listening to your favourite music brings your mood up by boosting your endorphins, so put on some tunes and get in some dancercise to increase the boost.
Hot hot hot - Capsicum is known to increase mood – it triggers pain receptors in the mucous membranes of the nose and mouth, in turn triggering the release of endorphins that rush to block the pain.
All together now - Any type of exercise is well proven to boost your brains happy chemicals, but recent studies have shown that group exercise may enhance this rush of feel-good endorphins.
Vitamin B3 - Also known as niacin helps your brain produce dopamine. Food rich in vitamin B3 includes beetroot, peanuts and fish.
L-Tryptophan - This serotonin precursor is found in numerous foods like milk, soya and turkey Tip: Tryptophan-rich food isn’t always effective in boosting levels of it in your body, so supplementing with 5Htp (5-hydroxytryptophan) is more likely to increase actual serotonin levels.
Sunlight - Even in South Africa, it’s possible to lack sunshine’s mood-enhancing vitamin D. Get your daily dose by being outside in natural sunlight for 10 minutes a day, with as much skin exposed as possible – this isn’t enough time for you to burn, but do be careful for periods longer than that and be sure to use a good quality sunscreen and cover up at other times.
Cheers - A small glass of wine each night can assist in boosting endorphins – red wine has been proven to contain antioxidants so the effects are physically health-enhancing too.
Vitamin C - helps increase serotonin production and can protect your brain cells from free radical damage.
Meditate - Even if you only have 10 minutes a day, the benefits of meditation are enormous, from lifting your mood to increasing concentration and focus. Take time out for yourself each day to boost your endorphins
Vitamin B6 - Increases endorphins by acting as a precursor to numerous neurotransmitters like serotonin and noradrenalin. You can supplement with the vitamin or include food like chicken, salmon, tuna, milk and lentils in your diet.
Sniff - Vanilla is known to increase endorphin action, so keep some natural vanilla essence handy. You can put a couple of drops in your brewing coffee or even spritz a bit on your wrists. Lavender is also known to activate happy brain centres and reduce insomnia and depression. An aroma diffuser, candles or a few drops in your bath will help lift a mood.
Tyrosine - Is an amino acid that assists in increasing dopamine production in your brain. You can supplement with tyrosine or find it in food like dairy, protein-rich meat and some grains and seeds.