Have you ever wondered why you feel warm and fuzzy while listening to your favorite music? Or why disrupted sleep or lack of food leads to moodiness and irritability? The answers to both of these questions (along with a million others) are located, quite literally, in our brains. Learning about the complexities of our brains is an intimidating undertaking! However, when it comes to mental health and wellness, a few quick and easy facts and tips can help people to live happier and healthier lives.
It all comes down to chemistry. Chemicals in the brain, known as neurotransmitters, act as messengers in the brain and body, transmitting signals among nerves and cells. We need neurotransmitters for many tasks, from regulating heart rate to regulating our moods. While there are many neurotransmitters that have an effect on our mental health, today we are going to focus on the two we hear about most often: Dopamine (the pleasure chemical) and Serotonin (the happy chemical).
Dopamine – the pleasure neurotransmitter
What is it?: Dopamine is a chemical messenger within the brain that has many functions. When it comes to mental health, dopamine is responsible for the pleasurable, “feel good” experiences people have when taking part in something they love. It also functions as a reward system, leading to a positive feedback loop and heightened motivation. For example, dopamine is released when we eat, have sex, listen to music, move our bodies, etc. Once dopamine is released, it creates a pleasurable feeling for us, making us want to engage in whatever we just did again. Drug and alcohol use impacts dopamine functioning and receptors, making it a key neurotransmitter in substance abuse and addiction. Dopamine also has an effect on body movement, leading it to be a key neurotransmitter in diseases such as Parkinson’s Disease.
Too Much: hyperactivity, racing thoughts, paranoia, high levels of stress, disorganized thinking/speaking.
Too Little: lack of motivation, loss of interest or pleasure, depressed mood, sluggishness, anger, apathy.
How to naturally improve dopamine: Taking probiotics is a great way to help dopamine levels, as well as other neurotransmitters. The gut is the second brain of the body. When the gut is healthy and balanced, brain function can greatly improve. Also, movement can be a great tool for combating some of the negative aspects of having too much or too little dopamine. Joyful movement can be a stress reliever, anger-reducer, and if you’re engaging in movement you enjoy, it can be an overall mood-improver! Taking part in any enjoyed activity, such as listening to music or spending quality time with loved ones, helps to boost this “pleasure” chemical.
Serotonin- the happy neurotransmitter
What is it?: Serotonin is a chemical messenger in the brain that regulates mood, particularly happiness, and anxiety. It also helps with eating, sleeping, and digestion. Serotonin helps to regulate our “internal clock” and sleep-wake cycles (circadian rhythm). It also contributes to our day-to-day physical and cognitive functioning. Serotonin is produced in the brain and intestines. It primarily lives in the gastrointestinal tract where it regulates bowel movements and appetite, while also assisting with quickly removing toxins from the body (usually via diarrhea). Serotonin influences every part of our body. Normal levels of serotonin lead to a healthy digestive system, and help people to feel happy, calm, focused, and overall, emotionally stable. Overall, serotonin impacts how our emotions are processed. Normal levels + normal processing = happiness!
Too Much: Too much serotonin can lead to “serotonin syndrome” in which people experience shivering, diarrhea, headaches, confusion, agitation, rapid heart rate, twitching, etc. Serotonin syndrome is most often seen in individuals who have just started a new medication affecting serotonin levels (SSRI’s).
Too Little: Low mood, depression, poor memory, difficult sleeping, anxiety, low self-esteem, irritability.
How to naturally improve serotonin levels: Getting plenty of sunlight is a great way to improve serotonin levels, whether it be from the sun or a light therapy lamp. Exercise can also assist with boosting mood and improving sleep. Meditation and/or practicing other forms of mindfulness helps to reduce stress and prompts people to “stay present”. This leads to increased positive thinking, AND boosted serotonin!
I hope you enjoyed these quick tips! With winter rapidly approaching, it’s important that we know how to help ourselves stay mentally well. While getting plenty of sunlight and exercise may help many people regulate their moods, sometimes more assistance is needed. Counseling can help individuals gain insight and process why they may be feeling a certain way. Certain forms of therapy can be effective in re-wiring the brain, leading to long-lasting improvements. Furthermore, there are a plethora of useful medications and supplements that can assist with anxiety and depression management. There is no shame in medication.
As always, if you or someone you know is in need of counseling services, please feel free to give Olive Branch Counseling Associates, Inc. a call at (708) 633-8000.
Cara Nicholson, MA, LPC
Licensed Professional Counselor