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
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.
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.
Sarah Hiner, president and CEO of Bottom Line Inc., is passionate about giving people the tools and knowledge they need to be in control of their lives in areas such as living a healthier life, the challenges of the health-care system, commonsense financial advice and creating great relationships. She appears often on national radio and hosts the Bottom Line Advocator Podcast, where she interviews leading experts to help people be their own best advocates in all areas of life.