Two women lying down on a colorful exercise mat after exercising, laughing. Exercising is a great way to activate your "happy hormones."

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‘Happy Hormones’ Boost Your Mood Naturally—Here’s How to Activate Them

Endorphins and other so-called happy hormones can benefit your mood and well-being—and exercise isn’t the only way to get a boost.

By Kathleen FeltonApril 5, 2024

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“Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.” Anyone who’s seen Legally Blonde will remember Elle Woods piecing together a murder case by reminding everyone about the connection between exercise and the mood-boosting hormone.

Elle was right: Endorphins do help increase happiness levels, and they benefit you in other ways, too, such as by improving self-esteem and easing stress, anxiety, and depression. But endorphins aren’t the only so-called “happy hormone” that can positively impact your mind and body: Dopamine is boosted by the release of endorphins, while oxytocin and serotonin also play key roles in regulating your mood and increasing feelings of contentment.

“These hormones are released and distributed through a series of physiological reactions,” explains Frank B. Wyatt, a professor in the department of athletic training and exercise physiology at Midwestern State University. “The trigger to these reactions and the subsequent effect is why they’re often referred to as ‘feel-good’ hormones.”

Read on for more about how happy hormones work, including the different types of activities that can activate them and how they benefit your overall well-being.

What Are Happy Hormones?

Endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin are neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers released by neurons that target different parts of the body. They work, at times together, to facilitate a communication loop between the nervous system and brain, Wyatt explains. This internal conversation of sorts “allows us, as humans, to interpret situations within our environment.”

By helping us form connections between certain activities (think: exercise) and positive emotions (confidence, self-esteem, and an overall good mood, for example), our body is reminding us that those activities are beneficial, and we should consider doing them again in the future. 

“Our body actually does a really good job of reinforcing behaviors that it wants,” says Kunal K. Shah, MD, an endocrinologist and assistant professor in the division of endocrinology at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey.

A happy man listening to music on his phone after a workout while sitting on a yoga mat at home. Exercise is a great way to boost your happy hormones.

Hirurg / E+ via Getty Images

What Role Do Happy Hormones Play in Our Bodies?

All of the hormones below are associated with positive mood and well-being, but they have unique roles and can be activated in different ways. Here’s what to know about each happy hormone:

Dopamine

Dopamine plays a part in everything from mood to movement to kidney function to sleep. But this neurotransmitter is probably best known for its connection to your body’s reward center. “It basically locks in pleasurable feelings and emotions, and connects it to a certain thing that makes you feel more energized,” Dr. Shah explains.

Food, sex, meditation, and exercise have all been shown to facilitate the release of dopamine, Wyatt notes. When you do one of these activities (exercise, for example), dopamine levels surge, creating a pleasurable feeling. The next time you’re thinking about exercise, your brain reminds you of that happy feeling, and you want to work out to experience it again. The more consistently you exercise, the better you’ll feel.

Dopamine evolved over time to reward humans for activities that increased their chances for survival, such as eating enough and being strong and fit. But recreational drugs and even unhealthy foods can also lead to a surge in dopamine, and this can contribute to addictive behaviors. “It’s the reason why some people can become addicted to drugs and junk food, because of elevated dopamine levels,” Dr. Shah says.

Endorphins

When you think of happy hormones, endorphins likely come to mind first. But this neurotransmitter does more than help you feel good: “Its primary role is pain relief and stress relief, but [endorphins] also lead to feelings of well-being,” Wyatt says. They’re produced in the pituitary gland and hypothalamus and are released when your body is in pain or stressed, effectively working to “turn off” pain signals so you can continue to function. 

And, of course, endorphins are also activated through exercise. “When people finish their exercise and they feel good, they have this rush of a good feeling—that’s typically endorphins,” Dr. Shah says. “They help kill pain, help you feel more relaxed, and overall make you feel a little bit better.”

Serotonin

Serotonin is often thought of as a relaxation hormone. “It’s very similar to dopamine in that it really works to make you feel relaxed, happy, and is one of the bigger hormones when it comes to mood,” Dr. Shah says. It’s involved in a number of body functions, including memory, sleep, breath, stress response, and the digestive system.

In fact, while some serotonin is produced in the brain, the vast majority (around 95 percent) is produced in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and there’s a strong link between this hormone and your digestive system. (This is one reason for the “gut-brain connection,” and why stress and anxiety can sometimes cause flares of GI conditions such as IBS.)

Not having enough serotonin is also associated with mood disorders such as depression, and certain antidepressants (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs) can help increase levels in your body and reduce depression symptoms. “Good serotonin levels help [keep] your mood nice and steady,” Dr. Shah says.

Oxytocin

“Oxytocin is like a hugging hormone,” Dr. Shah says. “It’s made by the pituitary gland, and essentially it gets triggered a lot with physical touch.” When you have sex, hug someone you love, or snuggle your newborn, for example, oxytocin levels surge. This, in turn, increases feelings of love and trust, helping you feel more bonded to that person.

Of all the happy hormones, oxytocin is probably the least connected to exercise, Dr. Shah says. However, there’s some evidence that exercise may still at least somewhat boost this hormone: In one 2019 study, for example, researchers found that participants’ oxytocin levels increased after high-intensity martial arts training.

Oxytocin also plays an important role during childbirth and lactation. The hormone is released during labor and helps stimulate uterine contractions. And after a baby is born, oxytocin helps release milk during breastfeeding.

How to Boost Your Happy Hormones

So, is there any way you can purposefully increase the production of these happy hormones? In short, yes! Here are a handful of activities that trigger these feel-good hormones:

1. Exercise

Activates: Endorphins, Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin

No surprise here: Exercise can increase the production of all four happy hormones. When you work out, your body produces a surge of endorphins and dopamine, which soothes any pain you feel from your workout (endorphins) and activates your brain’s reward center (dopamine). As a result, you feel confident and motivated. “Think of how you feel after going for a long run, which is sometimes referred to as a ‘runner’s high,’” Dr. Shah says.

Physical activity also prompts the body to produce tryptophan, which in turn increases serotonin levels. Some studies have found that certain workouts may provide a boost in oxytocin, too.

With exercise, consistency is key to continue activating these feel-good hormones. “If you’re able to trigger endorphin release time after time and that makes you feel good, that’s going to trigger your dopamine release, and that will then release whenever you exercise,” Dr. Shah explains. “It’s a step-by-step process.”

Cardio workouts like running and indoor cycling are great ways to achieve that so-called runner’s high, but you can also activate happy hormones by power walking, swimming, hiking, yoga, and dancing.

2. Meditation

Activates: Dopamine, Endorphins

A meditation practice offers countless benefits, including managing stress levels, reducing anxiety, and regulating your mood. Research suggests that meditation increases neurotransmitter activity, and you can get a rush of dopamine and endorphins that help boost feelings of calmness and positivity.   

3. Massage

Activates: Dopamine, Oxytocin

Not only will a massage ease your sore muscles, but it can also impart a blissful feeling of relaxation and calmness. The primary hormones released during massage are oxytocin (thanks to physical touch) and dopamine (since massage is such a pleasurable experience and makes you feel so relaxed, it helps activate your reward center).

4. Sex

Activates: Endorphins, Oxytocin, Dopamine

Having sex prompts your body to release a rush of oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine. Oxytocin is primarily activated through physical touch and helps you feel bonded and connected to another person, which is why it’s often referred to as the “love hormone” or “hugging hormone.”

5. Diet

Activates: Serotonin, Dopamine

Foods that contain tryptophan, an amino acid that partly makes up serotonin, may help increase your serotonin levels. Eggs, salmon, cheese, tofu, pineapples, nuts, seeds, and turkey are all good sources. 

Eating plenty of magnesium- and tyrosine-rich foods can also help your body produce more dopamine. Consider adding foods such as almonds, avocados, bananas, beets, chocolate, chicken, peas, tomatoes, and watermelon to your plate.

6. Sunlight

Activates: Serotonin, Endorphins

Research suggests that sunlight plays a role in the body’s production of serotonin and endorphins, which may partly explain why conditions like depression and anxiety are more common during colder months of the year. Some experts believe that exposure to sunlight through the skin helps stimulate serotonin production (though wearing sunscreen is still critical!).

Is There Such a Thing as “Too Much” Happy Hormones?

Most people don’t need to worry about overdoing the kinds of activities that boost your happy hormones. “Our bodies are very smart, and if everything is working properly, you’ll trigger all the good things—enough dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins to keep you happy,” Dr. Shah says. 

However, overly high levels can be a problem in rare cases. For example, some experts think people with schizophrenia may have more dopamine in their brains, though researchers are still working to better understand what role the neurotransmitter plays in the disease. Too-high levels of serotonin can develop if you overdose on certain medications such as antidepressants, and this can lead to a serious condition called serotonin symptom, which can be life-threatening.

Because happy hormones make you feel good, some, such as dopamine, are associated with addictive behaviors. But in this case, it’s not that the hormone levels are too high—but rather, that the pleasurable feeling caused by a surge in dopamine is being applied to an activity that’s not actually good for your health.

And while exercise is hugely beneficial, “anything can be too much,” Dr. Shah notes. Overexercising won’t cause you to overdose on happy hormones, but lots of high-intensity training without time for recovery has been linked to higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can lead to chronic fatigue, trouble sleeping, and anxiety.

The Takeaway

Happy hormones (aka happiness hormones) such as endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin are neurotransmitters, which means they’re chemicals that work to form positive connections between the nervous system and the brain. Each happy hormone has its own roles: endorphins improve self-image, boost mood, and alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression, for example; serotonin regulates your mood, too, but also supports sleep quality and even digestion. These happy hormones can be activated in a number of ways, including through massage, acupuncture, sex, eating certain foods, being in sunlight, and—importantly—exercise. “Exercise is healthy, and if you can trigger hormones like this, it’s going to make you want to do it again,”  Dr. Shah says.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.

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