Serotonin vs Dopamine: What’s the Difference?

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that allow nerves to communicate with each other or other structures in the body. Two common neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine, act in similar parts of the body but in different ways.

This article discusses the functions of dopamine and serotonin, and the similarities and differences
between these two neurotransmitters.

Difference Between Serotonin and Dopamine

Serotonin, also known as serotonin (5-HT), is a neurotransmitter produced in the part of your brain stem called raphe nucleus, and your digestive tract.Serotonin is produced by a tryptophan.

This neurotransmitter is known for its mood-boosting abilities, but it also plays an important role in the digestive and immune systems.

Dopamine is produced at the base of the brain in two steps. An amino acid called tyrosine is first made into another amino acid called levodopa, which is then made into dopamine.

Dopamine is often referred to as the “happy” neurotransmitter. That’s because dopamine is responsible for making you feel good after having sex or eating good food — or any other activity that activates the brain’s “reward system.” It also helps you focus and learn new information.

Dopamine also has lesser-known functions. This neurotransmitter plays a role in muscle movement, heart rate management, lactation, pain, sleep, and the function of kidneys and blood vessels.

Causes of Serotonin and Dopamine Imbalance

Serotonin and dopamine deficiencies can occur for a variety of reasons. Your body may not have enough of these neurotransmitters, or be unable to respond to them appropriately. Certain medications can also affect serotonin and dopamine levels.

Other causes of these defects may include:

  • frustrated
  • anxiety
  • certain medical conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease
  • Brain Injury
  • chronic stress
  • low carb diet
  • Insufficient omega-3 fatty acids
  • low in vitamin D
  • not getting enough sunlight

Signs of low serotonin and dopamine

Low levels of serotonin or dopamine (also called a deficiency) can cause similar symptoms. However, dopamine also affects muscles, while serotonin does not.


Serotonin deficiency can cause:

  • reduced energy levels
  • sad
  • feel despair
  • mood swings
  • increased or decreased appetite
  • Difficulty falling asleep or sleeping too much
  • carb cravings
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) problems
  • sexual dysfunction
  • compulsive behavior
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Low levels of serotonin can also contribute to mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. In severe cases, it can lead to suicidal thoughts.


Symptoms of dopamine deficiency may include:

  • difficulty concentrating
  • lack of motivation
  • upset
  • Lack of fun in pleasant activities
  • decreased libido
  • memory problem
  • restless legs syndrome
  • Tremors (such as shaking hands)
  • muscle spasms
  • Difficulty with balance and coordination

Dopamine deficiency can also occur with Parkinson’s disease — a progressive neurological disorder that occurs when dopamine-producing cells in the brain no longer function properly. This condition can cause tremors, general stiffness, difficulty with balance, and slow movements.

When the level is too high

In addition to deficiencies, serotonin and/or dopamine levels may be too high; although, this is rare.


Too much serotonin can lead to serotonin syndrome—a potentially life-threatening condition. This usually happens when a person takes too many drugs that increase serotonin levels. Symptoms include:

  • diarrhea
  • hallucination
  • restless
  • nausea
  • Vomit
  • hypertension
  • increase heart rate
  • Difficulty balancing


Too high dopamine levels can also cause unwanted side effects. These can include:

  • manic
  • excess energy
  • irritability
  • anxiety

Different levels of dopamine also play a role in other diseases, including addiction, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and schizophrenia.


Both serotonin and dopamine play a role in depression. Serotonin is a key neurotransmitter associated with depression. This chemical has significant effects on mood and positive emotions, such as contentment, happiness, and empathy for others.

Depression is often treated with a group of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which help increase serotonin levels in the brain.

Low levels of dopamine can also lead to depression. The inability to feel happy and lack of motivation are two specific symptoms of depression that are associated with dopamine dysfunction.

While SSRIs are considered “first-line” treatments for depression, in addition to these drugs, drugs that increase dopamine levels in the brain are sometimes prescribed to specifically boost energy levels and motivation.


Neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine, are important for gut health. These chemicals help your body absorb nutrients from food, improve blood flow to your digestive system, help maintain levels of healthy gut bacteria, and improve gut motility (the movement of waste through your intestines).

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Serotonin is known for its effects on mental health. However, most of the serotonin in your body is produced in your gut, not your brain. This neurotransmitter helps control the release of digestive enzymes that affect gut function.

Too much serotonin can lead to gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Too little serotonin can cause constipation.


Unlike serotonin, most dopamine is produced in your brain. In the digestive tract, small amounts of dopamine increase blood flow and help the gut absorb electrolytes.

What does the gut microbiome have to do with depression?


Both serotonin and dopamine play a role in your body’s sleep-wake cycle.


Serotonin can both help and interfere with sleep. Your body needs to make melatonin, the main hormone involved in sleep.

However, too much serotonin can also interfere with your ability to get rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This sleep stage is important for brain health. It helps:

  • emotion regulation
  • concentration
  • strong immune system
  • process new information
  • long-term memory

Serotonin in fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome


Dopamine plays a role in your body’s light-related circadian rhythm — your brain’s ability to adapt to the time of day. Dopamine helps your brain know when to stay alert and stop producing melatonin.

Ways to Increase Serotonin and Dopamine

Medications are often used to increase serotonin and dopamine levels in the body. However, there are several ways to naturally level up.

  • Stay active: Exercising can be especially difficult when you’re feeling down and unmotivated. However, exercise has been shown to help increase serotonin levels in the brain. Start with something simple, like taking a walk.
  • Get outdoors: Sunlight helps boost neurotransmitter levels in the brain.
  • Change your diet: Coffee has been shown to increase serotonin and dopamine levels, although it may lead to withdrawal if you decide to reduce it. Eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids increases serotonin levels.
  • Manage your stress: Adding stress-relieving activities to your day can help improve mood and boost neurotransmitter levels. For example, meditation has been shown to increase dopamine levels in the brain.
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Serotonin and dopamine are two important neurotransmitters that play an important role in mental health. They are also important for gut health. Deficiencies of these two chemicals can lead to depressive symptoms and problems with eating, sleeping, and concentrating. Dopamine also affects muscles, and low levels can cause tremors and coordination difficulties.

Serotonin and dopamine levels can be boosted with medications and lifestyle habits, such as getting more sunlight, exercising regularly, and following a healthy diet.

VigorTip words

If you think there may be a problem with your serotonin or dopamine levels, talk to your healthcare provider. With or without medication, small changes in your daily habits can have a big impact on your quality of life.

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Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can Dopamine and Serotonin Make You Happy?

    Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in positive mood and feelings of happiness. Dopamine does not directly affect mood, but it does affect motivation and pleasure.

  • What are the signs of serotonin and dopamine deficiency?

    Serotonin and dopamine deficiencies can lead to a range of signs and symptoms, including low mood, fatigue, lack of motivation, decreased libido, and poor concentration. A lack of dopamine can also cause tremors, muscle cramps, and difficulty with balance.

  • How do serotonin and dopamine work together?

    Both serotonin and dopamine work on the brain and other parts of the body to help maintain mental health and improve digestion and sleep.

  • Which foods help serotonin production?

    Foods containing omega-3 fatty acids help increase serotonin levels. Examples include fatty fish, nuts, seeds and vegetable oils.

  • Does marijuana increase serotonin?

    Using marijuana stimulates your brain to release more serotonin.

  • Does marijuana increase dopamine?

    Using marijuana causes the brain to release more dopamine.