The most-studied neurotransmitter in the human body, dopamine, essentially motivates, drives, and pushes people forward to achieve what they want.
It dictates a person’s reward pathway, letting them experience feelings of bliss, enjoyment, and even euphoria.
But since dopamine can both be an inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitter, it’s crucial to maintain its levels correctly.
Here is everything you need to acknowledge about this neurotransmitter, what it can do for you, and how to maintain optimal levels.
- What is Dopamine?
- What Are The Dopamine Functions?
- What Affects Dopamine Levels?
- What Are The Risks of Dopamine Deficiency?
- What Happens If You Have Too Much Dopamine?
What is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and chemical messenger that sends messages between neurons in the brain. Not only does it control mental health and emotional responses, but physical reactions as well.
In particular, dopamine is a feel-good hormone responsible for experiencing happiness and the reward system.
However, dopamine needs to remain within the natural range for this effect to take place. If dopamine levels fall too low or get too high, specific health problems may occur.
If less than adequate dopamine molecules are released, it can develop in conditions like Parkinson’s, while too much can cause mental health disorders like mania, hallucinations, delusions, and schizophrenia (1).
Dopaminergic neurons produce dopamine in two different parts of the human brain. The first is called substantia nigra, a tiny strip of tissue on either side of the base of the brain, located in the midbrain. The second is the ventral tegmental area lying close by.
The human brain produces dopamine through a two-step process where it first changes L-tyrosine to a substance called l-dopa and then into dopamine.
Dopamine from the substantia nigra assists with movement and speech, and when brain cells that make dopamine in this area start to die off, the person can have troubles that affect movement and motor control.
On the other hand, the dopamine from the ventral tegmental area is associated with the reward mechanism.
The hypothalamus region of the brain releases dopamine. It is released when the brain is expecting a reward.
In different words, when you think of a pleasant activity, the mere anticipation may be enough to raise dopamine levels. It can be a particular food, sex, shopping or just about anything else that you enjoy.
Dopamine receptors are found in the central nervous system and spinal cord, where dopamine binds to the receptor and performs distinct functions depending on the type of the receptor.
These receptors are encoded by different genes, with there being five types of receptors, including D1, D2, D3, D4, and D5 (2).
- D1 is primarily responsible for attention, memory, impulse control, regulating renal function, and movement.
- D2 assists with attention, memory, learning, sleep, and movement.
- D3 and D4 are responsible for cognition, attention, sleep, and impulse control.
- D5 there is a part in cognition, attention, decision making, and renin secretion.
What Are The Dopamine Functions?
Dopamine function is widespread in the body and spans mental processes, emotional responses, and physical reactions.
This means that dopamine neurotransmission is responsible for everything linked to regulating behavior, including motivation, punishment, and reward.
Primarily, dopamine contributes to feelings of pleasure, motivation, and satisfaction. When someone feels good that they have achieved something, it’s because they have a surge of dopamine in the brain.
It is also a prolactin inhibiting hormone that acts as a prolactin inhibiting factor to prevent women’s excess milk production and menstrual problems.
Dopamine may help treat cognitive disorders as low dopamine is often associated with many different mental health illnesses.
Dopamine plays a role in the mental disorder schizophrenia, along with other types of neurotransmitters, including glutamate and GABA. Low levels of dopamine have been implicated in some symptoms of major depression, including a lack of interest and motivation.
The neurotransmitters norepinephrine and serotonin are also believed to be involved in clinical depression.
Both low and high levels of dopamine activity are theorized to be involved in bipolar disorder. Patients with an excess of receptors and a hyperactive reward process network may experience the manic phase of the condition.
Meanwhile, decreases in levels of dopamine transporters may contribute to lower dopamine function and feelings of depression (3).
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) includes problems with attention, working memory, impulsivity, and hyperactive behavior. It is believed to affect lower dopamine activity, possibly due to genetic factors that impact dopamine.
Usually, stimulant or antidepressant medications are often used to treat ADHD. These medications increase dopamine production in the brain or make enough dopamine available to neurons by slowing down certain processes (4).
Dopamine, along with glutamate and serotonin, is believed to be dysregulated in Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In this mental health condition, people develop obsessions and compulsions, which trigger significant emotional distress.
OCD may involve dampened dopamine receptor activity and also increased dopamine activity in some areas of the brain. Most drug treatments for OCD include antidepressants that alter serotonin function but not dopamine.
Memory and Cognitive Function
Role of Dopamine is vital in controlling memory, mood, sleep, learning, concentration, and body movements. In addition, research shows that dopamine-releasing neurons help in the formation of new, long-term memories.
Research suggests that dopamine is essential for working memory. It helps working memory in the prefrontal cortex by activating brain pathways associated with the job on hand and blocking diverting pathways that take attention away from the task (5).
In another area, a research study examined dopamine-producing cells and found that they play a major role in forming episodic memory. For example, this type of memory allows people to remember where they parked the car in the morning and what they had for dinner last night (6).
Research also identifies a lack of dopamine in some parts of the brain as a trigger for Parkinson’s disease.
In Parkinson’s disease, the nerve cells producing dopamine die gradually. Because dopamine helps control the muscles, this leads to problems with muscle stiffness and affects movement.
Dopamine release is responsible for people becoming addicted to pleasure obtained frequently from substances, emotions, and activities.
This means that excessive release of dopamine at the wrong moment can make trivial things appear meaningful. As a result, your brain starts to crave activity to an unhealthy degree giving you the motivation to repeat the addictions that leads to releasing dopamine in the brain.
This can develop in mental illnesses like mania, hallucinations, or even schizophrenia. Also, research indicates that the constant rewards of social media set up the same cycle of releasing dopamine and motivation to repeat the behavior that leads to addiction (7).
Dopamine’s role in the brain’s motor cortex is crucial for muscles to make smooth and controlled movements. Deficient dopamine activity in this area is linked to many diseases, including Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and restless leg syndrome (RLS).
Parkinson’s is a progressive disease that involves the degeneration of dopamine-producing neurons. This results in the absence of adequate dopamine levels with symptoms like tremors, stiffness, difficulty walking, balance problems, speech, swallowing issues, and reduced facial expression.
Parkinson’s is primarily treated by drugs that convert to dopamine in the body, increase dopamine levels, or mimic the effects of dopamine.
Huntington’s disease is also a progressive disease involving motor and nonmotor symptoms. The condition occurs with the deterioration of the brain region called the corpus striatum, which is an essential part of the motor and reward systems.
Common symptoms of Huntington’s include cognitive problems, poor coordination, uncontrollable movements, mood swings, problems talking and swallowing.
The disease may also involve severe symptoms often seen in psychiatric disorders linked to excess dopamine activities such as aggression, impulsivity, and psychosis. These symptoms are frequently treated with atypical antipsychotics.
RLS is another movement disorder involving unusual sensations and involuntary leg jerks as a person sleeps or is relaxed. The movements can interfere with the person getting enough deep sleep and leave them sleep-deprived.
Research shows that people with RLS have a few areas of the brain that are deficient in iron. Plus, they may also have abnormal levels of dopamine in the brain.
Furthermore, genetics and hormone abnormalities may also play a role in the condition. Several medications used to treat RLS are also used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease.
What Affects Dopamine Levels?
Different factors, including lifestyle choices, the use of addictive drugs, either prescription or illicit, and stress, can all affect dopamine levels. As this neurotransmitter inhibits and excites responses, maintaining optimum levels is crucial.
Causes of High Dopamine Levels
All addictive substances and behaviors, including alcohol, caffeine, stimulant drugs, nicotine, sugar, cell phones, video games, and shopping, choke that brain boosts levels of dopamine much more than usual.
However, dopamine receptors are fragile, and the overactivation can be highly damaging, even triggering them to die. Some other factors that can lead to increased dopamine levels in the body include the following:
- Dopamine agonists are drugs usually given for treating low dopamine conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and RLS. However, these drugs can sometimes go way over their target and cause symptoms associated with high levels of dopamine.
- Drug addiction and other substances may interact with dopamine in a way that becomes habit-forming. They can cause a quicker, far more intense dopamine rush that leaves you wanting more.
- Stress is rough in several ways, including impacting the dopamine system negatively.
- Insufficient sleep is another highly detrimental lifestyle habit that can contribute to a rise in dopamine.
Causes of Low Dopamine Levels
Different factors can be responsible for low dopamine activity. The most common ones include obesity, sleep deprivation, fatty foods, drug abuse, and stress.
All are in some way or another linked to a decreased number of receptors in the brain:
- Sleep deprivation reduces D2 receptors in critical brain areas. When this occurs, the production and transmission of dopamine get affected.
- Likewise, obesity can also lead to a lowering of D2 receptors, affecting dopamine levels.
- As dopamine production increases after drug use, the brain intercedes to minimize available dopamine receptors.
- While foods with saturated fat induce short-term enjoyment, consuming a high-fat diet over time rattles the functioning of the central nervous system where dopamine gets produced. When this gets disrupted, it can lead to a deficit in dopamine.
- When someone is persistently exposed to stress, it affects the body’s dopamine production. This may also trigger a dopamine deficiency over time.
What Are The Risks of Dopamine Deficiency?
Having low levels of dopamine can take away motivation and excitement about things, and it’s linked to specific mental health conditions, including depression, psychosis, and schizophrenia.
Symptoms of low dopamine activity can vary greatly and depend on the brain region where dopamine signals are lacking.
Some of the common symptoms associated with inadequate dopamine activity include stiff and achy muscles, tremors, diminished balance and coordination, constipation, and problems eating or swallowing.
People may also experience problems with cognitive impairment, including brain fog or difficulty focusing. There may also be fatigue, lack of energy paired with mood swings, and a low sex drive.
However, there are many ways to increase dopamine naturally by consuming a healthy diet and using proper supplements or nootropics. It is recommended to include more foods with L-tyrosine, magnesium, vitamin D, and omega 3s.
In addition, feel-good activities can also raise dopamine levels. These include exercise, meditation, getting a massage, and enough sleep.
If a dopamine deficiency is causing your schizophrenia or depression, your doctor may prescribe you antidepressants, mood stabilizers, or supplements to increase dopamine.
In addition, people with Parkinson’s disease are often given medications to boost brain dopamine levels, which can often significantly improve their symptoms.
What Happens If You Have Too Much Dopamine?
Having elevated dopamine or only concentrated in specific brain parts is associated with being more aggressive, competitive, and poor impulse control.
This is because people may start craving more of the reward system associated with dopamine. For instance, pleasurable situations such as having excellent food, sex, winning a game, or earning money can all be part of this.
High dopamine activity is also linked to excess energy, anxiety, mania, stress, insomnia, hallucinations, and aggression. People may also experience improved focus, learning ability, and a high sex drive.
In addition, repeated drug use and alcohol can also cause a surge of dopamine, which is why people get addicted to them. This imbalance can lead to conditions that include binge eating, gambling, addiction, and ADHD.
It is possible to lower dopamine levels naturally by consuming more protein and less saturated fat, regular exercise, getting enough sleep, listening to music, meditating, and engaging in other relaxing activities.
Also, you can engage in a dopamine detox which involves abstaining from dopamine-producing activities for a specific time to lower reward sensitivity. In other words, you can withdraw yourself from ordinary stimulants such as sugar, shopping, social media, or another pleasurable situation.
The research proves that dopamine affects mental health, treating cognitive disorders, motor function, sleep patterns, and much more.
It is also the body’s principal neurochemical pathway to motivation that will help you get off the couch and do the things you enjoy.
But, at the same time, it also plays a role in repeating pleasurable behaviors. So, to keep proper levels balanced, optimizing levels is essential, preventing your motivation from taking a nosedive.