It’s increasingly clear that being happy is not just about feeling good. Research shows that happiness is linked to how productive you are, living longer, an improved immune system, among other health benefits. In other words: it's the key to a fulfilled, healthy life. So, is it any surprise that we all wish to be happier? But of course, as anyone knows, lifting your spirits is easier said than done, especially in this new normal (a.k.a. life amid a pandemic). So, what can you do to put the pep back in your step if you’ve already exhausted all the typical mood-boosting strategies–including fake-smiling, meditating, and sweating it out–to no avail?
Well, there is something else you can do. You could try raising the levels of your 'happy hormones': serotonin and dopamine. And in case you were wondering, nope, you don't have to resort to chemical measures; you can improve your mood naturally. How? Continue reading to find out.
What is dopamine? What is serotonin?
First things first, what are serotonin and dopamine–and why should you care about raising their levels? Serotonin and dopamine are neurotransmitters (1, 2, 3, 4). These are chemical messengers that transmit signals between brain cells, helping regulate functions like mood, sleep, and digestion. While serotonin and dopamine exert similar effects on the body, they work a bit differently. Here's what you need to know about each of them.
Dopamine: the ‘motivational’ neurotransmitter
Dopamine plays a major role in your body's motivation and reward system; it helps incite a positive mood and feelings of productivity (5). Ever felt mighty pleased with yourself when setting an important life goal? Or when you’ve accomplished a difficult task? Yep. You can thank dopamine. In addition to being associated with pleasurable sensations, dopamine also affects memory, cognition, sleep, attention, and even your ability to learn (6).
Serotonin: the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter
Often known as the 'feel-good' hormone, serotonin plays a role in how you process your emotions–which can, imaginably, affect how you feel (7, 8). Proper serotonin levels can make you feel calmer, more focused, less anxious, and, of course, happier. Impressively, this neurotransmitter doesn’t only contribute to better mood; it’s also known to regulate other essential bodily functions like digestion, sleep, and bone health.
Why should you care about your dopamine and serotonin levels?
Okay, so dopamine and serotonin are neurotransmitters that affect your mood. But… So what if you have low levels of these? What’s the worst that can happen? Well, if current scientific literature is to be trusted, a whole lot.
For instance, experts believe that low dopamine levels are associated with several mental health conditions, including depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia (9, 10, 11). And when it comes to serotonin, the association between neurotransmitter dysfunction and mental health becomes more evident. Numerous studies have consistently found low levels of serotonin in people with depression (12, 13, 14, 15). While low serotonin isn’t necessarily a direct cause of depression (scientists are still trying to figure this out), increasing serotonin through the use of SSRIs (i.e. selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) is one of the most effective depression treatments (16). As such, if you wish to become a happier version of yourself, boosting your levels of serotonin–and dopamine!–should be on the top of your priority list.
Natural ways to boost your dopamine and serotonin levels
Now, the next question is inevitably this: 'How?' Don't worry. You don't have to request SSRIs from your physician; there are plenty of natural herbs and supplements that'll seriously ramp up your dopamine and serotonin levels–without any of the nasty side effects typically expected of drugs (e.g. dizziness, insomnia, low sex drive, and loss of appetite) (17, 18, 19, 20).
#1 – Rhodiola Rosea
Rhodiola Rosea, also known as golden root or arctic root, is an herb that grows in the cold, mountainous regions of Europe and Asia (21). It's a traditional natural remedy used to treat stress, anxiety, mental and physical fatigue, and depressed mood for decades in Russia and Scandinavian countries. And modern science has proved the wisdom of our ancestors once again; as it turns out, Rhodiola Rosea’s roots contain more than 140 active ingredients–the two most potent of which are salidroside and rosavin.
Research has shown that the herb's medicinal compounds can stimulate serotonin and dopamine activity, helping 'balance out' neurotransmitters' levels in the brain. Does this translate to a better mood? It does indeed. A 2007 study published in the Nordic Journal of Psychiatry found that subjects with mild or moderate depression randomly assigned to receive Rhodiola Rosea experienced significant improvements in overall depression, insomnia, and emotional stability–while those who’d received placebo pills did not (22).
#2 – Bacopa monnieri
Bacopa monnieri–also known as the 'Herb of Grace'–has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine, either alone or in combination with other herbs, to treat mood disorders (23). And that's not a surprise, given the herb's effect on dopamine levels. To understand why you first need to know about dopaminergic neurons. Although their numbers are few, these dopamine-producing neurons (i.e. brain cells) are the primary dopamine source in your central nervous system. Their loss is associated with various mental health conditions and one of the most prominent human neurological disorders: Parkinson's disease (24).
Thankfully, bacopa monnieri can help protect your dopaminergic neurons from oxidative damage by exerting potent anti-inflammatory effects (25). And in turn, helping them release just the right amounts of dopamine you need for enhanced wellbeing. A 2013 study, for instance, found that healthy participants who'd supplemented with bacopa extract experienced an improvement in their moods while engaging in multiple cognitive tasks (26).
#3 – Ginkgo biloba
Also known as the maidenhair tree, ginkgo biloba is one of the oldest species of tree in the world (27). So, how does this ancient tree boost your levels of serotonin and dopamine? Well, it pretty much functions the same way as bacopa monnieri does: by protecting your neurons (responsible for producing dopamine and serotonin) from oxidative stress. That's because ginkgo contains high levels of flavonoids and terpenoids–compounds known for their potent antioxidant effects (28, 29, 30).
Ginkgo biloba exerts such strong neuroprotective effects that it's even been found to be clinically effective in treating Alzheimer's (31)! A growing body of research is now suggesting that the herb could stabilize and improve the cognitive and social functioning of patients with dementia (32). And while there hasn’t been direct human research on ginkgo biloba’s effect on dopamine and serotonin production, a review of animal studies suggests that we’re on the right track (33). According to the review, mice who received ginkgo before experiencing a stressful situation were less emotionally affected than those who did not receive the supplement. It hinted that this could be due to ginkgo biloba’s effects on neurotransmitter levels in the mice’s brains.
#4 – Amino Acid L-tyrosine
If you've at least dipped your toes into the nootropics supplements scene, you may be aware of L-tyrosine: a popular amino acid used to improve alertness, attention, and focus. Well, guess what? It's not just a cognitive enhancer. As it turns out, this amino acid helps make several essential substances in your body–with (unsurprisingly) one of them being dopamine. Enzymes within your body can turn tyrosine into dopamine (i.e. tyrosine is a pre-cursor to the latter), so having adequate tyrosine levels is crucial for dopamine production (34).
Studies show that increasing the amount of tyrosine in the diet can increase dopamine levels in the brain (35, 36, 37). Conversely, when tyrosine is eliminated from the diet, dopamine levels can become depleted. So, it’s not hard to see why you should look into increasing the amounts of L-tyrosine you consume daily (38).
#5 – Turmeric
A member of the ginger family, turmeric has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. The reason behind its health benefits? Its active compound, curcumin, exhibits potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties (39). By reducing oxidative stress, this aromatic spice can help promote neuronal health (i.e., dopamine- and serotonin-producing brain cells) and fight depression. Yes: if you've been paying attention, that means turmeric works in the same manner as bacopa monnieri and ginkgo biloba when it comes to increasing serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain!
But what does the research say? Well, there's nothing but glowing reviews for this ancient medicine. Take this 2017 review which looked at all the research on using turmeric to help treat depression, for instance (40). Researchers concluded that curcumin might indeed be a safe and effective natural treatment option for depression! Other studies have also supported this sentiment (41, 42, 43).
How to boost your serotonin and dopamine levels without 1,476 pills
While you may be glad to know of the number of natural serotonin- and dopamine-boosting supplements readily available to you… You may also, quite frankly, be overwhelmed by the sheer variety. How are you going to make time to swallow 1,789 pills a day? And perhaps more importantly, what dosages do you have to consume these in?
Stop. Before you overthink yourself into a panic attack, here’s a simple solution for you: take Dr. Danielle’s Joy Assist, which contains all the above supplements (and more!) that’ll get you to a better state of mental health fast!