James Dixon takes an in-depth look at dopamine as he looks to uncover exactly what it is and how it effects us.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that often doubles as something of a hormone, or chemical messenger. In both capacities, it is central to our feelings of wellbeing, pleasure, and reward. As such, it is also key to motivation, focus, and enjoyment and interest.
Your body needs to produce a certain amount. Excessive or limited amounts – too much or too little – can cause a number of potentially critical health concerns, both physical and mental.
Chemically, dopamine is a form of monoamine neurotransmitter. It’s created in the middle of the brain, by a grouping of nerve cells in the hypothalamus, where it functions as a chemical messenger.
It is created through a couple of steps.
Firstly, the brain converts tyrosine, an amino acid, into dopa. Secondly, this dopa is converted into dopamine.
Dopamine doesn’t simply act as a neurotransmitter, though. It is a neurohormone. As above, it also works as a hormone.
It sits alongside epinephrine and norepinephrine as one of the three main catecholamines – which are hormones all made in the adrenal gland. It is the main hormone responsible for sensations of pleasure, motivation, and satisfaction. That feeling we get when we have accomplished something comes largely from a dopamine surge.
Dopamine also plays a role in addiction and addictive-style behaviors. We can begin to crave ever increasing amounts of dopamine, or reward or pleasure.
Things like having sex, eating, winning, gambling or earning more money, all cause dopamine surges, hence people can become obsessed with them. Alcohol can also cause heightened dopamine release, as can many illegal drugs.
Dopamine is also important for memory, learning, focus, sleep, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, mood, as well as controlling bodily movements.
It can affect your motivation, heart rate, vascularity and blood vessel health and function (in low levels it is a vasodilator and in high levels it is a vasoconstrictor), kidney function, attention, pain processing, and even lactation. It even plays a key role in controlling nausea and vomiting, as well as managing your fight-or-flight response (your reaction to perceived stress and/or danger).
Dopamine can also aid the body’s sodium and urine removal, limit the production of insulin in your pancreas, protect your gastrointestinal (gut, or GI) lining and minimize the movement of GI content, and limit your immune system’s lymphocyte activity.
Dopamine and your mental wellbeing
Dopamine is key to mental wellbeing. Though all mental health concerns are complex, often without one single root cause, many can be linked to sub-optimal dopamine levels in varied areas of the brain. For instance, schizophrenia has long been associated with dopamine levels. It was once thought that it was linked to dopamine system hyperactivity.
Nowadays there is strong evidence that symptoms are connected to excessive levels in different parts of the brain, including delusions and hallucinations. Other symptoms are connected to a lack of dopamine, including low drive, focus, and desire.
There is also a strong body of research connected attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (or ADHD, the cause of which is unknown for sure) with dopamine levels, possibly led by genetic disposition. Indeed, Ritalin, or methylphenidate, one of the leading ADHD medications, works by raising dopamine output.
As above, dopamine is also linked with addiction and addiction-like behaviors. Addictive drugs like cocaine work in large part by fueling large, quickly released dopamine surges, triggering the reward centre and leading to instant gratification and a sense of wellbeing. However, over time, repeated drug use leaves you craving more as your reward system is overloaded and its threshold is elevated. You will need to take increasing amounts to experience the same effects. You will also want to keep taking just to produce dopamine, as drug use can limit your body’s ability to naturally produce dopamine, leaving you dependent on it for your mood.
Heightened dopamine levels, either through natural reasons or due to drug use, have been linked to heightened aggression and competitiveness, alongside low impulse control.
Low dopamine levels, meanwhile, can lead to low motivation and enthusiasm. It is closely linked with depression. You may experience insomnia, or trouble sleeping, alongside tiredness, fatigue, a lack of motivation, a low mood, a lack of optimism, low libido and sexual dysfunction, and slower-than-usual speech and movement (all the hallmarks of depression, in other words).
It also plays a key role in neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, which is characterized by the dopamine-producing nerve cells slowly dying off. As dopamine is responsible in part for controlling the muscles, this can lead to the stiffness and spasms we associate with Parkinson’s.
Getting a handle on your dopamine levels
It’s easy enough to tell if your body is producing appropriate, or healthy, amounts of dopamine if you know what you’re looking for. If you regularly feel happy and content, well-motivated, alert and focussed, without any undue aggression, stress, or anger, and no signs of addiction, then your dopamine levels are probably about where you want them to be.
How to tell if your dopamine levels are low
However, if you regularly feel overly tired, fatigued, and lethargic, lack motivation, or have any depressive symptoms like those listed above, your dopamine levels are possibly low.
This can be accompanied by sleep problems like insomnia or trouble staying asleep, mood swings, energy loss, low sex drive, and poor focus.
How to tell if your dopamine levels are high
High dopamine levels can be just as problematic as low levels, as we have seen.
Symptoms can be very enjoyable, including bouts of sustained euphoria, high energy, drive, focus, and sex drive. However, these can be accompanied by sleep problems such as insomnia, poor impulse control, and heightened aggression.
Balancing your dopamine levels
Luckily, there are ways within a certain range of managing your dopamine levels.
Firstly, you should address the root cause of your dopamine imbalance. Talk to your doctor or healthcare provider, who will be able to advise you and take you through this journey.
Causes can include mental health concerns or lifestyle factors such as excessive stress, drug abuse and/or dependency, a lack of sleep, obesity, or dietary factors like excessive sugar or saturated fat. Levels can also be impaired by concerns with the adrenal gland.
Your doctor will be able to prescribe drugs in many situations that can help a great deal. For instance, if low dopamine is causing depression or schizophrenia, or indeed if depression or schizophrenia are lowering dopamine levels in a vicious cycle, common medications like antidepressants and mood stabilizers can be very beneficial.
Therapy and counseling can also often help you to break this vicious cycle, allowing you to take back control of your dopamine production and, more broadly, your mental wellbeing.
Those suffering with diseases like Parkinson’s can often be prescribed medication to help bolster their dopamine output. There is even plenty of experimental data on human patients proving that exogenous supplies of dopamine, injected regularly through an intravenous pump, can mitigate symptoms and slow decline.
There are also some great lifestyle hacks for balancing your dopamine output, particularly if you suffer from low levels. To start with, you can address the lifestyle factors above. Try to mitigate your stress levels, avoiding stressful situations if at all possible.
Try to get plenty of sleep, steer clear of addictive substances, or get help to manage dependency where needed, and maintain an active lifestyle. The latter will help almost across the board, helping you to maintain healthy body composition, improving your sleep quality naturally, and naturally elevating your mood whilst helping you to manage stress.
Indeed, there are plenty of activities in which you can take part that should help you to raise your dopamine levels. As a good rule of thumb, these include anything that make you feel good (though within limit – cocaine use may make you feel good in the moment, but as we have seen, is very unhealthy).
Exercise is chief amongst these, in whatever form best suits you – walking, running, weight training, swimming, yoga, playing team sports… any and all should help.
Meditation is also great for improving dopamine output. It also pairs well with physical activity forms like yoga and tai chi, making these great options.
Massages have been shown to improve dopamine output. So have simple things like socializing with friends and loved ones.
A healthy diet is key for keeping every aspect of your overall health in check, and things are no different here. Diet can go a long way to maintaining dopamine health. Go for plenty of leafy greens and healthy fats and proteins as a good general rule.
You should also try to pack your diet with lots of foods that give you l-tyrosine. As we have seen, this amino acid is converted into dopamine, so is crucial for maintaining a healthy dopamine output. Bananas, avocados, and almonds are all great plant sources, whilst eggs, lean beef, and chicken are all great animal sources. Certain micronutrients, supplements, and plant sources are also thought to aid production. These include vitamin D and magnesium, omega-3 supplementation, and the spice turmeric.
Your dopamine production
If you think your dopamine production may be off (see above), it’s always a good idea to talk things through with your doctor. As we have seen, dopamine output is crucial to our overall physical and, especially, mental wellbeing.
If you can get your levels right, you can improve your quality of life in just about the most fundamental way imaginable. A healthy lifestyle and diet represent a great place to start.