THE "WINNING COCKTAIL"
You’ve had a busy week, so you make it an early night and treat yourself to a long lie-in to start the weekend. On Saturday
morning, as you go slowly about your day, you realise that you are breathing out in long sighs and having feelings of
relief. This is your re- balancing and renewal system kicking in, driven by acetylcholine, the key chemical in the parasympathetic nervous system. Few people outside of the science or health fields know about acetylcholine, but it is responsible for hugely important areas like energy renewal, recovery from pressure, learning and memory. It brings the heart rate back to normal after intense activity and restores the balance of the organism as a whole in the process of homeostasis. This is true for all types of intense activity: emotional, mental, physical, or all three.
The signature feeling of acetylcholine is balance.
LIFE HACK: To quickly relax and stimulate acetylcholine production after a hard day, take a hot bath with Epsom
salts in it. Minerals such as magnesium and potassium (vital for renewal) will be absorbed through the skin and your energy will come flooding back – and you’ll sleep better.
We’ve all experienced it: on a fairground ride, skiing, going on a first date or even something somewhat negative such as
accidentally hitting ‘Reply All’ on a sensitive email response. The primary functions of adrenalin are to 1) increase heart rate
and blood flow in survival situations and 2) to release energy quickly from stored resources of carbohydrate and fat to provide the muscles and brain with a burst of energy and strength to facilitate immediate action.
Adrenalin creates excitement, activation and speed. It gives us the energy to meet new challenges, but it can speed us up
or leave us feeling overly excited or nervous in presentations or negotiations, making it difficult to communicate succinctly
or think clearly. Adrenalin is one of the two key operative chemicals of the sympathetic nervous system, the system that
produces the fast action needed to respond to threats.
The signature feelings of adrenalin are fear or excitement.
LIFE HACK: If you feel nerves building up, don’t just sit there: move, shift position, walk, shake out your legs and
arms to disperse adrenalin.
Do you ever worry or feel anxious about things? Do you sometimes react impatiently or angrily? Do you feel concerned about the future and whether you are up to it? Do you regularly believe that others are to blame for things? Or do you think
things are always your fault? These are all high cortisol speaking. Too many people are struggling to maintain their performance in today’s fast- paced and demanding environments, and cortisol is part of the problem.
It is a critically important chemical and the positive effects of it keep us alive. It numbs pain so that we can fight even if
injured; it is the major player in our nervous system function that takes us into all challenging or competitive situations
(arousal), improving short- term memory as we compete. In a sustained period of working under pressure, with a lot of
responsibility on our shoulders or in a sustained ‘fight or flight’ environment, cortisol builds, making us over- aroused and
anxious so that we ‘choke’ and underperform; we make poor decisions. This happens either because we are in overdrive,
pushing too much and taking unmitigated risks (hyperarousal) or because we have caved in (hypoarousal). We make attempts to think straight in complex situations but then often push our own agenda or decide on the path of least resistance, rather than what is right to do.
The signature feeling of cortisol is anxiety.
Dehydroepiandrosterone is the high-performance chemical. Synthetic DHEA is a banned substance for Olympic athletes,
yet we can make it ourselves every day using a specific paced breathing technique. It supports vitality, longevity, stamina,
cognitive function, immune system function, heart–brain function, long- term memory, responsiveness and many more
functions of a healthy, high- performing organism.
DHEA and cortisol are, then, two sides of a balancing scale. DHEA is a biomarker of age and naturally drops beyond the
age of thirty. For women and men, stress and high cortisol accelerate this drop in DHEA, which leads to premature ageing.
Unless we manage pressure well, when DHEA levels drop too quickly, the overall stability of our nervous and endocrine systems are compromised. If we improve our capacity to perform under pressure without undue stress, we will age more slowly.
The signature feeling of DHEA is vitality.
LIFE HACK: Check your Fitbit, smart phone or Apple watch and find a breath- pacer app – then increase the
amount of time per day you spend using a regular- paced breathing pattern. This boosts DHEA.
Have you ever felt disappointed on opening a birthday or Christmas present when it wasn’t what you wanted? Or when
you didn’t get that promotion at work? Or when you finished a conversation feeling faintly put out by someone who took credit for something you played a big part in? These negative feelings are generated by a lack of expected reward, a lack of delivery of the pleasure chemical dopamine.
Dopamine is the great motivator. When we get it, we prioritise behaviour to make sure we keep getting it – for example,
being annoyingly hooked on a rather poor but ‘unputdownable’ novel, or a box set where you just have to watch the next episode, or eating the entire bag of crisps. These are instances of the clever manipulation of our dopaminergic function – when our reward system is being played. It can feel so good yet be so bad for us. Dopamine provides a powerful chemical drive for many things concerned with survival. It is no accident that we enjoy the taste of food, water alleviates thirst and sex feels good. Beyond that, what we are praised for when we are young sets up the mechanism for what we want to achieve and win later in life – at work or in a specialised area or skill, which is why it is so important to reinforce positive behaviours in children. Dopamine plays a huge part in goal orientation and engaging people in change.
The signature feelings of Dopamine are pleasure and need.
LIFE HACK: STOP! Find something to enjoy and appreciate in this very moment. You just created a ‘reward’ and, in doing so, have given yourself a natural dopamine boost.
Over a meal with family or friends, have you ever had that sense of feeling right? That you like being there, you feel safe and
included, and believe that these people are looking out for your welfare? Hopefully, you regularly do. That’s oxytocin being
released. Oxytocin levels fluctuate in relation to our perception and processing of social information – whether we are in the
‘in group’ or ‘out group’, whether we feel safe or threatened. It is released when we trust someone; it enables us to feel responsibility to others and facilitates social bonding. Too much, and we may be overly dependent on relationships and lack the ability to make independent decisions; we may also want our group to be exclusive or elite. Too little, and we may feel isolated; we might not build professional relationships or know how to use our networks for support. We need to be able to boost our own levels of oxytocin, which we can do by empathising with others in order to create harmony or manage conflict.
Oxytocin is crucial to good teamwork because it is part of the emotions of liking, loving, pride and feeling included. It is
a ‘feel- good’ chemical: with it, we feel stronger together, which also contributes to feelings of confidence – the confidence we derive from being part of a social group.
The signature feeling of Oxytocin is belonging.
LIFE HACK: Send a text right now to someone who is in your thoughts and with whom you haven’t spoken in a while. You may ask how they are doing, ask for their advice, or offer to help. You just boosted your oxytocin level. Notice how you feel happier – even better when they reply!
Serotonin influences levels of happiness, status and feelings of satisfaction and well- being. We believe that we are enough,
have enough. We feel naturally balanced and empowered and can take responsibility for our role in society.
Serotonin is very important for the immune system and for deep- seated confidence. That killer chemical cortisol, if
running too high, will drain serotonin levels until depression sets in. Smiling and laughing releases serotonin in ourselves
and others when we smile at them. It is released when we eat bananas and good- quality dark chocolate.
The signature feeling of Serotonin is happiness.
LIFE HACK: Use any form of meditation – mindfulness, a yoga breathing practice, Transcendental Meditation – or
just sit quietly and focus on your breathing every day for ten minutes. Notice how you start to sail through the year
without those annoying sniffles and flu viruses. Meditation boosts serotonin.
Testosterone (along with dopamine) drives your desire to achieve and compete. When you feel the confidence of a
‘winner’ or you have thoughts like I did it! your testosterone levels go up further, rising over a period of minutes.
Testosterone enables risk tolerance and confidence and is vital for feeling empowered. However, a warning about too
much testosterone: if we are overly confident about a win, we may become arrogant and not prepare well enough (e.g.
for that important job interview). Too much testosterone also impedes teamwork. If we have too little testosterone, however,
we become risk- averse and avoid competitive situations. We can adjust levels of testosterone through the use of posture
and through resistance- based physical exercise.
The signature feelings of Testosterone are power and control.
LIFE HACK: To boost testosterone, the next time you achieve something good, put your arms in the air like a
winner and say a big fat ‘YES!’ Don’t suppress your elation. Feel it, and get used to being successful!