Care / Mindfulness

Serotonin vs. Dopamine: What’s The Difference?

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serotonin vs dopamine
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Written by Mona Freund
Reviewed by Kelly McKenna, LCSW, MBA

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Few things are universal. But some things just hit in a way that makes most of us say “Ah, that’s it.” Like, say, feeling your mood lighten after a hug from someone you love, or enjoying a sense of accomplishment after finishing a great run. In these instances, you’re enjoying the effects of serotonin and dopamine. 

Often called the “feel good chemicals,” these neurotransmitters are responsible for different aspects of your mood, from motivation to pleasure. Because they have similar roles, it can be easy to think of serotonin and dopamine as the same thing—but this isn’t quite right.

So, what are serotonin and dopamine? And when it comes to serotonin vs. dopamine, what’s the difference? Keep reading to find out.   

What Is Serotonin? 

Serotonin, also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), is a neurotransmitter best known for its role in regulating mood icon-trusted-source The International Journal of Biochemistry & Cell Biology “The ever-changing roles of serotonin” View Source . As a neurotransmitter—that is, a messenger between the brain and body—serotonin helps the brain tell the body what to do.  

serotonin vs. dopamine | what is serotonin

Apart from mood, serotonin alsoplays a part in regulating icon-trusted-source Annual Review of Medicine “The Expanded Biology of Serotonin” View Source

  • Appetite 
  • Perception 
  • Reward
  • Anger 
  • Fear
  • Stress responses
  • Aggression
  • Memory 
  • Sexuality 
  • Attention 
  • Sleep

Serotonin’s key role is carrying messages across the central nervous system. Some is produced in the raphe nuclei of the brain. But the majority of your body’s serotonin is found in the gut—about 95% is made in the intestines icon-trusted-source Handbook of Experimental Pharmacology “Serotonergic Mechanisms Regulating the GI Tract: Experimental Evidence and Therapeutic Relevance” View Source . Here, serotonin aids in gut health and digestion. 

What Is Dopamine? 

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s mostly known for its role in learning and motivation icon-trusted-source Nature Neuroscience “What does dopamine mean?” View Source . Like serotonin, dopamine helps communicate messages between your brain and the rest of your body. It does so largely by establishing reward pathways icon-trusted-source Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity “The Role of Dopamine and Its Dysfunction as a Consequence of Oxidative Stress” View Source in the brain. In other words, it helps your brain connect certain activities, like eating a chocolate bar, with pleasure. 

serotonin vs. dopamine | what is dopamine

Dopamine can help with:

  • Cognition 
  • Behavior
  • Movement
  • Sleep 
  • Dreaming 
  • Mood 
  • Attention 
  • Working Memory 
  • Learning 

Like serotonin, a large portion of dopamine is produced outside the brain. About 50% icon-trusted-source Frontiers in Immunilogy “Peripheral Dopamine Controlled by Gut Microbes Inhibits Invariant Natural Killer T Cell-Mediated Hepatitis” View Source of the body’s dopamine is produced in the gut where it aids in digestion.

What’s the Difference Between Serotonin and Dopamine? 

Serotonin and dopamine both play key roles in mood and behavior, but they aren’t interchangeable. In fact, they work in opposite ways. 

Serotonin is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. This means it works by telling the body, “This feels good, I’ve had enough.” Dopamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter and works by telling the body, “This feels good, I want more.”  

You can think of serotonin as the happy chemical and dopamine as the pleasure chemical. Serotonin regulates your mood day to day, while dopamine spikes your motivation reward by reward. 

serotonin vs dopamine

Serotonin vs. Dopamine: Deficiency Symptoms 

Your body may become deficient in serotonin or dopamine for various reasons. Sometimes, the body doesn’t produce enough of these neurotransmitters by itself. Other times, normal levels may be thrown off by interfering medications. 

Worried you may be deficient in serotonin or dopamine? These are some common warning signs:

Serotonin DeficiencyDopamine Deficiency
HyperactivityReduced activity
Lower quality sleepExtra-long periods of sleep
Decreased inhibitionsMuscle tremors
Increased aggressionDecreased appetite
Unregulated metabolismHypertension
Impaired memoryLack of motivation
Suicidal behaviorsIncreased harm avoidance

Aside from the above warning signs, low serotonin has been linked to several mood disorders icon-trusted-source Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society “The serotonergic system in mood disorders and suicidal behaviour” View Source including depression. While the link exists, the research is inconclusive. Past researchers cited the effectiveness of SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) as a reason to believe low serotonin causes depression. These medications increase serotonin levels in the brain. However, new research icon-trusted-source Molecular Psychiatry “The serotonin theory of depression: a systematic umbrella review of the evidence” View Source suggests low serotonin may not cause depression at all. In other words, more research is needed.

Dopamine deficiency is known to exist in Parkinson’s Disease icon-trusted-source Excitatory Amino Acid Neurotoxicity “Dopamine and Parkinson's Disease” View Source . Because dopamine affects muscle control, this relationship is not surprising. Still, more research is needed to conclude whether dopamine deficiency causes Parkinson’s or not. 

How To Increase Dopamine and Serotonin

If you think you may be deficient in dopamine or serotonin, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider. Your provider can prescribe you medications or other suggestions catered to your needs. However, if you’d like to try and increase your dopamine or serotonin levels on your own, there are a few things you can try. 

Natural ways to increase dopamine: 

  • Eat foods rich in magnesium and tyrosine, both of which are used in dopamine production. This may include foods icon-trusted-source Cleveland Clinic “Dopamine Deficiency” View Source such as chicken, apples, bananas, chocolate, leafy greens, oatmeal, tomatoes, and watermelon. Try enjoying some of your favorite foods in a healthy smoothie
  • Take supplements that deliver dopamine-building compounds to your body. This includes icon-trusted-source Cleveland Clinic “Dopamine Deficiency” View Source tyrosine, L-theanine, vitamin D, vitamin B5, vitamin B6, magnesium, and Omega 3 fatty acids.
  • Meditate. Meditation can lead to a 65% increase in dopamine levels, according to one study icon-trusted-source Cognitive Brain Research “Increased dopamine tone during meditation-induced change of consciousness” View Source .  
serotonin vs. dopamine | how to increase dopamine levels

Natural ways to increase serotonin: 

  • Get outside in the sun. Several studies icon-trusted-source Cognitive Brain Research “Increased dopamine tone during meditation-induced change of consciousness” View Source have found an interaction between bright light and the serotonin system. 
  • Take a walk or go for a run. Exercise increases serotonin levels icon-trusted-source Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience “How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs” View Source in the brain, which help boost your mood.
  • Take a tryptophan supplement. Purified tryptophan increases brain serotonin levels and has been effective in treating mild to moderate depression.
how to increase serotonin levels | serotonin vs. dopamine

Common FAQs About Serotonin vs. Dopamine

Still have questions about serotonin and dopamine? Here are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions. 

Does Serotonin or Dopamine Make You Happy?  

Serotonin and dopamine both play a role in happiness. However, serotonin is more directly related to mood stabilization, rather than providing a big spike.

You can think of serotonin as the “happy” chemical and dopamine as the “pleasure” chemical. Serotonin regulates daily mood while dopamine regulates motivation.   

Is Depression a Lack of Serotonin or Dopamine? 

The causes of depression are complex and not fully understood. Low serotonin levels were once thought to be a possible cause, but recent studies are inconclusive.

While SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) have shown effectiveness in treating depression by increasing serotonin levels in the brain, this isn’t enough to say that low serotonin causes depression. Ultimately, it’s possible that low serotonin plays a role in depression, but it’s not confirmed.   

Does Serotonin Increase Dopamine? 

Low levels of serotonin can lead to increased dopamine icon-trusted-source Aggression and Violent Behavior “Role of Serotonin and Dopamine System Interactions in the Neurobiology of Impulsive Aggression and its Comorbidity with other Clinical Disorders” View Source levels in the body. However, the inverse is also true: High levels of serotonin in the body may decrease dopamine levels.

This relationship makes sense given the neurotransmitters’ roles in the body. While serotonin inhibits action, dopamine excites it. For example, serotonin reduces impulsive behavior while dopamine increases it. 

How Does Alcohol Affect Serotonin and Dopamine?  

Just one drink icon-trusted-source Alcohol Health and Research World “Serotonin’s Role in Alcohol’s Effects on the Brain” View Source of alcohol is enough to temporarily increase serotonin levels in the body. Likewise, alcohol also temporarily increases dopamine levels in the body. The increase in these “feel good” chemicals can play a part in the development of alcohol addictions.

Kelly McKenna, licensed therapist, cautions that these “feel good” effects are short-term. Long-term alcohol misuse actually lowers serotonin levels icon-trusted-source Psych Scene Hub “The Impact of Alcohol on the Brain—Neurobiology of Dependence and Alcohol Related Brain Damage” View Source , which can lead to feelings of depression.

How Do Dopamine and Serotonin Affect Sleep? 

While the roles of dopamine and serotonin in sleep are complex, it is generally accepted that both show icon-trusted-source Sleep Medicine Reviews “The involvement of dopamine in the modulation of sleep and waking” View Source increased levels during times of wakefulness. In some less common scenarios, serotonin can induce sleepiness icon-trusted-source Sleep Medicine Review “Serotonin control of sleep-wake behavior” View Source .

How Do Dopamine and Serotonin Affect Digestion?  

Dopamine and serotonin play a major role in digestion from start to finish. Once food enters the body through the mouth and esophagus, dopamine and serotonin encourage movement through the GI tract and out of the body by binding to specific receptors in the GI tract. Additionally, serotonin and dopamine affect nutrient absorption, blood flow, and the gut microbiome through a complex process icon-trusted-source Journal of Cellular Physiology “Neurotransmitters: The critical modulators regulating gut-brain axis” View Source involving hormones, the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system.

Dopamine and serotonin both play a part in regulating your mood and behavior. Generally, serotonin affects your overall mood while dopamine rewards pleasurable activities to encourage motivation and learning. 

If you think you need a boost in these “feel good” chemicals, ask your doctor. Or, start by upping your self-care routines—and get rewards!


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