your brain on dopamine and serotonin


Why are we so extreme?

Why do we either under-do something or we overdo it completely? Why do we work out too much and too hard or choose not to exercise at all? Why do we say we are going to make a whole bunch of change all at once or none at all?

For many of us, it is tough to find the middle ground (this isn’t just limited to health and fitness), and for a lot of us, these addictions can ruin certain aspects of our lives.

We are out of balance so-to-speak.

More specifically, it is our brains that are.


The balance I am talking about is a chemical one, and the chemicals I refer to are called neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters communicate information throughout our brain and body.  They relay signals between nerve cells, called neurons. The brain uses neurotransmitters to tell your heart to beat, your lungs to breathe, and your stomach to digest.  They can also affect mood, sleep, concentration, weight, and can cause adverse symptoms when they are out of balance.

There are many different neurotransmitters, but there are  two that I will discuss which have a heavy influence on how we become addicted to things and which impact our behavior greatly.

 Dopamine, Serotonin, and How We Become Addicts

Dopamine is our main focus neurotransmitter. As I’ve already discussed here, it is responsible for our drive or desire to acquire – be that food, sex, an achievement, or a drug. When you drink coffee or receive a text message, dopamine is being released. It tends to make people more talkative and excitable, which often leaves them wanting more. With dopamine and high dopamine individuals, desire begets desire.

Serotonin is our well-being neurotransmitter. It is the chemical that allows us to be content and happy. It seems to help keep our moods under control by helping with sleep, calming anxiety, and relieving depression. With serotonin and high serotonin individuals, satisfaction begets satisfaction.

An easy way to think of the relationship between dopamine and serotonin is to think of 2 glasses of milk. In total, the 2 glasses of milk make up 100 units of liquid, with each glass half-filled at 50 units each.

 Dopamine, Serotonin, and How We Become Addicts

Because there is only 100 units total, in order to increase one glass we must “borrow” from the other.

So in order to increase the units in the dopamine milk glass, we have to take some from serotonin glass. And in order to feel  more “well being” ( more serotonin), we take some from the “drive and acquire” glass (less dopamine).

When we are living a healthy, balanced life, both these glasses sit at about 50 units each (40 / 60 is still pretty good). But the more imbalanced these glasses become , 30/70 or worse, the more likely this translates to imbalance in our life and is a recipe for addiction.



In total, there are 3 major imbalances that can cause someone to become addicted. They are high dopamine/low serotonin, low dopamine/high serotonin, and low dopamine/low serotonin (all the milk has been drank!).

In my experience, 1/3 to half the people I’ve met in my life have a noticeable imbalance. Don’t be alarmed if you find yourself below. I’m the first one.


Because serotonin levels are low, we are not happy. We are not content. Instead of feeling proud of our accomplishments, all we can think about is what we haven’t accomplished. When these levels are low, we can see problems with our life everywhere. Being naturally high in dopamine, we seek to escape these painful problems and increase the pleasure in our life.

So if we don’t like what we see in front of the mirror?  We eat.  Or we shop. Or we say we are going to change ourselves, and we start a new diet.

The result?  Food’s pleasure effect is fleeting. We must continue to eat to delay the withdrawal. Shopping’s pleasure effect is fleeting as well. We must continue to spend to delay the withdrawal. And the diet and motivation to change? It goes out the window. Dopamine doesn’t have time to wait for results. It demands results now! Or perhaps though, we stick with the diet and lose weight.  We will still never truly be satisfied with the results because the finish line will just stretch that much further.

 Dopamine, Serotonin, and How We Become Addicts

The bottom line is when dopamine is high and serotonin is low, we will always feel that urge to try to get the carrot.

We think to ourselves: “If I lose 50 lbs, I’ll be happyorIf I have a million dollars, I’ll be happy“  orIf such and such wasn’t such an ass, I would be happy

After we lose the 50 lbs, we say “If I get rid of these stretch marks, then I’ll be truly happy“.  After we have the money, we then want more to stay happy.  Once someone is done being an “ass”, we simply place a new expectation on them that they have to fulfill to keep us happy.

The target (of happiness)  is always moving. As a result, we cannot hit it.

NOTE: OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) is characterized as having brain levels that are high in dopamine and low in serotonin. Symptoms of this include perfectionism (once again, you can never get the carrot) and a total lack of flexibility (it’s your way or the highway).


Because dopamine levels are low,  the ability to focus and organize is almost non-existent. We no longer have that “drive” so lack of energy is a common symptom here.

A person with low dopamine levels will also have low pre-frontal cortex activation. Areas like decision making, impulse control, learning from past mistakes, and monitoring oneself will be severely lacking.

aslide24 Dopamine, Serotonin, and How We Become Addicts

It is because of this mental deficit, they we will be more inclined to make rash decisions without thinking of consequences. Not only that, to self medicate, they will naturally drift towards stimulants. Stimulants like coffee and adderall will increase the levels of dopamine in the brain helping restore dopamine-serotonin balance.

People with this nature will seem to keep making the same mistakes in their life unless their imbalance is corrected.

 Dopamine, Serotonin, and How We Become Addicts

Self medication gone wrong?

NOTE: ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) is characterized as having brain levels that are low in dopamine and high in serotonin. Many people who have ADD are labeled as dreamers, goof-offs, slackers, troublemakers,  and they are generally “bad” students.


When you abuse drugs too long and don’t provide the necessary nutrients and recovery to let your neurotransmitters build up, a deficiency occurs.

A naturally dopamine dominant person could burn through all his or her dopamine reserves simply by engaging in a lot of dopamine activities ( exciting/stressful events) over an extended period of time.

You can only rely on 4 hours sleep, a diet of sugar, and 10 cups of coffee a day for so long until you crash and the depression hits.

When you do hit this bottom – a brain state of low dopamine and low serotonin – there will be no significant drivers in your life nor will there be any happiness.

 Dopamine, Serotonin, and How We Become AddictsWhat’s the use? We all die anyway.”

We can still experience reward (such as the “high” of junk food) but it will be extremely fleeting. Since we are depressed, we will not care of its ill effects so it will be a “no holds bar” whenever we consume it.

 Dopamine, Serotonin, and How We Become Addicts

NOTE: PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is characterized as having brain levels of both low dopamine and serotonin. Many war vets, after returning home from a high stress atmosphere (burning out their dopamine reserves), develop PTSD.



All 3 of these brain profiles can be recipes for addiction and if you have erratic exercise and eating behavior, it could mean one of these is behind it.

While we are not in control of our default brain profile, we become in control once we are armed with the knowledge to do something about it.

What we get addicted to and if we choose to exhibit extreme, sometimes dangerous behavior — that’s up to us now.

If you are dopamine dominant, you need to increase your serotonin. If you are serotonin dominant, you need to increase your dopamine. And if you are deficient in both (or on your way there), you need to give your body what it needs: proper nutrition and rest.



High Dopamine/Low serotonin High serotonin/Low dopamine Low in both
Smart diet Smart diet Smart diet
Early morning sunlight Stimulants such as coffee and adderall Sleep/rest
Exercise! Exercise! Exercise (low intensity)
Supplementation: 5-htp, L-tryptophan, or St. Johns Wort Supplementation: L-tyrosine and/or DLPA <– Both
Abstain from drugs
* By no means is this list comprehensive. Just meant to get you moving in the right direction.


Some Thoughts:

– Adopt a smart diet

  • Moderately high in protein and healthy fat/ low in sugars
  • Keep alcohol, caffeine, and other drugs in check
  • Supplement with fish oil, antioxidants, and a multivitamin.

– Exercise: Double edged sword. Too much and too hard will burn through both reserves: Dopamine and Serotonin.

– As I discussed in my last post, exercise is what balances me out (increases serotonin). If I do too much, however, I can burn through my dopamine. And if I do this enough, serotonin becomes zapped. This is commonly referred to as overtraining and one of the main symptoms is depression.

– For the chronically depressed individual, it’s imperative to stay away from stimulants, emotional conflict, and burning the midnight oil to allow your supply of neurotransmitters to build up.

– Antidepressants, by increasing the amount of serotonin in your brain, will make you happy. It will also kill your libido (craving for sex) by way of decreasing dopamine.

– To build your neurotransmitters up, consume the building blocks (precursors).

  • L-tryptophan –> 5-HTP –> Serotonin
  • L-Phenylalanine –> L-tyrosine –> L-dopa –> Dopamine

Note: On top of the precursors, vitamins such as the B’s and C will be needed to facilitate the creation.

Note #2: If it starts with L, it is an amino acid. And if its an amino acid, it’s in meat.

– Think of your body as car. Dopamine is the gas and the peddle, while serotonin is the brakes. When you have low dopamine, you can’t go very fast or very far before you need to stop to fuel up again. People come to think of you as a lazy driver. When the dopamine is high, however, you can go very fast and have enough gas to last awhile but if your brakes are shot (low serotonin), you can’t slow down. Your life becomes a scene from Speed and the only way you can stop is for the gas (dopamine) to run out or for you to crash. Usually, its the same thing.

– It really is a balancing act. Being dominant in either neurotransmitter can lead to draining your reserves, and thus, depression.



Back to the glasses of milk:

 Dopamine, Serotonin, and How We Become Addicts

The more we fill up the dopamine glass, the more we will think we NEED stuff to be happy. And the more we fill up our serotonin glass, the more we will be satisfied with what we have.

It doesn’t matter if you are the richest man in the world, dopamine will drive you to become richer. And it doesn’t matter if your health is in the toilet, serotonin will teach you to be complacent with it.

Obviously, rather then try to dominate in either arena (high dope or high serotonin), it would be wise to even it out. When we become balanced, not only do we keep our drive, but we can be happy about what we have as well.

To me, that is Health.  icon smile Dopamine, Serotonin, and How We Become Addicts


PS – The science above is how I understand it. I’ve had OCD-like behavior since my teens so I spent a lot of time reading up on it (this combined with introvertism and being primarily left brained has created what I call The Perfect Storm). What has made the greatest impact on changing my behavior has not been drugs, but Awareness. Being aware of the silly things I am doing (like the inflexibility that my mind produces) has allowed me to become more flexible. I still have lapses almost daily but such is life. On top of just observing my behavior ( “Why do I want to do xyz?”), what has made the biggest difference has been introspection, meditation, and surrounding myself with positive people, thoughts, and environment. Even the smallest things, like listening to stimulating techno music can rile up my mind (exciting/stress = increase dopamine) so I now I just reserve them for times when they are useful (like workouts). I have enough excitement in my brain, what I found is I need more chill stuff in my environment. Others will be the exact opposite. In the end, you got to find what works for you.