Depression is a complex illness which can show up very differently in different people. Despite popular theories, the cause of depression is not clearly understood. Whether depression is actually even a disease or a symptom is the current debate. Neurochemicals, like dopamine and serotonin, may play a part, but what that is, we don’t exactly know.
In Depression Is A Symptom, Not The Disease, I wrote:
In the 1960s, we were told depression was due to a deficiency of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Then, a still popular theory, blamed it on too little serotonin. Today, we know that it’s much more complicated than either of these. According to Harvard Medical School, millions of chemical reactions in the brain work to regulate mood, perceptions, and how you experience life. To be sure, the chemicals in your head are involved depression, but it’s not as simple as one chemical being too low and another too high.
In the article What Depression Looks Like In Your Brain, I explain that genetics, early childhood, stress, social support, thought patterns, and current events all contribute to developing depression.
What we do know is that fundamentally, a depressed brain looks like any other brain. At the most basic level, depression is just the routine activation of certain brain circuits, which we all have, in specific patterns that result in depressive symptoms in that person.
The Neurochemicals Of Depression
Popular information these days links depression to the neurochemical, serotonin. Research supports the idea that serotonin does play a role, not only in the treatment of depression but also in a person’s susceptibility to depression, but the connection isn’t clear. The most popular antidepressant drugs, Serotonin-Specific Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), alter the brain’s serotonin system. Some people find relief with SSRIs. Many do not.
There are several neurotransmitter systems in your brain which could play a part in depression. Each neurotransmitter influences and is influenced by the condition, and to oversimplify, tends to contribute to specific symptoms. The neurochemicals possibly involved are:
- Serotonin improves willpower, motivation, and mood.
- Norepinephrine enhances thinking, focus, and dealing with stress.
- Dopamine increases enjoyment and is necessary for changing bad habits.
- Oxytocin promotes feelings of trust, love, connection, and reduces anxiety.
- GABA increases feelings of relaxation and reduces anxiety.
- Melatonin enhances sleep quality.
- Endorphins provide pain relief and feelings of elation.
- Endocannabinoids improve your appetite and increase feelings of peace and well-being.
Unfortunately, healing depression isn’t as simple as just increasing the level of any one chemical in your brain. That may be one part of the solution, but it’s much more complicated than that because all the chemicals interact with each other and affect different bodily systems. It’s a delicate balancing act.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine gives the brain energy, motivation, a rush, and that switched on feeling. A surge in dopamine gives you a pleasurable feeling – kind of like that first cup of coffee in the morning. In fact, coffee causes your brain to release dopamine. Science shows that too little dopamine can result in a variety of symptoms, including depression, anxiety, fatigue, apathy, slowed thinking, memory impairment, the inability to feel enthusiastic about anything, lack of motivation, excessive sleep, tremors, and more. Low levels could be involved in ADD/ADHD.
Dopamine is also responsible for reward-seeking behavior. It’s the primary neurotransmitter behind drug addiction. In fact, dopamine is responsible for any addiction because it’s involved in any goal-directed, motivated behavior – bad or good. Physically, dopamine affects the processes that control movement and plays a crucial role in Parkinson’s disease.
Low dopamine tends to result in symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease. People with abnormally low dopamine levels may have impaired thinking and memory and slowed reaction times. Anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure, and lack of motivation can also be present.
Dopamine vs Serotonin
Both dopamine and serotonin elevate mood and have an antidepressant effect. Serotonin primarily influences feelings of happiness, optimism, contentedness, and positiveness. Dopamine produces feelings of excitement, pleasure, euphoria, and creates motivation and drive. One way to think of it is that serotonin gives you happiness. Dopamine gives you pleasure.
Serotonin and dopamine interact and overlap in ways that may compound and help depressive symptoms. For example, research discovered some SSRIs “trick” dopamine transporters into retrieving serotonin into dopamine vesicles. Dopamine transporters usually have a low affinity for serotonin, but the higher serotonin levels result in its uptake by the dopamine transporters.
How To Increase Dopamine Naturally
Many things can increase dopamine levels in your brain, including drugs, thrill-seeking activities, gambling, sex, food and even good for you things like exercise, checking items off your to-do list, and reaching your goals at work. These things feel good because they cause a corresponding surge of dopamine – along with other feel-good neurochemicals.
Some natural ways to increase dopamine are:
Sleep – Dopamine helps modulate both slow wave and REM sleep. Dopamine has a large impact on sleep (and pain and depression), and sleep has a large impact on them. Lack of sleep has been shown to reduce the concentration of neurotransmitters and their receptors. Sleep is the single most important thing your brain needs for optimal functioning.
Exercise – The dopamine system is positively affected by exercise. It was found that weight lifting especially helps increase dopamine. In fact, all regular physical activity increases blood circulation and levels of many different neurochemicals and hormones in the brain influencing the dopamine system.
Sunlight: Research ties sunlight exposure in humans to dopamine receptor count. It is known that sunlight can affect serotonin levels, but the amount of light exposure may also influence dopamine.
Massage – Getting a massage boosts serotonin levels as much as thirty percent, increases dopamine, activates endorphins, improves sleep, and decreases the stress hormone, cortisol.
Deciding – The act of intentionally making a decision – any decision – has been shown to cause positive changes in attention circuits and increase dopamine rewarding activity.
Setting and achieving goals – When you achieve a goal, dopamine is released. Dopamine is not only released when you cross the finish line. You get dopamine boosts at each step along the way, which helps to keep you motivated.
Habits – Habits, both good and bad, become the routine in your brain through repetition and dopamine release. Unfortunately, bad habits are the ones that often give you lots of dopamine. However, when you perform a habit – even a good one – you get a dopamine reward and it gets further wired into your brain, giving you more motivation to do it next time.
Petting a dog – Studies show that simply petting a pooch increases dopamine and endorphins.
Yoga – Yoga has been shown to increase dopamine levels – plus it reduces stress, increases oxygen to your brain with deep, slow breathing, and ups soothing GABA. Yoga helps ease depression and stress in many ways.