We often hear that happiness is a state of mind, but did you know that’s only partially true? There are also physiological processes beyond our conscious control that affect our mood.
Chief among them are neurotransmitters, hormones, and other neurochemicals that impact our emotions, attention, mental function, and even our behavior and feelings towards others.
In this article, I will focus on two of the “feel-good” neurotransmitters—serotonin and dopamine—and what you can do to optimize those levels to improve your mood and your overall health.
What Are Serotonin & Dopamine?
Serotonin and dopamine are neurotransmitters, chemical messengers produced by neurons, or nerve cells, that are required for the transmission of nerve impulses. As such, they help regulate multiple processes in your body.
Both serotonin and dopamine affect mood, memory, sleep, and overall brain function, but their benefits don’t end there. Serotonin is also involved in sexuality, appetite, breathing, regulation of body temperature, and digestion. Dopamine, on the other hand, affects movement, the function of the blood vessels and kidneys, and more.
In addition to being produced in your brain, serotonin and dopamine are also produced in other parts of your body. In fact, an estimated 90% of serotonin and 50% of dopamine are made in the enteric nervous system—the network of neurons lining your gastrointestinal tract.
The enteric nervous system, sometimes called your body’s “second brain,” not only controls digestion but also communicates directly with your brain. “Butterflies in your stomach,” “gut feelings” of unease, a “nervous stomach,” irritable bowel syndrome flare-ups due to stress or anxiety: All arise from the crosstalk between your brain and your enteric nervous system.
The gut microbiome, the trillions of bacteria that reside in the intestinal tract, also play a key role in regulating neurotransmitters, and recent research reveals close associations between the gut microbiome and psychiatric disorders.
How Do Serotonin & Dopamine Help Your Mood?
Depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders are complex, multifaceted phenomena, but they are related in part to imbalances in serotonin and dopamine. Although these neurotransmitters have some similarities, there are major differences between serotonin and dopamine.
- Serotonin. Synthesized from the amino acid tryptophan, serotonin is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which means it decreases the transmission of nerve impulses and helps stabilize neural activity. Depression and other mood disorders are often linked with low levels of serotonin. Imbalances in serotonin can also cause insomnia, low libido, poor digestion, memory problems, and increased pain perception.
- Dopamine. Dopamine, which is made from the amino acid tyrosine, is an excitatory neurotransmitter that increases neural activity. As part of your brain’s reward system, dopamine triggers pleasurable feelings that motivate you and reinforce behaviors. Anything you enjoy, be it sex, food, shopping, or video games, raises dopamine levels.
The downside is that alcohol, drugs, overeating, etc., also trigger a dopamine rush, and this can reinforce destructive behaviors. Signs of low dopamine include a depressed mood, lack of motivation, lethargy, and sleep and attention problems. Serious dopamine deficiency is the underlying cause of Parkinson’s disease.
The Pharmaceutical Approach
The relationship between serotonin and dopamine and depression and other mood disorders has inspired drug companies to develop a whole slew of medications to treat these conditions.
The most widely used are Prozac, Paxil, Lexapro, Zoloft, and other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These antidepressants block the reabsorption, or reuptake, of serotonin by neurons, so there’s an increase in serotonin in the synapses that is available for nerve impulse transmission. SSRIs are primarily used to treat depression but are also prescribed for anxiety disorders.
Dopamine reuptake inhibitors, which block transporter molecules that prevent dopamine reabsorption, are occasionally used for depression, ADHD, and narcolepsy, but they don’t approach the popularity of SSRIs.
The CDC reports that in 2019, antidepressants, mostly SSRIs, were taken by more than 20% of American women and 10% of men—and surveys reveal that those numbers increased over the past two years. In my opinion, this is excessive. Drugs aren’t always needed, plus SSRIs are riddled with side effects, ranging from digestive problems and sexual dysfunction to agitation and increased risk of suicide.
Neurotransmitter imbalances do contribute to mood problems, but depression and anxiety are not due to a Prozac or Lexapro deficiency. There are safe, effective natural ways to increase your levels of these mood-boosting neurotransmitters.
Natural Ways to Increase Serotonin & Dopamine
- Exercise. Physical activity is famous for boosting mood. Although the “runner’s high” is generally associated with endorphins, natural opiate-like neurochemicals released in response to pain or stress, research suggests that exercise also triggers rises in serotonin and dopamine.
- Sunlight. Humans need sun exposure for optimal mental and physical health. If you have ever experienced the winter blues (seasonal affective disorder), you know firsthand the importance of sunlight for your mood. In addition to stimulating the production of vitamin D—which is also associated with depression—daytime sunlight exposure supports your internal body clock, melatonin production, sleep, and the production of key neurotransmitters.
- Sleep. Sleep disturbances are linked with depression, anxiety, and other mood problems. Both neurotransmitters are involved in sleep-wake cycles and circadian rhythm regulation.
- Caffeine. Caffeine’s ability to boost alertness and energy is largely due to its effects on adenosine and stress hormones. Yet, it also raises dopamine levels, which contributes to coffee’s well-deserved reputation as a mood booster. Research reveals that drinking coffee is associated with a lower risk of depression and suicide.
- Diet. Tryptophan and tyrosine are the amino acid building blocks of serotonin and dopamine, respectively, and they are abundant in meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, and other protein-rich foods. However, you can’t count on your diet to increase levels because tryptophan and tyrosine must compete with other amino acids in protein to cross the blood-brain barrier. Nevertheless, getting adequate dietary protein is essential.
- Supplements. Supplemental L-tryptophan and 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP, which is the direct precursor to serotonin) can cross the blood-brain barrier and have been shown to improve sleep and depression. Other supplements that help boost these neurotransmitters include SAMe (S-adenosyl-L-methionine), ginseng, Mucuna pruriens, and St. John’s wort. Use as directed and talk to your doctor first if you are taking a prescription antidepressant. A very serious condition called serotonin syndrome can result from too much serotonin accumulation.
- Gut microbiome support. Scientists are learning more and more about the enteric nervous system, its role in all aspects of health, and the importance of the gut microbiome. Eating lots of fiber and fermented foods, avoiding sugars and artificial sweeteners, and taking supplemental probiotics and prebiotics nurture and diversify beneficial gut bacteria.
- Meditation. Studies reveal that meditation is associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression and higher levels of well-being and overall satisfaction. This is still being researched, but some of the benefits of meditation are believed to be due to positive changes in neurotransmitters.