This is why you feel low in energy, depressed, unmotivated, or tired but wired and never happy with what you achieve.
The levels and the balance of just two neurotransmitters will make a big difference to your feelings, your mood, your emotions and energy levels every single day of your life.
Simply put, neurotransmitters communicate information. Both dopamine and serotonin are neurotransmitters that regulate certain brain activities, moods and feelings. You can boost your mood by taking actions that positively impact the levels of those two neuro-transmitters by following the suggestions outlined later in this post.
First you should understand how they work.
Deficiencies in either will cause low energy and feelings of depression. An imbalance or dominance of one over the other creates emotional extremes. But there is a distinct difference in how these two neurotransmitters operate in your brain and how exactly each of them affect your mood.
Let’s look at how each of them affect your mood differently.
Dopamine is responsible for:
A lack of dopamine causes feelings of depression often characterized by very low energy and a complete lack of motivation.
If your dopamine levels are low, you could be craving simple carbs or dairy.
Note that a lack of dopamine does not cause anxiety. You won’t have trouble sleeping, but you will struggle with getting up and to get going in the mornings.
If your dopamine levels are temporarily too high from overstimulation, you will feel yourself getting angry at things that would not normally make you feel angry.
Dopamine causes feelings of pleasure, love and attachment, a sense of altruism (concern for the welfare of others), and integration of thoughts and feelings.
Dopamine is responsible for our desire to acquire – whether that be feed, sex, achievements or drugs.
A dopamine deficiency causes a lack of feelings of pleasure (anhedonia), a lack of feelings of attachment and connectedness, lack of ability to feel love, lack of remorse and distractability.
Serotonin is responsible for:
Low serotonin leads to cravings for stimulating foods such as coffee or chocolate. Stimulating substances only temporarily increase dopamine levels in the brain but will stress your adrenal glands and if used continually and long term lead to adrenal gland exhaustion. A lack of serotonin leaves you with an empty feeling that nothing seems to be able to fill. You will have feelings of fear, and if it is a serotonin only deficiency, trouble sleeping.
In order to lead a balanced life, ideally there is a ratio of about 50/50 serotonin to dopamine in your system. If will vary from time to time and depending on circumstances, but should not go completely out of whack.
Dopamine and Serotonin are balanced in roughly equal amounts. Note that your brain produces a certain amount of each but a maximum total of both. If there is a deficiency of serotonin, the body tends to ‘borrow’ from the dopamine pool.
There are three scenarios:
High dopamine/low serotonin, low dopamine/high serotonin, and low dopamine/low serotonin.
If dopamine is dominant, serotonin levels are low, and we are not happy or content. There is little, if any, satisfaction with our achievements and we only see what we haven’t managed to achieve. We see problems rather than opportunities everywhere in our life.
Being low in serotonin, we seek pleasure, often in activities such as eating, drinking alcohol or shopping. Or we want to make a change and start a new exercise program or diet. Or sex, or a new relationship. The trouble is that these activities only affect dopamine levels temporarily. When the effects wear off, we continue to eat, or drink, or shop, and seek pleasure elsewhere. And even if we manage to stick with a diet or exercise program, chances are we won’t be able to feel satisfied with the result.
When dopamine is high and serotonin is low, nothing will ever be good enough to satisfy us. It leads to the thinking that ‘one day, if I only achieve such and such (earn a million dollars, lose 20 pounds, move into the perfect house, find the ideal partner, insert your own goal here), I will be happy’. But the catch is that the goal posts keep moving with everything that is achieved and therefore continue to stay out of reach. Perfectionism and a lack of flexibility are characteristic of dopamine dominance.
Because in this scenario dopamine is low, our ability to focus and organize takes a beating. Energy is low and we lack the drive and motivation to do something, anything. Decision making, memory, learning from past mistakes and self awareness are all negatively affected. This leads to a tendency for making rash decisions without consideration of the consequences. To counter the effect of low dopamine, the body will try and self medicate by craving stimulants such as caffeine or other stimulant drugs.
When either dopamine or serotonin levels fall below a certain point, we want relief from these unpleasant and sometimes intolerable feelings. But depending on how you go about obtaining said relief, there can be a price to pay. When self medicating through various drugs, or engaging in stressful or overly exciting activities for too often or too long – and there is no adequate nutrition or rest to allow for recovery -both serotonin and dopamine levels will crash. When that happens, you will not have any motivation to do anything with your life and neither will you enjoy much satisfaction or contentment with your circumstances. Low levels of both neurotransmitters make sure that nothing and nobody will be good enough. You can’t get motivated to change anything and you can’t get any satisfaction from what you already have. Neuro-transmitter burn-out is a bitch.
Rewards will still be experienced from certain activities, but they will be ever more fleeting. And because there is little hope for any change in the future, we develop a ‘to hell with it all’ attitude that leads to a tendency to overdo all of these (eating, drinking, taking drugs, spending money, sex, etc)
Give your brain and body the proper nutrition in the form of protein, healthy fats and good carbs found in vegetables and fruits. Even an optimal nutrition plan can be supplemented to correct any nutrient deficiencies and help repair damage, by adding a supplement such as 5-htp, L-tryptophan, or St. Johns Wort. Adding a vitamin B complex supplement and Vitamin C will facilitate the creation of serotonin.
Note: Stay away from stimulant drugs such as caffeine by avoiding coffee, tea and yes, even chocolate which contains caffeine.
If you don’t get enough sleep, getting used to an earlier bedtime will help. Try going to bed a little bit earlier every evening until you have found the amount of sleep that will make you wake up in the morning without the need for an alarm.
To stimulate serotonin production, expose yourself to early morning sunlight for about 10 to 15 minutes each day by shifting part of your morning routine outside. A lovely way to start the day is by enjoying a fragrant cup of herbal tea in the garden (depending on the season).
Exercise: aerobic/cardio. Any type of exercise has been proven to increase both serotonin and dopamine levels. Aerobic exercises such as running, swimming, fast walking or biking in particular have shown to boost serotonin levels.
Practicing gratitude is a simple way to increase serotonin production in your brain by forcing you to focus on the positive things in your life.
High serotonin/Low dopamine
Again, proper nutrition is vital in the form of protein, healthy fats, and good carbs such as vegetables and fruits. Use dopamine stimulants such as a cup of coffee or tea. If you need extra help, add a supplement such as L-tyrosine and/or DLPA. In case you are curious, DLPA stands for DL-Phenylalanine, and contains different forms of the essential amino acid Phenylalanine. It has been known to have a beneficial effect on depression.
You can also increase dopamine levels by taking a herb called Mucuna Pruriens. It contains L-dopa which the body can convert to dopamine and it works quite quickly.
Foods that will increase your dopamine levels by increasing levels of the precursor tyrosine include almonds, avocados, bananas, dairy products, lima beans, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds.
Novelty also drives up the dopamine system, so going on a holiday or changing your routine can benefit dopamine production and increase feelings of pleasure.
Sleep: allow a full 8 hours sleep. For best practices, look at my blog post about sleep. (FIX LINK)
Exercise: Strength/resistance training, weight lifting
Nutrition: proper nutrition in the form of protein, healthy fats, good carbs such as vegetables and fruits. Supplements to support both neuro-transmitters are L-tyrosine and/or DLPA, 5-htp, L-tryptophan, or St. Johns Wort. A Vitamin B group and Vitamin C will facilitate production.
Sleep: a good night’s sleep is particularly restorative for the brain and that includes the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. Apart from sleep, adequate rest during the day is also important to allow for recovery and regeneration.
Exercise: Walking is the best form of exercise if you are low in both serotonin and dopamine. Take it easy on yourself, start slowly and listen to your body. Exercise should make you feel refreshed and give you more energy, not run your system down even further.
Note: any of the supplements mentioned above starting with L- are amino acids which can be found naturally in meat.
There are strategies which will work to balance and restore both neuro-transmitters.
Dopamine and Serotonin affect mood, weight, concentration, sleep and emotions, and a few other things besides.
When you develop an awareness of the chemistry that lies behind your moods you no longer need to be at the mercy of your feelings and emotions. You can assume control and take responsibility for making changes and taking actions that re-balance your moods, emotions and your life.
To summarize, the higher your dopamine levels the more you will ‘need’ (and want) stuff to make you happy. Dopamine creates the desire to strive for things. Excess dopamine leads to continual striving for things but never being happy with the status quo which creates an ultimately exhausting ‘chasing your tail’ situation.
The higher your serotonin levels, the more content and satisfied you will feel with what you already have. Excess serotonin can cause you to feel content with what you have even if the circumstances do not warrant it, i.e. your health is below par or your life is going nowhere fast.
Ideally, the right balance between these two neuro-transmitters creates a perfect mix of motivation/drive and satisfaction with your life. With the right balance of motivation to achieve things as well as satisfaction with what you already have, you will create a sense of well being about where and who you are. Ultimately, that’s what most of us are trying to achieve. The neuro-transmitter balancing act is essential to, but ultimately only a single component, in the complex art of making the most of your life.