Two women feeling happy and laughing in car

Serotonin vs. Dopamine vs. Oxytocin: What’s the Difference?

Published: March 2022

Philosophers have debated for centuries what “happiness” really means, but for biologists, it comes down to brain chemicals: specifically, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine. Sometimes called “the happy hormones,” these neurotransmitters are responsible for communicating thoughts, emotions, and feelings like euphoria, connection, desire, and pleasure. In other words, happiness! They also support biological processes involved in learning and memory, sleep, digestion, and more.

So, whether you're sharing a meal with loved ones, cuddling with your pooch, or posting on social media, these chemical messengers are involved in how you view, interpret, and interact with the world around you.

But serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins and dopamine are not words that can be used interchangeably. These feel-good chemicals each have a very different role to play in managing your mood, emotions and motivation.

Here’s how each of these neurotransmitters works—and, how you can boost your levels so you can get more of those warm-and-fuzzies in your life!

What’s the difference between dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins?

These chemicals each act in different ways to convey the experience of happiness and pleasure.

  • Dopamine: Supports feelings of reward and motivation.
  • Serotonin: Helps maintain emotions.
  • Oxytocin: The “love” hormone, gives you a rush of pleasure from affection and connection.
  • Endorphins: A surge of pleasure, often in response to occasional discomfort or stress (think of how you feel after biting into something spicy yet delicious!)

How can I get more of these happiness chemicals?

Maintaining healthy serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin levels starts with your daily choices. Your body makes these chemicals from the nutrients in the foods you eat. So, following a diet like the MIND diet that supports brain health is key—and certain foods are more involved with specific neurotransmitters than others.

Beyond diet, here are additional tips to promote optimal levels of each of these neurotransmitters.

Feel more pleasure by increasing dopamine

Man lounging in a lawn chair outside feeling happy
  • Foods—Eggs, healthy fats like walnuts, almonds, and fatty acids from fish like salmon, mackerel, and tuna are good for dopamine production! They also provide tyrosine, one of the precursors for dopamine production.
  • Daily habits—Do more of the things that you enjoy. Spend time with your dog, walk outside and enjoy those blue skies. Make time for your beauty sleep! Restful sleep has been shown to promote healthy dopamine (and other happy hormone) levels.
  • Dietary supplements—Research suggests that having enough vitamin B12 offers protective effects from oxidative stress, supporting healthy dopamine levels.

Improve your mood with these serotonin-boosting tips

Woman eating a piece of dark chocolate to boost serotonin levels
  • Foods—Choose foods that help promote tryptophan levels, the precursor for serotonin. Think eggs, salmon, cheese, and tofu. Incorporating nutrient-dense foods into your daily meals is an easy way to help support the release of serotonin—if you're a chocolate lover, having a few pieces of dark chocolate after eating can also help promote those serotonin levels.
  • Daily habits—Engaging in physical activity, the kind that gets you sweating and breathing heavily, choosing activities that help you manage stress—like meditation and spending time in nature—all promote healthy serotonin levels.
  • Dietary supplements—Choose supplements that can pick up where your diet leaves off. Taking a tryptophan supplement, for example, is a great way to support serotonin production. Make sure you have enough vitamin D, a star player in serotonin production. And don't leave out your omega-3s; these healthy fats have been shown to support the release of serotonin.

Love is all you need with these oxytocin-boosting tips

Couple in kitchen laughing and hugging which boosts oxytocin
  • Foods—Go green for oxytocin. Leafy greens and vegetables are rich in magnesium and vitamin D and C, which are crucial for mental health (and whole-body health). You can't go wrong with a roasted veggie salad and grilled salmon.
  • Daily habits—Don't take physical contact for granted. There's a reason hugs, massages, and intimacy feel so good; they can kick oxytocin release into gear.
  • Dietary supplements—If eating more veggies is challenging for you, then speak with your doctor or nutritionist to find a formula like magnesium L-threonate that works for you. Research suggests this mineral makes your cells more sensitive to oxytocin. And you want to ensure you get enough vitamin D and vitamin C, essential for oxytocin production.

Tips to get that endorphin rush

Woman holding forkful of spicy noodles that can boost endorphins through capsaicin
  • Foods—Bring on the spicy food! Adding jalapeños or cayenne pepper to your meals will prompt your body to release endorphins in response to capsaicin, the active compound in chili peppers responsible for that spicy kick. If spicy is not your thing, though, grab some chocolate! Cacao can also encourage the release of endorphins, plus it's delicious and triggers your other happy hormones. So, it's a win-win!
  • Daily habits—Don't underestimate the power of a workout routine; it will help you support endorphin levels. Laughter and spending a romantic night with your significant other are great ways to get your endorphins flowing.
  • Dietary supplements—Choosing supplements that support your endocannabinoid system, which influence hormone balance, may encourage the release of endorphins. And ensuring you get enough vitamins C, D, and B, and magnesium also support healthy levels of your comfort chemicals.

How much exercise do you need to boost your mood?

You don't have to spend hours at the gym, leaving red-faced and jelly-legged to get the neurotransmitter-boost benefits of physical activity. Just two and a half hours (150 minutes) a week is all it takes to reap the health benefits of exercise! And mix it up by doing strength and resistance training twice a week to target and tone large muscle groups.

Serotonin vs. dopamine: What’s the relationship?

Both dopamine and serotonin are neurotransmitters that affect mood, providing a euphoric sense of happiness. But they act on different receptors and differ in how they influence biological processes.

Dopamine is the experience of pleasure in response to a behavior. That’s why it’s so closely connected with your brain’s reward center—making it more likely you'll repeat a particular behavior. On the other hand, serotonin is responsible for supporting your emotions. (It’s also involved in digestion, sexual health, sleep, and more.)

In addition, your body produces dopamine and serotonin differently. Dopamine is synthesized from the amino acid tyrosine, while serotonin comes from tryptophan.

Are dopamine and serotonin opposites?

Serotonin and dopamine sometimes work together, but these brain chemicals can also have opposite effects. For example, dopamine can enhance that reward-driven behavior, like impulsively going for another slice of pie, whereas serotonin helps inhibit those more impulsive behaviors that seek the dopamine-mediated reward. So, forget the idea of the angel and the devil resting on your shoulder as you ponder whether to indulge…it’s really dopamine and serotonin calling the shots!

Do I need more dopamine or serotonin?

The best way to know whether you need more dopamine or serotonin is by taking a lab test. As with anything in life, balance is key. And the good news is that by being proactive about your health, you can make adjustments in your daily habits and support healthy neurochemical levels.

Pro tip: Once you get your lab test results, discuss your numbers with your doctor to find the best way to support your happy hormone levels.

How are dopamine and oxytocin connected?

Research suggests the “love hormone” oxytocin can impact dopamine pathways to enhance feelings of reward and motivation. Think about a parent giving a child a hug to reinforce positive behavior: both affection and rewards are at play.

Studies have also shown that oxytocin and dopamine play a vital role in critical thinking and cognition. Preclinical evidence suggests that oxytocin and dopamine are major contributors to the bond you form with your partner and the intense feelings of affection you feel when you look into their eyes.

Does oxytocin increase dopamine?

Potentially. Preclinical studies suggest that oxytocin activity in the hypothalamus, a gland in the brain that regulates the hormone systems, contributes to the release of dopamine. Dopamine released in these pathways support the brain's rewards systems, resulting in positive feelings.

How are serotonin and endorphins connected?

You know that exhilaration you get when you bite into your favorite delicious spicy dish? Those are your endorphins. Your body produces these neurotransmitters in moments of pleasure—think sex, exercise, and laughter—and they also help you deal with occasional physical discomfort…whether it’s the euphoria women feel after (not during!) childbirth, or that delightful burning sensation of wasabi on sushi.

And as we've seen, serotonin influences your mood and emotions when it's active in the brain and digestion in the gut. So, if you’re enjoying a spicy meal with someone you care about, endorphins and serotonin both may be responsible for your wonderful evening out!

Let the good feelings begin

Let's recap! Serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine are part of your happy hormones arsenal; they influence how you feel and help maintain different biological processes. They work synergistically to keep you on top-notch health, so balanced levels of each are essential for whole-body and mental health—and it's never too early to be proactive about cognitive health.

References

By: Jessica Monge, Health & Wellness Writer

Jessica Monge has a bachelor's degree in biological sciences & neuroscience and a master's degree in comparative studies and related languages from Florida Atlantic University. She worked as a tutor, freelance writer and editor before joining Life Extension as a Copywriter.

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD