Neurotransmitters for Happiness + Depression
Updated: Aug 4, 2021
Serotonin and Dopamine are the two neurotransmitters that often come to mind first when thinking about our moods, feelings of pleasure, and sense of well-being.
What is a Neurotransmitter?
A neurotransmitter is the body's chemical messenger. They are molecules that transmit signals from neurons to muscles, or between different neurons. The transmission of signals between two neurons occurs in the synaptic cleft. The electrical signals that travel along the axon are briefly converted into chemical signals through neurotransmitters.
What is a Neuron?
A neuron or nerve cell is an electrically excitable cell that communicates with other cells via specialized connections called synapses. It is the main component of nervous tissue in all animals except sponges and placozoa. Plants and fungi do not have nerve cells.
Along with Norepinephrine, Serotonin and Dopamine are the neurotransmitters that regulate emotional response, sensations of pain and pleasure, satiety, sleep, digestion, libido, respiratory rate, and many other bodily functions.
When Serotonin and Dopamine are kept at optimum levels, the body and brain are better able to perform many physical and mental functions. Proper nutrition and physical activity are keys to increasing the production of neurotransmitters. When we develop imbalances of these important chemical compounds, a variety of adverse health effects and conditions shall manifest.
What is Serotonin?
Serotonin prompts relaxation and peace and is the neurotransmitter that is responsible for regulating sense of calm, feelings of contentment, satisfaction and well-being.
From an evolutionary standpoint, when resources (like food) are low, the Serotonin levels are low. People feel more alert, active, energetic, and anxious to find new resources.
When resources are abundant, Serotonin levels are high. People experience a peaceful state of mind, feel comfortable and fall asleep. During "deep" sleep, the body’s maintenance and repair systems are switched on.
When Serotonin levels are "low," the modern human gains weight. When Serotonin in the body is depleted, the brain signals for carbohydrate ingestion. Carby foods give off glucose when broken down. This glucose is used to fuel the Serotonin synthesis process.
The amino acid Tryptophan which is found in high protein foods like meat, poultry, dairy products, and eggs is the precursor to Serotonin. The liver breaks down the Tryptophan, and the Tryptophan which is converted into Serotonin, crosses over the blood-brain barrier.
Having the proper amount of Serotonin is important for many biological and psychological processes. Some of these include:
· Body temperature regulation,
· breath and heart rates moderation,
· mood and emotional state control,
· peristalsis control (involuntary muscle contractions that transport food, waste matter, etc.),
· dictates hunger signals,
· controls sexual libido intensity,
· motivation and physical capacity to lose excess weight.
What is Dopamine?
Neurotransmitter Dopamine controls the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. It helps to initiate physical movement, regulates the strength and nature of emotions, enables to implement actions to get recognized rewards.
Dopamine also helps the body to sustain attention, stay alert, and concentrate on mental tasks. High Dopamine levels help increase motivation and excitement for life. Low levels of Dopamine cause the onset and development of Parkinson’s disease in elderly individuals.
There are very few cells that produce Dopamine. Of those that do are located in the midbrain (substantia nigra). When a certain percentage of these neurons die or begin to function sub-optimally, a Parkinson’s diagnosis may be the result.
Dopamine neurons are activated with a sudden, unforeseen availability of food. Also, many illicit drugs target the release of Dopamine in order to stimulate euphoric sensations.
Serotonin and Dopamine Relationship
What are the main differences between Serotonin and Dopamine and how do these brain messengers contribute to our feelings of happiness and our moments of sadness and negativity?
In the past 60 years, more than 100,000 research papers and clinical studies have been dedicated to understanding these neurotransmitters. The effects of Serotonin and Dopamine have a great deal of interplay. Balancing these two brain chemicals is key to optimal mood and cognitive function.
From a functional standpoint, Serotonin is an inhibitory neurochemical – meaning it makes it more likely that neurons will not fire. Dopamine acts as an excitatory neurochemical – making it more likely that neurons will fire – but it can also have certain inhibitory effects.
For example, high Serotonin helps to diminish appetite cravings. Conversely, high Dopamine levels signal a greater desire to eat. This neurotransmitter is the reason why we feel (sometimes very intense) pleasure when consuming foods.
In some studies, drugs that increase Dopamine levels (such as L-Dopa which is a Parkinson’s medication) can lead to greater impulsivity of action. However, if administered with an SSRI (a type of drug that increases serotonergic activity), changes in impulse control will not occur.
This paints a general picture of Serotonin working to balance and offset Dopamine, though the actual pathways and interactions are much more complex.
Natural Ways to Increase Serotonin and Dopamine
Because of the feel-good effects presented when Serotonin and Dopamine are in adequate supply, there is growing demand for foods and methods that naturally increase these compounds. Although there are a number of pharmaceuticals drugs available internationally that may be prescribed to balance Serotonin/Dopamine production. But due to the great side effects and withdrawal risk, many people are looking for ways to improve levels without prescription drugs. Some people have found the following methods to be effective:
Tryptophan is used to synthesize Serotonin while Tyrosine is the natural precursor to Dopamine. Increase your intake of Tryptophan and Tyrosine-rich foods such as:
Hydrate properly by drinking plenty of water.
Exercise daily to support your body's natural balance of all neurotransmitters, hormones and other biochemical agents.
Get vitamins D, B6 and B12. They are necessary agents of Serotonin and Dopamine production.
Consider using natural, non-prescription Serotonin-boosting products like 5-HTP, St. John’s Wort and others.
Consider taking Tyrosine or Mucuna pruriens (a natural mood enhancer) supplements to ensure the proper Dopamine precursors are present in the system.