Understanding the chemicals controlling your mood
While there are many external factors that can influence your mood like the weather and your relationships, there are also four main chemicals that play a big role, including serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline and oxytocin. But to understand this, you need to first know a little bit about how our brain works. So, what’s the relationship between brain and mood? The brain controls the release of certain chemicals – called neurotransmitters – which communicate with other areas of the brain to stimulate or calm us. This then has influence on our mood, emotions and behaviour.
It’s also important to know that a chemical imbalance in your brain, is when you’re making either too much or too little of certain neurotransmitters. This may contribute to a mood disorder or mental health condition if left uncorrected. However, the reasons why mental health issues develop in some people and not others is much more complex than their levels of brain chemicals alone.
We now have many medications available that work on correcting chemical imbalances in the brain, to help improve or reverse symptoms of mental illness.
Let’s dive into four different types of neurotransmitters, to find out more about the amazing chemical reactions going on in the brain. Plus, learn a few tips on how to get more feel-good chemicals in your life, naturally.
Serotonin - the mood regulator
Serotonin plays an important role in regulating your mood.
How does serotonin affect your mood?
Serotonin is responsible for your feelings of happiness, wellbeing and the stability of your mood. It also helps regulate your sleep cycle and other processes in your body including your appetite. While dopamine is probably more famously known as the ‘happy hormone’, serotonin is also one of the ‘feel good’ chemicals you need!
When you have adequate levels of serotonin, you feel emotionally stable and calm and you’ll also have noticeably higher levels of energy and focus.
If you have low levels of serotonin, you’re likely to experience the following symptoms:
- problem sleeping
- feeling bad about yourself
- decrease in sexual desire
- feeling low
- memory problems
- craving for sweet foods
Low levels of serotonin are also thought to contribute to feelings of depression. Boosting serotonin levels can also help with anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
How to boost your serotonin levels
The following are natural ways that you can boost your serotonin levels:
- getting more exposure to sunlight
- doing plenty of exercise
- counselling and meditation
If you’ve been experiencing a low mood for a considerable period of time, your doctor might prescribe you an antidepressant medication known as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs).
SSRIs are the most commonly prescribed type of antidepressants in Australia. They work by stopping the nerve cells reabsorbing the serotonin again so quickly, so that there is more available to keep transmitting messages.
Dopamine - the feel-good hormone
Dopamine is known as the feel-good neurotransmitter and it plays a role in controlling your mood. It’s also important for memory and motor skills. It acts like a reward and the brain releases it when we do things we love like eating our favourite foods.
Dopamine allows you to feel:
How to boost your feel-good chemicals
Eating foods rich in L-Tyrosine (the protein needed to make dopamine) can lead to a boost in your dopamine levels.
Other ways to boost your dopamine levels include:
- avoiding processed foods
- avoiding foods high in fat, sugar and caffeine
- exercising daily
- getting enough sleep
- doing activities that make you feel good – like practicing meditation or getting a massage.
Can I ever get too much dopamine?
Of course, there can be too much (or too little) of a good thing. A chemical imbalance of dopamine in your brain is possible. Too little is linked to some mental illnesses, while too much of the feel-good hormone can lead to negative behaviours like being overly competitive, aggressive or having poor impulse control. Some people become addicted to activities like eating, gambling, sex, drinking or recreational drugs and it’s thought that the dopamine hit they get when they indulge plays a role in this.
Adrenaline – helping us stay safe
Adrenaline, or epinephrine, is responsible for your body’s ‘fight or flight’ response. It helps you react quickly in a dangerous or stressful situation. Adrenaline is the hormone released when your brain perceives excitement, danger, fear, or a potential threat. You might feel a mix of all of those emotions when doing something like skydiving for example, which is a time when your body is likely to be ‘full of adrenaline’.
When adrenaline gets released quickly, it’s known as an ‘adrenaline rush’. When this happens, you might notice the following symptoms:
- rapid heartbeat
- rapid breathing
- feeling jittery or nervous
- increase in strength and performance
- decrease in ability to feel pain.
Some people enjoy the feeling of an ‘adrenaline rush’ and deliberately do activities that trigger it. These can include skydiving, bungee jumping, and cage diving with sharks.
Can I get too much adrenaline?
The body is pretty good when it comes to self-limiting adrenaline production. When the ‘threat’ or emotion passes, the production of adrenaline stops. However, there are some medical conditions, like sleep apnoea or adrenal tumours in which adrenaline overproduction creates a chemical imbalance.
Sometimes, stress and worry can cause your body to release adrenaline when it doesn’t need to. For example, when you’re trying to get to sleep at night but stressing out about the following day. It’s both annoying and uncomfortable, and if stress is prolonged, your health can suffer.
One way to help relieve these feeling is to try and activate your parasympathetic nervous system, known as the ‘rest-and-digest system’. This can override the ‘fight or flight’ response that your body is experiencing in times of stress. Some ways to do this include:
- deep breathing
- meditation and mindfulness
- trying relaxing movement like yoga or tai chi
- talk to friends or family about what’s bothering you so you can switch off at night
- self-care – eating well and getting regular exercise
- limiting caffeine and alcohol
- avoid devices before and at bedtime
Our Stress guide has lots of information on practical ways to help de-stress at home, like how to get started on mindfulness or journaling. You can also learn about programs and services we can offer if you need a little extra help.
Oxytocin – the ‘warm and fuzzy’ one
Oxytocin is known as the “love hormone” and it can promote trust, empathy, and bonding in relationships. Along with serotonin and dopamine, oxytocin completes the trio of feel-good chemicals. Oxytocin is used by the body in childbirth, breastfeeding and sex. Low levels of oxytocin have been linked with depression but we don’t completely understand the role of oxytocin in building relationships and more research is needed. How oxytocin regulates mood is also not straightforward. Boosting oxytocin levels may help to treat social phobia, depression, and anger problems.
How to boost your oxytocin levels
You can boost your level of oxytocin naturally by doing the following activities:
- stroking a pet
- hugging someone, or other positive physical contact, like holding hands, getting a massage, or having sex
- social bonding, like talking, laughing and making eye contact
Other ways to improve your mood
There are other things you can do to improve your mood including:
- connecting with others
- taking time to do things you enjoy
- contributing to your community
- practicing self care
- making sure you get a good night’s sleep
- reducing your stress levels
We hope you found it fascinating reading about the chemicals in the brain that cause our emotions, and how this helps regulate mood. The take-away message is that the relationship between brain and mood is complex, and research continues into how these feel-good chemicals interact in our brain and body. While there are things we can do to boost our mood naturally, and increase the release of happy hormones, sometimes we need more help than that.
Check out our mental health guide to find resources, programs and support on offer. Or, keep reading to learn how to get help now.
Where to get help
Getting help now
If you or someone close to you needs support for your mental health, there are phonelines and websites available.
For immediate help in a crisis:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
For general mental health support:
- Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36
- MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
- SANE Australia on 1800 18 7263
Seeing your GP
If you have concerns about your mood, it’s best to see your GP.
When you see your GP, they can:
- make a mental health assessment
- prescribe some medications to treat anxiety or depression
- refer you to a mental health professional
- refer you to other support services
They can also put you on a mental health care plan, and this means Medicare may subsidise up to 20 sessions with a mental health professional. You can learn more about the different types of mental health professionals at Healthdirect Australia.
All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified healthcare professional.
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