Serotonin and Dopamine are two important neurotransmitters.
They play a huge part in our mental health and if you have an imbalance, it can affect your; mood, memory, movement, sleep and libido. In this article we will discuss in detail, what they actually are and do. As well as how you can boost your levels.
What Is A Neurotransmitter?
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers which help our body’s function. They carry electrical signals between neurons in the brain and send messages to different parts of our body.
Serotonin and Dopamine are two of the key neurotransmitters our body needs.
Serotonin is most commonly known for making us happy and putting us in a good mood.
This neurotransmitter helps regulate and improve mood, but it also plays a big part in our digestive system and immune system. Serotonin helps us heal as well as get good quality sleep.
Nearly 90% of serotonin is found in our Gastro intestinal tract (GIT). This is largely due to the fact that serotonin is produced by an amino acid called Tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, meaning we must consume as our body does not produce it.
You can get Tryptophan from foods such as turkey, chicken, eggs, cheese, fish, tofu and soy.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that allows us to feel pleasure.
Once described as ‘molecule of more’, it is produced in certain areas of our brain. It is responsible for making you feel good after you have done something that triggers our reward system in our brain.
It helps with our motivation. However, it also plays a part in our body’s movement and motor skills, which is why you can often hear it associated with diseases like Parkinson’s. Dopamine will send signals to make our muscles move.
Dopamine can also drive a person towards a behavior that spikes the brain activity which makes us feel reward, although it doesn’t differentiate between whether that activity is healthy or unhealthy.
For example, with dopamine, we want this in small doses not one huge amount as this can cause addictions to things such as drugs, alcohol and nicotine.
What Can Cause An Imbalance?
Now that we know the importance of these two neurotransmitters, we need to understand what happens if they are not in balance.
When they are, it helps our digestion, sleep and also maintain good mental health.
When we have Serotonin and Dopamine deficiencies, our health can be severely affected.
Signs Of Low Serotonin And Dopamine:
The most notable disease that can be caused by low serotonin and dopamine is Depression.
As discussed previously, we know that Serotonin is responsible for regulating our mood and giving it a boost. If our levels are as they should be, it should make you feel happy and calm. Therefore if we have a deficiency in our levels of Serotonin, our mental health can be severely affected.
If our Dopamine levels are low, it inhibits the ability to feel pleasure which in itself has a direct affect on our mood as well as not feeling any drive or motivation. A person with low serotonin or dopamine would feel tired, sad and generally down in their mood.
People who are suffering with depression and/or anxiety may wish to address their serotonin and dopamine levels.
It is a vicious cycle to be in, when the consequence of low levels also prohibits an individual from feeling like they would want to do anything about it. Some people may find that their healthcare provider will offer certain medications that increase their levels, such as SSRIs which we will discuss later on.
Serotonin and Dopamine play a part in your gut health and keeping it healthy. It has become increasingly reported how our gut health has a direct impact on our overall health. As well as the link between the brain and the gut – commonly known as the Gut-brain axis.
The Gut-brain axis refers to the connection between the Central Nervous System (CNS) and the Gastro-intestinal Tract. This ‘axis’ helps our body communicate with each other through a physical and chemical process.
Historically, our body systems were and are viewed as independent and distinct systems, whereas now we are learning that our brain and gut are incredibly interlinked. Think about the sayings of ‘gut feeling’ and ‘butterflies’…!
The bacteria within our gut, also known as the gut microbiome, is responsible for producing around 90% of our body’s supply of serotonin. The role of Serotonin within our digestive system is important as its use is to move food through it by controlling peristalsis (the contractions of muscles to move that food along) and to help get rid of waste.
Therefore if your Serotonin is low, you’re likely to suffer with constipation.
Up to 50% of our body’s dopamine is produced in the gut. We know that dopamine is involved in our muscle movement. Therefore, if you have low dopamine then it can affect the muscles within our body, including their digestive system.
A person diagnosed with Parkinson’s would have very low dopamine levels which would affect their GI tract. This would cause conditions such as constipation, as they would find it very hard to pass stools through their bowels.
Serotonin and Dopamine have a role within your sleep-wake cycle.
We know that if Serotonin levels are low it can cause depression, that can also lead to insomnia. Therefore our sleep cycle and quality of sleep can be severely affected by this.
However too much serotonin can also cause wakefulness and impact on your REM sleep. REM being; Rapid Eye Movement.
If we are unable to get enough REM sleep this can lead to issues with our memory and the ability to function within the daytime. We also know that getting good quality, restorative sleep gives our body and mind the chance to heal and restore.
Making sure we have the correct levels of dopamine in our body helps our body and its circadian rhythm. Which put simply, is our 24 hour ‘internal’ body clock that naturally responds to light and dark. Dopamine helps our brain know when to be alert and stop producing melatonin, so if our levels are low it can cause excessive tiredness and it affects your ability to sleep.
How To Boost Your Serotonin & Dopamine Levels
There is no ‘official’ test available that simply finds out whether your levels are low, unless other factors are involved ie; concerns of a tumor. It is more about how an individual feels. We now know that your mood would be a big indicator as to whether it may be the case.
There is medication available to help increase your levels of serotonin and dopamine.
These tend to be offered and prescribed when people are struggling with anxiety and depression. They are known as SSRIs – Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, more likely referred to as antidepressants. Their main role is to increase serotonin levels in the brain. SSRIs are not for everyone and it is essential that you talk it through with your healthcare provider before taking any form of them.
There are also many natural ways to boost your serotonin and dopamine levels which we have discussed below.
We all know that exercise benefits us greatly. To boost your serotonin levels daily, 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise is needed to improve your mood. Cardiovascular exercise can include brisk walking, swimming, cycling, running and more.
Getting out and spending time in nature is one of the most underrated activities for supporting mental health. In this day and age we spend a lot of time indoors, with blue screens and artificial light.
When we spend as little as five minutes outside with nature we will see our motivation increase, our mood improve and our minds become calmer. When we’re outside our body is able to absorb Vitamin D. This vitamin helps the body regulate serotonin and dopamine.
There has been a recent increase in the popularity of ‘cold therapy’ and ice baths, thanks to social media. Wim Hof, a leading advocate of the cold also known as the ‘Iceman’, is passionate about how the cold improves our mental health.
Whilst Ice baths have always been known to be used for athletes after their activities, exposure to cold water is believed to increase your serotonin and dopamine levels. There have been studies that have found that after cold water exposure, dopamine levels vastly increased in the body.
If this is something you want to try, it would be worth researching it and starting gently, not plunging yourself straight in!
Our diet plays a huge part in our health. We know too much processed foods will cause us to put on weight, but we also need to think about the impact it has on our mental health.
A well researched and talked about booster for these is Coffee. Coffee will boost your serotonin and dopamine temporarily, however caffeine itself comes with health concerns.
We discussed Trytophan earlier. This is an essential amino acid, meaning that is an amino acid that our body cannot produce on its own. Therefore we must include it in our diet. Which is why you can see that if we are not eating the right foods that help the body produce serotonin and dopamine, we will end up with an imbalance.
Foods to include in your diet are:
- Wild Salmon
- Nuts and Seeds
- Green Leafy Vegetables
We’ve discussed already the part Vitamin D plays in boosting our serotonin and dopamine levels, and sunlight itself helps increase mood related neurotransmitters.
The ideal time for us to get bright light is when we first wake up, but for some getting outside first thing in the sunlight isn’t always feasible.
Bright light therapy has become more popular as a way to address people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
SAD can often be known as ‘winter depression’ as it is common for people to feel depressed or more susceptible to depression as the seasons change and the days become shorter.
We already know that serotonin and dopamine play a huge role in depression, so bright light therapy lamps are a great way of trying to naturally stimulate our levels. Bright light therapy lamps work by producing light that simulates sunlight. An individual would then sit by this lamp for around 20 minutes each morning. The light then triggers our body’s natural biological response as if it were sunlight.
If you think you may be suffering from depression and feel your serotonin and dopamine levels may be low, it might be worth contacting your healthcare provider. There are many lifestyle changes that you can make to help improve them. You can look into the medication route, or choose to incorporate some of the natural approaches we discussed as well as supplementation.