Dopamine vs. Serotonin: What's The Difference?

Dopamine vs. Serotonin: What's The Difference?

"Where increased levels of dopamine might lead to impulsive behavior, increased levels of serotonin prevent impulsivity."

If you’ve ever felt a rush when eating a piece of chocolate cake or a sense of peace when taking a nature hike, you have dopamine and serotonin to thank. Often referred to as “feel-good chemicals” or “happy hormones,” these neurotransmitters don’t just boost our mood, they also play key roles in sleep, digestion, memory, and other bodily functions. Find out more about how these neurotransmitters compare and how they work in the body.

Dopamine & Serotonin: Our “Happy” Chemicals

Despite their many functions in the body, dopamine and serotonin are often called our “happy” chemicals because of how they impact mood. Along with other feel-good chemicals like oxytocin and endorphins, dopamine and serotonin are released by glands in your bloodstream and affect various organs and tissues to control some bodily functions and how you feel. As neurotransmitters, they also transmit messages between nerve cells. 

While dopamine plays a crucial role in the body’s reward system, helping to regulate motivation and desire, serotonin affects your mood, emotions, metabolism, concentration, and even your sleep-wake cycle. Dopamine is synthesized in various parts of  the brain, while most of the serotonin in your body is made in the gut.1

What is Dopamine? 

Strongly tied to pleasure and reward, dopamine is an important neurotransmitter that plays an active role in mood, motor function, and even how we make decisions. Produced in the brain, dopamine hormones carry messages between neurons to boost our motivation and attention, playing a central role in our reward system. While dopamine doesn’t actually produce pleasure, it does reinforce pleasurable feelings by connecting specific behaviors to the pleasure they produce. Sometimes, these behaviors are healthy and productive like eating a delicious meal or going for a run. Other times, we get dopamine hits from vices like overloading on sugar, drinking too much, or scrolling through social media.2 For this reason, dopamine is often associated with addiction. 

Though mighty, dopamine makes less than one percent of the brain’s neurons.3 But for some individuals, even less dopamine is available. Besides diseases and disorders like depression, schizophrenia, and Parkinson’s disease, low dopamine levels can also be caused by inadequate sleep, obesity, and stress.4 Having low dopamine can make a person feel unmotivated or apathetic toward things that would excite most people.5

Some ADHD medications like Adderall, Concerta, and Ritalin increase dopamine in the brain, but they are associated with a variety of undesirable side effects like sleep problems, decreased appetite, headaches, and moodiness.6 Some antidepressants, like Wellbutrin (bupropion), also increase dopamine in the brain, but may cause dry mouth, nausea, insomnia, dependence, or in rare cases, seizures.7 

What is Serotonin? 

A hormone and neurotransmitter, serotonin is a mood stabilizer that plays a crucial role in our happiness and cognition, as well as our sleeping, eating, and digestive processes.8 Like dopamine, it is made in the brain, but it can also be found in the stomach, intestines, and blood platelets. 

As a neurotransmitter, serotonin carries messages between nerve cells throughout the body. Low serotonin levels are linked to depression and anxiety disorders. While reasons for low serotonin levels vary, there is some evidence that links decreased levels of vitamin B6 and vitamin D may contribute. A diet low in the essential amino acid tryptophan can also play a part.

Some prescription drugs for depression and anxiety, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), function by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain. However, these drugs come with a variety of side effects such as loss of appetite, headaches, dizziness, and loss of libido.9

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Similarities, Differences & the Relationship Between Dopamine & Serotonin  

Though dopamine and serotonin are both neurotransmitters that carry messages between cells and affect our mood, they work in different ways. You can almost imagine the chemicals on a seesaw: when serotonin levels go down, dopamine levels go up.10 When serotonin is secreted, we feel happy, calm, and centered, which are all good feelings. But when dopamine is secreted, we feel motivated, focused, and aroused, also good feelings. Where increased levels of dopamine might lead to impulsive behavior, increased levels of serotonin prevent impulsivity. When it comes to the reward system, neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D., tells Mind Body Green that while serotonin elicits euphoria, dopamine reinforces the reward-seeking behavior that brought on that euphoria, increasing the likelihood of repeating the activity and linking serotonin and dopamine in a give-and-take relationship.11 

Causes of Imbalances

There are many contributing factors to dopamine and serotonin imbalances. Certain types of medication can affect your neurotransmitter levels or your body may just not produce enough. 

Other potential causes include:12

  • Mental health conditions like depression or anxiety
  • Brain injuries
  • Not enough exposure to sunlight
  • Poor nutrition
  • Inadequate sleep
  • Chronic stress
  • Certain medical conditions, like Parkinson’s disease
  • Drug addiction

There is also a proven connection between ADHD and your neurotransmitters. Some research has shown that people with ADHD have at least one defective gene, the DRD2 gene that makes it difficult for neurons to respond to dopamine.13 Other studies have found that a chronic deficit of serotonin at the synapse is associated with symptoms of ADHD.14

Impact on Mental Health, Digestion & Sleep

In addition to promoting a balanced mood, dopamine and serotonin are also involved in a number of mental health conditions.15 Along with depression and anxiety, low serotonin is associated with bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. And an imbalance in dopamine is related to a higher prevalence of addictive behaviors. 

But these neurotransmitters also impact our body’s sleep-wake cycle and digestion. Dopamine contributes to wakefulness because it can deter the effects of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter which helps the body produce and release the sleep hormone melatonin. Serotonin’s relationship to sleep is a little more complex. While high levels promote wakefulness, the neurotransmitter is also a precursor to melatonin.16 When these chemicals are balanced, your sleep-wake cycle works as it should.

As for digestion, you already know that most of your serotonin is produced in your gut, which is why taking care of your gut health is crucial to maintaining balance in this neurotransmitter. Dopamine, on the other hand, has been shown to help move food through the digestive tract and protect the gut’s mucosal lining to prevent ulcers.17

Signs of Low Dopamine or Serotonin

Signs of low dopamine include:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Fatigue
  • Poor concentration
  • Moodiness
  • Anxiety
  • Depressed mood
  • Failure to derive pleasure from experiences
  • Low sex drive
  • Poor sleep

Signs of low serotonin include:

  • Depressed mood
  • Anxiety
  • Poor sleep
  • Digestive issues
  • Memory issues
  • Poor concentration

How to Boost Feel-Good Chemicals Without Prescription Drugs

Though our bodies make dopamine and serotonin naturally, there are ways to give these feel-good chemicals a boost and keep your levels balanced.

Some ways to naturally boost dopamine include:

Some ways to naturally boost serotonin include:

  • Combining tryptophan-rich foods with a side of carbs, such as salmon with brown rice or a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread18
  • Engaging in moderate aerobic exercise
  • Getting a massage
  • Spending some time in the sun
  • Getting adequate sleep
  • Supporting your gut health
  • Practicing mindfulness

Though many individuals take prescription drugs to restore balance to their serotonin and/or dopamine levels in efforts to boost mood, decrease anxiety, and increase focus, these medications produce a range of side effects like drowsiness, lack of appetite, and sexual side effects.  This is why we encourage you to see these medications as a last resort after gentler routes have been explored first. Studies show that patients with major depressive disorder have elevated levels of the S100B protein, a key regulator of many different intracellular and extracellular brain processes.19 Elevated S100B levels may also induce neuroinflammation according to this 2019 study, which may lead to acute stress and a dysfunctional blood-brain barrier.20

Brillia is a non-prescription medication that reduces anxiety, irritability, restlessness, and impulsivity with targeted antibodies to the S100B protein. When Brillia binds to the S100B protein, the overall shape of the protein is altered, hindering its ability to bind to its target molecule and thereby controlling its activity in the body. In short, Brillia stops the S100B protein from acting in the body by changing its shape, consequently regulating levels of anxiety, stress, irritability, and restlessness. As a result of the regulating effect of Brillia on the protein S-100, the level of monoamines (dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin) in different parts of the brain normalizes, contributing to a mental balance and clarity.

Unlike prescription drugs, Brillia gently and efficiently normalizes the processes related to the S100B protein without harsh, synthetic chemicals or harmful side effects. Brillia can even be taken alongside other medications or supplements because there are no contraindications. As an extremely targeted medication, the active ingredient in Brillia acts only on the S100B protein without affecting any other systems in the body.  

Even more, Brillia works best in combination with many of the lifestyle factors listed above to boost dopamine and serotonin naturally, such as healthy nutrition, adequate sleep, mindfulness practices, and controlled screen time. This holistic approach is known as the 5-Pillar methodology, which equips users with various tools to support a balanced mood and healthy lifestyle.

Find more resources on how to live healthier and feel happier at the Brillia blog.

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References: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20
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