Serotonin and dopamine are two key buzzwords when considering mental health. But what do these chemical combinations of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen do for us?
First, let us boil it down to two areas of our lives: the near and the far. The near can consist of what is literally near us, this could be a drink of water, a snack in our bags, or our phones containing a digital world of itself. These interactions require little effort and are under our control. On the other hand, the far requires more effort, a walk to an early morning lecture, or a meal that needs to be prepped and cooked. Importantly, these interactions are in our futures, and we have it in our minds that we need to do work to reach that point. Often the process is imaginary, even abstract, but for our desire to reach these end goals, and here dopamine comes in.
Dopamine is the chemical, a monoamine neurotransmitter, released when we do things in the pursuit of pleasure, or in the pursuit to secure our futures, to make the imaginary and abstract real. Over time dopamine release fades when a certain reward, train reward, or sense of pleasure becomes too expected, rewards become less significant. I think this highlights how important it is to enjoy what we have in the present, be grateful for the present, and accept it. The more we become dependent on wanting more, the less we can find peace in the rewards of what we were trying to achieve.
Serotonin is also a mono-amino neurotransmitter, which also regulates our moods and impacts mental health. Interestingly, most of the serotonin in our body is not produced in our central nervous system, 90% of serotonin can be found in the intestines. The role it plays in the brain though is still significant.
Research suggests that Serotonin is crucial to regulating your mood alongside many other neurological functions, like improving focus, emotional stability, your ability to sleep, and enter REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, to feel calm when waking up in the morning. It is clear then that serotonin does serve a purpose in our brains, holding a significant relationship to more abstract, and difficult-to-define aspects of our mental state too.
It is a very complex relationship though, and over time it has become clear that mental disorders like MDD (Major Depressive Disorder) do not have one clear solution. Though they have proven successful for some, the results of antidepressants like SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) can vary from person to person. It is further complicated because of the variety of causes of depression, including psychological trauma, inflammation, and thousands of different genetic combinations which can often result in unique sequences. Since the 1960s and 1970s, the monoamine theory, which oversimplifies depression to a linear relationship between serotonin levels, has been challenged, for example by Professor Andrew McIntosh from the affiliate member of the Centre for Genomic and Experimental Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. His research investigates the mechanisms which dictate hormone levels and their respective functions in the brain and suggests when it comes to mental health, the solution is often multi-faceted.
Words like serotonin and dopamine are thrown around nowadays and are quickly related to the solution to many mental disorders. Whilst it is true that they serve a clear purpose for our mental wellbeing, and especially how we respond to pleasure, it would be an oversimplification to say that depression and other mental disorders are only a chemical imbalance of these hormones. This is not to say that ultimately serotonin and dopamine are important in how we feel pleasure, but an increase or uptake of them alone cannot be the solution to bettering mental health. It is not that linear. Taking care of all contributing aspects of our lives, including diet, exercise, mindfulness, healthy conversation, relaxation, and importantly seeking help are all factors that also affect our mental health. Take gratitude for today and keep hope for tomorrow, we all deserve the best.
Image: ‘Neuronal synapse, artwork,’ by Stephen Magrath is licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal.