Ask anyone what makes them happy and memorable moments, prized possessions or people they love come to mind. But in reality, happiness is essentially a chemical experience that happens in our brains, with four main ‘happy hormones’ and neurotransmitters—serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins—generating sensations that we associate with various states of euphoria.
“The purpose of life is to seek true happiness, not just pleasure.”
“This means we can experience our feelings without allowing them to control us,” muses Rany Moran, psychological counsellor and resilience coach, who was first exposed to mental healthcare as a teen growing up with the inability to self-produce serotonin. “It has very little to do with our absolute conditions but how we perceive situations, how we set our intentions and how satisfied we are with what we have. The purpose of life is to seek true happiness, not just pleasure, and this can be achieved through consciously training and rewiring the mind with acts of self-care, mindfulness, nature and breaking a sweat, as well as focusing on nourishing your body from the inside out.”
Listen to your gut
Ninety-five percent of serotonin is produced in the gut. Read that again. Also known as the mood stabiliser hormone and a vital neurotransmitter that delivers feelings of joy and positivity to our being, serotonin is almost entirely influenced by that intuitive area between our mouth and tummy that we’ve been told to trust with tough decisions in life—our gut.
“Serotonin influences mood, appetite, emotions and cognitive function. Given that a significant amount of the body’s serotonin needs are from the gut microbiome, an unhealthy or imbalanced gut may affect serotonin production and create a negative effect on your body, leading to hormonal disruptions, which can precede serious diseases,” explains Dr Saishreyas Sundarajoo, head of medical affairs at AMILI (Asian Microbiome Library), Southeast Asia’s first and only precision gut microbiome research company. “Research also shows that gut health can impact central nervous system disorders, including anxiety, depressive disorders and schizophrenia. Given the interdependencies, serotonin deficiencies do more than affect your mood; they can contribute to diseases including irritable bowel syndrome, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis,” he adds.
And yet, when we’re in a bad or sad mood, gut health—let alone physical health—is the last thing on our mind. Instead, we turn to calorific comfort food, unhealthy vices, and endless, mindless scrolling through social media—producing instant but superficial ‘highs’ that can quickly come crashing down. Psychologists, too, can sometimes overlook this and zoom in on the depression one’s feeling as a chemical imbalance in the brain, possibly then neglecting a more serious root of the problem, like malnutrition and gut dysfunction.
When we’re in a bad or sad mood, gut health—let alone physical health—is the last thing on our mind.
To naturally produce a consistent, constant flow of emotion-regulating serotonin, a good re-starting point is how you feed and fuel your body. “Hormone imbalances occur when there is too much or too little of a particular hormone. There are various causes ranging from medication, other medical conditions, stress and poor nutrition. Nutrition plays a key role in regulating proper function of hormone production, and there is new research that links diet to the gut microbiome, or the bacteria working on breaking down food and absorbing important molecules responsible for hormone regulation,” highlights Sundarajoo.
Chicken soup for the soul
Offering just about anybody a chance to get their gut health back on track through their diet is food technology company Esseplore. It has partnered with AMILI to create Umami Chefs, a line of nutritious gourmet meals that boasts a plethora of health benefits delivered right to your doorstep. After completing an online questionnaire, customers will receive an assessment of their gut health status, and that information then goes into a tailored meal plan—like dishes that introduce a modern take on time-honoured recipes while combining traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) expertise, deep science and culinary know-how to deliver great flavour with equally great nutritional value.
“Everyone’s gut composition is unique. Today, when technology allows us to obtain individual unique insights about ourselves, it makes sense to personalise and have individuals follow diets best suited to them. Umami chefs follows the same philosophy. By providing detailed information on each meal, we hope to encourage consumers to be responsible for their health and discover their own body types and respective diet requirements,” says associate professor Jeremy Lim, CEO and co-founder of AMILI.
Think dishes like soy milk chicken soup with corn and edamame, and monkey head mushroom soup with astragalus, fig and lotus seeds, both of which borrow the best of Chinese healing ingredients to tonify the qi of the lungs, spleen and stomach, while calming the heart. There are also options like turmeric-lemongrass grilled chicken served with mixed quinoa and zucchini black fungus achar that helps dispel dampness, heatiness and bloating in the body.
“Gut health and diet are at the forefront of boosting happy hormones. While you can’t directly get serotonin from food, you can get tryptophan. It is an amino acid primarily found in high-protein foods like soybean and salmon, which is converted to serotonin. Complex carbohydrates such as oats, whole grains, barley, buckwheat, yams and sweet potatoes can also help boost serotonin levels,” Lim highlights.
The science of self-care
Besides happy meals, acts of self-care are sure-fire ways to boost your mood. But that’s not saying you need to book a spa day or hot yoga class every time you’re feeling down. Breathing is, in fact, the most common yet often neglected gesture of self-care we can do for ourselves. Simply by bringing focus to your breath, deep, steady inhale-exhales have been scientifically proven to relieve stress, relax the brain, boost our immune system and naturally increase serotonin levels.
Give yourself free reign to pick any activity that fully disconnects you from your sources of stress and overstimulation—both physically and mentally—and that gives you a sense of utter relaxation, sparks your passions and instantly fulfils you.
Another effortless way to uplift the spirits is to schedule recovery activities to help alleviate stress and take your mind off work. “Even the strongest people need rest—specifically quality sleep, physical exercise and spending time in nature—and rest can come in the form of things we’re already doing daily, just more consciously,” adds Moran. One of the most effective ways to reprogramme our systems is to allocate at least an hour a day for psychological detachment. For that to happen, Moran’s advice is to give yourself free reign to pick any activity that fully disconnects you from your sources of stress and overstimulation—both physically and mentally—and that gives you a sense of utter relaxation, sparks your passions and instantly fulfils you. This could be anything from working out, which helps release a good dose of endorphins, cooking for the family or going for a bike ride with friends. On top of producing the brain chemicals you need to regulate mood and stress levels, such relaxed, positive social interactions and physical touch are key drivers of oxytocin, the love hormone, which gives you warm and fuzzy, anxiety-reducing feelings.
Make time for mindful discipline
If you’re constantly scrolling social media, online shopping or waiting for a certain someone to text you, chances are a single phone notification can completely change your mood—which means your dopamine is constantly retriggered and most likely overstimulated all day long. Known as the neurotransmitter that gives us a sense of pleasure and intense reward, dopamine has the power to keep people motivated, especially when learning a new skill or completing tasks, but it can also encourage repeated pleasure-seeking behaviours, which can lead to addiction. On the flip side, dopamine deficiency can lead to anxiety, sleep deprivation and lack of motivation or focus.
“To address this, one must first understand why we are so attached to, or even dependent on, such experiences. Are we bored? Are we looking to fill a void? Are we searching for a quick boost of fun? Because for some, alcohol answers all these questions, while others take to video games, which are designed with exciting actions, rewards to level up, and victory laps that can easily trigger both dopamine and serotonin,” explains Moran. This can make anyone emotionally addicted to such digital highs—rushes that would traditionally be produced through physical activity and healthy sleep patterns.
The key here is mindful discipline—you need to set a daily routine with measured screen time and essential breaks. Make decisions to say no to your stimulating activity and choose a healthier alternative instead. This means peeling yourself away from your screens and doing a quick work out for a good dose of endorphins or taking a walk outside, which will release mood-boosting serotonin as well. Studies show that meditation also has a myriad of benefits including calming the mind and influencing our body’s relaxation response, which is especially useful in an age of instant gratification, constant stimulation and limited attention spans.
Moran says: “Expressing gratitude and positive self-talk holds so much power. Meditation is the practice of focusing inwards and this allows you to reflect on your day and what you’re grateful for. This in turn gives you a sense of achievement, comfort and even pleasure, and releases a natural rush of happy hormones in your brain.