What is Dopamine?

Dopamine, known as the “feel-good hormone”, is a neurotransmitter that acts as a chemical messenger between neurons and cells in your brain. Dopamine is released when your brain is expecting a reward. After a while, the mere anticipation of a reward – anything from food, to intimacy, to swimming in the sea – may be enough to trigger the release of dopamine.

For example, suppose your go-to me-time activity is a pedicure in a particular salon. Your brain may release dopamine when you encounter something that reminds you of your pedicure: walking past the salon, smelling the products used in the salon, seeing an advertisement for a pedicure online. Then, when you finally get your pedicure, the resulting flood of dopamine serves to reinforce this craving and work on satisfying it in the future.

That’s how you go from getting a pedicure every 6 months, to getting one every week. Dopamine creates a cycle of motivation, reward and reinforcement.

What does Dopamine do?

Apart from making you feel great about things that give you pleasure, dopamine is involved in many important functions within the body. These include:

  • Digestion
  • Blood flow
  • Heart and kidney function
  • Memory and focus
  • Moods, emotions and motor control
  • Pain processing
  • Pancreatic function
  • Insulin regulation
  • Sleep
  • Stress response

It’s important to note that dopamine is not alone in the regulation of the functions listed above. Instead, it is part of a complex network of chemical reactions, working with other neurotransmitters and hormones such as serotonin and adrenaline.

How is Dopamine made?

Dopamine is made in the brain through a two-step process. First, your brain changes the amino acid tyrosine into a substance called dopa, then it changes dopa into dopamine.

Tyrosine is one such amino acid and is critical for the production of dopamine. Tyrosine can also be made from another amino acid called phenylalanine. Tyrosine and phenylalanine are naturally found in protein-rich foods such as red meat (beef, lamb), turkey, eggs, dairy, soy and legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, beans and peanuts.

Your body spreads dopamine along four major pathways in the brain. Dopamine deficiencies or imbalances between different areas of the brain can negatively impact your mood and are believed to be the underlying cause of several mental health disorders including depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.

Symptoms of Low / High Dopamine

Low dopamine can result in noticeably poor performance by any of the bodily functions that it would usually help to support. For example, as dopamine is involved in the regulation of sleep, low dopamine may result in poor or interrupted sleep.

Other symptoms include:

  • Reduced alertness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Poor coordination or circulation
  • Difficulty moving
  • Less motivation or enthusiasm
  • Feelings of dissatisfaction and frustration

Conditions associated with low dopamine include:

  • Depression. Symptoms include sleep problems, sadness, and reduced alertness or other changes in cognition.
  • Parkinson’s Disease. Symptoms include poor coordination, reduced mobility, tremors, and sometimes psychosis.
  • Dopamine Transporter Deficiency Syndrome (also known as Infantile Parkinsonism-Dystonia). Symptoms are similar to those of Parkinson’s Disease.

High dopamine has the opposite effect on mood and performance, contributing to feelings of exhilaration and being “on top of the world”.

In excess, dopamine can cause:

  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations
  • Mania

In the context of specific motivation-reward-reinforcement cycles that involve addictive substances such as nicotine (smoking) or cocaine (drug use), dopamine can reinforce the addiction.

Dopamine and Weight Loss

Dopamine is one of the reasons why moving away from unhealthy dietary and lifestyle habits is so hard. 

For something to become a habit, you have to do it on a regular basis and over a period of time. If the habit involves pleasure – for example, eating lots of cakes, sweets and other foods high in sugars – dopamine will not only motivate you to continue with the habit, but will also reward your brain every time you do it. Trying to move away from the habit will result in your brain releasing even more dopamine until the craving becomes unbearable and you give in.

Most diets involve regularly denying yourself things that previously gave you pleasure and caused dopamine to be released – often foodstuffs high in sugar and trans fats. The result is that, in the early stages of dieting, your brain releases increased amounts of dopamine to try and motivate you to eat the things you are denying yourself. This increased level of dopamine does two things: firstly, it makes it much harder for you to diet successfully. Secondly, it decreases the sensitivity of the dopamine receptors in your brain, meaning your body has to produce more dopamine to elicit the same response. 

As a result, it can take a long time – years – to reset the motivation-reward-reinforcement cycle for dopamine and create new, healthy dietary and lifestyle habits.

Does Dopamine cause addiction?

It is a common myth that you can become addicted to dopamine. Activities and experiences that make you feel good and activate your brain’s reward center trigger the release of dopamine – preemptively, during and after the activity – but it is the activities and experiences themselves that you become “addicted” to, not dopamine.

How are Dopamine and Insulin similar?

Although you cannot become addicted to dopamine, you can become “dopamine resistant”. In this respect, dopamine is similar to insulin. 

The role of insulin is to enable the take-up of glucose by cells in the body, thereby removing it from the bloodstream. If you have too much glucose in your blood at any one point in time, and over a long period of time, your body is forced to produce more insulin to remove it from your blood. After a while, the insulin receptors in your cells become resistant and you have to produce even more insulin to remove the same amount of glucose from your bloodstream. The result is an excess of both glucose and insulin in your blood – a condition known as insulin resistance.

A similar thing happens with dopamine. Addictive activities, such as spending time on your phone – an activity that engages adults in the United States for 2-4 hours every single day – result in small, regular dopamine hits. Over time, the dopamine receptors in your brain become desensitised to these small hits and so your brain needs to release more dopamine in order to produce the same “feel-good” effect. 

The result is dopamine resistance or tolerance – similar to insulin resistance – whereby your body continuously produces more dopamine in order to maintain the same feedback loop. 

Boost Your Dopamine Levels Naturally

The good news is that there are plenty of ways to regulate and reset your dopamine levels and even to boost them naturally.

These include:

  • Eating lots of protein
  • Reducing your consumption of saturated fats
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Exercising often
  • Adding probiotics and supplements to your diet.

Read more about ways to boost your dopamine levels naturally.

Sources:

  • “Effects of dopamine D2/D3 receptor antagonism on human planning and spatial working memory.” Translational Psychiatry
  • “Dopamine: Receptors, Functions, Synthesis, Pathways, Locations and Mental Disorders: Review of Literatures.” Journal of Mental Disorders and Treatment
  • “Neurotransmission.” Merck Manual
  • “What does dopamine mean?” Nature Neuroscience
  • “Dopamine.” U.S. National Library of Medicine (PubChem)
  • “The Role of Dopamine in Schizophrenia from a Neurobiological and Evolutionary Perspective: Old Fashioned, But Still in Vogue.” Frontiers in Psychiatry
  • “Attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder and reward deficiency syndrome.” Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment
  • “Methylphenidate works by increasing dopamine levels.” BMJ
  • “Imaging dopamine’s role in drug abuse and addiction.” Neuropharmacology
  • “AMA Declares Obesity a Disease,” “Dopamine (Rx).” Medscape
  • “Dopamine and Parkinson’s Disease.” Madame Curie Bioscience Database
  • “The role of central dopamine and serotonin in human obesity.” Metabolism
  • T. Haynes, “Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time”, Science in the News, Harvard University, https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/dopamine-smartphones-battle-time/ 
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