Without balance, homeostasis and a little hutzpah-inspired JDV, there can be no durable happiness. In this blog, i will review the newly discovered Happiness genes (Section A) and attempt a brief explanation of one of happiness’s biochemical mechanisms, the balancing of the “milieu intérieur”. (Section B)
In 2016, for the first time in history, researchers isolated the parts of the human genome that explain the differences in how humans experience happiness. These were the findings of a large-scale international study in over 298,000 people, conducted by VU Amsterdam professors.
The researchers found three genetic variants for happiness, two variants that can account for differences in symptoms of depression, and eleven locations on the human genome that could account for varying degrees of neuroticism. The genetic variants for happiness are mainly expressed in the central nervous system, the adrenal glands and pancreatic system. The results were published in the journal Nature Genetics. (1).
Before the determination of these findings, the Research partially ascribed individual differences in happiness and well-being to genetic differences between people as well as to the expression of key neurotransmitters and hormones. (2)
This study is both a milestone and a new beginning: A milestone because we are now certain that there is a genetic aspect to happiness and a new beginning because the three variants that we know are involved account for only a small fraction of the differences between human beings. Indeed, locating additional variants will also allow us to better study the interplay between nature and nurture (ie, culture), as the environment is also responsible for differences in the way people experience happiness.
The Internal Milieu and Homeostasis
As we know, genes are essentially animo acid sequencing machines to produce proteins and can never be isolated from Epigenetics. Not only genes don’t exist in a vacuum, they are constantly in interaction with the internal milieu, the bio-terrain and the general environment. In this realm, one of the fundamental mechanisms of action that is key in the Art of restorative healing is based on the balancing process that we call homeostasis.
For any animal or human to survive, multiple physiological parameters need to be within a limited range of variation, including, but not limited to water content, temperature, salt and electrolytes concentration in the bloodstream, blood glucose levels, blood oxygen level, PH and others. (3)
The ability of an animal to regulate the internal environment of its body (the milieu intérieur, as pioneering physiologist Claude Bernard called it) is known as homeostasis (Greek for “standing still”) (4).
“Homeostasis is the process by which a steady state of equilibrium, or constancy, in the body with respect to physiological functions and chemical compositions of fluids and tissues is maintained. Physiological set points refer to the baseline level at which functions such as heart rate, and at which chemical compositions such as plasma sodium concentration are normally maintained. These set points are represented in the brain by specific discharge rates in neurons dedicated to the monitoring and control of specific physiological processes”. (5)
The Importance of the Brain
Maintaining homeostasis is a crucial function of the brain. The basic principle that underlies homeostasis is negative feedback: any time a parameter diverges from its set-point, sensors generate an error signal that evokes a response that causes the parameter to shift back toward its optimum value. (6). (This principle is widely used in engineering, for example in the control of temperature using a thermostat.)
In vertebrates, the part of the brain that plays the greatest role is the hypothalamus, a small region at the base of the forebrain whose size does not reflect its complexity or the importance of its function. (7).
Several hypothalamic nuclei receive input from sensors located in the lining of blood vessels, conveying information about temperature, sodium level, glucose level, blood oxygen level, and other parameters. These hypothalamic nuclei send output signals to motor areas that can generate actions to rectify deficiencies. Some of the outputs also go to the pituitary gland, a tiny gland attached to the brain directly underneath the hypothalamus. The pituitary gland secretes hormones into the bloodstream, where they circulate throughout the body and induce changes in cellular activity. (8)
The individual animals need to express survival-promoting behaviors, such as seeking food, water, shelter, and a mate (9).
The motivational system in the brain monitors the current state of satisfaction of these goals, and activates behaviors to meet any needs that arise. This motivational system works largely by a reward–punishment mechanism. When a particular behavior is followed by favorable consequences, the reward mechanism in the brain is activated, which induces structural changes inside the brain that cause the same behavior to be repeated later, whenever a similar situation arises.
Conversely, when a behavior is followed by unfavorable consequences, the brain’s punishment mechanism is activated, inducing structural changes that cause the behavior to be suppressed when similar situations arise in the future (10).
It’s in this biochemical context that we can understand the biological function of stress, as threats to homeostasis. Stress, to a physiologist, means any situation that threatens the continued stability of the body and its functions. Stress affects a wide variety of body systems: the two most consistently activated are the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the norepinephrine system, including both the sympathetic nervous system and the locus coeruleus-centered system in the brain. Stressors of many types evoke increases in noradrenergic activity, which mobilizes the brain and body to meet the threat. (11)
Chronic stress, if continued for a long time, can damage many parts of the body. A significant part of the damage is due to the effects of sustained norepinephrine release, because of norepinephrine’s general function of directing resources away from maintenance, regeneration, and reproduction, and toward systems that are required for active movement. The consequences can include slowing of growth (in children), sleeplessness, loss of libido, gastrointestinal problems, impaired disease resistance, slower rates of injury healing, depression, and increased vulnerability to addiction. (12)
“The genetic overlap with depressive symptoms that we have found is also a breakthrough. This shows that research into happiness can also offer new insights into the causes of one of the greatest medical challenges of our time: depression.” Professor Bartels
Happiness and wellbeing are topics of an increasing number of scientific studies in a variety of academic disciplines, including but not limited to medicine. Some of the more educated public health experts are even suggesting that wellbeing is a factor in mental and physical health as well as in political stability. (13) Public Policy makers are also focusing on wellbeing and happiness as a political tool.(14)
However, before public happiness and wellbeing are fully institutionalized, policy decision makers should better resolve the ongoing medical dogmas in both the conventional and integrative-functional medicine. In this perspective, one of the key mechanisms that is responsible for both health and well-being (happiness) is less impaired defense, clogged arteries or dysfunctional biochemical repair mechanisms than the imbalance of the internal milieu or bio-terrain.
In this realm, the inflammatory and oxidative stress processes that characterize most diseases can be holistically neutralized and even reversed once the patient’s activities are more consistent with the way he-she was evolutionarily designed, at which point we can ipso facto return to the “Joie de Vivre” Eden-like state most of the time.
Christian Joubert CSO and Directory of Happiness Medicine Institute