Happy Hormones and the Science of Addiction

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In our daily lives, we experience a range of emotions that can greatly impact our overall well-being. Have you ever wondered why a simple act of kindness or a workout session can instantly uplift your mood? The answer lies in our happy hormones. These chemical messengers, produced by our bodies, have a profound influence on our emotions, mood, and overall happiness.

Below, find out more about the science behind happy hormones and addiction, explore how we can naturally boost their levels in our bodies, and discover how alcohol and drug abuse and misuse can damage these neurological pathways.

The Five Feel-Good Hormones

In general, there are typically four “feel-good” hormones: dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin. However, GABA is another “pleasure-center” neurotransmitter that should also be mentioned, as it also changes as a person becomes addicted to a substance.


Dopamine is often referred to as the “reward neurotransmitter.” It plays a crucial role in our brain’s pleasure and reward system. Dopamine is released when we engage in activities that bring us joy, such as eating delicious food, achieving goals, or receiving recognition. It motivates us to seek out rewards and reinforces certain behaviors.


Serotonin, known as the “feel-good hormone,” contributes to our overall wellbeing and happiness. It regulates mood, appetite, sleep, and social behavior. Serotonin levels are influenced by factors such as exposure to sunlight, exercise, and certain foods. Low serotonin levels have been linked to depression and anxiety disorders.


Endorphins are natural painkillers produced by our bodies in response to stress or discomfort. They are responsible for the “runner’s high” experienced during intense exercise. Endorphins not only alleviate physical pain but also induce feelings of euphoria and happiness. They can be released through various activities, including laughter, physical exercise, and even spicy foods.


Oxytocin, often called the “love hormone,” is associated with bonding, trust, and social connection. It is released during moments of intimacy, physical touch, and acts of kindness. Oxytocin promotes feelings of warmth, empathy, and social bonding, strengthening relationships and fostering a sense of belonging.


Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps regulate anxiety and stress. It has a calming effect on the brain, reducing overactivity and promoting relaxation. GABA plays a crucial role in managing anxiety disorders and promoting a sense of calm and well-being.

The Role of Happy Hormones

“Happy hormones” play very important roles in the body and in the brain. These neurotransmitters help regulate mood, handle stress effectively, allow us to bond with others, and are a significant part of the “pleasure/reward” center in the brain.

  • Emotions and Mood Regulation: Happy hormones play a crucial role in regulating our emotions and mood. Dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, oxytocin, and GABA work together to create a balanced emotional state. They help us experience joy, happiness, and contentment while also counteracting negative emotions like stress, anxiety, and sadness.
  • Stress Relief and Resilience: One of the significant benefits of happy hormones is their ability to alleviate stress. All five are natural stress relievers, reducing the production of stress hormones like cortisol. They promote resilience, allowing us to bounce back from challenging situations and cope better with everyday stressors.
  • Pleasure and Reward System: Happy hormones are closely linked to our brain’s pleasure and reward system. Dopamine, in particular, plays a key role in this process. It reinforces behaviors that please us and motivates us to seek out rewarding experiences. Serotonin and endorphins also contribute to the overall sense of pleasure and well-being.
  • Social Bonding and Connection: Oxytocin, the hormone responsible for social bonding, plays a vital role in our ability to connect with others. It helps with trust, empathy, and feelings of closeness.

Happy Hormones After Addiction

Addiction is a complex disease that affects the brain’s reward system. Drugs and alcohol can hijack the brain’s natural reward pathways, leading to compulsive drug-seeking behavior and a loss of control. Happy hormones, such as dopamine, play a significant role in reinforcing addictive behaviors and creating a cycle of craving and reward.

While dopamine plays a significant role in addiction, there is not one neurotransmitter or hormone responsible for addiction. The “addiction hormones” in the brain change as the addiction progresses and revert back, with the plasticity of the brain, after toxic substances are no longer affecting the brain. Also, keep in mind it’s not just drugs and alcohol that can cause “happy hormones” to be dysfunctional.

Dopamine and the Pleasure-seeking Cycle

Dopamine is central to the brain’s reward system and plays a critical role in addiction. Drugs and alcohol artificially increase dopamine levels, creating an intense sense of pleasure. However, prolonged substance abuse leads to desensitization of dopamine receptors, requiring higher doses to achieve the same level of satisfaction. This cycle perpetuates addiction.

Serotonin Deficiency and Mood Disorders

Serotonin imbalances are often associated with mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Substance abuse can disrupt serotonin levels, exacerbating these conditions and increasing the risk of self-medication through drugs or alcohol. Addressing serotonin deficiencies is crucial in promoting mental wellness and reducing the risk of relapse.

Endorphins and the Craving-relief Connection

Endorphins play a role in addiction by providing relief from emotional and physical pain. Substance abuse initially provides a sense of relief and euphoria through the release of endorphins. However, as addiction progresses, the brain becomes dependent on the substance to maintain normal endorphin levels, leading to drug or alcohol cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

Oxytocin and the Importance of Social Support

Oxytocin’s role in addiction lies in its impact on social bonding and support systems. Healthy relationships and social connections are crucial in addiction recovery, as they promote the release of oxytocin and foster feelings of trust, empathy, and support. Building a strong support network is essential for long-term sobriety.

Harnessing Happy Hormones for Recovery

Once neurotransmitters have been “remapped,” it can sometimes be difficult to bring them back to their original state. Stopping drugs and alcohol can lead to a feeling that everything is boring, there’s no future, and the world is easily seen through a pair of grey-colored glasses. Addiction treatment is an effective way to separate yourself from the addiction and give space; however, there’s work you’ll need to do as part of your overall recovery to jumpstart your pleasure/reward center.

Some of these activities might sound boring, or even silly, particularly if you’ve never done them before. Just remember—the body didn’t become addicted in one day, so it will take some time for your brain to rejuvenate. Over time, you’ll find what works for you and helps boost your “happy hormones” naturally. Some suggestions are below.

Exercise: Boosting Endorphin Levels Naturally

Regular exercise is a powerful tool in addiction recovery as it naturally boosts endorphin levels. Engaging in physical activity, such as running, swimming, or yoga, can help reduce cravings, improve mood, and promote overall well-being. Exercise also provides structure and routine, which are essential in recovery.

Mindfulness and Meditation: Cultivating Serotonin Balance

Mindfulness and meditation practices have been shown to increase serotonin production and promote emotional well-being. By focusing on the present moment and cultivating self-awareness, individuals in recovery can reduce stress, improve mood, and develop healthier coping mechanisms.

Social Connections: Strengthening Oxytocin Bonds

Building and maintaining healthy social connections is vital for everyone, but particularly in addiction recovery. Engaging in meaningful relationships, participating in support groups, and seeking out positive social interactions can boost oxytocin levels and provide a sense of belonging and support.

Healthy Diet and Nutrition: Nurturing Dopamine Pathways

A well-balanced diet rich in nutrients can support dopamine production and promote overall brain health. Consuming foods high in tyrosine, an amino acid precursor to dopamine, can help nurture dopamine pathways. Additionally, avoiding processed foods and sugar can prevent dopamine crashes and reduce cravings.

Stress Management: Balancing GABA Levels

Stress management techniques, such as deep breathing exercises, yoga, and meditation, can help balance GABA levels and promote relaxation. By reducing stress and anxiety, individuals in recovery can prevent relapse and maintain a state of calm and well-being.

The Power of Hobbies and Pleasurable Activities

Engaging in hobbies and pleasurable activities can stimulate the release of happy hormones and promote overall well-being. Pursuing activities that bring joy, such as art, music, sports, or nature walks, can provide a healthy outlet for emotions and contribute to a fulfilling recovery journey.

Addiction Recovery Programs and Happy Hormones

Perhaps you’re exercising, eating well, sleeping better, trying to be more social, and everything still feels—grey. It’s okay (and suggested!) to reach out for more help in your recovery. From psychotherapy to support group meetings to medication-assisted treatment (MAT), there are myriad choices when it comes to receiving outside help to revive your neurotransmitters and keep your recovery journey on point.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a widely used therapeutic approach in addiction recovery. It focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to addiction. CBT helps individuals develop coping strategies, improve self-esteem, and encourage positive mental health.

Group Therapy and Support Networks

Group therapy provides a supportive environment where individuals in recovery can share their experiences, gain insights, and receive encouragement. Support networks, such as 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA), offer ongoing support and a sense of community.

Holistic Approaches: Yoga, Art Therapy, and Massage

Holistic approaches, such as yoga, art therapy, and massage, can complement traditional addiction treatment. These modalities promote relaxation, self-expression, and self-care, enhancing overall well-being and reducing stress. They can also stimulate the release of happy hormones, fostering a sense of inner peace and balance.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) combines medication, such as buprenorphine or naltrexone, with counseling and behavioral therapies. MAT helps individuals manage cravings, reduce withdrawal symptoms, and stabilize brain neurotransmitters, increasing the chances of successful recovery.

Creating a Well-Rounded Recovery Plan

A well-rounded recovery plan should incorporate various evidence-based treatments, therapies, and lifestyle changes. By addressing the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of addiction, individuals can optimize their chances of long-term recovery.

Understanding the intricate relationship between happy hormones and addiction recovery is key to promoting sustainable wellness and long-term sobriety. By harnessing the power of endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and GABA, individuals can create a solid foundation for a successful recovery journey. Through a combination of evidence-based treatments, lifestyle changes, and ongoing support, individuals can optimize their chances of achieving happiness, well-being, and lasting recovery.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, Mountainside can help.
Click here or call (888) 833-4676 to speak with one of our addiction treatment experts.