Dopamine

Model of a dopamine moleculeDopamine is one of several neurotransmitters strongly linked with mood and sensations of pleasure. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that carry signals between neurons.

What Is Dopamine?

Many people are aware of dopamine for its role in regulating motivation and reward-driven behavior. Larger amounts of dopamine make people feel good, and this good feeling motivates people to repeat the behavior that triggered the good feeling. In this way, dopamine is an important part of survival. Behaviors that increase likelihood of survival, such as eating calorie-dense foods, are reinforced with the help of dopamine.

Where Is Dopamine Produced?

Dopamine belongs to the catecholamine family of neurotransmitters. Catecholamines are part of the body’s fight or flight response. Epinephrine, or adrenaline, and norepinephrine, or noradrenaline, are the other two catecholamine neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters are produced in the brain, brainstem, and adrenal glands; and more specifically, dopamine is released from a strip of brain tissue called the substantia nigra. When released, neurotransmitters function as hormones in the body.

Dopamine is metabolized from tyrosine and phenylalanine. Neurons that use dopamine as their primary neurotransmitter exist mostly in the midbrain, which plays a large role in controlling motor function and managing sensory input, among other things.

When Is Dopamine Released?

Dopamine is released during situations in which people experience pleasure. The release of dopamine helps reinforce the pleasurable behavior, increasing the likelihood the individual will repeat that behavior to get the same feeling.

Activities that stimulate the release of dopamine function as survival or coping strategies. The more times they are repeated, the more they may become reinforced. Behaviors and substances that may cause the release of dopamine include:

  • Eating
  • Sex
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Recreational drugs
  • Painkillers
  • Listening to music
  • Exercise

Dopamine plays an important role in physical and behavioral health. But while it can help reinforce behaviors that promote long-term health, such as physical activity and getting enough sleep, it can also help reinforce behaviors that are harmful to an individual’s health, from eating too much junk food to opioid misuse and addiction.

What Does Dopamine Do?

Dopamine is implicated in feelings of pleasure and plays a prominent role in addiction. People with substance dependencies may grow dependent partially because of the activation of dopamine. Some other ways dopamine affects the body include:

  • Mood regulation: Insufficient dopamine can contribute to depression. Meanwhile, some research has found that too much dopamine could cause mania.
  • Slows the production of prolactin: Prolactin is involved in both lactation and sexual gratification.
  • Regulates sleep: Dopamine helps inhibit the production of melatonin toward the end of a night’s sleep, contributing to wakefulness.
  • Regulates attention and memory: Many studies have demonstrated dopamine’s link to attention, memory, and cognition. Disruptions in dopamine have been connected to attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) and schizophrenia, for example.
  • Increases goal-oriented behavior: In addition to promoting reward and goal-driven behavior, dopamine may decrease inhibition.

Irregular dopamine levels can cause a variety of psychological problems. For instance, Parkinson’s disease is caused partially by the death of dopamine-secreting neurons. Drugs that increase dopamine production may help people with Parkinson’s, particularly during the early stages of the disease.

How to Increase Dopamine

There are a wide variety of activities that boost dopamine levels in the brain, but not all of them contribute to long-term health. Taking part in behaviors that increase dopamine while improving your health can contribute to the formation of good habits and boost your mood. Some ways to get a natural increase in dopamine include:

  • Consume probiotics: Whether taken in supplement form or by eating probiotic rich foods such as yogurt and fermented foods, probiotics have been shown to support dopamine production.
  • Sleep: Getting enough sleep each night is one of the best ways to keep your dopamine at a healthy level. One night without sleep has actually been shown to increase dopamine in the short-term. However, the increase in dopamine caused by long-term sleep deprivation could cause dopamine receptors to become less sensitive to dopamine, making it difficult for a person to feel awake.
  • Spend time in the sun: Sunlight facilitates the body’s production of vitamin D. Vitamin D, in turn, can help increase dopamine production.
  • Exercise: In addition to endorphins, exercise can increase dopamine levels, contributing to the mood improvement that often comes with physical activity.
  • Listen to music: Multiple studies have shown that listening to music you like causes dopamine to be released in the brain.
  • Avoid sugary foods and junk food: Eating foods that release large amounts of dopamine (which are often high in sugar and fat) can have a desensitizing effect over time. Sticking to whole foods ensures the body’s dopamine receptors don’t become overpowered, thereby creating the need for foods that stimulate the release of more dopamine.

Dopamine and Addiction

Dopamine is well-known for the role it plays in addiction. As it plays a key role in helping develop habits that support health and survival, so can it support the formation of self-destructive coping mechanisms.

Whether the addiction is to sugary food, sex, alcohol, or drugs, the role dopamine plays is the same. Addictive substances overload the brain with dopamine, causing dopamine receptors to become less sensitive to it. Higher and higher amounts of dopamine are then required in order to get the same initial feeling caused by the addictive substance. When the addictive substance is not delivered in higher amounts or withheld completely, withdrawal symptoms may appear.

Researchers have found that dopamine plays a similar role in many compulsive behaviors, such as compulsive pornography use, internet addiction, and compulsive gambling. These behaviors stimulate a similar rush of dopamine to the brain, establishing it as rewarding and reinforcing it as a habit. Individuals with these compulsions may feel as though they have lost control over that aspect of their behavior.

Dopamine and Mental Health

Dopamine also has significant function in some mental health conditions. A few of these include:

  • Schizophrenia: Dopamine dysregulation has been found to be present in the brains of individuals with schizophrenia. It may be at least partly responsible for both positive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia, including hallucinations and delusions as well as a lack of pleasure and motivation.
  • Depression: While depression is classically associated more often with serotonin dysregulation, some research supports the idea that dopamine could also be associated with the loss of pleasure, or anhedonia, associated with depression.
  • ADHD: Dopamine is thought to be a key factor in the development of ADHD. Studies have shown that lower than usual amounts of dopamine in the brain are often present alongside symptoms of ADHD.
  • Anxiety: One study linked anxiety to insufficient dopamine in the amygdala. Since the amygdala is implicated in the fight or flight response, dopamine could act as a way to quiet the amygdala when it reacts to a “false alarm.” Without enough dopamine to stop the fight or flight response, higher levels of anxiety could be the result.

Research exploring the many links between dopamine and mental health is ongoing, and experts are still discovering all the ways dopamine is connected to behavioral health.

What If I Have Too Little or Too Much Dopamine?

Dopamine dysregulation could mean that the brain is producing too little or too much dopamine. Low dopamine, or dopamine deficiency, can be caused by a variety of factors, including conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, and depression. Drug and sugar addiction have also been found to cause dopamine deficiency over time. Some low dopamine symptoms include fatigue, moodiness, dysphoria, physical pain, and changes in weight, sex drive, and ability to focus. As many other conditions share these symptoms, it’s important to consult your health care provider if you’re experiencing these symptoms.

It’s also possible to have too much dopamine. Effects of overly high dopamine levels include high libido, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, increased energy, mania, stress, and improved ability to focus and learn, among others. When certain parts of the brain are exposed to too much dopamine, for instance right after an individual takes illicit drugs, other behaviors may be present. These can include aggression, hallucinations, twitching, nausea and/or vomiting, and depression.

Dopamine and Psychoactive Drugs

Because dopamine contributes to feelings of pleasure, a rush of dopamine can cause an immediate change in mood. Dopamine-producing drugs such as Adderall and Dexadrine are sometimes prescribed to people experiencing treatment-resistant depression. Medications that increase dopamine production can be highly addictive, and thus are not recommended for people with substance abuse problems. Some dopamine-producing drugs can also cause cardiovascular and renal problems, and people prescribed amphetamines and related drugs should be carefully monitored by a physician.

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Last Updated: 09-24-2019

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