Your Neurotransmitters and Brain Health | Serotonin and Dopamine

We hear about neurotransmitters and SSRIs on a daily basis, but what are they, exactly?  SSRI is an abbreviation for serotonin selective reuptake inhibitor.  Whatever.  It basically means that the medication you’re taking is going to increase the serotonin levels in your brain.  For some people, this is a good thing because they’re running a little low on that precious neurotransmitter.  This happens for a variety of reasons.  Some people are genetically wired for a little less serotonin to begin with (not fair, but you can work through it), and other people run low due to chronic stress, medications, poor diet, poor sleep quality, and even low vitamin B levels (because Vitamin B is necessary for synthesizing serotonin).
Neurotransmitters are important in our brain because higher amounts of them speed up, slow down, and intensify or decrease the intensity of a message being sent within your brain.  Some of the most important are not only serotonin, but dopamine and GABA, too.MM Button
Here is a fantastic metaphor for understanding the relationship between neurotransmitters and mood.  Consider a light switch with a dimmer.  You turn the dimmer up to brighten the light, and vice versa to dim the lights.  The light in the room is the process of neurotransmission (messenger system), while the dimmer is a like the neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers.   Neurotransmission is to the light as neurotransmitters are to the dimmer because higher levels of neurotransmitters increase the intensity and speed of the message.  Running low on neurotransmitters like serotonin is like sitting in a dim room.  Those messages travel slowly with less intensity.  What does this mean for you?

It really depends on what, exactly, is happening for you.  Some of us do better when we’re a little more serotonin dominant (relative to dopamine) while others do better the other way around.  Here is a brief synopsis of what each one of theese does in your own life:

Serotonin keeps us feeling happy, safe, sleeping, content, relaxed, satiated neurotransmitter.  It’s kind of like the brake pedal in your car-it slows you down.  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.  You can even run low on this puppy when you have low Vitamin D3 levels. We increase serotonin levels with carbs, alcohol, exercise, sex, fun, sunshine, sleep, meditation, and SSRIs…..hopefully in that order.

Dopamine increases energy, creativity, focus and attention, and risk seeking behavior.  This neurotransmitter is like the gas pedal because it speeds you up!  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, and they become hyperactive in order to raise those levels to optimal levels.  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(HIIT, CrossFit), sex, street drugs like cocaine, and prescription drugs like Ritalin.

Chocolate is an interesting substance because it gives us a little serotonin and dopamine boost.  No wonder it’s so great!

We all have an individual, optimal balance that we seek to create with our behaviors and choicesYou don’t want to fiddle around with the wrong neurotransmitters because this can make you feel a little haywire.  If you are very caffeine sensitive, you’re probably sensitive to higher levels of dopamine.

Serotonin people are easy to spot.  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

On the other hand, dopamine dominant people prefer the opposite type of activities.  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.

You can’t put people in a box, and some are balanced combinations of these types.  However, most people can pinpoint which style they are and which types of activities they prefer from a mile away.

The point of this article?  Our behaviors are often chemically driven from the most basic level.  We do most things in our life because they make us feel a certain way.  Most people can alter your neurotransmitter levels, mood, and focus just as effectively as they can with pharmaceutical medications.  This is empowering information to have in your pocket in case you have some of the problems I’ve mentioned above, and you can always try to change your mood with some of these suggestions.  If you want to know more about this, read Joel Robertson’s excellent work on neurotransmitters and brain health.  You can find him on Amazon.  Everything I have written here has been empirically supported by his work, and you can find all relevant references in his book, Natural Prozac.  

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That’s all from Boca today, folks.  Happy Mother’s Day to all of the mamas out there!  What are you doing this weekend?  Be good to yourself.  Also, I keep all of those mothers who may be alone or who have lost a little one in the past in my own heart today, too. Ciao for now!