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What is the Difference Between Dopamine and Serotonin?

Dopamine and serotonin are neurotransmitters that impact how you experience the world. Because they play a role in positive mood, both are touted as "happy hormones." Yet, dopamine and serotonin are not the same, and impact your emotions, motivation and experience of pleasure in different—yet equally important—ways.

Here's a rundown about the difference between dopamine and serotonin, and how keeping both neurotransmitters in balance is key to a life well-lived.

What is the difference between serotonin and dopamine?

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Serotonin and dopamine are both neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers sent from our neurons to our body's cells and muscles. These messages pertain to bodily actions we might not even think about, like breathing or mood regulation.

Serotonin is essential for digesting food, sexual health, bone metabolism, and ultimately is responsible for regulating emotions. When your levels of serotonin are properly balanced, your mood and overall sense of well-being are more stable.

Dopamine is a different type of neurotransmitter that is responsible for how you experience pleasure. When you do something enjoyable, the dopamine release tells your brain, "Ooh, this feels good!" which motivates you to repeat that activity, so you can experience the same sensation over and over again. Healthy dopamine levels will enhance your motivation and ability to concentrate.

Do serotonin and dopamine work together?

Neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin are intricately connected and have extremely complex roles in the body. While serotonin inhibits many forms of impulsive behavior, dopamine can enhance it. Balance, therefore, is key. Low serotonin levels can cause dysregulation of the dopamine system. This, in turn, may lead to impulsive, pleasure-seeking activities.

Having too little dopamine is linked to decreased motivation, difficulty concentrating and a loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed. Similarly, not enough serotonin has negative impacts on your mental health and emotional well-being.

Are dopamine and serotonin the same thing?

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Dopamine and serotonin have some similar effects in the body, but they are in fact very different. Dopamine is made mostly in the central nervous system and released into your body when you anticipate or experience something pleasurable, like eating your favorite food or listing to your favorite song. Dopamine also affects memory, cognition, sleep, attention and the ability to retain new information.

Serotonin, on the other hand, plays a role in how we process emotions and can affect how we feel. Proper levels of serotonin can promote a positive mood and make you feel calm and focused. Serotonin also regulates bodily functions like contractions in the gut, which is home to over 90% of your body's serotonin.

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Can coffee increase dopamine?

Woman having a cup of coffe to increase dopamine levels

Grabbing a cup of joe not only will get your day going—it can also increase dopamine levels. Your body will find pleasure in the energizing sensation that caffeine brings in the short term. Drinking caffeine blocks certain receptors that tell your brain that you are tired. Instead, you feel alert—an accompanying jumpstart in your adrenaline also gives you a boost of energy.

This all sounds great, but overconsumption of caffeine can become problematic long term; like anything that triggers an increase in dopamine, it can be habit-forming. Once your body weans off the caffeine rush, your body crashes and your energy levels may be lower than when you first had the cup of coffee. Your natural inclination, at this point, might be to grab a second (or third) cup of coffee to get the adrenaline flowing again. Having your body in a constant heightened state of stimulation is not healthy long-term.

Certainly, though, there are worse vices than a caffeine addiction. Enjoying a cup of coffee isn't a crime! All the same, be sure to take care of your body and brain by getting adequate rest each night and eat a nutrient-rich diet throughout the day, so that you'll have natural energy throughout the day. Then, you won't need all of that caffeine!

How do you reset your dopamine levels?

Man naturally boosting dopamine levels by meditating in a chair while listening to music

While there is not a hard reset button on these neurotransmitters, healthy lifestyle tweaks can naturally boost your dopamine levels. (And many also help keep your serotonin levels stable.) Follow these simple "do's" and "don'ts" to feel good, every day!

  • DO meditate: To help regulate dopamine levels, it is important to find some quiet time and unwind from the world around you. Carve 5 to 10 minutes out of each day to meditate and allow thoughts (both positive and negative) to leave your mind.
  • DO exercise: That "runner's high" is a dopamine rush that can do the body good. If running is not your forte, you can still experience the same type of euphoria from other forms of exercise, whether it is walking, playing volleyball or lifting weights.
  • DON'T lose sleep: Getting eight hours of a restful night's sleep is crucial for your brain and body to function optimally. Sleep helps your brain recharge from the day and resets neurotransmitter levels.
  • DO take the right nutrients: Did you know that you can naturally boost your dopamine levels by adding a few natural nutrients into your wellness routine? Start with brain-supporting nutrients like Phellodenron, curcumin, vitamin B12 (as adenosylcobalamin), magnesium and fish oil.
  • DO get outside: One of the easiest ways to increase levels of dopamine naturally is by getting some fresh air from the great outdoors. Sunlight and vitamin D go a long way when it comes to supporting your mood and other vital functions as well. If your lifestyle or location doesn't allow for sun exposure, start taking vitamin D (also called the "sunshine vitamin").
  • DON'T neglect your health: This may sound obvious, but if all your meals come through a drive-thru and most of your free time is spent sitting at home binge-watching TV, you need to prioritize your health. Get in the habit of eating fresh fruits, veggies and lean protein. Most importantly, make time for family, friends, and do things that bring you joy.

About the Author: Andrew Davis is a graduate of Pace University NYC with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. He has more than a decade's worth of experience in content and social media in the health and wellness space. An avid traveler, Andrew also has volunteered as an English teacher and humanitarian in countries throughout Asia.


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