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The brain chemistry behind your moods

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Understanding that your emotional well-being is tied to your brain cells can help you accept life’s ups and downs.
Written by Hallie Levine
Updated on November 23, 2022

Our moods are based on a number of different things. It could be as simple as the weather. It can be difficult to feel happy on a gloomy day, for instance. Or it could be as complex as whatever we have going on in our lives, from starting a new job to falling in love.

Of course, you know that your thoughts can affect your feelings. But you might not realize the important role that brain chemistry plays in your mood, says Philip Muskin, MD. He’s a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York City.

Inside the brain are roughly 100 brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. They act like chemical messengers. They take in information. Then they send that info to other cells so that you can move, see and process thoughts and feelings. Here’s a look at a few of the major brain chemicals that influence mood and health.

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What it is: Scientists call serotonin one of the “feel-good” hormones. But it has a bigger job than just making you happy. It also plays an important role in your ability to learn, remember and plan, says James Giordano, PhD. He’s a professor in the departments of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Serotonin affects your appetite and sex drive. Your digestive tract produces most of the serotonin in your body. Only 10% of it is found in the brain.

How serotonin influences your health: How much serotonin you have in your body matters. If the level is too low, you have a greater chance of developing depression and anxiety.

Medications that may help:

These antidepressants are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). The goal is to raise the brain’s serotonin level, Dr. Muskin explains. SSRIs work by blocking the re-absorption of serotonin. That allows more of it to stay in your brain, he notes.

(Be sure to search for your SSRI on the Optum Perks discount app before heading to the pharmacy. You could find coupons for up to 80% off.)


What it is: You know that rush you get from sex or shopping? That’s your brain on dopamine, another one of the feel-good hormones. Dopamine fires up the brain’s reward system. It’s one of the reasons that junk food is hard to put down. For example, eating potato chips triggers a large dump of dopamine in your brain. You keep eating them to re-create that feeling.

Dopamine also helps us focus our attention and learn. It may explain why some people with depression have trouble staying focused. Their dopamine levels may be too low.

How dopamine influences your health: There are several diseases connected to low levels of dopamine. Those include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Parkinson’s disease and restless legs syndrome. But dopamine levels that are too high can also cause problems such as mania, addiction and overeating. And levels that are both too high and too low can bring on symptoms of schizophrenia.

Medications that may help:

These medications are called dopamine agonists. Doctors use them for Parkinson’s disease, depression, bipolar disorder, restless legs syndrome, ADHD and low sex drive. They activate dopamine receptors in your brain cells. This bumps up the amount of the chemical in the body.

The above medications are called dopamine antagonists. They stop dopamine from being received by the next nerve cell. They are used for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, nausea and vomiting.

These medications are called dopamine reuptake inhibitors. They prevent dopamine from being re-absorbed by the brain cells that released it. The result? Your dopamine levels are higher. These medications are used for conditions such as depression and excess sleepiness caused by sleep apnea or shift work.

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What it is: Another feel-good chemical, also called the love hormone. “Oxytocin goes up when you cuddle with someone,” says Sam Zand, MD. He’s a psychiatrist in Boise, Idaho, and founder of the teletherapy-based Anywhere Clinic. When you snuggle with your pet, child or partner, this brain chemical fires up a part of the brain called the hypothalamus.

How oxytocin influences your health: Scientists think there’s a connection between low oxytocin levels and depression. It may even play a role in autism spectrum disorders.

Medications that may help: There aren’t any medications that can bump up oxytocin levels. But sometimes doctors prescribe a nasal spray made with oxytocin. It can lower anxiety and improve low moods, notes Dr. Zand.


What it is: The body’s adrenal glands produce this chemical during times of stress. A little adrenaline is a good thing, says Dr. Zand. “It gives you a sense of heightened alertness and can help you focus,” he explains. It also works closely with another chemical called norepinephrine. Together, they help keep you awake and alert.

How adrenaline affects your health: People with anxiety produce too much adrenaline. That can cause panic attacks. Over time, high levels of adrenaline can harm the heart. And it can cause headaches and dizziness. Low levels may be linked to depression and anxiety, notes Dr. Zand.

Medications that may help:

There are 2 classes of medicine that can help. Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), such as Effexor, are one kind. SNRIs can help both depression and anxiety. They block the re-absorption of serotonin and norepinephrine. That means you’ll have more of them in the brain, says Giordano.

Other anti-anxiety medications, such as Xanax, are part of a fast-acting class of medications called benzodiazepines, which work by lowering adrenaline and calming overexcited neurons.

Recommended reading: 20 proven ways to fight stress.

If you feel as if you’re on an emotional roller coaster, or you’re sad or anxious most of the time, mention it to your doctor. The chemicals in your brain could be to blame, and there’s a way to fix that.

(Be sure to download our free mobile app to find the best price on your medications at a pharmacy near you.)

Additional sources:
The role of neurotransmitters: Cleveland Clinic
The love hormone: Harvard Health
How Xanax works: American Chemical Society