Dopamine is the reward chemical that sends signals between neurons to control working memory, concentration, mood, motor control, and emotional responses.
It is associated with pleasurable sensations, and a deficiency is linked to numerous physical and neurological health conditions, including depression and schizophrenia.
Luckily, there are many natural ways to increase dopamine production with the help of behavior and lifestyle changes.
- What is Dopamine Deficiency?
- What Are The Symptoms of Low Dopamine?
- What Causes Low Dopamine Levels?
- How Is Dopamine Deficiency Diagnosed?
- How To Treat Dopamine Deficiency?
What is Dopamine Deficiency?
A dopamine deficiency occurs when levels of this neurotransmitter drop either due to low production, dopamine transporter issues, or problems with receptors in the brain.
On the other hand, dopamine deficiency syndrome is a rare hereditary condition with only a handful of confirmed cases.
Dopamine deficiency syndrome, mainly a genetic disorder, only occurs when a child’s parents have a mutated genetic makeup, making their offspring more vulnerable to the condition.
What Are The Symptoms of Low Dopamine?
From a neurobiological and evolutionary perspective, dopamine plays an essential part in everything from cognition and mood to regulating body movement.
Several psychological and physical symptoms can appear when there is a dopamine deficiency.
Too little dopamine can contribute to cognition issues such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), an inability to focus, depression, mood swings, schizophrenia, and psychosis.
It may also impact other brain functions that trigger many mental health conditions.
Lower levels of dopamine, for instance, have been identified as the reason for lack of interest and motivation, which may be potential causes for depression.
Likewise, in theory, fluctuating dopamine may also be involved in bipolar disorder.
Researchers believe that the highs and low in dopamine activity may be the underlying cause of the extreme highs and intense episodes in bipolar disorder.
In ADHD, low dopamine activity may be triggered by genetic mutations that impact dopamine.
As a result, the condition is often treated with antidepressant or stimulant medications that may increase dopamine production or make it more available to nerve cells by slowing down other processes.
Some of the common symptoms associated with a dopamine deficiency include movement disorders involving achy muscles, tremors, poor balance, and coordination.
In particular, a movement disorder known as dopamine transporter deficiency syndrome (DTDS) causes movement problems involving a pattern of involuntary contractions in the muscles known as dystonia.
Dopamine transporter deficiency syndrome is a generalized or widespread condition affecting many muscles.
It involves persistent muscle stiffness, muscle cramps, spasms that lead to difficulty with daily activities such as eating, drinking, speaking, picking up objects, and even walking.
As the condition worsens, a person with DTDS may develop symptoms of parkinsonism, a disease with movement abnormalities including tremors, overly slow movements, rigidity, and postural instability (1).
Researchers have also identified a dopamine deficiency in specific brain areas as a trigger for Parkinson’s disease.
In this condition, dopamine-producing nerve cells start to die gradually. As this happens, muscle stiffness and movement problems appear as dopamine health control these critical functions.
Other signs and symptoms may include uncontrollable eye movements, reduced facial expression, gastroesophageal reflux disease along constipation.
What Causes Low Dopamine Levels?
Many factors can suppress dopamine activity in the body. However, even though causes can vary, they are linked in some way to the reduced receptor activity of dopamine in the brain.
An insufficient amount of dopamine plays a role in sleep problems. For instance, not sleeping for enough hours can reduce the number of receptors in specific parts of the brain. As this happens, the production and transmission of dopamine get affected.
One study using animal models showed that when levels of dopamine are reduced, lab mice can’t sleep anymore.
But when levels have increased, they showed brain activity associated with dreaming during wakefulness.
Researchers believe that the same process likely occurs in humans, especially related to sleep problems common among Parkinson’s disease patients (2).
Another factor that reduces the number of dopamine receptors in the brain is obesity (3). Less dopamine can result from eating a poor diet. This typically involves the use of food items with saturated fats.
Although these foods yield short-term enjoyment, long-term use of high-fat foods can disrupt the functioning of the nervous system and impact the production of dopamine.
As such, an obese person is recommended to include more protein-dense items, especially those containing L-tyrosine, as this amino acid assists in the production of dopamine.
Medication and Drug Abuse
Levels of dopamine are also affected by drugs, addiction, and alcohol. Repeated drug use or drug abuse, the regular use of addictive substances, and alcohol can reduce the number of available dopamine receptors (4).
In this way, the use of any addictive substance causes the brain to produce, absorb, or transmit less dopamine resulting in an imbalance.
Therefore, when drugs remain inactive, levels of dopamine drop and cause uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms of addiction.
Extreme stress and depression are other factors that can impact the body’s production of dopamine.
One study investigated how continuous stress can impair a person’s ability to produce the dopamine needed to cope with stressful situations.
Findings from the study show that individuals exposed to chronic adversity had impaired production of dopamine. In contrast, others with low exposure to stress exhibited proportional dopamine production to the degree of the threat (5).
Along with certain mental disorders, a dopamine deficiency may also be responsible for several other conditions.
As mentioned earlier, doctors try to increase dopamine to treat Parkinson’s disease. Since this is a progressive condition that involves the degeneration of neurons, the attempt is to use medicine that converts dopamine in the body, increases dopamine levels, or mimics the effects of dopamine.
Another condition, known as Huntington’s disease, also involves motor and non-motor symptoms when certain brain areas suffer deterioration.
A person will experience cognitive problems, poor coordination, uncontrolled movements, mood swings, and many other symptoms in this condition.
How Is Dopamine Deficiency Diagnosed?
There is no set criterion to measure dopamine levels in any person’s brain directly. Instead, your doctor may try indirect ways to identify whether there is an imbalance of dopamine in the brain.
For instance, it is possible to measure dopamine transporter density to see how much dopamine is present in the brain.
The procedure involves injecting a radioactive material able to bind to dopamine transporters which can be detected using a camera.
Also, doctors will look at an individual’s symptoms and medical history to determine whether they can have low dopamine before diagnosing.
How To Treat Dopamine Deficiency?
The treatment for low dopamine depends on its underlying cause.
For instance, when a person is diagnosed with a mental health condition, the treatment protocol will differ from someone who suffers from sleep deprivation or obesity.
However, most common conditions rely on medicine or supplements, diet, and other lifestyle habits for increasing dopamine levels.
Certain medications play an essential role in dopamine release, whereas others are designed to reduce the amount of dopamine in the brain.
Among these, norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitors are antidepressant medicine used to block the mechanism of transporter proteins.
This helps increase the number of active norepinephrine and dopamine neurotransmitters in the brain and helps relieve symptoms.
These drugs, known as dopamine agonists, are prescribed for treating low dopamine conditions, including Parkinson’s disease and restless leg syndrome.
People also buy dopamine supplements to increase dopamine levels. While these supplements may not increase dopamine directly, since they are neurotransmitters and cannot be bottled, they contain ingredients that support increased dopamine in the brain.
The most common substances found in dopamine boosting supplements include L-Tyrosine, magnesium, mucuna, fish oil, vitamin C, L-theanine, and curcumin.
Changes in the diet can lead the body to produce more dopamine. Typically, diets high in protein are linked to dopamine production, especially those that include the amino acid L tyrosine needed to make dopamine.
It is recommended to eat chicken, eggs, beef, almonds, avocados, and bananas to improve dopamine levels.
A person looking to change their diet to increase dopamine production should also look at foods that contain vitamin D, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Another reliable way to experience a dopamine lift is to work out. Many studies show that an intense workout can create a massive spike in dopamine, given the phenomenon known as a runner’s high.
This is a euphoric sense where a person’s body feels relaxed and calm. For many, it occurs after a lengthy or intense session, and people who experience it report feeling less anxiety and pain immediately after.
Other forms of exercise such as swimming, cycling, a therapeutic massage, and yoga can also help raise dopamine levels.
As we age, our ability to produce dopamine naturally decreases, which may explain why so many people feel tired and unmotivated.
Suppose you’ve tried everything else but find yourself still feeling sluggish or struggling with motivation levels.
In that case, it might be time to consider supplements, changing your diet, or speaking with a doctor about medication options.
There is an alternative for everyone, from lifestyle changes like getting more sleep at night or taking breaks during work hours to prescription drugs explicitly designed to help increase dopamine production.