How to Be Happy

I am reposting this article from Thanksgiving because this topic is so important.  So many people use antidepressant medications before learning about the power of our behaviors to create healthy, happy moods.  If you haven’t read this yet, enjoy-if you have, it’s worth the read again.  Ciao!

I was talking with one of my girlfriends yesterday, and she told me that most of her friends use antidepressant or anxiety medications.  I was amazed to hear that one of her friends uses both Cymbalta and Adderall, and is trying to discontinue using her Cymbalta.  Yikes.  We all know someone who uses this type of medication, but how many people really understand how these work and what we can do on our own to create similar changes in mood related neurotransmitters?

First, what are neurotransmitters?  Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers, and neurotransmission is the messaging process.  Think of a light switch with a dimmer.  With me?  Neurotransmission is to neurotransmitters what the light switch is to the dimmer on that light.  In other words, increasing your amount of neurotransmitter turns the dimmer up and brightens the room. Running dry on neurotransmitter levels is like sitting in a dim room.  Got it?

The two primary mood related neurotransmitters are serotonin and dopamine.  GABA is also important, but let’s simplify this by leaving GABA out this time.  Getting back to metaphors, think of the gas pedal in your car.  Dopamine is like the gas pedal-it speeds everything up.  Dopamine increases energy, focus, and creativity.  Too much can cause anxiety, irritability, impulsivity, and even anger problems.  Too little causes problems with attention, focus, memory, and energy.  Kids diagnosed with “ADHD” don’t have enough dopamine, but the entire idea of “ADHD” is a sham if you ask me.

Serotonin is the brake pedal-it of slows us down and helps us feel happy, safe, content, relaxed, and satiated.  Serotonin also helps us sleep-and we restore serotonin while we sleep, which creates a real catch 22 for serotonin.  More on that later.  Too much serotonin causes us to feel sleepy, lethargic, dull, and impotent.  Too little is far more common-that causes us to feel down, depressed, irritable, tired or wired, anxious, or any combination of these.  Because Vitamin D3, the sunshine vitamin, is an ingredient for serotonin, we tend to take a seasonal serotonin dip.  In fact, low levels of serotonin in the middle of winter are the reason you may find yourself doing a face plant in the potato chips.

All of us have an optimal speed for our physical and mental well being-an individual balance that we seek to create with our behaviors and choices.  You have your own optimal ratio that may be different from someone else’s optimal ratio. Most of us prefer a little more of one over the other.

See if you can see yourself in some of these behaviors-if these sounds familiar, you are more of a serotonin person. We all have both neurotransmitters, but you work a little harder to keep your serotonin levels up.

  • You reading, vacationing in the mountains or other quiet places, snuggling up to watch a movie, love carbs, feel a little blue in the winter, taking long walks, talking with friends, relaxing
  • You have no problem focusing when necessary, like to stay organized, and make plans
  • You like yoga, Pilates, tai chai, or other slower forms of exercise

On the other hand, maybe these sound more like you-in that case, you prefer more dopamine:

  • you’d vacation in Manhattan over a quiet retreat any day
  • You love a fast pace, have trouble paying attention and staying focused at times, and feel energized by chaos
  • Caffeine is irresistable
  • Smoking (tobacco) is a gift from Heaven and though you have tried, it’s nearly impossible to quit
  • You may have been diagnosed with ADHD or have a substance abuse problem in the past (and you may not)
  • You’re creative, energetic, charismatic, and people find you very entertaining.

Interestingly, research suggests that we tend to choose behaviors that keep our neurotransmitters outof balance. In other words, we can become habitually attracted to do the things that imbalance our neurotransmitters: drugs, behavioral patterns, addictions, alcohol abuse, etc.

What does this all mean?  It means that you have the power to create big neurochemistry changes on your own, with or without antidepressant meds.  Some people need both-there is nothing wrong with that.  It’s important that you understand the fact that your behaviors create similar increases in neurotransmitters while antidepressant meds simply “recycle” those chemicals.  Behaviors increase neurotransmitters in the parts of the brain that need it, while antidepressant meds give the brain an indiscriminate flood.  This is the reason for side effects.

I’ll write more on how to use your behaviors as medicine in a few days.

That’s all for today, kids.  We just returned from a trip to Diabetesville SC to visit family.  Cinnamon buns and hushpuppies and candy, oh my!  It was like Halloween meets the biggest birthday party of the year for three days straight-a huge serotonin explosion.  After my child returned from orbiting the planet Earth, I’m pretty sure she pooped pure food coloring for a day or two. Ay-yay-ay!