Pleasure is fantastic, powerful medicine. Our bodies are designed to renew when we feel joy, our bodies blossom and mend through the delights of earthly pleasures. In humans, nitric oxide (not nitrous oxide in the dentist’s office!) is a signaling molecule in our brains, blood, lungs, and gastrointestinal systems, dilating blood vessels, raising blood supply and helping to protect our tissues. It is also a neurotransmitter that is active on smooth muscle, and it is abundant in both the stomach and erectile tissues in the penis and clitoris. The experience of pleasure such as orgasm is due to a release of nitric oxide, as is laughter, deep meditation, exercise such as yoga, aerobic activities and pleasure in consuming delicious, healthy foods.
The feeling of the release of nitric oxide only lasts a few seconds, but it is sensational, setting off many feel-good chemicals such as endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. You feel an incredible shift in energy and relaxation. It is the physical manifestation of vital power, called prana or chi. It is even what lights up a firefly! Research at Stanford University showed that nitric oxide is released when the egg and sperm meet, in a peak moment of universal creativity. There is an MRI video showing the moment a human sperm meets an egg, and a beautiful flash of light signals the release of nitric oxide.
Some women experience this moment, knowing they are pregnant at the time it happens. I experienced it with my second pregnancy. It is a bright, exquisite memory. It was late at night, and as my husband slept, I rose and walked to our second-floor window, gazing at the full moon. I smiled, touched my belly, and said, “Hello!” Researcher Herbert Benson, M.D., author of The Relaxation Response, said that nitric oxide is an essential element in “peak experiences of ecstatic flow. . . it is a biological mechanism that encompasses the dynamics of human belief, the creative process, the essence of physical and mental performance, and even spiritual experience.” The Universe uses this natural magic to enchant our earthly experiences and bring us toward endless happiness, or enlightenment.
Neurotransmitters such as oxytocin, the “bonding hormone” are produced and used in the brain and cells throughout your body. Oxytocin is released during orgasm, breastfeeding, and during loving contact with your baby and other loved ones. You experience a warm, happy, relaxed feeling when mood-enhancing neurotransmitters are released from the brain and gut as a result of positive events, thoughts, and emotions. You can increase the visceral joy in which your new baby floats by consciously being positive and having pleasurable experiences.
Fear and anger deplete nitric oxide, so it is helpful to cultivate your ability to feel joy and compassion and to release resentment. Actually, righteous indignation, such as when you stand up for the vulnerable or against exploitation, can release nitric oxide. Followed by actions that help you feel empowered and courageous, this kind of anger is right for you; it is only when passion makes you feel helpless, disempowered, and sad that it is not at all good for you.
There is another neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in how happy and calm we feel. It’s called anandamide. The name is taken from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means “bliss.” Anandamide was discovered back in the 1990s by scientists trying to understand the effects of cannabis on the human body. They discovered that anandamide was part of the endocannabinoid system — a network of receptors and cannabis-like chemicals (endocannabinoids) found throughout our bodies. The endocannabinoid system regulates almost every biological activity including sleep, appetite, our immune system, pain, mood, reproduction, and memory.
Anandamide both reduces inflammation and is thought to have an anti-anxiety effect. The more anandamide we have, the happier we are. This direct link between anandamide and mental well-being got a further boost when scientists discovered that regions scoring highest for happiness, such as West Africa, South America, and Scandinavia, share a special genetic mutation. This means anandamide lasts longer in their systems before being used up. So in effect, thanks to their genetic abnormality, these countries are more resilient to stress and are generally happier.
High levels of anandamide in our bodies are linked to feelings of happiness and contentment, and a lack of them to depression and anxiety. Exercise is a great way to increase anandamide levels. Not only do we release endorphins, but scientists now know the infamous “runner’s high” is also attributed to a peak in anandamide and a release of nitric oxide. It has been shown that aerobic exercise causes an increase in anandamide levels, which is associated with mood-enhancing effects. Because anandamide is a euphoriant and aerobic exercise is associated with euphoric effects, it has been proposed that anandamide mediates the short-term mood-lifting effects of exercise by exercise-induced increases in its synthesis. It has been shown that an individual’s mood improves for the remainder of the day following physical exercise and that one’s mood is positively correlated with overall daily physical activity level.