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Watch Strictly, eat sauerkraut, win at Monopoly: expert tips for hacking your happy hormones | Health & wellbeing

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Loretta Breuning grew up around a lot of unhappiness, but couldn’t figure out why. To try to find out, she avidly read up on psychology, alongside raising two children and working as a professor in management at California State University. “I thought that, if I followed the research, it would make everybody happy all the time,” she says. “And then I saw that my students were not that motivated, my kids were not that motivated, and the kids of social science professors were not that motivated. So I started looking for the deeper roots of our motivation and our emotions.” She went on to write a book, Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin and Endorphin Levels.

Today, when the news seems endlessly bleak, we all need an extra blast of positivity. Can harnessing our understanding of brain chemicals – from dopamine and endorphin to oxytocin and serotonin – help? Breuning, along with a number of scientists working in the field, believe so.

Most of what we know about the biological basis of our emotions comes from research on animals. Think of the lab rats who learned to press certain levers to get more sugar or cocaine and who demonstrated the two-pronged pleasure circuit of wanting and liking. Wanting is associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine, and liking with the heavenly feelings of cannabinoids and opiates that our bodies produce when we get our desires. Oxytocin’s reputation as the love hormone stems largely from experiments with prairie voles nurturing their young, which showed oxytocin is what makes social bonding so delightful. In other words, these types of studies may not qualify us to make detailed pronouncements on the cause and effect of any activity on any individual human’s brain chemicals, but they do offer useful dots we can join.

Dopamine

We often refer to pleasures as rewards, because they evolved to encourage behaviours that promote survival. But they definitely are not, says Breuning, “just to make you happy about sitting around contemplating the universe”.

Happy reward.

Dopamine is often mentioned in terms of addictions, consumerism and social media, but it is there to alert us to seek basic necessities such as food and a mate. “Think about a monkey looking for food,” says Breuning. “When they see food in the distance, dopamine is released, and that gets their attention, releases their reserve tank of energy, and motivates them to step forward. Each step toward the reward triggers more dopamine.”

Dopamine is part of pleasure, but it’s the anticipatory, excited, searching aspect. So apart from staring at junk food ads, what are the healthy ways to get the buzz? “Have a long-term goal, a short-term goal, and a middle-term goal,” Breuning says. “So that you’re always stepping toward a reward, and you’re always stimulating it a little bit.” This will help, because “dopamine doesn’t last, it’s not designed to last. If you’re dying of thirst, as soon as you get water, then water doesn’t make you happy any more.” She suggests building a skill “that helps you reach a distant dream. Maybe you only spend 10 minutes a day on that skill, but it continually sparks that feeling that you’re getting closer to the reward. Another one would be planning an event like a party, anything that gives you something to look forward to, that you have control over, that you can regularly invest effort in.”

There are zillions of unhealthy options for short-term goals, of course – sweets, mindless internet shopping, drugs and booze – but Breuning advises just taking time to plan your entertainment. “You can enjoy yourself by researching a list of things that you actually like, to be ready when you have a tired moment.”

It was the professor Kent Berridge who first identified the pleasure system of wanting and liking. The bliss of the liking part of pleasure has, he says, “a much smaller and more fragile brain basis” than wanting – the dopamine bit. “That’s part of why the intense pleasures in life are less frequent and less sustained than intense desires.”

But even short-lived pleasure can put us on a more positive footing, so thank goodness there are many sources: seeing a cute baby laughing, eating tasty food, and sex are all excellent ways to light up the pleasure centres. Sadly, most of these come with built-in satiety – once we’ve eaten a certain amount of cheese, it becomes less and less pleasing and we become “full”, at least until we see the dessert menu and a new wave of dopamine is triggered.

Music for joy.

But there is an easy way to sustain the thrilling push-pull cycle of pleasure: “Music, and also dance,” says Olivia Foster Vander Elst, a musician turned neuroscientist, who is doing a PhD in salsa dancing at Aarhus University in Denmark. “With both, you get this constant renewal of the liking phase. So you get these really long pleasure cycles. And the satiation phase is also quite weak.” It doesn’t matter if you listen to Let It Go repeatedly, or a playlist of your favourite arias – the pleasure keeps coming. A recent paper Foster Vander Elst co-authored states that the positive effect of music is partly down to a constant anticipation of what’s coming next: “The ‘sweet anticipation’ stage of this pleasure cycle is both highly motivating and pleasurable.”

Foster Vander Elst is devising ways to measure brain activity during dancing. How is it, she asks, that even when we’re exhausted, we can dance for hours? “It’s an amazing thing that the exhaustion drops away as a result of moving to the music.” Salsa has the added advantage of being a partner dance. “That links in with some very cool research that’s been done on dance and synchrony generally, that it fosters feelings of empathy and closeness to other people,” she says.

You can get the same emotions from merely watching aesthetically pleasing movements (hello, Strictly). We may not yet know precisely what’s going on in the brain in dance, but, says Foster Vander Elst, “we know that moving in synchrony raises pain thresholds”.

Syncronicity.

Oxytocin

This bring us back to the so-called love hormone, oxytocin. Breuning is worried we have unhelpful idealised expectations of it. “Animals seek a group when they feel threatened. So you can let down your guard because you’re protected by others – an inherently selfish feeling. A zebra can’t eat if it’s constantly looking for a lion. When it’s surrounded by others then it can relax and eat.”

While bonding makes you feel safe, Breuning says, “when you have idealised notions about social groups, then frankly your social relations can end up disappointing”. Instead she advises us to think about trust rather than social lives. “That trust is reciprocal, so you have to offer support in order to get support.” If you’re feeling oxytocin-starved, Breuning’s solution “is to build your side of a bridge with a lot of people. You can’t control when they cross it, but you’ll be nicely surprised.” Getting oxytocin this way, she says, “is much better than feeling like you have to follow the herd every minute, which is what your inner mammal thinks – it feels threatened when you’re isolated.”

Safe in groups.

Serotonin

This is the neurotransmitter that we often hear about in relation to antidepressant drugs and the high of MDMA. But its role in mood is not well understood. We make it from a substance called tryptophan, which is found in plenty of healthy foods, but there’s no evidence that eating them will boost serotonin levels or happiness. We do know that the mysterious universe of microbes that live in our guts has been positively linked to serotonin production (90% of our serotonin is made in the gut), so eating a microbiome-supportive diet can help. Avoid high-sugar and processed foods, and go for a diverse, high-fibre, mostly plant-based diet incorporating fermented products such as tofu and sauerkraut. There is plenty of evidence that eating like this results in less depression and anxiety.

Breuning links serotonin’s glow to feeling like a winner. “Mammals are very competitive and hierarchical,” she says. “They’re always looking for the one-up position, because that helps them spread their genes. Everyone has this impulse, and your mammal brain rewards you with serotonin when you gain the one-up position.” But it doesn’t last, she says, so you can end up in a never-ending needy cycle.

Her advice is to find ways to put yourself up, without putting others down, by focusing on your strengths. “But also,” she says, “be philosophical and know that we’re not designed to have serotonin every minute.”

Happiness is playing with your cat.

Ciara McCabe, professor of neuroscience, psychopharmacology and mental health at the University of Reading, says it’s likely that serotonin levels are relatively fixed. “What we do know is that if you engage in what you consider subjectively rewarding, pleasurable experiences, you will probably release some of those chemicals involved in enjoyment, calmness or contentment.” And if you make a habit of doing those things – whether it’s playing with your cat, winning at Monopoly or canoeing – even the anticipation and cues associated with them will become pleasurable.

Endorphins

These are endogenous (meaning we make them in our bodies) opioids that flutter through us in fleeting moments of intense pleasure, but can also dull the pain of injury. They are always trotted out as the reason exercise makes us feel good, but in fact exercise produces a veritable cocktail of drugs along with other physical and psychological benefits – from a sense of achievement to better cardiovascular health.

Post-exercise bliss.

David Raichlen is an evolutionary biologist at University of Southern California whose current goal is to discover why exercise is rewarding to humans when most animals evolved to preserve physical exertion for when necessary (running from a lion, say). His hypothesis is that it evolved 2m years ago, when we swapped a life of foraging for higher-octane hunter-gathering.

His research has shown that when we exercise moderately – perhaps a brisk walk in which we get out of breath – we make endocannabinoids. These are, says Raichlen, “the body’s form of the active ingredient in marijuana. The main endocannabinoid that seems to be associated with exercise is called anandamide, which is named after the Sanskrit word ananda, meaning bliss.” When you get this kind of endocannabinoid activation, he says, a couple of things can happen. “One, you get that analgesic effect, a kind of pain-relief effect. And there’s also a mild, rewarding sensation – not like the high that you would get from smoking marijuana, because you’re not bathing your brain in this chemical – being produced on demand, likely in areas associated with reward.” Rather than euphoria, the result is a gentler glow of wellbeing.

These chemicals are broken down fairly quickly, but not before they cheer us up. “We’re such a weird species, because we have this ability to think about how we’re feeling,” says Raichlan. “You get this shift in your mood from physical activity, and then that alters your mindset for the rest of the day, even when that chemical is gone.”

Try the TV.

If an injury or health condition means you can’t exercise as much as you would like, PET scanning has recently revealed another route to endorphin heaven: social laughter. So maybe it is the time to get to a comedy club or ring your funny friend. A 2017 study by Finnish and British researchers found that social laughter “significantly increased” endorphins.

Raichlen thinks we can all benefit from understanding these lifestyle connections to mood, “because it means that we’re not totally helpless. If there are actions that people can take that are tried and true and scientifically tested, they can improve the way you feel. I think it’s really important for people to know that.”

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Solar storms may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in a given year

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In an approximate 11-year cycle, the sun blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field, which may disrupt our body clock and ultimately affect our heart



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17 June 2022

A solar storm

Jurik Peter/Shutterstock

Solar storms that disrupt Earth’s magnetic field may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in the US in a given year.

The sun goes through cycles of high and low activity that repeat approximately every 11 years. During periods of high activity, it blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field.

These so-called solar storms can cause glitches in our power grids and bring down Earth-orbiting satellites. A handful of studies have also hinted that they increase the risk of …

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UK Covid infection rate rising, with more than a million cases in England | Coronavirus

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Coronavirus infections are rising in the UK, figures have revealed, with experts noting the increase is probably down to the more transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants.

The figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), based on swabs collected from randomly selected households, reveal that in the week ending 11 June an estimated one in 50 people in the community in England are thought to have had Covid – around 1.13 million people.

The figure is even higher, at one in 45, in both Wales and Northern Ireland, while it was highest in Scotland where, in the week ending 10 June, one in 30 people are thought to have been infected.

While the figures remain below the peak levels of infection seen earlier this year, when around one in 13 people in England had Covid, the findings are a rise on the previous week where one in 70 people in England were thought to be infected. Furthermore, the data reveals increases in all regions of England, except the north-east, and across all age groups.

Experts say that a key factor in the increase is probably the rise of the Covid variants of concern BA.4 and BA.5.

“Infections have increased across all four UK nations, driven by rising numbers of people infected with the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants,” said Kara Steel, senior statistician for the Covid-19 Infection Survey.

While Steel said it remained too early to say if this was the start of another wave, others have warned it may already have begun, with increased mixing and travelling among other factors fuelling a rise in cases.

Among concerns scientists have raised are that BA.4, BA.5 and another variant on the rise, BA.2.12.1, replicate more efficiently in human lung cells than BA.2.

Prof Azra Ghani, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said the latest figures were not surprising, and might rise further.

“This increase in infection prevalence is likely due to the growth of the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, which as we have seen elsewhere in Europe, appear to be able to escape immunity generated from previous Omicron subvariants,” she said.

“It is therefore possible that we will continue to see some growth in infection prevalence in the coming weeks and consequently an increase in hospitalisations, although these subvariants do not currently appear to result in any significantly changed severity profile. This does however serve as a reminder that the Covid-19 pandemic is not over.”

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NHS to offer women in England drug that cuts recurrence of breast cancer | Breast cancer

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Thousands of women in England with breast cancer are to benefit from a new pill on the NHS which reduces the risk of the disease coming back.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has given the green light to abemaciclib, which cuts the chance of breast cancer returning after a patient has had surgery to remove a tumour.

Trials showed that patients who had the drug with hormone therapy had a more than 30% improved chance of their cancer not coming back after surgery, compared with hormone therapy alone.

“It’s fantastic thousands of women with this type of primary breast cancer will now have an additional treatment option available on the NHS to help further reduce the risk of the disease coming back,” said Delyth Morgan, the chief executive of charity Breast Cancer Now.

“The fear of breast cancer returning or spreading to other parts of their body and becoming incurable can cause considerable anxiety for so many women and their loved ones.

“New effective treatments such as abemaciclib, which can offer more women the chance to further reduce the risk of the disease recurring, are therefore extremely welcome and this is an important step change in the drug options available for this group of patients.”

The twice-a-day pill is suitable for women with hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative, node-positive early breast cancer at high risk of recurrence who have had surgery. About 4,000 women will benefit initially, Nice said.

Helen Knight, the interim director of medicines evaluation at Nice, said the draft recommendation came less than a month after abemaciclib received its licence.

“The fact that we have been able to produce draft recommendations so quickly is testament to the success of our ambition to support patient access to clinically and cost effective treatments as early as possible,” said Knight. “Until now there have been no targeted treatments for people with this type of breast cancer.

“Abemaciclib with hormone therapy represents a significant improvement in how it is treated because being able to have a targeted treatment earlier after surgery will increase the chance of curing the disease and reduce the likelihood of developing incurable advanced disease.”

Abemaciclib works by targeting and inhibiting proteins in cancer cells which allow the cancer to divide and grow. It normally costs £2,950 for a packet of 56 150mg-tablets, but the manufacturer, Eli Lilly, has agreed an undisclosed discounted price for NHS England.

“Thanks in part to this latest deal struck by NHS England, NHS patients will be able to access another new targeted drug for a common and aggressive form of breast cancer,” said Prof Peter Johnson, the cancer director of NHS England.

“Abemaciclib, when used alongside a hormone therapy, offers a new, doubly targeted, treatment option, helping to increase the chances of beating the cancer for good, as well as meeting the NHS’s commitment to delivering improved cancer care under our long-term plan.”

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