how you are feeling : seven neurochemicals

this is a seriously annoying article with some useful things in it — but lo! i removed some of the most annoying parts for you.

The Neurochemicals of Happiness

The body produces hundreds of neurochemicals. Only a small fraction of these have been identified by scientists. We will not know in our lifetime exactly how all of these molecules work. These are seven brain molecules and general descriptions of how each is linked how you are feeling.

1. Endocannabinoids: “The Bliss Molecule”

Endocannabinoids are self-produced cannabis that work on the CB-1 and CB-2 receptors of the cannabinoid system. Anandamide (from the Sanskrit “Ananda” meaning Bliss) is the most well known endocannabinoid. Interestingly, at least 85 different cannabinoids have been isolated from the Cannabis plant. The assumption is that each of these acts like a key that slips into a different lock of the cannabinoid system and alters perceptions and states of consciousness in various ways. It is likely that we self-produce just as many variations of endocannabinoids, but it will take neuroscientists decades to isolate them.

A study at the University of Arizona, published in April 2012, argues that endocannabinoids are, most likely, the cause for runner's high. The study shows that both humans and dogs show significantly increased endocannabinoids following sustained running.

The study does not address the potential contribution of endorphins to runner's high. However, in other research that has focused on the blood–brain barrier (BBB), it has been shown that endorphin molecules are too large to pass freely across the BBB.

2. Dopamine: “The Reward Molecule”

Dopamine is responsible for reward-driven behavior and pleasure seeking. Every type of reward seeking behavior that has been studied increases the level of dopamine transmission in the brain. If you want to get a hit of dopamine, set a goal and achieve it.

Many addictive drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, act directly on the dopamine system. Cocaine blocks the reuptake of dopamine, leaving these neurotransmitters in the synaptic gap longer.

There is evidence that people with extraverted, or uninhibited personality types tend to have higher levels of dopamine than people with introverted personalities.

3. Oxytocin: “The Bonding Molecule”

Oxytocin is a hormone directly linked to human bonding and increasing trust and loyalty. In some studies, high levels of oxytocin have been correlated with romantic attachment. Some studies show if a couple is separated for a long period of time, the lack of physical contact reduces oxytocin and drives the feeling of longing to bond with that person again. But there is some debate as to whether oxytocin has the same effect on men as it does on women. In men, vasopressin (a close cousin to oxytocin) may actually be the “bonding molecule.”

In a 2003 study, oxytocin levels rose in both the dog and the owner after time spent "cuddling." The strong emotional bonding between humans and dogs may have a biological basis in oxytocin. If you don’t have another human being to offer you affection and increase oxytocin a pet can also do the trick.

4. Endorphin: “The Pain-Killing Molecule”

The name Endorphin translates into “self-produced morphine." Endorphins resemble opiates in their chemical structure and have analgesic properties. Endorphins are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus during strenuous physical exertion, sexual intercourse, and orgasm.

Endorphins are linked less to "runner's high" now than endocannabinoids, but are connected to the "feeling no pain" aspect of aerobic exercise and are produced in larger quantities during high intensity "anaerobic" cardio and strength training.

In 1999, clinical researchers reported that inserting acupuncture needles into specific body points triggers the production of endorphins. In another study, higher levels of endorphins were found in cerebrospinal fluid after patients underwent acupuncture.

5. GABA: “The Anti-Anxiety Molecule”

GABA is an inhibitory molecule that slows down the firing of neurons and creates a sense of calmness. Benzodiazepines (Such as Valium and Xanax) are sedatives that work as anti-anxiety medication by increasing GABA. These drugs have many side effects and risks of dependency but are still widely prescribed.

6. Serotonin: “The Confidence Molecule”

Serotonin plays so many different roles in our bodies that it is really tough to tag it. For the sake of practical application I call it “The Confidence Molecule.” Ultimately the link between higher serotonin and a lack of rejection sensitivity allows people to put themselves in situations that will bolster self-esteem, increase feelings of worthiness, and create a sense of belonging.

To increase serotonin pursue things that reinforce a sense of purpose, meaning, and accomplishment. Being able to say "I did it!" will produce a feedback loop that will reinforce behaviors that build self-esteem, make you less insecure, and create an upward spiral of more and more serotonin.

A variety of popular anti-depressants are called Serotonin-Specific Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) — these are well known drugs like Prozac, Celexa, Lexapro, Zoloft, etc. The main indication for SSRIs is clinical depression, but SSRIs are frequently prescribed for anxiety, panic disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), eating disorders, chronic pain, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

SSRIs got their name because it was once thought they worked by keeping serotonin in the synaptic gap for longer and that this would universally make people who took these pills happier. Theoretically, if serotonin were the only neurochemical responsible for depression, these medications would work for everyone. However, some people never respond to SSRIs, but they do respond to medications that act on GABA, dopamine or norepinephrine systems.

Scientists do not fully understand the role of serotonin in mood-disorders which is why it is important that you work closely with a trusted psycho-pharmacologist if you want to find a prescription medication that works best for you. Also, the fact SSRIs take a couple weeks to kick in suggests that their effect may also have to do with neurogenesis, which is the growth of new neurons. These findings illustrate that how anti-depressants work in each person’s brain varies greatly and is not fully understood by scientists or researchers.

7. Adrenaline: “The Energy Molecule”

Adrenaline, technically known as epinephrine, plays a large role in the fight-or-flight mechanism. The release of epinephrine is exhilarating and creates a surge in energy. Adrenaline causes an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and works by causing less important blood vessels to constrict and increasing blood flow to larger muscles. An “Epi-Pen” is a shot of epinephrine used in the treatment of acute allergic reactions.

An "adrenaline rush" comes in times of distress or facing fearful situations. It can be triggered on demand by doing things that terrify you or being thrust into a situation that feels dangerous. You can also create an adrenaline rush by taking short rapid breathes and contracting muscles.

A surge of adrenaline makes you feel very alive. It can be an antidote for boredom, malaise, and stagnation. Adrenaline junkies act recklessly to get an adrenaline rush.


There is not a one-size-fits-all prescriptive when it comes to creating a neurochemical balance that correlates to a sense of happiness. Use this list of seven neurochemicals as a rudimentary checklist to take inventory of your daily habits and to keep your life balanced. By focusing on lifestyle choices that secrete each of these neurochemicals, you will increase your odds of happiness across the board.

Brain science is a triad of electrical (brain waves), architectural (brain structures) and chemical (neurochemicals) components working in concert to create a state of mind.