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Dopamine vs Serotonin: What Are The Differences?

Dopamine Vs Serotonin What Are The Differences

Both dopamine and serotonin are neurotransmitters or chemical messengers. Brain cells in the nervous system use them to communicate with each other. Serotonin and dopamine affect mood, memory, and many other functions in the body. Mental health conditions such as depression and mood disorders can arise if there are imbalances in serotonin and dopamine levels in the human brain. While they are similar in many ways, there are several differences in the effects of these two neurotransmitters. Please continue reading to find out the key differences between dopamine and serotonin and how you can regulate them.

How is dopamine different from serotonin and norepinephrine?

Each neurotransmitter plays an important role in the body. The main functions of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine are as follows:


  • Regulates the brain’s reward center
  • Promotes feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation
  • Supports movement and coordination
  • Enhances cognition, short-term memory, attention, and learning
  • Encourages impulsive behavior
  • Plays a role in lactation

Changes in dopamine levels (too little or too much dopamine) can lead to conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), restless legs syndrome, and Parkinson’s disease.


  • Regulates overall mood and well being
  • Influences sleep quality
  • Prevents impulsivity
  • Promotes a healthy gastrointestinal tract and digestive system
  • Supports blood clotting and wound healing
  • Contributes to bone health
  • Plays a role in sexual arousal and desire

Serotonin deficiency or low serotonin levels can lead to depression, anxiety, mood changes, sleep problems, digestive difficulties, suicidal thinking and behavior, and mental illnesses such as phobias, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Too much serotonin can lead to serious physical symptoms such as shivering, diarrhea, fever, muscle rigidity, seizures, and even death.


This is the main hormone and neurotransmitter in the body’s fight-or-flight response. It is sometimes used to increase blood pressure in severely ill patients.

What is the main difference between serotonin and dopamine?

The key difference between serotonin and dopamine is:

  • Serotonin tells the body, “This feels good, and I have enough.” It regulates pleasure and mood and produces a sense of contentment.
  • Dopamine tells the body, “This feels good, and I want more.” It regulates motivation and the reward system and produces a sense of hedonistic pleasure.

Remember, nerve cells in the central nervous system use dopamine, serotonin, and many other brain chemicals to communicate with each other. Changes in these neurotransmitter levels affect a wide range of functions in the body. While both chemicals, dopamine and serotonin, act on the brain, there is a difference in the effects they have on the body.

What happens if you have serotonin or dopamine dysfunction?

Serotonin dysfunction

Serotonin is called the “happiness chemical” because it produces a positive mood. Besides mood, serotonin plays a role in regulating memory, sleep, appetite, and social interactions. 

Low serotonin production (too little serotonin in the brain) can result in a lack of enthusiasm for previously enjoyable activities, hobbies, foods, and relationships. Other symptoms of low levels of serotonin can include dysregulation of the sleep-wake cycle, effects on the digestive tract, including the urge to eat high-calorie foods (binge eating), and emotional lability. 

Certain antidepressant medications work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. However, high doses can lead to a dangerously high serotonin level and serious symptoms such as agitation, insomnia, confusion, high blood pressure, muscle rigidity, and excessive sweating

Dopamine dysfunction

Dopamine is called the “motivation chemical” because it enhances the drive to take action and creates feelings of pleasure and satisfaction when your needs are met. In addition, it plays a role in memory, attention, coordination, and movement.

Dopamine deficiencies (low dopamine production) can result in a lack of motivation, apathy, lethargy, and feelings of hopelessness or dissatisfaction with life. Dopamine deficiency is associated with attention disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia, and Parkinson’s disease.

Too much dopamine can lead to high energy, euphoria, aggression, competitiveness, impulsivity, and a high sex drive. More dopamine can also lead to risky behaviors and addictions.

Is depression caused by low dopamine or serotonin levels? 

Depression can be caused by both low dopamine and low serotonin levels. Many of the symptoms are similar, but there are some subtle differences between depression caused by low serotonin versus depression caused by low dopamine.

Depression associated with low dopamine causes lethargy, apathy, lack of motivation, and fatigue. It can also be associated with memory problems, sleep disturbances, trouble concentrating, and a low sex drive. A person with low dopamine may self-medicate with caffeine, tobacco, or alcohol to try and increase dopamine levels in the brain. Some people with dopamine deficiency develop addictions to shopping, gambling, porn, or recreational drugs.

Depression associated with low serotonin tends to make a person anxious with a loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities. It can also lead to withdrawal from loved ones and binge eating unhealthy foods.

How do I know if I need dopamine or serotonin?

Only a healthcare provider can decide which type of medication you need to treat your specific medical condition. 

Generally speaking, prescription medications that boost serotonin levels, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs, for example, fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), and others, are the first-line of treatment for depression. Medications that increase dopamine levels are only used for treating depression when serotonin-boosting medications fail. 

Dopamine agonists (medications for increasing dopamine), such as levodopa, pramipexole, ropinirole, cabergoline, and bromocriptine, are prescribed to patients with specific health conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, restless legs syndrome, and hyperprolactinemia. Dopamine reuptake inhibitors such as bupropion (Wellbutrin) are used to treat depression and help with smoking cessation. A drug called modafinil (Provigil) is used to treat narcolepsy.

How do doctors decrease dopamine levels and serotonin levels?

Too much of both serotonin and dopamine can cause problems and affect brain health.

As mentioned above, overactivity of the dopamine system can result in a range of health conditions. Doctors use medications called dopamine antagonists to treat high dopamine levels. For example, aripiprazole (Abilify), risperidone (Risperdal), and ziprasidone (Geodon) to manage agitation in people with schizophrenia; risperidone, ziprasidone, and olanzapine (Zyprexa) to manage bipolar disorder; and metoclopramide (Reglan) and droperidol (Inapsine) to treat nausea and vomiting.

If serotonin production is too high, it can result in a potentially life-threatening condition called serotonin syndrome. This needs to be diagnosed and treated quickly or it can be fatal.

How to naturally treat a serotonin or dopamine deficiency?

  • Eat a balanced, healthy diet to maintain normal levels of dopamine and serotonin. Consider eating foods high in magnesium and the amino acids tyrosine and tryptophan
  • Tyrosine is the building block for dopamine. Examples of foods that contain this amino acid include apples, bananas, beets, green leafy vegetables, lima beans, peas, tomatoes, avocados, oranges, watermelon, chicken, almonds, chocolate, wheat germ, oatmeal, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and turmeric spice.
  • Foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan include eggs, cheese, tofu, pineapple, nuts, seeds, oats, turkey, and salmon. They may help boost serotonin levels. 
  • Get at least 10-15 minutes of natural sunlight exposure every day.
  • Consider taking supplements such as tryptophan, SAMe, probiotics, ginseng, nutmeg, Syrian rue, and St. John’s wort (check with your healthcare provider before starting any dietary supplement).
  • Engage in regular exercise and control stress levels with yoga, meditation, massage, playing with children or pets, walking in nature, listening to music, or reading books. These activities can help to naturally increase serotonin and dopamine levels and help you cope with stressful life events.


  1. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22581-dopamine#
  2. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22572-serotonin#
  3. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22610-norepinephrine-noradrenaline
  4. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/serotonin-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20354758
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK551686/