Episode 21: Happy Brain Chemicals with guest Dr. Loretta Breuning (Part 2)
Welcome to part 2 of our three-part series on happy brain chemicals: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins, how they work and how your everyday actions impact their flow. If you missed last week’s episode, I suggest you go back and listen to it first (click here), before jumping into today’s episode. Today, we will be talking about oxytocin (your brain’s love chemical) and endorphin (your brain’s pain masking chemical). Dr. Breuning also shares with us some exciting information and insights about how to build new neural pathways.
Our guest, Dr. Loretta Breuning, is the founder of the Inner Mammal Institute (visit their website by clicking here). Her goal is to help people manage the ups and downs of their mammal brain. She is also a professor emerita of management at California State University East Bay and the author of eight books, including "Habits of a Happy Brain" - which talks about the brain chemicals that make us feel good, and how to stimulate them naturally.
Happy Brain Chemical #3: Oxytocin
What is oxytocin?
Oxytocin is often referred to as the “love chemical” or the “cuddle hormone”. It is released when you feel safe in a herd.
Oxytocin is stimulated by:
In the animal world, being with a herd protects us against predators and the brain evolved to reward you with a good feeling of oxytocin when you're with a herd. When you leave the herd (and you start to feel threatened) your oxytocin falls and you start releasing cortisol (stress hormone). Returning back to the herd will increase oxytocin levels and you’ll begin to feel good and safe again.
In this way, your brain motivates you to feel good when you find acceptance and belonging and to feel threatened when you feel isolated. Of note - there is also conflict in a herd (e.g., competing for the same grass - when you're all bunched up together). So, you would really rather go off to greener pastures and get your own grass; but, when you leave the herd, your oxytocin falls and you feel threatened.
In this way, you are constantly challenged to balance your desire to act in your own self interest versus the desire for safety and social support.
Happy Brain Chemical #4: Endorphin
What are endorphins?
Endorphin is triggered by pain and vigorous exertion. In particular, endorphins temporarily mask pain, so that you can do what you need to do to survive.
For example, if an animal is attacked by a predator and is bitten, endorphins will mask the pain of the large open wound for about 15 minutes while the bitten animal runs to safety. After about 15 minutes, the animal either dies or is hidden well enough that it can now tend to its injuries. It is important that the animal eventually feels the pain, however, because the injury needs to be tended to.
So, what are healthy ways to stimulate endorphins?
Laughing: You can get a little bit of endorphin from laughing, which is interesting because laughing stimulates deep inner belly muscles that we don't always use.
Moderate exercise: You get a little bit from moderate exercise. For example, if you are sitting too long and you get up and move around, you get a little bit of endorphin
Eating spicy food: Hot pepper stimulates a little bit of endorphin release. But, there is also habituation that you have to consider. Specifically, if you eat more and more and more hot pepper to enjoy it, then it won’t have the same effect. But, if you have a little hot pepper once every few days, then you’ll get some kind of pain response.
Building New Neural Pathways
A substantial amount of your neural pathways were built during childhood, but is the human brain capable of building new ones?
The short answer is yes!
Neurons connect when happy brain chemicals flow, which wires you to seek more of the same. You rely on your existing pathways to tell you which actions to take to bring about positive emotions/outcomes and which actions to avoid to minimize negative emotions/outcomes.
Scientists now know that we grow new neurons throughout life – but, these new neurons are not connected to anything yet.
How can we connect our new baby brain cells?
The simple answer is REPETITION. For new pathways to form, it takes much more repetition than you think.
But it also takes courage.
Once you repeat an action, you build a small neural pathway - and we don't really like to use a small little dirt trail, when there is a nice big highway paved somewhere else. So, it takes courage to say “I'm going to use the back roads of my brain” - rather than just coasting on the roads that you've built up your whole life.
It takes consistent and persistent action to build new neural pathways, because - often times - the first time you engage in a new behaviour, it doesn't feel good.
For example, if you’re used to having cookies every afternoon at 4 o'clock; but, you decide that the cookies are not good for you and you want to stop eating them every afternoon. Instead, you want to reward yourself in a different way at four o'clock.
The first time you try a different reward at 4 o’clock, it's not going to feel good. You’re still going to want the cookie. But, if you find a new way to treat yourself at 4 o’clock (e.g., a few cashews and 10-minutes of watching a comedy series) and you do that every day for the next 45 days, it will eventually start to feel more natural to reach for the cashews and comedy! NOTE – it will take a lot of repetition to get to that point. Don't expect the new choice to feel good from the beginning, because your old pathway is already so well developed and needs to be rewired.
Take home: When we're talking about building new neural pathways or new ways of executing on some sort of goal behavior, it's not going to be easy. It takes a lot of effort and repetition.
To learn more about the work that Dr. Loretta Breuning is doing on Happy Brain Chemicals, you can visit her website by clicking here and don’t forget to tune in next week (Episode 22), where will be sharing the conclusion of our three-part series with Dr. Breuning.