What do the chemicals in our brain do?

The brain has neurotransmitters that help nerve cells communicate, an imbalance of these can cause mental health problems. This means that to some extent mental health problems can come down to science as much as physical health problems do. Secondly, our mental health can affect our physical health and vice versa. Here are some of the brain chemicals and hormones to be aware of:

  1. Dopamine
  2. Serotonin
  3. Oxytocin
  4. Melatonin
  5. Cortisol


  1. Dopamine

Dopamine affects your thoughts, movements, memory and behaviour. You might notice difficulties with sleep and concentration if you are low in dopamine. Other symptoms include reduced sex drive, low mood, feeling fatigues and lack of motivation. You can increase your dopamine levels by practicing self-care, completing a task, eating something you enjoy and celebrating your achievements, no matter how small they may seem.


  1. Serotonin

Serotonin is also known as the mood stabiliser. It is the chemical for happiness and well-being and there is a complex relationship between depression and serotonin. It has a role to play in sleep cycles and our digestion too. Signs that you are lacking in serotonin can be changes to your sleep patterns, feeling more fatigued, changes to your appetite – eating too much or too little. A few things you can do to boost your serotonin such as trying a guided meditation, exercise in a way that you enjoy, spend time in nature and the sunshine or go for a massage.


  1. Oxytocin

Oxytocin has a calming effect. It influences our emotions by reducing anxiety and stress while improving mood and creativity. Signs that you may be low in oxytocin can be that you feel disconnected from others and even yourself. Have you found that you are preferring to stay home alone rather than interacting with other and going out socialising? There are ways you can boost your oxytocin levels too. Hugging someone can help, as well as playing with an animal or pet, holding hands with someone, or even giving someone else a compliment.


  1. Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone that occurs naturally in the body which contributes to controlling your sleep patterns. It is affected by light and increases at night time as the light causes the hormone levels to reduce. Higher levels of melatonin signal to your body that it is time to sleep. Hence why we feel sleepier during the winter months because it is going dark earlier – the darkness triggers an increase in melatonin so to put it simply longer periods of darkness mean longer periods of increased melatonin and as a consequence we feel tired for longer periods of time. If you are struggling with sleep it is important to consider melatonin as a factor, this is because it can be triggered by any type of light not just that of day light. The use of screens in the lead up to going to sleep can confuse your melatonin levels into thinking it isn’t time to prepare for sleep and therefore reduce them and doesn’t send the relevant signals throughout your body. Having a time a couple of hours before you plan to go to sleep without a screen can be hugely beneficial to your ability to fall asleep and the quality of your sleep.


  1. Cortisol

Cortisol is the primary stress hormone and can be seen as your natural built-in alarm system. It works with different parts of the brain to control mood, motivation, and fear. Cortisol has a role to play in managing how your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, reduces inflammation, regulates blood pressure, increases blood sugar, controls your sleep/wake cycle and boosts energy so you can handle stress and restores balance afterwards. Most cells in the body have cortisol receptors and receive and use it in different ways and it will differ day to day. When your body is on high alert for example before an exam or an interview, cortisol alters or shuts down different functions that are seen to be getting in the way for example your digestive or immune system. When the situation causing the stress is over your cortisol levels should return to normal. If you are finding that several situations are causing stress you may need to look at finding ways to relax to help them to rebalance.

Your mental health is affected by a number of factors both internal and external and all these hormones have a contribution. If you feel that some of the problems mentioned throughout this article have been affecting you and are having a negative impact on your quality of life it may be time to look into some self-help work or counselling.


Billie Pursglove

Billie Pursglove

Owner of Energy Psychotherapy and BACP Registered Member.