More Than a Feel-Good Hormone: What Is Dopamine?

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You’ve probably heard a thing or two about dopamine before — it’s one of the most well-known neurotransmitters. You may have read that this all-important hormone is released when you engage in pleasurable activities, like taking a bite of your favorite food, ticking off every item on your to-do list, posting a photo that gets plenty of likes, or having an enjoyable social interaction with friends. Dopamine is released to reward us for beneficial behaviors, so as to incentivize and motivate us to repeat them.

But what is dopamine? And how does it work? Although it’s mostly described as a “feel-good” chemical, dopamine does a lot more than trigger feelings of pleasure and happiness in the brain alone. This complex neurotransmitter also plays an important role in several functions, including playing a big role in your mental health.

What Is Dopamine, and How Does It Work?

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the body that transmit signals from nerve cells to target cells in the muscles, glands, and other organs. Dopamine is one such neurotransmitter, and it’s mainly linked to the brain’s pleasure and reward systems. In addition to sending signals in your brain, dopamine also affects other physical and behavioral functions such as movement, memory, sleep, motivation, mood, and heart rate.

Dopamine is produced in two different areas in the brain: the substantia nigra and the ventral tegmental area. 

The substantia nigra is a tiny strip of tissue on both sides of the base of the brain and plays a role in your speech and movement function. Parkinson’s disease involves the gradual destruction of cells in the substantia nigra, causing impaired movement, tremors, and other symptoms associated with the disease.

The ventral tegmental area is responsible for cognitive and emotional processes, including your pleasure and reward system. Most of the dopamine in your body is produced there, and it works to signal your brain your action is pleasurable. When the dopamine is released from the ventral tegmental area, it rewards the brain and incentivizes repetition of the action that led to whatever favorable outcome just occured. This process helps modify your behaviors by motivating you to replicate activities and experiences in pursuit of more reward.

Between dopamine and serotonin

The neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin are commonly grouped under one category, as they both regulate similar body functions. However, they produce different effects when released in the brain. While dopamine is mostly stored in the brain and plays an essential role in your brain’s pleasure and reward system — regulating movement, mood, and motivation — serotonin is mostly stored in the gut. and helps regulate your mood, body temperature, and appetite.

Despite their different functions, dopamine and serotonin interact and affect each other to regulate your body’s chemical balance. Studies have shown that serotonin often suppresses the production of dopamine, which means that low levels of serotonin can result in an overproduction of dopamine. Since dopamine plays a role in reward-seeking behavior, this case may increase or enhance impulsivity. 

How Dopamine Affects Body Function

In addition to regulating the brain’s pleasure and reward system, you may be wondering what dopamine’s role in regulating body function is. Dopamine primarily affects motivation and movement, but as mentioned earlier, it also plays a role in memory, focus, happiness, and sleep.

How dopamine affects movement

Dopamine produced in the substantia nigra helps control movement. The substantia nigra is situated within a group of brain structures called the basal ganglia, sitting at the center of the brain. The basal ganglia is substantially responsible for most of the body’s movements and relies on the secretion of dopamine from dopamine-releasing neurons (dopaminergic) to function properly. 

Any deficiency or excess in dopamine secretion affects bodily movement and control of movement and motor functions. Lack of dopamine in the substantia nigra causes tremors and delayed movements, which is a major symptom of Parkinson’s disease. On the other hand, an oversecretion of dopamine in the basal ganglia can lead to Tourette syndrome, which is characterized by sudden, uncontrolled movements.

How dopamine affects memory

Although dopamine is not produced in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain, which relates to memory function, dopamine secretion in this area can help in boosting working memory. However, this function is delicate, as an abnormal increase or decrease in dopamine levels in the prefrontal cortex can have severe effects on a person’s memory.

How dopamine affects cognition

What is dopamine’s role in the mental processes involved in gaining knowledge and comprehension? The frontal lobes of the brain secrete dopamine, which helps in regulating the flow of information from other areas of the brain. Dopamine receptors (the D1 and D4 in particular) are responsible for enhancing the cognitive effects of dopamine. A deficiency of this hormone in the frontal lobes can adversely affect neurocognitive functions like memory, attention, and problem-solving.

How dopamine affects social functioning

Dopamine levels in the brain can also influence social function. Research shows that people with social anxiety or social phobia have low binding of dopamine with receptors (D2). Certain symptoms of schizophrenia, such as social withdrawal, apathy, and anhedonia, are associated with low levels of dopamine in some areas of the brain.

How dopamine affects sleep

By virtue of serving as a “feel-good” hormone, dopamine helps you feel more awake. Your body produces a lot more of it during the day, when you feel more energized. At night, your dopamine levels decrease and make you feel tired and sleepy. People with Parkinson’s disease or low dopamine levels may experience extreme tiredness throughout the day.

Dopamine’s Role in Physical Health

It’s often challenging to identify a particular cause for health conditions, but many times they’re associated with a deficiency or an excess of dopamine in different parts of the brain. An imbalance in dopamine levels can lead to several conditions that affect different body functions.

Parkinson’s Disease

As mentioned earlier, dopamine produced in the substantia nigra enables neurons in the brain to communicate and control movement. When one of these neurons start to decline, it can severely affect communication between neurons, which then also causes your body to produce less dopamine. The resulting dopamine deficiency causes physical symptoms including: tremors, stiffness, slowed movements, impaired posture, and balance. Doctors commonly prescribe dopamine-boosting medications to help treat these symptoms.

Obesity

Dopamine levels can also influence weight gain and loss. For some people dealing with obesity, the answer goes beyond just eating less and exercising more. When you have problems with your natural pleasure and reward system, it can affect the amount of food you need to eat to feel satisfied. Research shows that there is a link between dopamine or serotonin deficiency and obesity.

Dopamine’s Role in Mental Health

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

The cause of ADHD remains largely unknown, but research shows that it may be due to genetic factors that obstruct the production of dopamine in the body. ADHD is commonly treated with Ritalin, a dopamine-boosting medication.

Schizophrenia

Several studies have explored the possibility of neurotransmitters playing a role in the development of schizophrenia, particularly a hyperactive dopamine system. However, there is strong evidence to support the view that some symptoms of schizophrenia can be linked to an excess of dopamine in certain parts of the brain. These symptoms include hallucinations and delusions. In some other areas of the brain, a lack of dopamine can cause other symptoms such as lack of motivation and desire.

Drug Addiction

The use of drugs such as cocaine can cause a spike in dopamine levels. This might satisfy your brain’s pleasure and reward system at first, but repeated drug use can heighten your pleasure threshold. As time and use progresses, you’d typically have to take more drugs to get the same high you experienced before. Your body, on the other hand, becomes increasingly unable to produce dopamine naturally. As a result, your emotions may hit low points when sober.

How to Increase Dopamine

Dopamine levels are naturally regulated by the nervous system, but there are other ways to improve your body’s ability to produce dopamine. For example, increasing your protein intake can help boost dopamine levels, as protein contains tyrosine, an essential amino acid that plays an important role in the production of dopamine. It’s also advised that intake of saturated fat should be minimal, as foods high in saturated fat content may increase inflammation in the body and lead to changes in the dopamine regulation system.

There are also some supplements that may help improve your body’s ability to produce dopamine, including: rhodiola rosea (also known as golden root) and L-theanine (an amino acid sourced from tea leaves). However, it’s highly advisable to consult your doctor before consuming dopamine-boosting supplements or if you suspect that your dopamine levels may be imbalanced.

Healthy sleep, regular exercise, and daily meditation sessions are all important in order to maintain overall good health, including your body’s dopamine production. These lifestyle changes can increase the amount of dopamine released in the brain, and increase your ability to remember, focus, and stay alert. If you’re concerned about your dopamine levels, speaking with a licensed Talkspace therapist can be a great way to get more information and tips for improving your mental and physical well-being.

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