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Serotonin vs. Dopamine: Why do we need them & what are they?

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Serotonin and dopamine are both neurotransmitters (chemical signals in the brain) that cause us to “feel good”. Everything we do is essentially based on how it makes us feel. We eat tasty foods because it makes us happy, we date the person that makes us happy, etc. Serotonin and dopamine are what motivate us and can contribute to addiction if we are not careful. If you have heard these terms before but aren’t sure how to increase them or what the difference between serotonin vs. dopamine is then this article is for you.

What is the difference between serotonin vs. dopamine?

Both are neurotransmitters as mentioned above and they are how our neurotransmitter communicates positive feel good feelings.


Serotonin is our “happy” neurotransmitter that 80%-90% is produced in our gut. Increasing your serotonin production naturally can help reduce the risk of heart disease. This is partially because low levels of serotonin contribute to depression, anxiety and hostility is a risk for coronary heart disease. Whereas a positive mood can reduce your risk for heart disease.

Having a positive mood decreases your chance of struggling with anxiety, depression, and heart disease. Higher levels of serotonin are associated with a better mood.

Tryptophan is a precursor for serotonin production. However typically SSRIs are recommended if you are shown to have levels of serotonin or show signs of depression.

Low Symptoms of Serotonin

Serotonin levels in the body can be low from poor gut health, stress and other factors. Common Symptoms and Disorders Include:

  • ADHD
  • Bipolar
  • Depression
  • Schizophrenia
  • Anxiety
  • Decreased Impulse Control
  • Pursuing Short-Term Gratification, despite Long-Term Benefits
  • Antisocial Behavior
  • Anger
  • Uncontrolled Aggression
  • Decreased Sensory Gating (Blocking out external things)
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder

Conventional Treatments

Prescriptions are written for name brand drugs such as Prozac, Zoloft and Lexapro. All three of them are different SSRIs, rather than just different brand names for one generic drug.

SSRIs may be conventional, but that’s not to say they are not without side effects. Antidepressants such as

How do I increase Serotonin Naturally?

Having social support can increase your serotonin, a community of individuals (family and/or friends).

1. Positive Thinking.

Positive thinking can actually alter your brain metabolism and utilizing therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy can be helpful to increase your positive thoughts. Another form of therapy is mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps you be more mindful of how your thoughts are impacting you and how to change them.

2. Sunshine

We know that sunshine is important for the production of vitamin D and to also help with depression. However, recent research shows that bright lights from a red light in your home or sunlight can actually increase your serotonin. (Young, 2007)

This is truly incredible, because if you are having a bad day, the combination of exercise and sunshine is proven to actually increase your “happy” neurotransmitters!

Vitamin D is needed to activate tryptophan in order to produce serotonin via tryptophan hydroxylase 2.

3. Exercise

We KNOW that exercise is good for us but if you have symptoms of depression or anxiety, you may not feel like exercising. You may be too tired or too exhausted and have no desire.

Exercise works as a natural antidepressant by increasing serotonin levels, tryptophan & 5-HIAA. A study on aerobic exercise showed that 5-HIAA was increased, 5-HIAA is a way to measure serotonin in the body.

Exercise also increases your tryptophan production, tryptophan is what makes you want to take a nap after eating thanksgiving turkey every year (in combination with the carbs & desserts). Tryptophan helps relax you and can help you sleep and therefore when you sleep well you feel better as well.

A good point that I wanted to make is that our lifestyle has changed dramatically from when we were once hunter and gatherers. We spent the majority of our days outside, food was from the ground or an animal and we received plenty of bright light and exercise.

Depression and anxiety increases every year and we wonder why. Well people are working from home, inside and sitting the majority of the day.

They say that “sitting, is the new smoking”, because of the detrimental effects being sedentary has on our mental and physical well-being.

4. Diet

Since 80-90% of our serotonin is produced in the gut, this means that our diet plays a major role in our serotonin production.

Some ways we can take care of our gut health is by eating prebiotic and probiotic rich foods such as kefir, kimchi, pickles and other fermented foods. It is also beneficial to supplement with the amino acid l-glutamine to decrease any intestinal permeability that could cause poor nutrient absorption.

Tryptophan raises serotonin, but research shows that eating large quantities of turkey is not enough to actually increase serotonin levels in the brain.

5. 5-HTP or Tryptophan Supplementation

Purified tryptophan crosses the blood brain barrier and can be absorbed. Whereas tryptophan consumed in high protein foods, causes tryptophan to compete with the more dominant amino acids. Since protein is made up of a combination of amino acids.

Milk contains a protein called ?-Lactalbumin that contains more tryptophan than most forms of protein. Therefore a cup of warm milk before bed with some manuka honey could boost your immune system while increasing your serotonin!

Tryptophan supplementation is a great way to increase your serotonin levels, allowing it to cross the blood-brain barrier and without it competing against stronger amino acids in a protein molecule.

Increasing tryptophan levels can help with impulse control and decreased aggression. (Zamoscik et. al., 2021)

Low tryptophan levels increase the chances of an individual pursuing decisions with a less probable outcome as well as a lack of impulse control and they get easily distracted by short-term gratification versus long-term benefits. (Patrick & Ames, 2015)

5-HTP is a product of tryptophan and it can be taken with other proteins and amino acids and it does not compete. This makes it better absorbed and a great option to take as a precursor for serotonin. (Birdsall, 1998)

Tryptophan or 5-HTP supplementation has been shown to reduce symptoms of social anxiety.

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  • 5-HTP is the intermediate metabolite between the amino acid L-tryptophan and serotonin.

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05/05/2022 12:15 am GMT

6. Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Omega 3s particularly EPA and DHA help increase serotonin and dopamine levels both.

EPA increases serotonin release from presynaptic neurons by reducing E2 series prostaglandins and DHA influences serotonin receptor action by increasing cell membrane fluidity in postsynaptic neurons.”

– (Patrick & Ames, 2015)

7. Magnesium

There are many benefits of magnesium including the use of magnesium for anxiety, depression, sleep and much more. Magnesium is a mineral and an electrolyte that has been shown to be effective similarly to a strong antidepressant.

The way that magnesium plays a role is because when magnesium levels are low, it causes “N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) coupled calcium channels to be biased towards opening, causing neuronal injury and neurological dysfunction, which may appear to humans as major depression.” (Eby, 2010)

In a research study done in 2008 Magnesium was shown to be as effective as a tricyclic drug brand name Tofranil (imipramine), not to mention it did not cause any of the side effects.

Side Effects of Prozac include:

  • Blurred Vision
  • Eye pain
  • Racing Heartbeat
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Low sodium levels causing dehydration and headaches, vomiting and severe weakness
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Insomnia
  • Drowsiness
  • Headache

Another side effect listed under certain SSRI medications included an increased suicide ideation or increased chances of suicide.


Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in addiction. It is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in motivation, motor function and even reproductive behaviors. Dopamine plays a role in cognitive function, hence why conditions such as Parkinson’s cause a decrease in motor function due to lowered levels of dopamine. Environmental factors like social defeat can contribute to lowered dopamine.

Symptoms of Low Dopamine

Stress and environmental factors can cause lowered levels of dopamine causing the following:

  • Psychosis
  • Susceptibility to Addiction
  • ADHD
  • Schizophrenia
  • Depression or Major Depressive Disorder
  • Substance Use Disorder

Conventional Treatments

Conventional treatments in drug addictions tend to be therapy, self-help groups like narcotics anonymous or alcoholics anonymous.

However lower dopamine treatments contributing to anxiety or depression as shown in the image above show us that the need for both serotonin and dopamine is very important.

A drug named Levodopa is used in Parkinsons patients to increase their dopamine levels.

Levodopa Side Effects:

  • Hallucinations
  • Aggression
  • Unusual Thoughts or Behavior
  • Paranoia
  • Confusion
  • Increased sexual urges
  • Unusual urges to gamble

How do I increase Dopamine Naturally?

1. Meditation

Research shows that dopamine can be increased through meditation, giving us a sense of pleasure and calmness. (Young, 2007)

Meditation, along with deep breathing can help us to slow our heart rate down and decrease our negative reaction to an event.

2. Exercise

Aerobic exercise has been shown to increase dopamine release in the body. (Sacheli et. al., 2019)

Dopamine is lower in individuals suffering from Parkinson’s disorder and exercising is an important way to naturally boost dopamine levels. Exercise works by improving the plasticity of the cortical striatum, the cortical striatum effects motor control, decision-making and motivation.

3. Social Interactions

Social isolation can cause an increase in aggressive behavior and therefore aggressive behaviors are lessened by increased social interactions.

4. Accomplishing Your To-do List

Set small goals throughout the day like “making my kids smile” or “do a two minute meditation” and check it off. It could even be a small chore or self-care task but write as many small things you do every day down on paper and then check them off.

This will increase your motivation because you can see all of the little things you have accomplished and it will raise your dopamine levels. This is why I like to use a planner that I write at the beginning and end of the week and in the mornings I make my realistic list and then give myself credit as I do them.

This is the planner I use to have something to actually show myself what I have accomplished for the day and how it really adds up over time!

5. Healthy Childhood

This one may sound confusing, but childhood trauma can affect presynaptic dopamine function. (Howes et. al., 2017) Research shows that child abuse or childhood trauma can cause schizophrenia.

Lower levels of dopamine can be from acute stress.

6. Omega 3s

Polyunsaturated fatty acids such as Omega 3s help increase dopamine levels. Omega 3s also decrease overall brain inflammation which contribute to depression and anxiety.

7. Green Oat Extract

Green Oat Extract has been shown to decrease the active stress in rats, it is recommended to take at least 800 mg of green oat extract to avoid dopamine decline with age. Green Oat Extract works by suppressing MAO-B which is an enzyme that decreases dopamine in the body.

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  • Encourages mental acuity measurable using standardized cognitive testing
  • Supports cerebral artery dilation for healthy brain blood flow


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Food Addictions

Research shows that dopamine plays a role in binge eating and bulimia. The same pathways that respond to addictive drugs respond to sugar as well. Since sugar releases dopamine and opioids, it makes it more addictive.

Addiction is not as simple as “just stop using or stop doing that”. Addiction can come in many forms, and you can be physically and mentally dependent on that substance that gives you the dopamine and serotonin. This is why we should always empathize with people and ask questions before judging.

The fact that someone is overweight is maybe because they do not prioritize their health or maybe they do but they have been traumatized, abused or severely hurt and they are craving that dopamine and serotonin hit.

This is why this article is very important to me because we do not realize how much anxiety and depression can be affecting someone and their everyday decisions.

That’s why I created my anxiety course because I wanted to share what has helped me along with the research, I have done on how to cope with anxiety naturally.

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Dopamine and Addiction

Dopamine plays a role in addiction as mentioned above, especially drug addiction. That is because addictive drugs raise dopamine levels, due to the increased feeling of “pleasure”.

Not only are drugs addicting, but also food, exercise, alcohol, sex, and believe it or not stress can be addicting. This is because these behaviors have been reinforced hits of dopamine.

You eat a food that makes you feel good and it gives you dopamine and serotonin like in a sugary dessert. The dopamine and serotonin both in this case contribute to addiction of sugary foods.

Dopamine reinforces addiction of drugs or food by increasing your motivation to obtain those substances and receiving the dopamine after receiving them reinforces those behavior. Hence the reason why addiction can be difficult to deal with.

When we are stressed, we have low levels of dopamine and serotonin and this is why people often turn to substance use or food as ways to make them feel better.

Unfortunately these only temporarily increase your dopamine and your body can become dependent on sugar or drugs because of this. This is all part of the “dopamine motive system“.

Dopamine is what gives us a sense of pleasure that is one of the main differences in serotonin vs. dopamine. Dopamine is also part of what makes a substance or habit addicting. Some recreational drugs that increase dopamine include crack cocaine, heroin, crystal meth, LSD, marijuana and more.

Therefore people get addicted to that hit of dopamine that they are getting from that drug or behavior. Food can be addicting and sugar in particular gives you a false boost of serotonin making you happy and feel good.

We pursue things that we believe will make us feel good or give us that feeling of dopamine or serotonin we are craving.


Birdsall T. C. (1998). 5-Hydroxytryptophan: a clinically-effective serotonin precursor. Alternative medicine review : a journal of clinical therapeutic, 3(4), 271–280.

Eby, G. A., 3rd, & Eby, K. L. (2010). Magnesium for treatment-resistant depression: a review and hypothesis. Medical hypotheses74(4), 649–660.

Howes, O. D., McCutcheon, R., Owen, M. J., & Murray, R. M. (2017). The Role of Genes, Stress, and Dopamine in the Development of Schizophrenia. Biological psychiatry, 81(1), 9–20.

Patrick, R. P., & Ames, B. N. (2015). Vitamin D and the omega?3 fatty acids control serotonin synthesis and action, part 2: Relevance for ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and impulsive behavior. The FASEB Journal, 29(6), 2207–2222.

Sacheli, M. A., Neva, J. L., Lakhani, B., Murray, D. K., Vafai, N., Shahinfard, E., English, C., McCormick, S., Dinelle, K., Neilson, N., McKenzie, J., Schulzer, M., McKenzie, D. C., Appel-Cresswell, S., McKeown, M. J., Boyd, L. A., Sossi, V., & Stoessl, A. J. (2019). Exercise increases caudate dopamine release and ventral striatal activation in Parkinson’s disease. Movement disorders : official journal of the Movement Disorder Society, 34(12), 1891–1900.

Young S. N. (2007). How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience : JPN, 32(6), 394–399.

Zamoscik, V., Schmidt, S., Bravo, R., Ugartemendia, L., Plieger, T., Rodríguez, A. B., Reuter, M., & Kirsch, P. (2021). Tryptophan-enriched diet or 5-hydroxytryptophan supplementation given in a randomized controlled trial impacts social cognition on a neural and behavioral level. Scientific reports, 11(1), 21637.

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