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How Your Thinking Affects Your Brain Chemistry

Your thoughts matter because they change how your brain and body function.

Key points

  • Your thoughts are transmitted via neurotransmitters and other neurochemicals.
  • You can proactively release various feel-good neurotransmitters in your brain based on what you think about.
  • Your brain chemistry changes physical structures in your brain and body.
Source: Marina Vitale/Unsplash
Source: Marina Vitale/Unsplash

Most people don’t think about the fact that their thoughts are chemical, and even less so about how to use their thoughts to manage their brain chemistry. Your brain chemistry is your mental health. If it’s optimally balanced, you feel good and function well. If it’s unbalanced in some way, you start to feel not like yourself, and if it stays that way for too long, you can end up with serious mental health disorders.

The relationship between our thoughts and brain chemistry is complex and multifaceted. There are many different factors that can influence this relationship, including our genetics, environment, and life experiences. The key thing to understand, however, is that thoughts are transmitted via neurotransmitters and other neurochemicals in our brain. These neurochemicals are also responsible for your emotions.

One of the most well-known neurotransmitters is dopamine. Dopamine is often referred to as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter because it is associated with pleasure and reward. When you think about something pleasurable, such as eating a delicious meal or listening to your favorite music, your brain releases dopamine.

Another well-known neurotransmitter, oxytocin, is sometimes called the “love hormone” because it is released during social bonding activities, such as hugging or cuddling. This can create feelings of closeness and connection with others. Just thinking about a loved one releases oxytocin in the brain.

Your thoughts can also influence the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol. When you experience stress, your body releases cortisol as part of the “fight or flight” response. This can be helpful in the short term if you’re responding to a perceived threat. However, if you experience chronic stress, and you regularly think about stressful situations, your body may release too much cortisol, which can have negative effects on your physical and mental health.

Thinking and brain chemistry is a two-way street. While your thoughts influence your brain chemistry, your brain chemistry also influences your thoughts. For example, if you’re thinking about things that make you feel anxious, your brain releases more cortisol, which can make you feel even more anxious. This creates a negative feedback loop that can be hard to break.

Your brain’s chemistry not only affects how you feel but also changes the actual physical structures of your brain and body. Research has shown that over time, changing what you think can change the size of certain regions of your brain. Research has also shown that the neurochemicals released via your thinking have the power to influence physical symptoms in your body.

For example, the placebo effect often occurs in medical research when someone thinks they are getting a certain treatment for an illness, and they are instead given a sham or fake version of the treatment. These people improve anyway because they think they are getting the real treatment. Placebos have been shown to improve physical symptoms of depression, anxiety, pain, coughs, erectile dysfunction, IBS, Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy, to name a few. On the other hand, if an individual does not think the drug will work, or expects there to be side effects, the placebo can create negative outcomes. When this is the case, the placebo is instead called a nocebo.

The relationship between the mind and body is complex but the two cannot be separated. Your thinking directly impacts your mental and physical well-being via your brain chemistry. If you’d like to take charge of this process naturally and optimize your brain’s ability to function in a healthy way, there are a number of strategies you can try:

1. Practice mindfulness and mindful redirecting

One of the most effective ways to regulate your brain's chemistry is to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness involves focusing your attention on the present moment, without judgment or distraction. By practicing mindfulness regularly, you can train your brain to become more aware of your thoughts and emotions.

With awareness, you can choose to redirect your thoughts. When you choose to move your thoughts away from things that don’t feel good and instead focus on things that are rewarding and elicit a positive emotion, you are proactively deciding which neurochemicals get released in your brain.

2. Exercise regularly

Regular exercise has been shown to have a positive impact on brain chemistry by increasing the production of neurotransmitters, such as endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. These neurotransmitters play a key role in regulating mood, motivation, and attention.

3. Get enough sleep

Good sleep is essential for maintaining healthy brain chemistry. During sleep, the brain flushes out toxins and repairs itself, which helps to maintain the balance of neurotransmitters and other chemicals in the brain. Research has shown that sleep deprivation can have a negative impact on brain chemistry, leading to mood disorders, anxiety, and other cognitive impairments.

4. Get the right nutrition

What you eat becomes the building blocks for the neurochemicals used by your brain. At least 90% of the serotonin in your body is produced in your gut microbiome. Recent research is linking food to disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and depression. While there is a wide range of conflicting information out there on what good nutrition is, the one diet that has been examined and shown to improve brain functioning using the gold standard of a randomized clinical trial is the Mediterranean diet. Lots of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats such as avocados and olive oils, and lean poultry and fish. Get rid of processed carbohydrates, sugar, fried food, and alcohol.

5. Practice gratitude

When you’re thinking about what you’re grateful for, your thoughts are intentionally being directed toward things you know make you feel good. Practicing gratitude has been shown to have a positive impact on brain chemistry by increasing the production of dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that play a key role in regulating mood and motivation.

How your brain functions plays a very big role in your quality of life. Learning to regulate your thoughts and behavior in a way that optimizes your brain’s chemistry is well worth the effort.

More from Jennice Vilhauer Ph.D.
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