Every day, we look for ways to be happy. We do terrible things, or seek great achievement, or search for true love, or sometimes take on deep spiritual quests. Because happiness can be found within — literally. Your body provides itself with many chemicals that make you happy for no good reason. Take a look at all the ways that you live better through brain chemistry.
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Endorphins: The Big Daddies of the Happiness Chemicals
In the quest for happiness, these things are the brass ring. Everyone wants them. It doesn't seem like they would be that tough to get. They're pretty good for the body. Endorphins are neurotransmitters, chemicals that, when they attach to certain parts of nervous system, kick that part into gear. The release of endorphins has been shown to increase happiness, let people push through pain, decrease hunger, and increase the immune response. There are over twenty different kinds of endorphins, and they seemingly all turn people superhuman. But in order to get to be a superhuman, you have to have a painful origin story. Endorphins mete out pleasure for some good things, like sex, chocolate, and spicy food, but anything else requires pain and effort. Childbirth, excessive and prolonged muscle strain, and other stresses produce kicks of endorphins. Scientists believe that lesser activities, like brushing your teeth or checking to make sure a lock is secure, also produce endorphin rushes, though less intense ones. It's possible that a lack of endorphins causes obsessive-compulsive behavior, like washing and locking over and over again. People with OCD may never get told, chemically, that they've accomplished what they needed to do.
So why is the body so ungenerous with these chemicals? It turns out, they're strong stuff. The receptors for endorphins are called opioid receptors. They were first discovered by scientists trying to figure out why things like morphine and heroin made people feel so good. The receptors for illegal opiates are only there so people could get their endorphin kick. And they don't measure up. One type of endorphins has twenty times the pain-blocking ability of morphine. But even endorphins have their down side. Too many endorphins, for too long a time, can put people on edge, triggering the fight-or-flight reflex for any small event. If the body is flooded with endorphins, it naturally assumes that something painful is coming.
Dopamine and its Adrenal Kids: Keeping the Party Going
Sites that house endorphins are all over the body, but dopamine is housed mainly in the midbrain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that keeps a stressed body feeling good. Unlike endorphins, which mostly block pain and bring in a little euphoria, dopamine lends a helping hand. It twangs the brain's reward and pleasure centers, but it also helps with coordination, heart rate and vascular response. It's the precursor to two other, less well known neurotransmitters; adrenaline and noradrenaline. (They're also known as epinephrine and norepinephrine.)
Adrenaline increases heart rate, constricts blood vessels to minimize bleeding, and dilates the air passages. It also gives people bursts of energy. Basically, it makes the body feel as good and energized as the body ever can. Meanwhile, noradrenaline sends out brain signals which increase focus. The combination of dopamine and these two leaves people feeling alert and happy.
A lack of dopamine is associated with Parkinson's Disease. It's tough to treat, since dopamine needs to originate within the brain to affect the brain. It can't cross the blood-brain barrier, so injecting people with it wouldn't work. A lack of noradrenaline has been associated with attention deficit disorder in kids and adults. Sometimes the body's reward response is not just a preference, but part of its necessary health.
Serotonin and Melatonin: Happiness Begins with Turkey
Tryptophan, the chemical famous for everyone's post Thanksgiving Dinner snoozing, isn't just responsible for knocking people out. It also builds them up. Serotonin is made when tryptophan and tryptophan-hydrolase, a chemical reactor, meet up. Some doctors believe that a low amounts of tryptophan could lead to a shortage of serotonin in the body. While an apple a day can keep the doctor away, only a turkey a day keeps away the analyst.
Or the gastroenterologist. Serotonin is made in the brain, but it travels to the blood, and about eighty percent of it ends up in the gut. There, it regulates intestinal movements. In fact, although people who suffer from depression do have lower levels of serotonin, some doctors aren't sure whether the lack of serotonin causes the depression or whether the depression lowers serotonin as a side effect. Although there are antidepressants that are designed to raise serotonin levels in the body, the exact way they work isn't known. Serotonin has some effect on the brain, though, since abnormally high levels of serotonin cause serotonin syndrome. People experience a powerful mix of intestinal and mental symptoms. They have both nausea and diarrhea and hallucinations and dizziness. Drugs that cause hallucinations have been linked to serotonin syndrome as well. So, turkey or LSD. Not both.
Melatonin is another chemical, a hormone in this case, that is produced by the body using tryptophan. Although melatonin has been considered as a mood enhancer, it has mainly been used to get travelers to adjust to different time zones. Melatonin has been shown to be released by darkness and suppressed by light. Scientists believe that this hormone adjusted people's sleep schedules according to the time of the year. Modern people may live in the age of artificial light, but they are still square in middle of an age when exhaustion leads to depression. Melatonin supplements are often given to even out sleep schedules and tame depressive symptoms.
Anandamide: The Bliss Molecule
The Sanskrit word for 'bliss' is Ananda. When a scientists look to Sanskrit to describe their discoveries, things are getting heavy. Andandamide is one of the group of molecules that bind to the cannabinoid receptors. These receptors were discovered when another group of scientists started looking for why another infamous drug was so popular. Endorphins get produced in the pituitary gland and dopamine in the central brain. Anandamide is produced in the parts of the brain that house the higher thought processes, perhaps so it knows what to short out first. Anandamide blocks out short term memory. It also produces blissed-out highs that resemble the highs gotten from THC, the business molecule of marijuana.
Anandamide crosses from the brain to the blood very easily, but unlike THC, it's fragile. It breaks down quickly in the body. People don't get sustained highs from anandamide, just short little sparks. Why is it there at all? Well, it acts as an effective sedative and calming chemical. It could be a way to get people to rest. It also may be an aid to fertility. The highest concentration of anandamide in the body is in the uterine wall, just before an embryo implants. It is one of the first chemicals that move to the embryo itself. Perhaps the first priority of the body is bliss, after all.