There truly is no better medicine for me than spending time in the mountains—skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, walking the dog along the river and bike paths, sitting in mineral hot springs and simply being surrounded by the strength and energy of nature. These all fuel my “happy hormones.” After a few days in the mountains—in summer or winter—I return home happier and lighter emotionally and with less muscle tension in spite of all the outdoor challenges I engaged in while away.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the interplay between our day-to-day choices and the impact those choices have on our hormones including dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins—all the hormones that make us feel good.
Why bring this up now? Because I just spent several days in the mountains. And while I often feel sluggish at the start of each ski day—just getting my boots on and carrying equipment to the chairlift is a workout in itself—I am always fascinated by how energized I am at the end of the day after several hours of exertion, fresh mountain air, interaction with my skiing partners and people I meet on the chairlift and even after overcoming the fear of challenging slopes. Each of those activities help build my stores of those hormones.
Just think about it…
Dopamine, at its simplest level, is part of our body’s pleasure reward system. Some people call it the “feel good” hormone. Just like rats were rewarded by behaviorist B.F. Skinner for performing proper behavior, I get a burst of dopamine from the exhilaration and pride after I make it to the bottom of each ski slope successfully. Whether skiing or hiking or just walking the dog, physical activity is known to increase dopamine levels.
Another boost to my dopamine levels is simply being outside in the sunshine. Dopamine, along with other mood-boosting neurotransmitters, declines in winter, and that can lead to seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This is especially true for me in the winter. I’ve noticed that when I get out in the sunshine during the winter, my body drinks it up. After months of rarely being in the sun Monday through Friday, I feel like a sunflower following the sun through the sky.
Oxytocin is the hormone of human connection. When we are in the mountains, we often are with special family members and friends, many of whom we rarely see because they live in other parts of the country. Our days are filled with shared activities and our evenings with cooking and enjoying delicious meals at home. We talk about the events of the day and reflect on fond memories. One of my happiest New Year’s Eves of all time was when my daughter had several of her dearest college friends visiting for the holidays, and we cooked a special dinner at home before the “kids” went out to celebrate the night.
I mentioned the chats on the chairlift. It’s amazing how frequently you meet a total stranger and realize the places or people you have in common. This past weekend, I met two different couples who were from our New York/Connecticut area and had traveled to many of the same places when their kids were young that we did with ours. Connection. Zing!
And then there is serotonin—the key mood-stabilizing hormone. Millions of people spend millions of dollars every year on antidepressant medications, attempting to boost their serotonin levels. Yet again, activity and sunshine play a key role in building up our levels of serotonin—some studies even show that exercise is as effective, if not more so, than antidepressants at enhancing mood. Whether in the mountains or at home, I know that exercise of some kind every day is critical to my mood. The range of nature’s events in the mountains is icing on the cake for me.
Among other things, endorphins help our bodies feel good and increase emotional pleasure. They are described as natural painkillers since they interact with the opiate receptors in our brains to reduce our feelings of pain. This is hugely important given the raging opioid crisis in America. And the really important thing is that it doesn’t take hard-core exercise to release endorphins. In fact, moderate intensity is actually best so that your body is not stressed. My walks with our dog in the mountains, a little snowshoeing or a hike in the woods are all it takes for me.
And of course, there is the power of nature and its healthful effect on pretty much every aspect of our bodies. Getting out of the concrete jungle and into nature of any kind, even if it’s simply sitting in the backyard, boosts our bodies and our minds in every way.
For me, it’s the mountains. For others, it’s the beach or the garden. During life’s hustle and bustle, we often aren’t aware of the changes that come from nature. It’s not as if a switch in our bodies is flipped. It’s often more the release of tension and realizing how good and free and strong we feel. And more important, how amazingly easy it is to impact our hormones and ramp up those good feelings.
Hormones are incredibly complex and can be overwhelming. But this is my new fascination, given our ability to dial them up and down based on our daily choices of activities, food, human interaction and more. You may hear about them again from me.
For now, think about where your happy place is and how you can stay there in your heart even when your body can’t be there. I will leave my mountains tomorrow but keep the lessons of my time here with me always.