By Dr. Shawna Darou, ND
“Unhappiness does not kill you, it’s what we do to ‘get happy’ that does.”
I attended a great online conference in 2020, and wanted to share some inspiring content from a lecture by Dr. Robert Lustig, MD. He talked largely about the difference between pleasure and happiness, the brain chemistry differences, and how chasing pleasure doesn’t create happiness. You can learn much more about the subject in his book called “The Hacking of the American Brain.”
Pleasure vs. Happiness
How did we get so confused? We’ve been led to continually chase things that feel good – technology, alcohol, sugar, chocolate, gaming, exercise, nicotine, sex, etc. Some of these are really obviously addictive, but others are much more subtle. The thing is that constantly chasing things that cause the neurotransmitter changes associated with pleasure do not create happiness. This is a completely different pathway altogether.
Pleasure – the Dopamine pathways
Pleasure is driven by the neurotransmitter dopamine, which stimulates the reward centres in the brain. Interestingly, with constant stimulation of dopamine, we can reach ‘tolerance’, meaning you need more and more stimulation to feel good. To go from pleasure to addiction, however requires the addition of stress in the form of cortisol. What raises dopamine? – technology (social media especially), processed foods, sugar, sleep deprivation, drugs, alcohol,… We’ve been trained through advertising and all sorts of messaging over the past decades that these pleasures will bring happiness.
Dopamine pathways are greatly affected by your genetics, and also your hormones:
- Dopamine receptor activity: your genes can dictate how much dopamine is generally available in the prefrontal cortex, based on how strongly the receptors hold dopamine.
- Rate of dopamine degradation: Genes such as COMT and MAO-A reflect how quickly dopamine stays circulating after production is stimulated. For some people dopamine lasts in the brain for much longer than others.
- Cyclic estrogen fluctuations: at times of your menstrual cycle when estrogen rises (especially just before ovulation), dopamine levels increase. If you tend to have a low baseline of estrogen, you may find that you’re more productive during this time – motivated and focused, checking things off of your to-do list. If you tend to have a higher baseline of dopamine, you’ll feel more irritable, aggressive and foggy.
Happiness – the Serotonin pathways
Happiness on the other hand, is driven by the neurotransmitter serotonin, which has nothing to do with the dopamine driven reward pathway. The key to raising happiness is to get serotonin up, reduce dopamine and lower cortisol (stress).
Dr. Lustig has summarized what we can do to disconnect from the dopamine cycle, and increase our brain’s serotonin and hence our happiness. Again, this is a brief summary and I would highly recommend the book “The Hacking of the American Mind,” for more details and examples.
The Four C’s for Contentment:
Happiness requires eye to eye, face to face connection. Reading facial expression is important for empathy, and empathy is require for serotonin production.
In contrast, when we’re trying to connect on social media, we are missing out on this true connection since it is driven by dopamine and cortisol (no empathy). Social media has been described as being “alone together.”
It has been long known that contributing to the greater good leads to more happiness: altruism, volunteering, philanthropy. Work can be part of your happiness if you believe that your work is helping others.
Coping refers to sleep, exercise and mindfulness. Prioritizing sleep is essential for happiness, as sleep deprivation leads to higher cortisol levels. Relying on caffeine instead of getting enough sleep is another sneaky way of raising dopamine levels, but makes it more difficult to feel true happiness. Exercise has been proven time and time again to be one of the most important ways to alleviate depression, and is at least as good as an SSRI medication in alleviating mild to moderate depression. Mindfulness activates the prefrontal cortex in the brain, which increases empathy and connectivity.
As we have long known in the naturopathic world, what you eat plays an enormous role in your mood, and happiness. Cooking at home leads to healthier food choices, less sugar, more fibre, higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids, and better quality proteins. The real food movement is in high gear right now – one of the most impactful things you can do for your health is to simply eat real food. And cooking also fosters connecting, contributing and coping – family meals, social interaction and mindfulness with food choices.
Additional supports for brain chemistry:
If you have genetic susceptibility with difficulty regulating dopamine and serotonin, this can predispose you to addictive behaviour, getting caught on dopamine loops, depression and hormonal mood changes. In these cases, additional biochemical support can be useful. Here are some steps to address this:
- Consider looking at personal genetics to check for issues with dopamine receptors or rate of dopamine degradation, along with hormone metabolism (remember that high estrogen also leads to high dopamine), and serotonin pathways. Key genes such as COMT, DRD2 genes, TPH2, and MAO-A can be helpful.
- Nutrients to support dopamine production (tyrosine, B-vitamins, magnesium, Rhodiola, green tea extract and Mucuna puriens), ensuring adequate amino acid building blocks for neurotransmitters, and nutrients to support serotonin production (5-HTP. vitamins B6, folate, magnesium, zinc and inositol) may be recommended depending on the genetics, and mood susceptibility.
- If there has been a more recent change in mood, especially more obsessive thoughts, low mood and low motivation, testing for a marker called HPHPA (3-(3-hydroxyphenyl)-3-hydroxypropionic acid) in the urine with an organic acid test can indicate presence of strains fo Clostridia bacteria which drive up dopamine levels causing changes in mood and behaviour. This is fairly easily treated by rebalancing the gut microbiome. (This scenario is more common with chronic use of laxative, especially PEG-3350).
- And of course looking at cortisol levels, your stress history and what is driving changes in cortisol can have a big impact in your mood too.
My hope with this article was that it inspired you to take a look at how you’re creating happiness in your life, and how you may be chasing pleasure, instead of recognizing the things that truly create happiness. If you would like to explore the genetics or biochemistry behind your neurotransmitters to further help your mood regulation, we can certainly discuss testing and support during your next appointment.
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