Serotonin vs. Dopamine: What Are the Differences?

Plus what to do if you think you’re deficient

Dopamine and serotonin are both neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers used by the nervous system to regulate functions and processes in your body including sleep and memory.

You may have heard of dopamine and serotonin referred to as “feel good” chemicals due to the roles they play in regulating mood and emotion. While dopamine and serotonin affect many of the same areas, they do so in slightly different ways.

Imbalances of these chemicals can cause different medical conditions. Low dopamine levels have been linked to depression, addiction, schizophrenia, and Parkinson’s disease. Low levels of serotonin can contribute to mood, sleep, and digestive issues.

This article looks at the function of dopamine and serotonin, their differences, and their links with medical conditions and overall health.

Portrait of positive young Asian woman with eye closed, enjoying sunlight under blue sky and clouds

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Differences Between Serotonin and Dopamine

Although both dopamine and serotonin have positive associations, as serotonin stabilizes mood and dopamine signals rewards, they have other distinct functions in the body as well.

Their core functions are quite different. Dopamine brings feelings of pleasure and provides a happiness boost, while serotonin is more of a stabilizer than a booster.

Serotonin
  • Helps mood regulation

  • Plays a big role in sleep

  • Promotes healthy digestion

  • Aids blood clotting

  • Inhibits impulsive behavior

Dopamine
  • Allows you to feel pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation

  • Aids coordination

  • Involved in short-term memory

  • Enhances impulsive behavior

Other “Feel-Good” Chemicals

Oxytocin and endorphins are the other “feel good” chemicals that play a role in our daily lives and moods.

  • Oxytocin is best known for its role in childbirth and breastfeeding. It is also called the “love hormone” for its role in parent–child bonding and couple bonding.
  • Endorphins are your body’s natural pain relievers and are also responsible for the feelings of pleasure we can get after exercise (also known as “runner’s high”), eating chocolate, and laughing with friends.

Signs of Low Serotonin and Dopamine

If your dopamine or serotonin levels are out of balance, you may experience physical and mental symptoms.

Serotonin

Symptoms of low serotonin levels can cause:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Depression
  • Mood instability
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Digestive issues

Dopamine

Symptoms of low dopamine activity can vary depending on the region of the brain where dopamine or dopamine activity is lacking.

Low dopamine levels are associated with the following symptoms:

  • Problems with motivation or concentration
  • Memory issues, such as difficulty remembering the first part of a sentence a person just spoke
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Shaking hands or other tremors
  • Changes in coordination
  • Low sex drive
  • Inability to feel pleasure from previously enjoyed activities

Contact your healthcare provider if you are experiencing signs of low serotonin or dopamine.

Causes of Serotonin and Dopamine Imbalance

There’s no single cause of low dopamine or serotonin, but it typically occurs for one of two reasons: not having enough dopamine or serotonin, or inefficient use of the dopamine or serotonin you have.

In the first scenario, your body is not producing enough of the chemicals to maintain normal levels; in the second scenario, while your body is making dopamine or serotonin, it is not using it effectively. This can happen if you don’t have enough serotonin or dopamine receptors in your brain, or if the ones you have don’t work well.

Function in Depression

When dopamine and serotonin are functioning as they should, they help someone feel balanced and happy. Dopamine and serotonin imbalances are linked to depression in different ways.

Serotonin

It was initially thought that low serotonin levels caused depression, but researchers are now refuting this claim.

We do know that serotonin is important in the treatment of depression, with the use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) being one of the most effective treatments for depression.

Dopamine

Although dopamine alone may not directly cause depression, having low levels of dopamine may cause specific symptoms associated with depression including:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities

Functions in Other Conditions

Dopamine and serotonin dysregulation also plays a role in mental, physical, and behavioral illnesses.

Serotonin

Mood disorders: Researchers found low serotonin binding in specific brain areas among people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and social anxiety disorder. Bipolar disorder was also associated with altered serotonin activity, which may influence the severity of someone’s symptoms.

Blood clotting: When you have any kind of tissue damage, such as a cut, the platelet cells in your blood release serotonin to help heal the wound. Increased serotonin levels cause the tiny arteries of the circulatory system to narrow. As they get smaller, blood flow slows.

Bone density: Studies have shown that serotonin levels may influence bone density (the strength of your bones). However, more research in this area is needed.

Dopamine

Addiction: Dopamine works with the brain’s reward system to motivate people to act in ways that will bring them a dopamine boost. Drugs like alcohol and cocaine, as well as less intense substances, such as caffeine and nicotine, all impact dopamine release.

Drugs produce large surges of dopamine, powerfully reinforcing the connection between consumption of the drug and pleasure. This teaches the brain to seek drugs at the expense of other, healthier goals and activities.

Other mental health conditions: A number of mental health conditions are thought to be linked to dopamine dysfunction, including:

Movement disorders that are impacted by dopamine include:

Some conditions classified as central sensitivity syndromes include dopamine dysregulation, such as:

Dopamine, Serotonin, and Obesity

The causes of obesity are complex, but imaging studies suggest that in people with obesity, the body may not release enough dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine dysfunction can disrupt natural reward systems. This can affect the amount of food eaten before a person feels satisfied. Future research is needed to advance the understanding of the role of neurotransmitters in obesity.

Function in Digestion

You have dopamine and serotonin in your gut, where they play a role in digestive health.

Serotonin

Your gut contains around 95% of your body’s serotonin. It’s released when food enters the small intestine, where it helps to stimulate contractions that push food through your intestines.

Serotonin also reduces your appetite as you eat to help you know when you’re full. The neurotransmitter further plays a protective role in the gut.

For example, if you eat something containing harmful bacteria or something you’re allergic to, your gut responds by producing more serotonin. The extra “dose” of the chemical moves the unwanted food along, expelling it from your body more quickly.

Dopamine

It is thought that neurotransmitters such as dopamine play a role in controlling and maintaining stability within the digestive system in terms of:

  • Nutrient absorption
  • Blood flow
  • Gut microbiome

While dopamine and serotonin are found in your gut, serotonin plays a much larger role in digestion. It helps to stimulate contractions in your gut that move food through your intestines.

Function in Sleep

Your sleep-wake cycle is regulated by a small gland in the brain called the pineal gland. This gland is central to dictating the “circadian rhythm” in humans—the biological processes that enable brain activity to adapt to the time of the day. The pineal gland has receptors for both dopamine and serotonin.

Serotonin

Serotonin’s role in regulating the sleep-wake cycle is complex. While it helps in maintaining sleep, it can also prevent you from falling asleep. 

A hormone called melatonin is critical to the proper functioning of your sleep cycle. Your body needs serotonin to make melatonin, so not having enough of the neurotransmitter can affect the pattern and quality of your sleep.

Your brain has specific areas that control when you fall asleep, regulate your sleep patterns, and wake you up. The parts of your brain that are responsible for regulating sleep also have serotonin receptors.

Dopamine

Dopamine is associated with wakefulness. Drugs that increase dopamine levels, such as cocaine and amphetamines, typically increase alertness.

In addition, diseases that decrease dopamine production, such as Parkinson’s disease, often cause drowsiness.

Both dopamine and serotonin are involved in your sleep-wake cycle. Dopamine is associated with wakefulness. Serotonin is required to produce melatonin, which is critical to the proper functioning of your sleep cycle.

Ways to Boost Serotonin and Dopamine

There are many ways to boost your levels of dopamine and serotonin. These include medication, lifestyle changes, and diet.

Serotonin

Medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are a widely used type of antidepressant which raises serotonin levels in the brain.

Outside of SSRIs, the following factors can boost serotonin levels:

  • Exposure to bright light: Sunshine or light therapy are commonly recommended remedies for treating seasonal depression due to their serotonin-boosting properties.
  • Exercise: Regular exercise can have mood-boosting effects.
  • Supplements: Some dietary supplements may help to jumpstart the production and release of serotonin by increasing tryptophan. Before trying a new supplement, check in with your healthcare provider. 

Serotonin-Boosting Foods

You can’t directly get serotonin from food, but you can get tryptophan, an amino acid that’s converted to serotonin in your brain. Tryptophan is found primarily in the following foods:

  • Bananas
  • Beans, such as chickpeas, kidney, pinto, and black beans
  • Eggs
  • Leafy greens
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Oily, fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel
  • Probiotic/fermented foods, such as kefir, yogurt, and tofu
  • Turkey

Dangers of Too Much Serotonin

Always speak to your doctor before taking any medication or supplement to increase low serotonin. Certain medications and supplements can raise serotonin levels too much, which can lead to serotonin syndrome.

The symptoms of serotonin syndrome range from unpleasant to life threatening and can include sudden swings in blood pressure, seizures, and loss of consciousness.

Dopamine

There are several medications available for people who have low dopamine levels. They fall into one of two categories: agonists or antagonists.

Dopamine agonists activate dopamine receptors to increase the amount of dopamine in the brain. They are useful to treat conditions related to dopamine deficiency, specifically Parkinson’s disease.

By contrast, dopamine antagonists block dopamine receptors, similar to the functioning of an SSRI. These drugs are often used as antipsychotics, to treat conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Other ways to boost dopamine include:

  • Meditation: Research shows that meditation has the ability to increase your dopamine levels.
  • Listening to music: In a 2011 study, researchers found that listening to music you find pleasurable can lead to a release of dopamine in your brain.

Dopamine-Boosting Foods

Dopamine can’t be found in food, although some people have hypothesized that the body can turn tyrosine—an amino acid—into dopamine via a complex chain of reactions.

Some foods rich in phenylalanine, which the body needs to synthesize tyrosine, include:

  • Soy products, such as soybeans, tofu, and soy milk
  • Fish and meat, including chicken, turkey, and pork
  • Eggs and dairy products, such as milk and cheese
  • Seeds, including pumpkin and sesame seeds
  • Beans, such as lima beans

It’s worth noting that more research is needed to prove a conclusive link between diet and dopamine.

A Word From Verywell

Dopamine and serotonin regulate similar bodily functions but produce different effects.

Dopamine regulates mood and muscle movement and plays a vital role in the brain’s pleasure and reward systems. Serotonin helps regulate mood, sleep, and digestion.

Contact your healthcare provider if you begin to experience signs of low dopamine or serotonin, as these can be remedied with lifestyle changes and medication.

Frequently Asked Questions 

Can dopamine and serotonin make you happy?

Dopamine helps you to feel pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation. When your serotonin levels are at a normal level, you should feel more focused, emotionally stable, happier, and more calm.

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

Serotonin deficiency may produce symptoms such as:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Depression
  • Mood instability
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Digestive issues

Lack of dopamine may cause:

  • Problems with motivation or concentration
  • Memory issues
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Shaking hands or other tremors
  • Changes in coordination
  • Low sex drive
  • Inability to feel pleasure from previously enjoyed activities

How do serotonin and dopamine work together?

Serotonin and dopamine do not function independently of one another. Instead, they work together to create complex patterns of behavior.

When one neurotransmitter is altered, there is a change in the function or prevalence of the other substance. For example, increased levels of serotonin can lead to decreased dopamine activity and vice versa.

What foods help with serotonin production?

You can’t directly get serotonin from food, but you can get tryptophan, an amino acid that’s converted to serotonin in your brain. Tryptophan is found primarily in the following foods:

  • Bananas
  • Beans, such as chickpeas, kidney, pinto, and black beans
  • Eggs
  • Leafy greens
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Oily, fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel 
  • Probiotic/fermented foods, such as kefir, yogurt, and tofu
  • Turkey
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21 Sources
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