What Is Dopamine?

Smiling woman giving high five to her friend after exercising


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Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. Responsible for transmitting signals between the nerve cells of the brain, dopamine is often called a chemical messenger. It plays a significant role in the body and has a direct impact on our central nervous system.

Characteristics

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:

  • Movement
  • Reinforcement and reward
  • Thoughts and emotions
  • Arousal
  • Regulation of certain hormones and glands

Dopamine affects everything from the way we think and move to the way we remember and behave. We all experience dopamine differently and 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 a many problems. With dopamine deficiency, you could experience any number of symptoms, such as:

  • Loss of balance
  • Weight change
  • Muscle cramps
  • Low energy
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Low sex drive
  • Constipation
  • Tremors
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Hallucinations

While high levels of dopamine can increase your concentration, your 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. 

Health and Mental Health Disorders 

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. 

Parkinson’s Disease

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 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 

Schizophrenia is associated with changes in brain dopamine receptors, as well as dopamine signaling pathways.

Antipsychotic drugs can actually act as a dopamine antagonist, helping some patients with schizophrenia. 

Substance Use Disorder and Addiction

Dopamine-triggered conditioned responses that result from certain behaviors, such as drinking alcohol, or gambling, can lead to addiction. Why some people struggle with addiction more than others could have to do with 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.

“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, patients 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 suffer from a physical or mental health disorder as a result of 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.

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 over indulging in certain dopamine-producing activities like sex, technology, or gambling, then you’ll want to take intentional breaks, but if you’re having trouble concentrating, feeling unmotivated or tired, then you’ll want 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. 

Exercise Regularly 

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. 

"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. 

A Word From Verywell

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.

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