Serotonin and Dopamine: What Do We Know About the “Happy” Hormones?
Every one of us has our own individual concept of happiness, and no one has come up with a universal definition. Yet, all of us are capable of intuitively experiencing it, distinguishing between being happy and unhappy. It is common knowledge today that happiness depends not only on a capricious fate and some mysterious existential reasons but also on physiology. Do you feel sick? Life is not happy. Predominantly dark thoughts creep into your head? First, recall if you slept well (and how long ago). Ask yourself if you are hungry or if you drink enough water, and when was the last time you were outdoors.
For every condition, there is a cause. It is difficult to enjoy a comedy in the cinema, for instance, if a toothache torments you. You might also want to look into your serotonin and dopamine levels because these fellas deliver the emotions right into your brain so that you may embrace them and feel alive.
Serotonin and dopamine represent an interesting example of dualism in our bodies. They are often called hormones, but scientifically speaking, they become hormones only when entering the bloodstream. When they start their journey, they are neurotransmitters — biologically active components that deliver the impulse from one neuron to another. For instance, when dopamine channels the impulses, it activates the reward system in our brain, and we learn that specific actions bring us pain while others deliver pleasure.
Serotonin, the happiness hormone
The most surprising fact about serotonin is that up to 90% of this hormone in the body is produced not in the brain but in the intestines! The intestinal bacteria are actively involved in this process, and if their balance is disturbed, our digestion suffers, and so does our mood. Moreover, a few relevant studies of recent years, such as “Mental Health May Depend on Creatures in the Gut,” recorded a direct interrelation between the disturbed balance of intestinal flora and the tendency to depression.
Scientists have not yet concluded what serves as the primary trigger. A lack of bacteria leads to a decrease in the production of serotonin, and, as a result, depression develops, or bacteria die because of depression. The fact remains that depression and bowel dysfunctions go hand in hand. So, if you are prone to depression, it may be worth paying special attention to gut health – and vice versa.
Serotonin is an active mediator in memory adjustment, sleep, behavior, and emotional reactions. Besides, your blood pressure, thermoregulation, and food responses also depend on serotonin.
This hormone regulates the constriction of blood vessels in the body, and therefore a lack of it can lead to the development of severe migraines. Serotonin affects the sensitivity of the pain system of our body: when it drops, the sensitivity increases dramatically, and even the weakest irritation may reverberate with severe pain. Serotonin helps regulate our mood roller coasters: too much or too little, and we feel suppressed and indifferent to life; when we are low on serotonin for a long period, we develop depression.
10-20% of serotonin is generated in the brain, particularly in the pineal gland. It’s also worth noting that sunlight plays a vital role in the release of serotonin. If daylight is scarce, the pineal gland begins to produce melanin, suppressing the production of serotonin, so our mood goes down. It is also the reason why in autumn and winter, when it gets dark early, and we rarely see the sun, our mood is generally worse than in summer.
How to distinguish when you have too little or too much serotonin?
Normally, the serotonin content in the blood should not go below 50 nor above 220 ng/ml. If you notice certain symptoms that may indicate a deficiency or an excess of this hormone over two weeks or longer, do not hesitate to request your primary care doctor’s referral for the relevant analysis. The low level of serotonin often manifests itself in the following symptoms:
- Digestive and bowel problems
- Muscle weakness
- Weakening of the immune system
- Disrupted circadian rhythms, increased sleepiness syndrome (a condition in which you want to sleep more during the day than at night)
- Depression, anxiety
- Memory impairment.
It might seem odd, yet the excess of serotonin is as unhealthy as its deficit. There is even a special medical condition called Serotonin Syndrome. It is a response to taking certain medications, particularly for migraines and antidepressants or forbidden substances. Symptoms can range from mild (shivering and diarrhea) to severe (muscle rigidity, fever, and seizures). But also, the level of serotonin can rise sharply with fibrocystic formations in the abdominal cavity. Severe serotonin syndrome can cause death if left untreated. Most common symptoms include:
- сhanges in the mental state, agitation, delirium, and hallucinations
- diarrhea or nausea
- muscle stiffness, soreness, and stiffness
- dry mouth
- tremors, slowing down or excessive activity of reflexes
- increased sweating, fever
- severe chills.
How to boost your serotonin levels?
A healthy diet, an active lifestyle, and even specific vitamins can help maintain healthy serotonin levels. Since the release of serotonin involves the tryptophan amino acid, regular consumption of foods with a high tryptophan content helps our brain actively produce serotonin. Cheese is known to contain a lot of tryptophan. Fatty and low-fat cottage cheese, legumes, mushrooms, millet, and buckwheat would also do a good job. Also, some tasty things you can grab in the middle of the workday heat, such as bananas, chocolate, coffee, tea, dates, oranges, prunes, and figs, will also help increase serotonin in the body.
Another natural way to increase serotonin levels is through active games or outdoor sports. Firstly, the release of this neurotransmitter is stimulated by sunlight, and, secondly, exercise and sports, team games, and emotional bouts affect the production of the “hormone of happiness.”
Dopamine, a happy hormone
Think about something you love doing. It may be chatting with your beloved one on a lazy Sunday morning, a pillow fight, squeezing your plump furry cat you can’t let go of, tasting a delicious cake, listening to your favorite tunes in the gym, or pumping confidence. Why do we feel so good doing all these things? It’s dopamine flowing into the blood.
This neurotransmitter is produced by your endocrine cells in the brain and is responsible for more than just feelings of satisfaction. Dopamine affects the workings of the heart and helps to regulate weight, the condition, and the functionality of nerve cells. In addition, dopamine plays an important role in the process of memorization, intellectual work, and regulation of the psycho-emotional state.
What happens when our body has enough dopamine?
We feel the energy, the fire inside, our willpower and initiative are stronger than ever, we are confident, and we tend to set the most ambitious goals and are eager to act on them. It is dopamine that is released in an enhanced manner when we fall in love. It might be nature’s boost designed specifically to help us win the attention of the person who interests us, overcome obstacles on the way to the goal, and, as a result, start reproducing to ensure the continuation of our species.
Indirect signs that you are getting enough dopamine are sound sleep, a high ability for mental activity, the ability to enjoy “simple pleasures” like sex, delicious food, and favorite activities.Dopamine is often referred to as the hormone of curiosity and creativity. On top of that, some research, like “Neurobiology of the structure of personality: dopamine, facilitation of incentive motivation, and extraversion,” suggest that extraverts with a higher propensity for impulsive behavior tend to be more able to activate dopamine chains.
Dopamine rush and pleasure chemical
The prolonged or too substantial dopamine level increase in the body can trigger the formation of addiction — not only to the drug that causes this level to rise but also to a certain behavior. Shopping, gambling or computer games, and even fast food are all activities that lead to rapid and strong activation of the pleasure center, and the release of dopamine can start building addictive behavioral patterns. When again and again, we return to that activity or sensation, anticipating a magic shot of dopamine and “getting high,” the nerve cells in the area of the brain responsible for planning and decision-making are activated. We form a persistent association between the addiction factor and pleasure. Defeating it is extremely difficult since this evolutionary mechanism is embedded in us as an adaptation tool (both sex and food are vital behaviors that should be repeated as often as possible for the survival of our entire species).
The more dopamine accumulates in our brain, the more receptors for it are formed. Time goes by, and the brain adapts and no longer reacts so strongly to dopamine. The feeling of pleasure triggered by certain substances or experiences gets dull and loses its direct effect. The body and mind become tolerant. To get high with the same impact, an addict has to keep increasing the dosage.
Even the most socially approved activities, for example, reading, volunteering, or work, can qualify as the subject of addiction if one experiences anxiety, irritability, and stress when they can not do the thing they love.
A single molecule’s simplicity and its receptors make dopamine so flexible and the resulting effects so complex. While dopamine has just five receptor types, serotonin has fourteen currently known and even more that are thought to exist. Other neurotransmitters have receptors with various subtypes, all expressed in different places, and where each combination can produce a different result. Neurons make billions and billions of connections to enable your walking, falling in love, getting married, experiencing life adventures, getting divorced, getting addicted to cocaine, and, who knows, maybe also overcoming your addiction someday.
Dopamine deficiency: how to recognize it?
Dopamine deficiency can be as dangerous as its excess. Depression and Parkinson’s disease are associated with the lack of this neurotransmitter. If the level of dopamine remains low for a long time, it increases the risk of developing metabolic syndrome and even diabetes mellitus, heart problems, and chronic fatigue syndrome. You should check your dopamine levels if you observe the following symptoms for several weeks:
- depressive state
- pathological unmotivated aggressiveness
- excessively frequent changes in the psycho-emotional background
- decreased sex drive
- memory impairment
- hard time concentrating
- impairment of cognitive abilities.
How can we increase the dopamine level?
Dopamine medication should only be taken as directed by your physician. But there are also natural home remedies capable of increasing the level of this pleasure hormone. All you need to know is where to find them. In fact, these are simple foods rich in tyrosine, which directly affects the receptors that activate dopamine. Tyrosine is abundant in the following foods:
- fresh fruits and vegetables (bananas, apples, strawberries, beets)
- nuts, especially almonds
- green tea
- seafood, fish
- dairy products
- poultry meat.
Another way you can boost your dopamine production is exercise! Yes, simple exercise, preferably outdoors, in the sunshine. Do not forget about positive emotions, things that bring a smile to your face even on the gloomiest day. Dopamine is actively produced when we are in love with someone, carried away with some new experiences. Thus, do your best to live an active life and stay open-minded:)
As is known, humans are biosocial creatures. Both components, the nature we are born to and the social stimuli affecting our decisions, are equally important. Whatever profound form our civilizations will achieve, no matter how advanced our individual and social capacities can become in the future, we still can’t get detached from our biological component. Someone might view it as a non-freedom addiction, but what if this is just another opportunity for us to cognize ourselves? And those who learn to live in harmony not only with their personality but also with hormones will eventually thrive!
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