Serotonin vs. Dopamine: What Are the Differences?

Plus What to Do If You Think You Have a Deficiency

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that allow nerves to communicate with each other or with other structures in your body. Two common neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine, act on similar parts of the body but have different effects.

This article discusses dopamine and serotonin functions, as well as the similarities and differences between these two neurotransmitters.

Key Differences Between Serotonin and Dopamine

Verywell / Danie Drankwalter

Differences Between Serotonin and Dopamine

Serotonin, also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), is a neurotransmitter that is produced in the part of your brain stem called the Raphe nuclei, as well your digestive tract. Serotonin is made from an amino acid called tryptophan. 

This neurotransmitter is best known for its ability to boost your mood, but it also plays an important role in digestion and the immune system.

Dopamine is made in the base of your brain through a two-step process. An amino acid called tyrosine is first made into another amino acid called L-dopa, which is then made into dopamine. 

Dopamine is known as the pleasure neurotransmitter. That's because dopamine is responsible for making you feel good after you've had sex or eaten a good meal—or done any other activity that activates the reward system in your brain. It also helps you pay attention and learn new information.

Dopamine has lesser-known functions as well. This neurotransmitter plays a role in muscle movements, management of heart rate, lactation, pain, sleep, and function of your kidneys and blood vessels. 

Causes of Serotonin and Dopamine Imbalance

Serotonin and dopamine deficiencies can occur for a variety of reasons. Your body might not make enough of these neurotransmitters or be able to respond to them appropriately. Certain medications can affect levels of serotonin and dopamine as well.

Other causes of these deficiencies are:

Signs of Low Serotonin and Dopamine

Low levels of serotonin or dopamine can cause similar symptoms. However, dopamine also affects the muscles, while serotonin does not.

Serotonin

Serotonin deficiency can cause: 

  • Decreased energy levels
  • Sadness
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Mood swings
  • Increased or decreased appetite
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Carbohydrate cravings
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) issues
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Compulsive behaviors

Low levels of serotonin can also cause mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety disorders. In severe cases, it can lead to suicidal thoughts.

Dopamine

Symptoms of dopamine deficiency can include:

  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Lack of motivation
  • Depressed mood
  • Lack of pleasure in enjoyable activities
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Memory issues
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Tremors (such as hands shaking)
  • Muscle cramps
  • Difficulty with balance and coordination

Dopamine deficiency can also occur with Parkinson's disease—a progressive neurological disorder that develops when cells in the brain that produce dopamine no longer function correctly. This condition causes tremors, stiffness throughout the body, difficulty with balance, and slow movements.

When Levels Are Too High

Although rare, it is possible for serotonin and dopamine levels to be too high.

Serotonin

Too much serotonin can cause serotonin syndrome—a potentially life-threatening condition. This typically occurs when a person takes too much medication that increases serotonin levels. Symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Hallucinations
  • Restlessness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Difficulty with balance

Dopamine

Dopamine levels that are too high can also cause unwanted side effects. These can include:

  • Mania
  • Excess energy
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety

Varying levels of dopamine also play a role in other conditions, including addiction, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and schizophrenia.

Depression

Both serotonin and dopamine play a role in depression. Serotonin is a key neurotransmitter associated with depression. This chemical has a significant impact on mood and positive feelings, such as satisfaction, joy, and empathy for other people.

Depression is commonly treated with a group of medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that help boost serotonin levels in your brain.

Low levels of dopamine can also contribute to depression. Inability to feel pleasure and lack of motivation are two symptoms of depression that have been linked to dopamine dysfunction.

While SSRIs are considered first-line treatment for depression, medications that increase dopamine levels in the brain are sometimes prescribed in addition to these drugs to specifically improve energy levels and motivation.

Digestion

Neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine, are important for gut health. These chemicals help your body absorb nutrients from food, improve blood flow to your digestive system, help maintain levels of healthy gut bacteria, and improve gut motility (movement of waste products through your intestines).

Serotonin

Serotonin is best known for its impact on mental health. However, most of the serotonin in your body is made in your gut, not your brain. This neurotransmitter helps control the release of digestive enzymes that affect the function of your intestines.

Too much serotonin can contribute to GI disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Too little serotonin can cause constipation.

Dopamine

Unlike serotonin, most dopamine is made in your brain. In the digestive tract, a low amount of dopamine increases blood flow and helps your intestines absorb electrolytes.

Sleep

Serotonin and dopamine affect your body's sleep-wake cycle.

Serotonin

Serotonin can both help and interfere with sleep. It is needed for your body to make melatonin—the main hormone involved in sleep.

However, too much serotonin can also interfere with your ability to get rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This stage of sleep is important for brain health. It helps with:

  • Mood regulation
  • Concentration
  • Strong immune system
  • Processing new information
  • Long-term memory

Dopamine

Dopamine impacts your body's light-related circadian rhythm—your brain's ability to adapt to the time of day. Dopamine helps your brain know when it's time to be alert and stop melatonin production.

Ways to Boost Serotonin and Dopamine

Medications are often used to boost serotonin and dopamine levels in the body. However, there are several ways that you can boost levels naturally, including:

  • Stay active: Exercising when you're feeling down and lack motivation can be particularly difficult. However, exercise has been proven to help increase serotonin levels in the brain. Start with something easy, such as taking a walk.
  • Get outside: Sunlight helps boost neurotransmitter levels in the brain.
  • Change your diet: Coffee has been shown to increase serotonin and dopamine levels, although it can lead to withdrawal if you decide to cut back. Eating foods high in omega-3 fatty acids boosts serotonin levels.
  • Manage your stress: Adding stress-relieving activities to your day can help improve mood and boost neurotransmitter levels. For example, meditation has been shown to increase dopamine levels in the brain.

Summary

Serotonin and dopamine are two important neurotransmitters that affect mental health. They also are important for gut health. Deficiencies in both of these chemicals can lead to symptoms of depression and issues with eating, sleeping, and concentrating. Dopamine also affects the muscles, and low levels can cause tremors and difficulties with coordination.

Serotonin and dopamine levels can be boosted with medications, and with lifestyle habits, such as getting more sunlight, exercising regularly, and following a healthy diet.

A Word From Verywell

If you think you might have issues with your serotonin or dopamine levels, talk to your healthcare provider. Small changes in your daily habits, with or without the help of medication, can make a big difference in your quality of life.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can dopamine and serotonin make you happy?

    Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a large role in positive mood and happy feelings. Dopamine does not directly impact mood, but can affect motivation and feelings of pleasure.

  • What are the signs of a lack of serotonin and dopamine?

    Deficits in serotonin and dopamine can cause a host of signs and symptoms, including depressed mood, fatigue, lack of motivation, decreased sex drive, and difficulty concentrating. A dopamine deficiency can also cause tremors, muscle cramps, and difficulty with balance.

  • How do serotonin and dopamine work together?

    Serotonin and dopamine work together to provide a chemical balance in the brain and other parts of the body. This balance help maintain mental health and improve digestion and sleep.

  • What foods help with serotonin production?

    Foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids can help boost serotonin levels. Examples include fatty fish such as salmon and tuna, nuts, seeds, and plant oils.

  • Does cannabis increase serotonin?

    Using cannabis can stimulate your brain to release more serotonin.

  • Does cannabis increase dopamine?

    Using cannabis can cause your brain to release more dopamine.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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