Hormones get a bit of a bad rap. Puberty isn’t pleasant, pregnancy can be problematic and don’t even get me started on the perimenopause. But there are happiness hormones which can positively impact our wellbeing.
So what are hormones? From what I remember from school, a hormone is a message sent in chemical form around the body via our blood stream telling its intended recipient organ to do something. And there are lots of different types with different messages to send to different parts of our body. Hormones affect many physiological activities including growth, metabolism, appetite, puberty and fertility. And they may affect our mood.
I take medication because I suffer from depression. My hormones are fundamentally imbalanced meaning I do not experience life as many other do. Many of my feelings and emotions are not simply attributed to difficult situations or interactions but because of the messages sent via neurochemicals that are a bit off kilter. My medication works by increasing specific neurotransmitter chemicals in my brain that affect my mood and emotions.
The medication does not cure my constant low mood but rather enhances my happy hormones which allows me to then suppress the depression. Getting a quick fix of happy allows me to function, get out of the house and do things that naturally contribute to a more positive mood.
The modern world can be a daunting and over whelming place and humans were not designed to live as we do. Stress, lack of sleep, busy schedules all disrupt the fine-tuned balance of chemicals in the brain. So my thinking is I have a predisposition for depression, with the addition of modern day living means that just medication won’t keep the mental monkeys quiet. I need to do something more. So I use sea swimming and being outdoors to hone in on all of the happy hormones, not just the ones enhanced by my happy pills.
Hormones of Happiness
Serotonin is one of the most common ingredients in antidepressant medication. It can be used to treat all many of mental health disorders and so is widely used. It can impact emotions as well as physical functions including sleeping, eating and digestion – which all have strong links to emotional wellbeing. One of the lesser known links of serotonin is with confidence and a sense of belonging. Humans are able to increase their levels of serotonin by partaking in activities that challenge them on a regular basis. What could be more challenging than entering the cold winter sea in just a swimming costume? And if you do is regularly with a warm inclusive community of like minded swimmers it reinforces the sense of belonging creating a positive chain reaction.
Endorphin is a happy hormone commonly associated with exercise. The name means ‘self-produced morphine’, and is produced by our bodies when partaking in physical activity. What is outdoor swimming if it is not physical activity. (Drinking wine also release endorphins – just saying)
Oxytocin is sometimes known as the “the bonding molecule” or the “cuddle hormone” because it is released when people hug or bond socially. In a world where human contact is being replaced by facetime and whats app levels of oxytocin are decreasing. This hormone increases levels of trust, loyalty and confidence and creates a longing to be with the people you’ve bonded with. Swimming with a bunch of Salty Seabirds creates an environment of kinship where oxytocin can thrive. We provide each other with support, guidance and love, in the sea and in life.
Dopamine is all about pleasure and planning and is known as the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter. Taking part in rewarding activities results in increased levels of dopamine in the brain. Outdoor swimming can be rewarding is so many different ways. There are the arbitrary goals that some set themselves around times and temperature. And the wellbeing rewards of overcoming your fears, completing a winter of cold water or simply eating post swim cake. Dopamine is also associated with unique human abilities of thinking and planning. Again, outdoor swimming cannot be done without considerations. Kit, tide times, travel, safe entry etc – all these thoughts aid dopamine production.
Endocannabinoids is also known as the ‘bliss molecule’ and can be found in the cannabis plant as well as the human body. It is a lesser known and studied neurochemical but alongside endorphins is associated with feelings of being ‘high’ post exercise. The post swim high is often referred to by the Salty Seabird community after a particularly memorable swim. Almost as much as we refer to the post swim cake…….
Adrenaline increases blood pressure and heart rate known as the ‘adrenaline rush’. This rush is associated with staying alive and the fight or flight reaction. The adrenaline rush can be triggered when you are swimming outdoors and in cold water. Your body naturally reacts to this perceived threat of death with quick breathing and rapid swim strokes making you feel very much alive in the water! Once you are aware of the rush, and know how to prevent cold water shock the feeling of euphoria that is all part of the chemical reaction is very much welcome.
Gaba – this molecule is known for creating calmness in humans. It actually slows down the messages passed from neuron to neuron and can be increased naturally by practising mindfulness and meditation. Anti-anxiety medication such as Valium or Xanax are sedatives that increase Gaba levels. Swimming in the sea is one of the few forms of mindfulness that is able to silence my mental monkeys. The rhythm of my stroke, regulating my breathing, shingle sounds and wide open space is a Seabirds meditation.
Hormones of Sea Witches
There are a couple of hormones that are associated with women, and particularly women of a certain age. It is interesting that the vast majority of outdoor swimmers are female and middle aged.
Oestrogen has close links with Serotonin and it’s attributes include keeping your mood steady and reduces irritability and anxiety. Oestrogen decreases with the menopause (damn it) and the oestrogen/progesterone imbalance in perimenopause can also negatively affect mood (don’t I know it). It’s really important during this phase in a females life to manage your stress levels as the hormone released due to stress, cortisol also plays havoc with the functionality of both oestrogen and progesterone. I relieve stress in my life by being outdoors, on the beach or in the sea. A brisk walk, breathing in sea air, laughter with friends, bobbing in the water all help me forget the cares of the day.
Progesterone has a similar impact on your happiness to oestrogen with the addition of helping you to sleep. I am currently writing this at 5.30am so I think my levels may be a bit low! Levels drop during the perimenopause and again excess stress can accelerate this. The best nights sleep always follow a swim in the sea……..
The featured image shows me on the right – this is what someone who has mental health issues all of their life looks like! This is what a perimenopausal woman looks like. Happiness is possible. There are natural ways to boost your happy hormones. And Swimming in the sea is mine.
Author: Seabird Kath