Neurotransmitter Series: Dopamine

Pleasure, addiction, rewards, movement, desire — dopamine is one of the body’s most interesting and potent chemical messengers. Its complexity is what makes it great,” neuroscience expert Bethany Brookshire writes. “It shows us what, with a single molecule, the brain can do.” Discover the definition of dopamine, what happens when you have too little, too much, and just enough — and how to stay at that Goldilocks level.

What is the definition of dopamine and why is it important?

Dopamine is one of our multifunctional neurotransmitters (like acetlycholine, serotonin, and GABA) which controls communication in the brain. “As human beings, dopamine is kind of where it’s at,” psychiatrist Emily Deans writes at Psychology Today,  explaining that “overall levels and the left brain versus right brain amounts of dopamine are major distinguishing factors between our brains and those of our primate cousins.” Deans goes on to say that this neurotransmitter “may well be the secret to what makes us human – meaning awfully bright, able to plan ahead, and resist impulses when necessary.”

A dopamine deficiency can translate into serious health concerns, like Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s, ADHD, schizophrenia, depression, low sex drive, paranoia, and a predisposition to addiction and risk taking. In development, a lack of dopamine can cause mental retardation, as in the genetic disease PKU and cretinism.  Dopamine is a major contributor to how our brain controls movements, which is why a shortage may cause Parkinson’s, a disease in which an individual loses the ability to perform smooth and controlled movements.

But having too much dopamine isn’t healthy either. An overload in the wrong place “can make you psychotic,” Deans adds. Drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines can dispense an excess of dopamine which may cause aggression, euphoria, and intense sexual feelings, she explains.

Given its multifunctional capacities, knowing what naturally impacts your dopamine levels can help you work towards reaching a state of balance.

How can I naturally elevate my dopamine levels?

Dopamine is released “by naturally rewarding experiences such as food, sex, abuse of drugs and neutral stimuli that become associated with them,” Psychologist World explains. Although it is often referred to as a “reward chemical,” interestingly dopamine may be released “when a pleasurable activity is expected, regardless of whether it actually happens or not. This suggests that dopamine may be involved in desire rather than pleasure.” Furthermore, dopamine may be released when unpleasant stimuli are met, which makes this neurotransmitter even more multifaceted.

Integrative Psychiatry notes that dopamine levels may be depleted by stress, certain antidepressants, drug use, poor nutrition, poor sleep, alcohol, caffeine, and sugar. Naturally, reversing or reducing some of the behaviors that contribute to these conditions may consequently improve your levels. In other words, the definition of dopamine lies in living healthier.

Watch what you eat, naturally

Food sources that may increase dopamine levels include antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, as well as tyrosine-increasing foods. Dopamine is made via the amino acid tyrosine, which is found in foods like bananas (especially ripe ones), almonds, apples, avocados, watermelons, cherries, dairy products, lima beans, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds. L-tyrosine is also high in duck, chicken, ricotta cheese, oatmeal, mustard greens, edamame, dark chocolate, seaweed, and wheat germ. Omega-3 fatty acids may also have an effect on dopamine levels, which is why seafood may be a wise addition to your diet.

Since dopamine is easy to oxidize, antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables may limit free radical damage to cells that produce dopamine. Opt for colorful fruits and veggies, especially those of a purple, blue, red, orange, and yellow shade, WebMD recommends; stock up on things like apricots, beets, broccoli, strawberries, mangoes, and red peppers.

Unsurprisingly, foods packed with sugar, saturated fats, cholesterol, and refined ingredients cancause low dopamine levels (among other health concerns), so there’s yet another reason to watch your intake. Although it may seem more harmless than drugs and alcohol, sugar stimulates the same euphoric pathway targeted by these substances, and the decreased dopamine levels lead to actual sugar addictions.

Get moving

“There is a relationship between dopamine and all behavioural aspects that involve motor activity,” a study in Current Neuropharmacology reports, “and it has been demonstrated that exercise leads to an increase in the synthesis and release of dopamine, stimulates neuroplasticity and promotes feelings of well-being.” The authors of the study even found that exercise may help counter amphetamine addiction. Researchers also predicted that some symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease or senile dementia might be improved through exercise. Exercise can also reduce stress and improve your sleep habits, which may also contribute to healthier levels of dopamine in the body.

Set a goal

“Approaching a reward triggers dopamine,” Loretta G Breuning, Ph.D. writes at Psychology Today. So if you establish and embrace a new goal, just taking small steps towards that feat (even if you’re miles away from accomplishing it) can boost your dopamine levels. Want to write a book? Commit to scribbling 300 words down each day. Hoping to take a trip across Asia? Start a day-to-day savings plan. Been waiting to remodel your house? Tackle just one corner of the basement. “Your brain will reward you with dopamine each time you take a step,” Breuning explains. “The repetition will build a new dopamine pathway until it’s big enough to compete with the dopamine habit that you’re better off without.” So, another way you can think about the definition of dopamine is as a striving chemical.

It’s hard to wrap our brains (pun intended) around the intricate workings of neurotransmitters like dopamine, but understanding the big picture and how that translates to your well-being is a step in the right direction. “When you think of the sheer number of connections required simply for you to read and understand this sentence—from eyes to brain, to processing, to understanding, to movement as your fingers scroll down the page—you begin to feel a sense of awe,” Brookshire continues. “Our brain does all this, even while it makes us think about pepperoni pizza and what that text your crush sent really means.”

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