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Neurotransmitters: How Dopamine, Serotonin and GABA affect our mental health

Our brains comprise of an almost unimaginably complex set of chemical interactions, that occur every moment, often unnoticed in our day-to-day lives. At the heart of these interactions, three chemical messengers or neurotransmitters are responsible for a significant amount of what occurs in our brains: Serotonin, Dopamine and GABA. These neurotransmitters are largely responsible for our mood, motivation, and sense of well-being. Understanding how these three important neurotransmitters affect our emotional well-being helps inform us of what practical steps we can take to give our body and mind the best chance of staying positive and calm. In this blog, we’ll examine how this interplay of chemicals affects us and what we can do to get the best out of our brains. 

Serotonin – The mood stabiliser

Serotonin, often referred to as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, plays a role in a wide range of functions, including regulating mood, sleep, appetite, and even social behaviour. This chemical messenger, primarily found in the brain and gastrointestinal tract, is instrumental in regulating mood, promoting feelings of well-being, and fostering emotional stability. When our serotonin levels are balanced, it helps maintain a stable mood. When there’s an imbalance or deficiency in serotonin, it can lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders. 

Several factors can influence serotonin levels, including genetics, lifestyle, and environmental factors. For example, certain genetic variations may affect how effectively serotonin is produced, transported, or received in the brain. Additionally, lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, and exposure to sunlight can impact serotonin levels. Chronic stress can disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin. When the body is under stress, it releases cortisol, a hormone associated with the body’s “fight or flight” response. High levels of cortisol can interfere with serotonin production and function, leading to decreased serotonin levels over time. If you’d like to read more about the science of chronic stress, you might be interested in my previous blog on this topic.

Dopamine – The Reward Chemical


Dopamine is often associated with feelings of pleasure, reward, and motivation. When you accomplish a goal, receive positive feedback, or engage in activities you enjoy, dopamine is released in the brain, giving you a sense of satisfaction and happiness. Dopamine is closely involved in the brain’s reward system, which motivates us to pursue rewards and take action to achieve our goals, keeping us energetic and motivated. This important neurotransmitter is also involved in regulating movement and coordination. In particular, it plays a crucial role in the basal ganglia, a brain region responsible for motor control. Disorders that involve dopamine deficiency in the basal ganglia, such as Parkinson’s disease, are characterised by tremors, rigidity, and difficulties with movement.

Dopamine interacts with other neurotransmitters and hormones involved in the body’s stress response. In certain situations, stress can lead to dysregulation of the dopamine system, contributing to symptoms of anxiety, agitation, and mood disturbances. Therefore a disruption in your serotonin levels can also trigger a disruption in your dopamine levels and vice verse. It’s important that we help our brains balance the right amount of these two chemicals to help promote good mental health and keep ourselves calm and happy.

GABA – The Calming Chemical

GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system, which means it helps calm down and regulate the activity of neurons. When GABA binds to receptors on a neuron, it reduces the neuron’s excitability, making it less likely to fire and transmit signals to other neurons. This inhibitory action helps maintain a balance between neuronal excitation and inhibition in the brain, which is essential for healthy brain function. Its inhibitory effects help dampen the activity of brain regions involved in the stress response. By reducing neuronal excitability, GABA promotes feelings of calmness and reduces anxiety. 

GABA plays a crucial role in promoting sleep and regulating sleep patterns. GABAergic neurons are involved in the brain’s sleep-wake cycle, and GABAergic signalling helps induce sleep by reducing neuronal activity in wake-promoting regions of the brain. GABAergic neurotransmission also influences mood regulation. Imbalances in GABA levels or function have been implicated in mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder. In some cases, decreased GABA activity may contribute to symptoms of depression, while excessive GABAergic inhibition may be associated with depressive symptoms in bipolar disorder.

Neurotransmitters and Mental Health

These three neurotransmitters interact to form our mood and shape our mental well-being. Imbalances in these neurotransmitter systems can contribute to a decline in mental health. Serotonin deficits are implicated in the gloom of depression and the grip of anxiety, while dopamine dysregulation can result in a lack of motivation, apathy, and can help to form addictive and negative habits. Meanwhile, disruptions in GABAergic signalling can contribute to the relentless grip of chronic stress and the restlessness of insomnia. Understanding the complex interplay of these chemicals can offer profound insights into the causes of mood disorders. 

Regulating the Big Three

To regulate serotonin levels, consider incorporating mood-boosting foods rich in tryptophan, such as leafy greens, sunflower seeds, watercress, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, mushrooms, broccoli, and peas, into your diet. Try to engage in regular physical activity, particularly aerobic exercise, as it stimulates serotonin production and promotes a sense of well-being. Make sure to get out into natural sunlight, as sunlight exposure can enhance serotonin synthesis in the brain. Additionally, practising gratitude and performing acts of kindness can foster feelings of contentment and elevate serotonin levels naturally

To help regulate dopamine, focus on setting and achieving small, meaningful goals to experience the satisfaction of accomplishment. Engage in activities that bring you joy and pleasure, whether it’s pursuing hobbies, spending quality time with loved ones, or enjoying your favourite music. Practice mindfulness to savour the present moment and gain an appreciation for life’s simple pleasures. It’s also important to be mindful of excessive consumption of stimulants like caffeine and sugar, as they can lead to dopamine spikes and crashes.

For regulating GABA levels, integrate relaxation techniques into your daily routine. Deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and yoga are effective methods for promoting GABA release and inducing a state of calm. Try to improve your quality of sleep to replenish GABA levels and support overall mental well-being. Minimise your exposure to stressors and create a supportive environment that fosters feelings of safety and security.


Understanding how these three neurotransmitters play a role in our mental health can help us to understand our mood and emotional state. Serotonin deficits can cause us to feel gloomy and depressed, while dopamine dysregulation dims the spark of motivation and fuels negative behaviour. Meanwhile, disruptions in GABAergic signalling can disrupt our sleeping patterns and leave us feeling stressed. By maintaining a healthy lifestyle and following some of our simple tips to help regulate these three chemicals, you’ll be on your way to a calmer and more serene state of mental health.

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