Dopamine is a chemical released in the brain that makes you feel good. Having the right amount of dopamine is important both for your body and your brain.
Dopamine helps nerve cells to send messages to each other. It’s produced by a group of nerve cells in the middle of the brain and sends out messages to other parts of the brain. In this article, we shall discuss dopamine: meaning and its influence on mental health.
Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter in the brain that plays a role in many functions in the body, including motivation, mood, attention, and memory. A neurotransmitter is a chemical messenger that transmits signals in the body. It also acts as a hormone.
Dopamine has a direct impact on the central nervous system, which is made up of the brain and spinal cord.1 It also plays an essential role in the brain’s reward system, where it reinforces feelings of pleasure that people experience when they engage in rewarding activities.
Table of Contents
- 1 Dopamine Is a Part of Our Brain’s Reward Center
- 2 The Role of Dopamine in the Body
- 3 How You Might Feel With Low Dopamine Levels
- 4 How You Might Feel With High Dopamine Levels
- 5 Dopamine’s Role in Mental Health
- 6 Medications That Affect Dopamine Levels
- 7 Natural Ways to Balance Dopamine Levels
Dopamine Is a Part of Our Brain’s Reward Center
While dopamine is often referred to as the “pleasure chemical,” this is a misnomer, as dopamine doesn’t actually produce pleasure. It does, however, reinforce feelings of pleasure by connecting sensations of pleasure to certain behaviors.
“It’s a feel-good chemical,” says Tanya J. Peterson, NCC, DAIS, a mental health educator. “It’s part of our reward center, and when our brain produces dopamine in response to what we do, we feel good and want to do more of whatever it is that’s making us feel so mentally healthy. That, in turn, leads to even more dopamine production.”
Dopamine is also present in fight-or-flight responses. When experiencing a perceived threat, real or imagined, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated, triggering the release of dopamine and other catecholamines, which help in responding to stress.
Dopamine is produced at a number of different sites in the brain, says James Giordano, MD, MPhil, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center, including the substantia nigra, ventral tegmental area, the pituitary gland, and in pathways of the hypothalamus.
The Role of Dopamine in the Body
Dopamine has a direct impact on many neurological, cognitive, and behavioral functions within the body, says Dr. Giordano, including:
- Regulation of certain hormones and glands
- Reinforcement and reward
- Thoughts and emotions
Dopamine affects everything from the way we think and move to the way we remember and behave. However, everyone experiences dopamine differently.
An imbalance in dopamine levels can be hard to detect, but it can directly influence our health and mental health. Too little or too much dopamine can cause many problems.
How You Might Feel With Low Dopamine Levels
With dopamine deficiency, you could experience any number of symptoms, such as:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Loss of balance
- Low energy
- Low sex drive
- Mood swings
- Muscle cramps
- Weight change
A lack of dopamine might feel like being forgetful, anxious, inattentive, withdrawn, and emotionally dumb. You might also have stomach issues and coordination problems.
How You Might Feel With High Dopamine Levels
High dopamine levels can lead to some positive feelings, like having lots of energy, but it can also have negative effects. If your dopamine levels are too high, you might feel:
- Interested in sex
- Unable to sleep
While high levels of dopamine can increase your concentration, energy, your sex drive, and your ability to focus, it can also lead to competitive, aggressive behavior and cause symptoms including anxiety, trouble sleeping, and stress.
Dopamine’s Role in Mental Health
When you have a dopamine disorder, you may experience a decline in neurocognitive functions, which relates to your memory, attention, and problem-solving abilities.
Like the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps regulate mood, dopamine is involved in many psychological illnesses. Abnormally functioning dopamine receptors play a role in some health and mental health disorders.
Decreased levels of dopamine can occur in certain neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease, wherein the nerve cells responsible for producing and releasing dopamine are dying, Dr. Giordano explains.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Studies have shown that dopamine disruptions exist in those with ADHD, correlating to the symptoms of inattention and impulsivity. Individuals with ADHD may experience reward and motivation deficits, making them unable to modify their behavior to adapt to changing reward conditions.
Schizophrenia is associated with changes in brain dopamine receptors, as well as dopamine signaling pathways. Antipsychotic drugs act as dopamine antagonists, helping some patients with schizophrenia.
Substance Use Disorder and Addiction
Dopamine-triggered conditioned responses that result from certain behaviors, such as drinking alcohol, smoking, or gambling, can lead to addiction. Why some people struggle with addiction more than others could be due to preexisting differences in dopamine circuits.
Major Depressive Disorder (MDD)
MDD is one of the most common mental health disorders and dopamine deficiency can lead to anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure, which is often a symptom of MDD.7
“Decreased dopamine function can occur following stress and in certain types of depressive disorders,” says Dr. Giordano. Decreased effectiveness in dopamine metabolism and signaling can produce signs and symptoms such as:
- Loss of energy
- Diminished appetite
- Cravings for fatty and/or sweet foods
- Decreased desire for—and enjoyment of—various activities
- Changes in libido
In such cases, Dr. Giordano explains, people may be treated with antidepressant drugs, which can prolong the effect of available dopamine at its receptor sites, and in this way, amplify dopamine-mediated effects to reduce such signs and symptoms.
If you experience a physical or mental health disorder associated with a dopamine imbalance, treatment will depend on the disorder. If you’re suffering from certain symptoms, you’ll want to speak to your doctor about your lifestyle, diet, and medical history to determine the next best steps.
Medications That Affect Dopamine Levels
Certain medications can be used to help balance dopamine levels in the brain. The type of medication that is prescribed might elevate or inhibit dopamine action depending on the nature of the condition it is treating.
Dopamine agonists are medications that mimic dopamine and activate dopamine receptors. Such medications may treat Parkinson’s disease, depression, ADHD, low sex drive, hyperprolactinemia, and restless legs syndrome.
Examples of dopamine agonists include:
- Dostinex (cabergoline)
- Miraprex (pramipexole)
- Requip (ropinirole)
Dopamine antagonists are drugs that bind to dopamine receptors to block the action of dopamine in the brain. Such medications may be used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. They can also treat nausea and vomiting.
Examples of dopamine antagonists include:
- Abilify (aripiprazole)
- Geodon (ziprasidone)
- Reglan (metoclopramide)
- Risperdal (risperidone)
- Zyprexa (olanzapine)
Dopamine Reuptake Inhibitors
Dopamine reuptake inhibitors are drugs that block dopamine from being reabsorbed by nerve cells. Because of this, it can increase dopamine levels in the brain. Such medications may treat depression, binge eating disorder, and narcolepsy. These drugs may also be used to help people overcome addictions.
Examples of dopamine reuptake inhibitors:
- Cogentin (benztropine)
- Provigil (modafinil)
- Wellbutrin (bupropion)
Natural Ways to Balance Dopamine Levels
Dopamine levels are difficult to monitor since they occur in the brain, but there are ways to balance your dopamine levels without medication. The best way to balance your dopamine levels is to focus on healthy habits.
If you’re overindulging in certain dopamine-producing activities like sex, technology, or gambling, you’ll want to take intentional breaks, but if you’re having trouble concentrating, feeling unmotivated or tired, then you’ll want to take steps to try to increase your dopamine production.
Consume Nutritious Foods
“The nutrients in certain foods travel to the brain and contribute to dopamine production,” says Peterson. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables, especially bananas, can increase dopamine production.
Peterson also recommends protein, including lean meats, fish, beans, and plant-based protein, as well as foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, mackerel, oysters, ground flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.
Research has shown that consuming the amino acid tyrosine can also increase dopamine availability. Tyrosine can be found in a number of dietary sources, including:
- Soy products
Taking a short walk, practicing yoga, dancing in your kitchen, or doing an at-home workout can help produce healthy dopamine levels. Exercising also improves sleep habits, which also supports balanced dopamine levels.
Research has shown that physical activity can positively affect the secretion of neurotransmitters, including dopamine. Because of this, getting regular exercise may reduce a person’s vulnerability to conditions such as anxiety and depression.
“Do any physical activity that you enjoy. Forcing yourself to do something you hate just for the sake of exercise may bring physical benefits, but for the full mental health benefit associated with dopamine in particular, choose movement that you find pleasurable,” says Peterson.
Celebrate the Small Moments
“Doing something small that you enjoy and purposefully connecting that act to an accomplishment or something wonderful you notice tells your brain that something great is going on and that you’re driving it,” says Peterson.
This could include something as simple as noticing flowers in the garden, listening to your favorite song, smelling coffee beans, or blowing bubbles. This will kick up dopamine production, Peterson explains, and you’ll get a mental health boost that lasts.
In summary, if you’re concerned about your dopamine levels, speak to your primary care doctor. Because dopamine plays such an integral role in the body and brain, it’s important to address the imbalance. Just know that many people experience imbalanced dopamine levels, but these can be easily adjusted.
I hope you find this article helpful.