Mood, Neurotransmitters, and How to Change Your Chemistry

We hear about neurotransmitters and SSRIs on a daily basis, but what are they, exactly?

Here is a great metaphor for understanding neurotransmitters and mood.  Think of a light switch and a dimmer.  You turn the dimmer up to turn up the light intensity, and vice versa to decrease it.  The light represents neurotransmission (the messaging route) while the dimmer feature is the neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger like serotonin).  Neurotransmission is to the light what neurotransmitters are to the dimmer.

More neurotransmitters increase the intensity and speed of the message.  Running dry on neurotransmitter levels is like sitting in a dim room.  Those messages travel slowly and are less powerful.  What does this mean for you?

The two primary mood related neurotransmitters are serotonin and dopamine.

Serotonin slows us down like the brake pedal in your car-it keeps us feeling happy, safe, sleeping, content, relaxed, satiated neurotransmitter.  We sometimes run low on serotonin due to chronic stress, hormonal interactions, lifestyle  factors, and seasonal fluctuation.  Low levels of serotonin in the middle of winter are the reason you may find yourself doing a face plant in the potato chips. We increase serotonin levels with carbs, alcohol, exercise, sex, fun, SSRIs, sunshine, sleep, and meditation.

Dopamine increases energy, creativity, focus and attention, and risk seeking behavior.  If it gets too high, dopamine is associated with temper and anger problems.  People who run too low on dopamine in general typically have symptoms of ADHD.  Dopamine levels that run a little too high in relation to serotonin levels can cause nervous anxiety.  When dopamine runs a little high and serotonin a little low, this is an anxious depression.  Caffeine increases dopamine (and therefore, focus or anxiety).  Other things that increase dopamine are proteins eaten in the absence of carbs, risky behaviors, high intensity exercise, sex, street drugs like cocaine, and prescription drugs like Ritalin.

We all have an individual, optimal balance that we seek to create with our behaviors and choices. You don’t want your dopamine to run too low or too high in relation to serotonin levels, and you definitely don’t want your serotonin levels to get too low.

Do you see yourself in these behaviors?

  • You love reading, vacationing in the mountains or other quiet places, snuggling up to watch a movie, taking long walks, talking with friends, relaxing
  • You love carbs and might feel a little blue in the winter
  • You have no problem focusing when necessary, like to stay organized, and make plans
  • You like yoga, Pilates, tai chai, or other slower forms of exercise

You like serotonin!  It’s your preferred neurotransmitter.

    On the other hand, maybe these sound more like you-

    • you’d vacation in Manhattan over a quiet retreat any day
    • You love a fast pace, have trouble paying attention and staying focused at times, and feel energized by chaos
    • Caffeine is irresistable
    • Smoking (tobacco) is a gift from Heaven and though you have tried, it’s nearly impossible to quit
    • You may have been diagnosed with ADHD or have a substance abuse problem in the past (and you may not)
    • You’re creative, energetic, charismatic, and people find you very entertaining.

    In this case, you seek higher levels of dopamine.  Kids with ADHD run a little low on this neurotransmitter, which is why they are constantly active and in motion.  This is an effort to increase dopamine levels, so let ’em run (and this is one of the reasons I get pissed off about recess being restricted to 10 minutes in so many public schools-we may as well chain the kids up all day).

    The point of this article?  You can alter your neurotransmitter levels, mood, and focus just as effectively with your behavior as you can with pharmaceutical medications.  This is empowering information to have if you happen to be on an antidepressant  or ADHD meds, or if you are considering using these medications.

    That’s all from this pooped out mom today, folks.  Today, I went to Target for socks and soap.  I forgot both and left with a useful Christmas headband and matching flamingo pen for Savanna.  Perhaps I need a higher protein diet and another latte today. Toodles!


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