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A hug for the brain: what does it mean to have a happy, healthy brain?

Updated Monday, 8 January 2024

Dr Sinead Eccles explores the function of a healthy brain in regulating our health.

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The brain is a complex yet essential organ in the body. It is the organ most associated with mental health, however, it is probably spoken about the least in terms of its biological nature.  There is a good reason for that – the brain is very complicated. 

Healthy brain: some basic facts

The brain weighs about 3 pounds and has approximately 100 billion neurons; that’s the same as the number of stars in the Milky Way. Impressed yet? There’s more! The brain triples in size in the first year of life and isn’t fully formed until the age of 25. It generates enough electricity to power a lightbulb and there are more electrical impulses generated by your brain in one day than by all the telephones in the world.

60% of the brain is made up of fat. This fat is essential for your brain to work efficiently. The fattier the brain the healthier it is.

Information from the brain travels at 268 miles per hour.

When you learn you change the structure of your brain.

Multi-tasking is impossible. The brain switches between tasks so quickly it appears as multi-tasking.

The average person has over 6,000 thoughts per day. If these thoughts are consistently negative, it's bad news for the health of our brain. And if we learn to control the negative thoughts, then we may benefit from better mental health.

The brain can make you happy or can be the source of your anxiety and depression. It can be a friend or enemy so taking care of a healthy brain should be of the utmost importance.

What does it mean to be healthy?

The biomedical model of health is an approach that identifies health as the ‘absence of disease’ but does not consider psychological and social influences of health.

However, being healthy is much more than the ‘absence of disease’. It’s about how you feel, how you function in the world around you and how you view yourself and others.

A definition of ‘health’ from the World Health Organization is: ‘Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ (World Health Organization, 1946).

The biomedical model of health was expanded by a more holistic approach to health known as the biopsychosocial model (Engel, 1977). The biopsychosocial model states that one is healthy if they are biologically healthy, psychologically healthy and socially healthy.

Mental health statistics

Sadly, statistics regarding mental health are harrowing. It has been reported that in the UK one in four people experience mental health issues each year (Mental Health Taskforce NE, 2016). 792 million people are affected by mental health issues worldwide (Dattani et al., 2018). At any given time, one in six working-age adults have symptoms associated with mental ill health (McManus et al., 2016). There are 72 million working days lost every year due to mental health, costing the UK economy £74–£99 billion (Centre for Mental Health, 2017; Department for Work and Pensions and Department of Health and Social Care , 2017).

Northern Ireland perspective

Mental health problems are the single largest cause of ill health and disability in Northern Ireland. One in five adults in Northern Ireland have experienced a mental health problem, a rate 25% higher than in England. In a poll conducted in February 2021 and March 2022, 70% of adults in Northern Ireland said they had experienced a mental health problem in the last 12 months.

Perhaps the scariest thing about these statistics is that they only tell part of the story. Many people do not seek help for mental health issues and, therefore, are not part of the numbers above.

The Mental Health Foundation Northern Ireland has produced a manifesto outlining its mental health prevention agenda, which can be found here.

MHF-Northern-Ireland-Manifesto-2022.pdf (

Don’t we all just want to be happy? You may not have a diagnosable mental health condition, but you may feel your mood is a little flat, you lack motivation, or you are more anxious than usual. If that is the case, please read on to the next section where I will show you some simple strategies to work on a happy, healthy brain.

High Angular Resolution Diffusion Image of human brain

Visualising the brain

Use your hand to make a brain so you can visualise it. Place your thumb in the middle of your palm as shown in the left-hand side of the figure below. Where your thumb is is where the limbic region is, which is made up of the amygdala and the hippocampus. The amygdala is the part of the brain that is responsible for emotional regulation. The hippocampus is the area responsible for memory. The limbic system is important as it controls the main emotions associated with anxiety fear, happiness, and anger. Its responsible for the release of hormones that produces the flight, fight or freeze response.

Now fold your fingers over your thumb like in the right-hand side of the figure below. This area of the brain is called the cerebral cortex, it’s the newest part of the brain and this is where you perceive the world and where thinking and reasoning happens.

Where your fingernails are is called the pre-frontal cortex and this area regulates the limbic system. It folds down over that the limbic system and helps to regulate your emotions. The common expression ‘they have flipped their lid’ is very appropriate here because the prefrontal cortex (your fingers) has shot up out of the way and the limbic system is reacting without regulation (your thumb).

If you were in immediate danger, you would want your limbic system to react, but quite often this region is activated when it is not needed.

Figure composed of 2 images. Left: Palm open, facing the viewer, thumb tucked in. Right: hand is closed, thumb trapped in.

Healthy brain hormones, and the messages they send

To prevent you from ‘flipping your lid’ you need to keep your brain happy and healthy. You may not have a diagnosable mental health condition, but you may feel your mood is a little flat, you lack motivation, or you are more anxious than usual. 

To do this you want to produce ‘happy hormones’ that are technically neurotransmitters that make you feel good. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that your body can't function without. Their job is to carry chemical signals (‘messages’) from one neuron (nerve cell) to the next target cell.

The happy hormones that you naturally produce, and all have specific jobs, are dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins. There are many more, such as glutamate, gaba and noradrenaline, but the focus in this article will be on these 4. DOSE is a useful acronym to remember these.

Checklist: your dopamine✅

How to spot signs of not enough dopamine?

  • procrastination 
  • low self-esteem 
  • lack of motivation 
  • low energy or fatigue 
  • inability to focus 
  • feeling anxious 
  • feeling hopeless 
  • mood swings

How to get more dopamine?

  • meditate 
  • use a daily to-do list 
  • make (and work on) long-term goals 
  • eat food rich in L-Tyrosine 
  • exercise regularly 
  • create something: writing, music, art

Checklist: your oxytocin 🤝

How to spot signs of not enough oxytocin?

  • feeling lonely 
  • feeling stressed 
  • lack of motivation 
  • low energy or fatigue 
  • disconnect of relationships 
  • feeling anxious 
  • insomnia

How to get more oxytocin?

  • socialize 
  • physical touch 
  • have a massage 
  • have an acupuncture treatment 
  • listen to music 
  • exercise 
  • take cold showers 
  • meditate

  • Dopamine: known as the ‘feel-good’ hormone, dopamine is responsible for motivation and drive.  It’s also involved in the reward system of your brain and plays a role in controlling memory, movement, mood, sleep and much more.

  • Oxytocin: this hormone is known as the ‘love hormone’ or the ‘cuddle chemical’.  It is essential for the bonding between a parent and child. It can also help promote trust, empathy and bonding in relationships. This hormone will increase with physical affection, such as a hug.

  • Serotonin: this hormone is known as the ‘happy chemical’ that helps to stabilise your mood.  90% of it is made in your gut so when you feel anxious or stressed serotonin will increase in an attempt to help regulate your emotions.  It’s also involved in your sleep, appetite, digestion and memory. 

  • Endorphins: the name comes from the words ‘endogenous,’ which means within the body, and ‘morphine,’ an opiate pain reliever. Endorphins are your body’s natural pain reliever and increase when you engage in reward-producing activities such as eating, working out, or laughing.

Checklist: your serotonin☀️

How to spot signs of not enough serotonin?

  • low self-esteem 
  • overly sensitive 
  • anxiety / panic attacks 
  • mood swings 
  • feeling hopeless 
  • social phobia 
  • obsession / compulsion 
  • insomnia

How to get more serotonin?

  • exercise 
  • take cold showers 
  • get more sunlight 
  • have a massage

Checklist: your endorphins🤣

How to spot signs of not enough endorphins?

  • anxiety 
  • depression 
  • mood swings 
  • aches and pains 
  • insomnia 
  • impulsive behaviour

How to get more endorphins?

  • laugh, or cry 
  • create music or art 
  • eat dark chocolate 
  • eat spicy foods 
  • stretch, or exercise 
  • have a massage 
  • meditate

Now you know which hormones can help to increase your feelings of happiness, you just need to decide what hormone you are lacking in and how you can increase it. 

What now? Next steps for a healthy brain

The hormone dopamine – your drive and reward hormone – is responsible for all the energy and excitement you may have when you start a new activity or a new diet and it is the hormone that will drive you to succeed. However, dopamine also depletes very quickly if the task is very difficult, or you have exhausted it by doing too much too soon. Therefore, you need to take it slowly, connect with your own body, think about how you feel and start with small steps to improve your overall mental health. Preventative measures are the key to a happy, healthy brain. So, if you feel your limbic system taking over you may need to focus more on your brain health.

Take home messages to keep your brain healthy

1. Be kind to yourself and don’t compare yourself with others.

2. Take small steps to improve your brain health.

3. Choose a hormone that you would like to increase.

4. Choose one activity to increase this hormone. Remember don’t get carried away.

5. Think about and reflect on how you feel after.

6. Be curious about your body and brain.  After all there is no one quite like you!

All these steps above are quite literally a ’hug for your brain’ and your brain will thank you in so many ways.

Healthy brain: explore further

To learn more about a healthy brain, you can join these free courses:



"10 Amazing Facts about the Brain". Available at: Accessed 24 January 2024.

Centre for Mental Health (2017) Mental health at work: The business costs ten years on . Available at: (Accessed: 08 Jan 2024)

Dattani, S. Rodés-Guirao, Ritchie, H. and Roser, M. (2018) Mental Health. Available at: (Accessed: 4 January 2024).

Department for Work and Pensions and Department of Health and Social Care (2017) Thriving at work: a review of mental health and employers. . Available at: (Accessed: 4 January 2024).

Engel, G. L. (1977) ‘The need for a new medical model: a challenge for biomedicine’, Science,196, pp.129-136.

McManus, S., Bebbington, P., Jenkins, R. and Brugha, T. (2016) Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2014. LeedsAvailable at: (Accessed: 08 Jan 2024)

Mental Health Taskforce NE (2016) The Five Year Forward View for Mental Health. Available at:  (Accessed: 4 January 2024).

Tseng, J., Poppenk, J. Brain meta-state transitions demarcate thoughts across task contexts exposing the mental noise of trait neuroticism. Nat Commun 11, 3480 (2020).


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