You’ve probably heard vague tales about mysterious neurotransmitters that control your moods: deficient serotonin leaving depression in its wake, oxytocin bubbling up to cement romantic or maternal bonds, or dysregulated dopamine responses that cause addiction. If you don’t really understand how they work, you’re in good company. Nobody really does. They are mysterious and somewhat complex. But we do know some things, so read on if you want to know them too.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that are crucial for all sorts of operations in your brain, including mood, appetite, and movement. They are released by one neuron in your brain and collected by another (two-minute explainer video here), and when they’re not doing that correctly, it can lead to all sorts of undesirable consequences, including depression, bipolar disorder, addiction and substance use disorders, and even psychosis.
In this article, I’m going to focus on those most commonly associated with mood and mental health: serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and endorphins.
Serotonin for happiness
Serotonin is most commonly known for its role in mood and happiness, and most anti-depressant medication is some form of SSRI: selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. Without enough serotonin floating around in our neural synapses, we can experience depression, anxiety, aggression, irritability, and insomnia.
No wonder we love serotonin so much!
To make serotonin, you need tryptophan, which is found in salmon, eggs, spinach, and seeds, and available as a supplement. The process of serotonin creation also involves magnesium, zinc, L-methionine, and vitamins D, B6, and B12, and deficiencies in any of these can affect your serotonin availability.
You can get a boost of serotonin by performing an act of kindness, getting some sunlight, exercising, or having a massage.
Dopamine for motivation
Dopamine’s fame is usually in its role in pleasure and reward: the neurons in your brain that light up when you eat cake or have sex are full of dopamine receptors. Primarily though, its role is in motivation, satisfaction, and reward-driven behaviour, as well as sleep, mood, and learning. Too much is linked to poor impulse control and addiction, and too little is likely to result in fatigue, low motivation, and brain fog.
Dopamine is made from tyrosine, which your body makes from phenylalanine, which is found in meat, fish, eggs, tofu, almonds, avocadoes, milk, nuts, and seeds. The synthesis process also requires copper, iron, and vitamins B3, B6, B9, and C. High sugar food will give you a surge of dopamine, which isn’t a good thing: it can lead to the same kind of desensitisation and high tolerance as a drug addiction. Poor sleep and chronic stress will also deplete your dopamine.
To hack your dopamine for motivation and productivity, save your addictive behaviours for rewards. If you love playing games, eating chocolate, or checking Facebook, attach those activities to goals you need to achieve.
Another great dopamine hack is gamification: I engage in FitBit competitions with friends and play fitness games with points and rewards in virtual reality, which utilises my dopamine processes to get me in shape. One company I work for has nailed this strategy by providing leaderboards, virtual trophies, and monthly competitions for all its freelancers.
GABA for chilling
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is responsible for calming you down, reducing stress and anxiety, and helping you sleep. Benzodiazepines like Valium work by acting on your neurons’ GABA receptors. If you don’t have enough, you’re like to suffer from panic or anxiety. GABA is produced naturally by your brain, but can become depleted through a low-nutrient diet or prolonged stress.
Vitamin B6 is the crucial ingredient for GABA production. It’s probably no great shock that yoga, meditation, and deep breathing can give you a boost of GABA chillaxation, although to get the best results, you need to make these things a regular practice rather than hoping for a quick fix.
Endorphins for the feelgood factor
Most famous for their role in the ‘runner’s high’, endorphins make you feel great after a workout and are a natural painkiller, working on the same neuroreceptors as opiates like morphine. They improve your mood, lower your stress, and give your self-esteem a boost.
Endorphins are produced naturally in your body, and can become depleted through excessive alcohol use or after traumatic experiences. You can give yourself a boost of endorphins by eating dark chocolate, dancing, doing some exercise, meditating, getting a massage, or having a sauna. You can even get a good endorphin boost just by having a really good laugh.
If you’re feeling depleted, doing a workout, changing your diet, or having a good belly laugh can seem entirely out of reach.
If you need support on this journey to a happy, healthy, lifelong relationship with your brain, a Gestalt therapist can help you overcome your challenges and forge a more harmonious path forward. Gestalt therapy embraces a holistic approach to wellness, taking into account your inner and outer worlds, and the mental, emotional, and physical dimensions of your health.