Serotonin vs Dopamine

Dopamine and serotonin are neurotransmitters mostly associated with our sense of well-being, our moods and feelings of pleasure. These two neurotransmitters, along with norenpinephrine, regulate functions including our sensation of pleasure, pain, digestion, sleep, satiety and emotional response among many others. Imbalances of these chemical compounds can lead to health problems and serious health conditions. So let’s take a deeper look to understand the serotonin vs dopamine conundrum.

Serotonin and Dopamine: Their Relation to Depression

Serotonin and dopamine are all related to depression. Easily put, they are both substantially responsible for a person’s mood and impact the brain differently. While serotonin based depression causes anxiety, dopamine based depression shows symptoms like lack of zeal for life, lethargy and sluggishness. Now let's get close and reveal how they are related:

1. Serotonin and Depression

Currently, we can be quite sure that, as for depression, lack of serotonin is the most probably culprit as blood levels of serotonin can be measured, and they are shown to be lower in people who suffer from psychological conditions like depression.

Here are 2 possible ways of how serotonin can lead to depression:

  • Researchers are of the belief that serotonin imbalance in the body can greatly influence a person’s mood and hence lead to depression. This imbalance can be caused due to a lack of receptor site able to receive the serotonin, low brain cell production of serotonin, shortage in the chemical tryptophan which is responsible for making serotonin among other possible causes. These glitches in the production or functioning of serotonin can lead to OCD, excess anger, panic, anxiety and most importantly depression.
  • Another theory has been proposed by researchers as a possible cause. They believe that depression could develop based on the regeneration of brain cells which is possibly mediated by serotonin. According to Barry Jacobs, a PhD neuroscientist at Princeton, depression possibly occurs when new brain cells are under suppression, which stresses out the brain and eventually leads to depression. According to him, antidepressant medications called SSRIs, which are designed to increase the levels of serotonin, in fact kick off the production of new brain cells, which then eases the suppression and stress on the cells and hence treats depression effectively.

Antidepressant medications like SSRIs and SNRIs are effective in reducing the symptoms of depression by working on serotonin levels in the brain, which pretty much confirms the theory, but so far, it is just a story with no definite tests to back it. We are still not sure how exactly these theories work. This is the first step in getting close to the serotonin vs dopamine war and now let's move to dopamine and depression.

2. Dopamine and Depression

Dopamine is one of the four "feel good" transmitters along with endorphins, oxytacin and of course serotonin. It is sometimes called the "motivation molecule" because it provides the focus and drive to be active and productive. It is also known as the "reward chemical" as it is responsible for our brain’s pleasure-reward-system. Dopamine plays a pivotal role in the brain’s functioning and greatly impacts our learning, mood, focus, sleep, concentration, working memory and even motor control.

Mostly depression is considered to be caused by a lack of serotonin, but lower levels of dopamine also impact the brain’s functioning and mood, leading to ADHD, depression, Parkinson’s, addictions, etc. It is no wonder why serotonin based antidepressants like SSRIs only work about 40% of the times and doctors have to resort to antidepressant medications like Bupropion, which work on low dopamine levels.

Serotonin vs Dopamine: Other Benefits They Provide

As is evident, both these neurotransmitters have special and important functions in the brain and can affect a person’s mood differently. Now let’s take a look at the benefits of both of these to get a better understanding of their functioning.

1. Serotonin

Following are a few facts about serotonin:

  1. Serotonin is manufactured in the intestines and brains and up to 90% of it is found in the gastrointestinal tract. Hence, it helps regulate bowel movements and function. It is also responsible for reducing the appetite during meal consumption.
  2. Serotonin cannot cross the brain barrier; hence, the amount that is used for the brain must be produced inside of it.
  3. Serotonin also affects appetite, sexual desire, digestion and social behavior.
  4. Scientists are still not sure whether lack of serotonin levels causes depression or if depression reduces the levels of serotonin in the body.
  5. Other than supplements, serotonin levels can be increased with the help of a healthy diet, exercise, light and even mood induction.
  6. Studies show that there are links between serotonin and breast milk production, cell division and liver regeneration.
  7. Serotonin is also responsible for forming blood clots. When there is an open wound, it is released by platelets which results in the narrowing of the tiny arteries and thus reduces blood flow and helps form blood clots.
  8. If serotonin is at a persistently high level in the bones, then it can lead to bone density or osteoporosis.

2. Dopamine

To get a better understanding of the serotonin vs dopamine war, here are more about dopamine:

Dopamine’s functionalities are still a work in progress, but following are a few pointers we have come to learn thus far:

  1. Dopamine is highly important in the feeling of motivation to work towards long term as well as short term goals.
  2. It offers a feeling of satisfaction when a person accomplishes any goal.
  3. Dopamine is also released when your needs are met.
  4. In the earlier times, dopamine was released when the earlier people were presented a great opportunity, like the location of a new source of food.
  5. A study has shown that lab mice with dopamine deficiency were so unmotivated regarding food that they starved to death, even when the food was easily accessible. Hence, dopamine levels are important for wanting to search for food.
  6. Our current lifestyle does not offer opportunities of hunting down food as they were available to our ancestors; hence, dopamine boosts are not so easy to come by.
  7. There are healthy as well as unhealthier ways to get a dopamine boost. For instance, you can get it by playing or even watching sports, learning something new or even landing a new project at work or completing a project. Pretty much anything that gives you a sense of accomplishment gives you a dopamine boost.
  8. Unhealthier ways to boost dopamine production is through addictive substances.
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