Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Post 45: Happy Hormones and Food

Hi guys,

Today we’re going to look at something fascinating: “why”. Not the logical why, the one we can think about, but the instinctual why. What are the reasons behind our actions? What are driving them? Why do we pursue paths even though they are against our best interest?

The inspiration for this post was Loretta Breuning’s Habits of a Happy Brain, a book I just finished reading. I’d recommend you do too. It’s a quick one, and introduces you to the “happy hormones” which drive our actions, and the main antagonist: cortisol. That will give you a great understanding of how we develop our responses to various stimuli.

The four hormones described are dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin, and serotonin. In this post we’re going to take a look at each one in turn and how they play a part in the weight loss journey.

So I’m afraid that if you came expecting a list of foods to eat to “make you happy”, you’re not going to leave here satisfied. Instead, I want to explain how all foods can make you happy (hormonally) and why.

Before we start, I’ll introduce the anti-hero of this topic: cortisol. Cortisol, aka stress, is a signal which we interpret as “do something”. When we feel stressed, we get an intense urge to do something to make that bad feeling go away. This is why it’s an anti-hero rather than a bad guy. Cortisol drives us to avoid pain and improve our chances of survival. Without cortisol, we wouldn’t be here today. So on some level, be grateful!


Dopamine is the happiness we gain from finding something we seek. It drove our ancestors to feel rewarded when they found food for themselves and their tribe. You will experience it any time you find something that you were looking for. The only problem is, once we find it the first time, the second time does not elicit quite the same intensity of happiness. We must make an even better find to recreate that feeling of happiness.

For someone losing weight, they will commonly feel a dopamine hit when they stumble across a diet which brings success. You might feel it when you find a style of exercise that works well for you. You will feel it when you’re troubleshooting your health. When I was having problems with lightheadedness and muscle cramps, I would have received a dopamine hit when I found that adding more salt into your diet eliminates the issue.

Whenever someone expects to receive dopamine, and they do not, they experience dopamine disappointment. Cortisol (the urge to do something, e.g. lose weight), drove them to find ways to solve their problem, and now that they’ve hit a plateau, the old methods aren’t as effective. The cortisol pressure is still there, but it isn’t relieved by the dopamine happiness.

What do people do? They go into ever more extreme dieting, or longer or more intense exercise regimes. They might fast for longer each day (if they’re into that), or restrict more and more foods from their diet. If we’re still feeling the urge to “do something”, then we will search desperately to elicit the dopamine hit.


Endorphins are the oddest out of the bunch, because they’re not an independent happy hormone. Endorphins are released in response to pain, and cause you to feel temporarily euphoric. This hormone was perpetrated in evolution because the ability to endure pain allowed us to escape from predators. Endorphins are what cause “runner’s high”, and will be stimulated by all methods of exercise to some extent.

This works in a dieter’s favour, because they feel good every time they exercise. It is stimulated by fasting, and also by caffeine, something regular readers of this blog might have upped recently (up sell! Up sell! - C). This is something I’ve begun to experience recently, a true euphoric feeling when I drink coffee for roughly 30 minutes. I think I’ve deduced that it is the caffeine, rather than the coffee itself, because homemade french-press and decaf don’t have the same effect. I’m keeping a close eye on this one, and limiting my caffeine: self-observation and treating yourself as a human guinea pig is key!

The issue with endorphins, is that like dopamine, you need progressively higher amounts of pain to induce the same level of euphoria. You need to run faster, work out harder, and drink more caffeine. This is how someone starts with a regular coffee, then ends up including extra shots of espresso and drinking it more often! (Not me yet, thankfully… - C)

All of these things, at some point, are going to start to hurt you; you are in effect “chasing the first high”.


Oxytocin is released when we feel accepted in social groups; it’s the hormone that’s released when we are physically near other people. Oxytocin propagated because it encouraged us to stick together in our tribes and work as a unit to hunt and gather.

So far, it might seem that oxytocin is unrelated to weight loss, but it is. Unfortunately, it’s mostly on the negative side. Your new healthy eating habits are likely to leave you out of some social occasions, and your friends will want you to provide consistent justification. That possibility of social loss hurts, or more specifically, we don’t get the oxytocin happiness which comes from “sticking with the herd”.

Continual justification is something that I’ve experienced throughout my own journey; this blog is part of that. I’ve also delved deep into the books, podcasts, and content put out by YouTubers who support the modern nutritional movement. I have a theory that the reason why these forms of media can be so addictive is because they’re stimulating your oxytocin: you and millions of other people are actually part of an online community and it feels good to be accepted. Each time you consume some of their content, you get that oxytocin hit. Eventually you build a pathway in your brain which links this type of media with happiness. This all helps to  lessen the impact of the immediate oxytocin disappointment from your current social group.

But like I said back in Post 28, being a one-man-brand is important, over time your peers’ expectations change, and eventually you’re fully welcomed back into the fold complete with your new persona.

In the meantime, you will suffer some oxytocin disappointment, which is going to put stress on your motivation to continue, even if you are getting results.


Serotonin is the happy hormone we enjoy when we experience a feeling of higher social status. In effect we are happy because our survival chances are higher, which might be through being dominant in a social circle or by aligning with someone who is more dominant than you. An interesting fact about serotonin is that most of it is contained in our guts. This isn’t surprising: the leaders of the pack get first choice of the food available. We become motivated to get the best food, because if we do, we release serotonin which makes us feel superior.

As you begin to see results, you might experience serotonin happiness from being slimmer and more attractive. You might release serotonin because you’re becoming stronger or faster in the gym than your peers. As the amount of social attention you receive increases, you’re reminded by the good feeling of serotonin that your perceived social value is higher.

Here’s a sneakier one: you might get a serotonin release because you resisted the unhealthy food, where others didn’t. Knowing what I know now, I’ve certainly experienced this before. It is also a good explanation for why some people resist the unhealthy food advertised to them 24/7. They’ve trained their brains to resist the cortisol urge to “do something” when presented with junk, and over time they’ve started to reward themselves with feelings of superiority. Over time, your brain starts to link junk food to being healthy and feeling happy.

The unfortunate side, however, is that we will always believe that “the grass is greener”. Always. Like serotonin and endorphins, you are continuously chasing the first high. Being better in some way will only provide temporary happiness, before you have to scuttle off to get your serotonin hit by other means, or with a different group of people. You will always be looking to one-up everyone else. Much like cortisol, this is not bad, it’s just another anti-hero. Without the constant desire to improve ourselves we would still be in the dirt.

This all sounds rather depressing

It does, doesn’t it? From reading the above you would (correctly) realise that we can never be truly satisfied unless we are expanding our horizons. Resting on our laurels is a recipe for misery.

But given the hand we’ve been dealt, let’s think about what we can do about it. First, take a step back, and think about each of the hormones in turn. How are you experiencing each one? Which one do you experience more than others? Could you get more in one area?

Here’s some ideas to promote each of the happy hormones:
  • Dopamine: try out a new vegetable and method of cooking
  • Endorphin: do a HIIT workout
  • Oxytocin: follow me and message me on Twitter (@tomcowlin ;) - C)
  • Serotonin: bring an intricate packed lunch to work and make a big show of it to your colleagues


So there you have it: all your life and your motives reduced to four simple happy hormones and one leather-clad biker bad boy hormone. Here’s this week’s takeaways:
  1. Understand the four happy hormones and cortisol; find out what each of them does, when it’s released, and start to recognise when it is
  2. Appreciate cortisol as the hormone which commands action; watch out when it rears its head, and think “do I want to train my brain to react to this feeling in a certain way”. React the same way to cortisol enough times and that’s what your brain will expect.
  3. Do a hormone analysis and break down where you’re getting each one in your life; is it possible to expand in some areas?

Until next time,


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