Is Happiness Hormonal?

Is happiness just a pill or a shot in the arm away, or is it much more complex than that?

Coffee is a stimulant and gives a sensation of alertness and increased energy. Alcohol affects the mood, and most people who drink are more interested in its effects on the brain than the taste of the liquid in their glass. Marijuana also affects mood and can provide a pleasurable experience for its users. People are so accustomed to taking drugs to sedate or stimulate them or to induce sleep, that there is a common perception that our emotions and moods are also just chemical reactions that happen in the body. Depression, for example, is commonly said to be a chemical problem. On one level changes in mood clearly are chemical responses induced by a range of chemical messengers. These chemical messengers are generally referred to as hormones and/or neurotransmitters. A neurotransmitter is secreted at a nerve end and carries a message across the space between two nerve ends, while hormones have a more diffuse action in the body, spreading to many different organs, tissues and cells in the search for receptor sites to attach themselves to. Receptor sites are generally on the cell membranes. Once the neurotransmitter or hormone is attached to a specific receptor site there is a transfer of information and an activity is stimulated or suppressed.


Important neurotransmitters include serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline, noradrenaline, GABA and melatonin. All contain amino acids in different combinations, and in some miraculous way the different combinations produce different effects in the body. GABA, for example, is calming and relaxing, serotonin improves mood and has an antidepressant action, and dopamine and noradrenaline are motivational feel-good chemicals.

Chemists specialise in understanding the chemistry that underlies these processes, and they are able to produce drugs that can influence the way natural neurotransmitters work in the body. Serotonin uptake inhibitor drugs, for example, block the uptake of serotonin, making more available and keeping the mood more positive. But there is another way of improving the mood that is more natural and does not interfere with the body’s own physiological flow. As indicated above, neurotransmitters are made up of simple amino acids, and by supplying more of whatever amino acids are necessary, integrative medical practitioners have found a way to boost these ‘happy chemicals’. Serotonin requires tryptophan, so taking in more tryptophan or 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) increases the effect of serotonin. Depression can be treated in this way. Dopamine requires tyrosine, which is made from phenylalanine, so by adding either of these amino acids the person may feel more motivated and have more energy. GABA is an important neurotransmitter with a calming effect and can be taken when required, even in high doses, for an impending panic attack.

Amino acids are present in the protein foods we eat, which is one of the reasons why a well-balanced diet is so important. Food contains a range of healthy substances that include not only vitamins, minerals, immune stimulants and liver cleansers but also mood stabilisers.


By stimulants I am referring mainly to drugs and natural products such as coffee. A nutrient like tryptophan is not a stimulant; instead, taking it allows the body to choose to optimise serotonin function. Coffee contains a number of stimulants – caffeine, theobromine and theophylline – that stimulate the release of dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline, giving a feeling of energy and alertness. Too many cups of coffee will over-stimulate and meet resistance from the body, which constantly seeks to maintain a sense of proportion and to limit the effects of stimulation over time. Withdrawal symptoms arise if regular consumption is stopped. The withdrawal symptoms are a sign that the body has had to work hard to maintain its balance. caffeine withdrawal mood

So I personally much prefer to offer the body the nutrients it needs to optimise these important neurotransmitters in its own way and time.


Hormones also affect our moods. Premenstrual tension (PMT) is a classic example, and some women can become quite impossibly and uncharacteristically moody and emotional for days at a time. It may be important to check hormone levels or even to give a trial of hormone therapy for a short period of three months or so. Hormones are powerful and have very wide actions throughout the body. I do not recommend synthetic hormones, but always suggest the use of bio-identical oestrogen, progesterone or testosterone. The hormones are regulated by the pituitary gland, which itself is under the control of the hypothalamus in the brain. It is through the brain-hypothalamus-pituitary connection that our thoughts can have an effect on our hormones. Cortisol, secreted by the adrenals, is the hormone of chronic stress and has a profound and negative effect on health if stress continues for a prolonged time. If one is able to move from a state of stress to inner peace and joy then one can replace the cortisol with happy chemicals.

GABA, for example, is calming and relaxing, serotonin improves mood and has an antidepressant action, and dopamine and noradrenaline are motivational feel-good chemicals.


A whole range of herbs and nutrients can elevate the mood and contribute to wellbeing and a better outlook on life.

  • St John’s Wort is a good example of a mood elevator, and is used to treat depression.
  • Another group of important herbs that help the body deal with stress are called adaptogens. These include ginseng, liquorice, ashwagandha, rhodiola and reishi mushrooms.
  • Vitamin C and B and zinc are important for the conversion of tryptophan and tyrosine into the various neurotransmitters required by the body, and a good vitamin/mineral combination will be generally supportive to improving mood.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids, which improve health of the cell membranes and the receptor sites, are important to optimise the effects of all these ‘happy-producing chemicals’.

By supplying more of whatever amino acids are necessary, integrative medical practitioners have found a way to boost these ‘happy chemicals’.


Hormones and neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that circulate around the body whenever we experience an emotion. While no one has finally identified which chemicals are associated with which emotion, there is a general understanding that each emotion is associated with a different combination of chemicals. Many, if not most, medical scientists believe that our emotional states are controlled first by chemicals and then by conscious feedback. Many textbooks of medicine state that we experience emotions as a result of the neurotransmitters that are inhibited or excited by the brain. This suggests that we are the brain, and the brain releases the neurotransmitter that creates the emotions we experience. The above theory is supported by the facts that drugs can alter states of mind and emotions, biochemical imbalances can cause abnormal emotions, factors ranging from feelings to brain damage can alter the state of consciousness and affect emotional responses, and stimulating brain tissue can activate memory and emotions.

For all the above reasons most scientists believe that emotions are chemical and that they can be manipulated with other chemicals. This will seem a strange idea to those with any self-awareness.

Our actual experience is that thought stimulates an emotion. Does the brain then have an independent existence and think, or does the ‘I’ use the brain to think with? The ‘I’ can also be called the Soul or consciousness. I will write about this controversy again, but please think about this fundamental question. Are you a brain that can think independently or a Soul that uses the brain to think?


A whole range of chemicals at the physical level of body function are concerned with happiness and good feelings. These chemicals, which include neurotransmitters carrying messages across nerve ends and hormones with a more widespread effect on the body, can be supported by a range of natural products. Clearly the way we think about the world and ourselves influences our emotional responses and the chemicals activated in our bodies. Whether the brain starts the ball rolling or it is initiated by ‘something else’ such as consciousness, Soul or even another system outside the chemical/anatomical body is still very open to debate. Check your own experience and let us know what you think.

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