What Is Dopamine: A Guide to One of the Most Important Brain Chemicals

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Nobody puts it better that Deepak Chopra, who says that you can give someone hypertension criticizing them on the phone. Conversely, you can give a person in China a dopamine hit by sending them a simple tweet. We will try to explain here what is dopamine and what does dopamine do.

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dopamine definition

Everyone has had that one day when you wake up feeling all groggy and with no passion for life.Guess what – if you are having too many of these mornings you may just be suffering from dopamine deficiency.

The question of what does dopamine do is likely one that is going to be relevant for years to come, given that dopamine is one of the most important hormones in the human body, influencing far too many functions to list here.

Despite its many functions, dopamine is mainly known as the motivation hormone. As such, its deficiency is usually related to mental imbalances that can result in lifestyle disruptive behaviors and conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, fatigue, ADHD, all manner of addictions, and depression.

Dopamine Definition

So what is dopamine? Chemically, Dopamine can be described as an organic chemical of the phenethylamine and catecholamine families, synthesized from phenylalanine and tyrosine amino acids found in some common foods such as bananas, almonds, meat, and eggs, among others.

In non-technical language, dopamine is defined as a brain chemical, a neurotransmitter that the nerves use to transmit messages.

When a nerve produces dopamine, it will cross the synapse (a small gap between nerves) and attach to the next nerve receptor cell.

The process of chemical transmission of dopamine is what results in feelings of enthusiasm, concentration, focus, motivation, euphoria, pleasure, and bliss, as the message of goodness is transmitted to different areas of the brain and body.

WHAT DOES Dopamine DO - ITS Function and Effects

Even with over 100, 000 research papers written on it, dopamine has so many functions in the human body that we have yet to map all them.

While scientists initially believed that dopamine is responsible for real pleasure, Linsey Sherdell’s 2012 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology suggests that it is more related to motivation and anticipatory pleasure.

As such, dopamine is critical for short and long-term motivation that you need to achieve your goals.

Dopamine helped our ancestors to achieve their goals as it was released in anticipation of the achievement of a goal.For instance, it would give an energy boost that allowed the hunter to take advantage of an opportunity when an animal was cornered.

Even as dopamine no longer serves the function in the modern world it did in ancient times, it is a chemical that we seek in a variety of ways for the sake of feeling alive and excited.

Some of the ways we seek that dopaminergic effect is through the eating of sugar, chocolates, having sex.

We can also attain the effect through artificial means by use of amphetamine and psychotic drugs such methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin that mimic the effect by stimulating the same areas of the brain that dopamine does.

what does dopamine do

The following are some common dopamine effects and functions:

1. Dopamine and Sleep 

dopamine has a significant effect on your wakefulness and sleep patterns. More dopamine is produced during the day, which keeps you energized and less at night making you less alert and sleepy. This is why you may feel chronic sleepiness if you suffer from Parkinson’s, as your brain produces insufficient amounts of dopamine.

2. Dopamine and Addictions

 Dopamine plays an important role in addiction pathways. Amphetamines and other recreational drugs block the transport of dopamine through the nerves thus increasing its concentrations resulting in sensations of pleasure referred to as a high.

3. Dopamine and Mood

 The chemical is associated with pleasure, and hence it is critical in the anticipation of activities and enjoying life.

4. Dopamine and Understanding Rewards and Pleasure

 Dopamine is the main chemical that influences your experience of pleasure. The release of dopamine and the pleasurable feelings that come with it is what makes you engage in sex or eat chocolate.

5. Dopamine and Attention

Dopamine responds to vision, keeping you mentally alert and focused on the task at hand. Given its importance in short-term memory, its deficiency can cause disorders such as ADHD, and reduction in problem-solving capacities.

6. Dopamine and Memory  

Dopamine plays a critical role in the prefrontal cortex, associated with working memory. As such, small decreases or increases in dopamine will significantly affect how much you learn or retain information. Very low levels of the neurotransmitter will not trigger the reward center, and you will remember very little of an experience or event.

7. Dopamine and Movement  

The basal ganglia that are responsible for bodily movement require a specific amount of dopamine to function. Too much or too little dopamine may result in uncoordinated movements.

8. Dopamine and Socialization

Low levels of dopamine are associated with socialization disorders such as social anxiety and phobias. Too high levels are linked with symptoms such as hypersexuality and manic disorders.

What is Low Dopamine?

Dopamine is produced when you anticipate a reward and is usually associated with the pleasure of achievement. The associated pleasure of the dopamine release is what makes some behaviors addictive, as you try to recreate the dopamine high.

However, the excessive release of dopamine will eventually result in a chronic reduction of the amount of the neurotransmitter in the brain or a reduction in dopamine sensitivity.

If you use amphetamines for the first time, you will experience intense feelings of pleasure or an initial high as dopamine levels in the body increase over the short-term.

Over the long-term, dopamine levels in the body become severely depleted or the body develops resistance to the drug, thus calling for a higher dose to achieve the same effect.

Habitual use of drugs or addiction will eventually cause dopamine deficiency as dopamine levels are depleted through frequent release or loss of sensitivity, which requires more of it to be used each time.

What are the Causes of Low Dopamine?

causes of low dopamine

Low dopamine may result from a single stimulus or condition, or a combination. Some of the most common causes of low dopamine levels include:

1. Use of Psychotropic Drugs

According to data from Spencer Cole’s “New Research on Street Drugs”, opioid drugs such as meperidine contain toxic chemicals that destroy dopamine receptor neurons resulting in low dopamine levels.

Conversely, amphetamines such as cocaine and narcoleptic drugs increase dopamine production by acting as dopamine uptake inhibitors.

Long-term use of these drugs gradually reduces receptor sensitivity or the number of dopamine receptors – a condition also referred to as tolerance.

2. Creativity Levels

Did you know that being too smart could mess with your happiness? A Karolinska research study established that if you are highly creative, chances are you have below average number of dopamine receptors in the brain.

Highly creative people will have typically produce above average dopamine levels, but with fewer dopamine receptors, their brains are more like those of a schizophrenic – tending to have highly unusual perspectives, associations, and connections.

Even as this can be an invaluable asset in problem-solving situations, the inability to filter out information’s can make the creative misjudge other people’s intentions, which makes them susceptible to depression and other psychological disorders.

3. Restless Leg Syndrome

Restless leg syndrome causes an involuntary jerking of the legs during sleep.

According to a research study published in the January 2008 issue of Neurology, it is one of the most accurate predictors of low dopamine levels in the brain.

When combined with dopamine deficiency, the syndrome can cause disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and social phobia.

4. Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson is a degenerative condition that will result in slow movement, muscular paralysis, tremor, and difficulties initiating movement.

Most of the time, the disease will come about by the deterioration of dopamine-releasing neurons.

A 2010 study in Neurology asserts that while it is almost impossible to diagnose Parkinson’s before the setting in of classic symptoms, REM sleep disorder is one of the most accurate predictors.

Violent kicking and punching during REM sleep may just be an indicator that a person has low dopamine levels, and may be in the early stages of dementia and Parkinson’s disease.

5. Unhealthy Nutrition

According to a research study by the Franklin Institute, unhealthy nutrition can be one of the biggest causes of low levels of dopamine.

The data shows that high intake of foods such as sugar, alcohol, and caffeine results in dopamine deficiencies, as these foods will trigger a massive release of dopamine and huge crash afterward, as the levels of the chemical drop below normal.

To keep your dopamine levels at a normal range, it is critical to eat a daily diet that includes vegetables and fresh fruit, which have antioxidants that protect the dopamine-producing cells from damage.

6. Obesity

Everyone knows that obesity is a critical health condition that needs to be avoided at all costs. But did you know that obesity is also linked to low levels of dopamine?

A study by the Brookhaven National Laboratory established that obese people tend to have fewer dopamine receptors and subsequently low dopamine levels.

7. Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

Long-term use of alcohol is as bad for your dopamine levels just as much as Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome is.

Alcohol addiction usually results in gradual depletion of dopamine-producing neurons in the brain. To continue to enjoy life, alcoholics need to drink for an artificially high or else suffer from alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

8. Stress

Several research studies have found stress to be a major predictor of dopamine deficiency.

These studies have established that acute stress has a negative effect on the synthesis and secretion of dopamine in the brain as well as destroying the dopamine-producing cells.

Warning Signs/Symptoms of Low Dopamine

Since dopamine levels are crucial for so many brain functions, having abnormal levels of the chemical makes you lose the passion for life.

It can suck out all the motivation and joy of doing things that add spice to life, leaving you in a hopeless and apathetic state.

Nonetheless, it is important to remember that the effect of low dopamine levels will vary by individual.

low dopamine symptoms

The following are some of the most common low dopamine symptoms:

1. Attention Deficit

Dopamine is a critical neurotransmitter that enhances concentration and mental function. Most people with low capacities for focus or concentration will be good candidates for low dopamine diagnosis.

If you have below average levels of dopamine in the blood, you will find it hard to focus and concentrate.

2. Anxiety

Even as high levels of dopamine can exacerbate symptoms such as anxiety, tension, and nervousness, low levels of the chemical also tend to have the same effect by reducing motivation and zest for life.

3. Changes in Weight

High levels of dopamine will usually result in greater physical activity thus regulating weight gain. Conversely, low levels of dopamine will make a person sleepy, and less motivated to perform physical activity, which makes one susceptible to weight gain.

4. Social Withdrawal

Persons with low levels of dopamine will usually derive less pleasure from life activities. Such persons will no longer experience the dopaminergic feeling that you usually get from engaging in social situations, resulting in increasing isolation.

5. Emotional Flat lining/Depersonalization

Dopamine is a special chemical that helps us process and expresses how we feel. With no dopaminergic rewards from social interaction, persons may tend to become robotic and depersonalized. They will not show any positive or negative emotions such as sadness, excitement, joy, or panic.

6. Cognitive Impairment

It is almost impossible to perform cognitively demanding tasks at optimum levels when you have low levels of dopamine. Such tasks require utmost memory, focus, and concentration that are  functions of dopamine.

7. Sleepiness and Fatigue

Dopamine acts as a fuel and hence you may feel very lethargic, sleepy and fatigued if you have deficient supplies. Sleeping typically increases production of the chemical, which is why a person will feel sleepy as the body tries to get you into a state for replenishing dopamine.

8. Memory Impairment

Most neurodegenerative disorders are usually as a result of imbalances in the brain that are caused by suboptimal dopamine productions. Low dopamine reduces motivation to learn, leading to poor retention of information.

9. Low Libido

Persons that have dopamine deficiencies may have very low interest in sex or in extreme cases a nonexistent sex drive. Sex drive may come back when there is an increase in dopamine levels.

ADHD is for the most part caused by low levels of dopamine, which makes it very difficult for one to concentrate and focus, particularly if the tasks need some cognitive exertion.

10. Lack of Motivation

The most common function of dopamine as a neurotransmitter associated with motivation. Low levels of dopamine can make one lazy and more fatigued than usual, while severe deficits may completely impair motivation, such that one cannot justify engaging in proper self-care or any kind of work.

11. Depression

While not all depression results from low dopamine, low levels of the chemical in the brain could be a major contributor to how severe depression can be. However, persons with less than average dopamine levels are more susceptible to bouts of depression.

Even as we cannot comprehensive answer the question, what does dopamine do? We could attempt a definition that covers its multitude of functions. Dopamine works as a neurotransmitter that sends messages between the nerves via distinct pathways known as synapses.

The transmission of these messages is what influences reward-motivated behavior by increasing the levels of dopamine in the brain through inhibition of its intake across the synapses.

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