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Depression Hacks: Know Your Neurotransmitters

Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, more than 264 million people suffer from depression. While clinical treatments for depression are incredibly effective, there is no cure for the disorder.

If you suffer from depression, understanding the disease and how it affects the body can make you feel more in control. There are a variety of holistic and at-home therapies for depression that can supplement your clinical treatment. One such way to take control of your condition is to understand the chemistry of depression and know your neurotransmitters.

What are Neurotransmitters?

Depression directly impacts how your brain functions, which is why it’s considered a mental health disorder. Specifically, depression causes imbalances in the key neurotransmitters in the brain. So what role do neurotransmitters play in brain function and overall health? 

Neurotransmitters are chemicals that live in the brain. The chemicals allow the nerve cells in the brain to communicate with each other, and send important messages to nerves, muscles, and organs. There are certain neurotransmitters that are responsible for sending signals of pleasure, happiness, joy, and other emotions. You can think of a neurotransmitter like a messenger between cells.

However, neurotransmitters can only send messages effectively if the chemicals are in balance. If they’re imbalanced, it can cause mental health disorders like depression. The neurotransmitters can become imbalanced when they get triggered by situations that cause stress, trauma, sadness, and other negative emotions. Certain biological processes can also cause irregularity with neurotransmitters.

From a medical perspective, it is very difficult to measure the levels of neurotransmitters in the human brain. While brain scans measure brain activity, they can’t measure specific transmitters. Instead, mental health professionals will often prescribe antidepressants, which help to rebalance and regulate neurotransmitters, which reduces depression symptoms.

Why Neurotransmitters are Important

You might assume that mental health professionals are the only people who need to understand neurotransmitters and their relationship to depression. But if you have depression, knowing your neurotransmitters can help you find ways to improve your brain health. Even if you’re taking antidepressants, there are ways that you can holistically boost your neurotransmitters and make yourself feel better.

Your brain contains more than 40 million cells and 40 different neurotransmitters that are responsible for everything from mood regulation to sleeping patterns to appetite control. There are a handful of neurotransmitters that are specifically involved in depression. Here are the neurotransmitters you should know, and how you can boost those transmitters in your brain.


Serotonin is the powerhouse neurotransmitter in the brain. It plays an important role in almost every psychological function, as well as some biological processes. Nearly every single brain cell is influenced in some way by serotonin. Serotonin is responsible for mood, appetite, sleep, memory, learning, social behavior, and more.

To boost serotonin in the brain, you can focus on eating foods that are rich in tryptophan, like seeds, soy, cheese, and beef. Exercise is also a great way to naturally boost serotonin because it triggers the release of tryptophan into the bloodstream.


Dopamine is very similar to serotonin and is known as a neurotransmitter that creates feelings of pleasure. Dopamine is largely responsible for triggering the brain’s reward system, which also controls motivation, cravings, and desires. For example, eating fried foods or taking illegal drugs cause dopamine levels to spike, which is what creates feelings of euphoria.

To increase dopamine in the brain, it’s beneficial to eat a diet rich in tyrosine, which can be found in foods such as eggs, almonds, bananas, beans, and fish. Meditating, getting massages, and getting enough sleep have all been shown to naturally boost dopamine.


The main role of endorphins is to regulate pain and stress in the brain and body. Endorphins can be thought of as a natural pain reliever because they release feel-good chemicals that boost mood. Endorphins produce a similar effect on the brain that opioids do. In people with depression, a lack of endorphins can cause physical pain and weakness.

The best way to boost endorphins is to exercise regularly. When you exercise, the brain floods the body with endorphins. Other ways to boost endorphins include practicing yoga, meditating, and laughing.


Oxytocin is often referred to as the love hormone because it’s responsible for creating feelings of bonding and intimacy. Oxytocin tends to be more readily available in women because it plays a significant role in breastfeeding and mother-baby bonding after birth. Beyond that, oxytocin also helps mood regulation.

Anything that makes you feel good physically will likely boost oxytocin. For example, hugging, petting a dog, soaking in a warm bath, and giving a gift to someone are all shown to boost this neurotransmitter.


Norepinephrine is a stress hormone that gets secreted in the blood when the brain senses a stressful or traumatic event. This neurotransmitter is produced by adrenal glands, so it’s also responsible for fight or flight situations. Norepinephrine is vital for regulating sleep patterns, increasing attention, and helping you focus. 

Eating tyrosine-rich foods are typically effective at boosting norepinephrine. Additionally, any activities that reduce stress are beneficial, like meditating, deep breathing, yoga, acupuncture, reading, and spending time in nature can help regulate norepinephrine.


GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is responsible for stress reduction, mood, sleep, and pain management. GABA is heavily involved in the nervous system because it helps the body and brain relax by halting neural activity. Low levels of GABA are often associated with depression, anxiety, memory problems, insomnia, and headaches.

To naturally boost GABA, you can take a supplement, such as magnesium and L-theanine. GABA is also found in certain herbal teas, and in fermented foods, like yogurt and kefir.

Alternative Treatments for Depression

If you suffer from depression that does not improve with conventional and at-home treatment methods, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) therapy could be effective for you. TMS is a non-invasive procedure that targets areas of the brain that are dormant in people with depression. To learn more about TMS and find out if you’re a good candidate, contact us at 310-846-8460.

Article By: Chris Howard
Director of Community Outreach & Education Chris Howard has been working in the mental health field since 2010 after seeing the long-term effects of mental illness within his own family. He is a graduate of UCLA where he received his B.A. in Psychology. Having worked closely with those struggling with addiction, Chris considers the concept of community to be an essential part of treatment and advocates for wellness approaches that integrate both leading conventional therapies, as well as holistic practices like yoga and meditation.