This post is the first of four in our mental health and neurotransmitter series. Neurotransmitters are the messenger chemicals in our brains that dictate how we feel. You can think of them as hormones for the brain. Neurotransmitters can make us happy, focused, driven, sleepy, confident, calm, creative, and more. Too much of one of these chemical messengers can be just as problematic as too little. The key is maintaining an overall balance while they ebb and flow to adapt to our daily activities and situations. In this article, we will cover dopamine.
What is Dopamine?
Dopamine is known as the “motivation neurotransmitter.” It’s one of the catecholamine neurotransmitters (along with epinephrine and norepinephrine) that is made in the adrenal glands. When dopamine is at optimal levels, it makes us energetic, motivated, and focused. It makes us curious and causes us to seek out new experiences and adventures. However, too much or too little can make us feel “off” in some way – either aggressive or apathetic.
A severe deficiency or excess in the dopamine system can lead to serious health problems. Let’s begin with what happens when dopamine drops too low.
Signs, Symptoms, and Conditions
A dopamine decline may begin subtly, showing up as low energy, apathy, sadness, or brain fog. From there, it may progress to more severe symptoms. Some signs and symptoms of low dopamine levels include:
- Low energy/fatigue
- Depression (use of anti-depressants)
- Introverted behavior
- Difficulty concentrating
- Decreased motivation and enthusiasm
- Lack of appetite
- Difficulty completing tasks
- Memory loss
- Difficulty making good decisions
- Sugar cravings, reliance on caffeine
- Weight problems/obesity slow metabolism
- Low sex drive
- Parkinson’s Disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), thyroid problems, narcolepsy
These symptoms may also be caused by other things but are a good reason to get your neurotransmitters checked. Without enough dopamine, it is hard to enjoy life.
Parkinson’s Disease is a central nervous system condition associated with low dopamine. In Parkinson’s, nerve cells in the substantia nigra part of the brain gradually degenerate. That leads to a decrease in the dopamine available for neurotransmission in the corpus striatum area of the brain.
Levodopa is the primary medication used to treat Parkinson’s. This drug is a synthetic form of the amino acid L-dopa, a precursor for dopamine.
What Depletes Dopamine?
A rare cause of depleted dopamine is Dopamine Deficiency Syndrome, a condition caused by a genetic defect. It’s so rare that there are only 20 confirmed cases.
However, you don’t need a genetic defect to have low dopamine. Low dopamine levels can also come from production, uptake, or conversion issues which go back to the usual suspects: trauma, toxins, and thoughts. All three create stress and inflammation in the body, leading to a variety of imbalances, including dopamine depletion. Here are a few examples:
- A head injury is a physical trauma that could deplete dopamine.
- Exposure to toxic metals, namely lead and cadmium, can interfere with dopamine receptors, leading to a deficiency.
- A deficiency in the cofactors needed for conversion could also lead to dopamine deficiency. These include B6, B9, copper, zinc, and iron.
- Medications are another category of toxin that may block dopamine activity.
- Chronic stress, impacting our thinking, can also deplete dopamine.
- A key thing to keep in mind is that neurotransmitters are very much impacted by your gut health.
Often, a combination of these factors affects dopamine signaling. Over time, these contribute to chronically low dopamine levels and all the health effects that go along with that.
What Can Help Raise Dopamine?
Because there’s such a variety of causes behind low dopamine, it’s essential to test for imbalances in the body. Your Wellness Way practitioner can help you address those imbalances and support proper dopamine usage. Getting enough of the amino acids phenylalanine and tyrosine by eating enough protein helps support dopamine production. Caffeine in the morning also helps but be sure to find a good clean source.
In neuroscience research, anything used to stimulate dopamine release from neurons is called a dopamine agonist. One supplement we use to support dopamine production at The Wellness Way is Mucuna Seed. Mucuna is a natural source of L-dopa.
Another simple way to stimulate dopamine is exercise. In animal studies, physical activity in the form of swimming increased dopamine release and helped to lower inflammation. In a human study, an hour of yoga performed six days a week increased dopamine.
However, if you have deeper issues, like gut infections, food allergies, toxicity, chronic stress, etc., consuming protein and taking supplements can only go so far. They can support you along the way, but it’s crucial to work on returning the body to balance.
It’s also possible to have excessively high levels of dopamine. High dopamine can result from overproduction, conversion problems, or clearing issues. Because dopamine plays a major part in the reward system, anything that stimulates dopamine release can be addictive. That brings us to some of the indicators of high dopamine.
Signs, Symptoms, and Conditions
Some signs and symptoms of higher-than-normal dopamine levels include:
- Lack of empathy: even to the point of inflicting pain on oneself and others for personal gain.
- A preference for the novel over the known: For example, a tendency to seek out the newest thrill, car, clothes, relationship, etc.
- Risk-taking: reckless driving, binge drinking, thrill-seeking, gambling, using illicit drugs, etc.
- Addictions: caffeine, alcohol, sugar, carbs, nicotine, shopping, video games, extreme sports, gambling, porn, drug abuse, etc.
- Aggressive behaviors: acts of physical violence, yelling or using harsh language, unkind remarks, giving someone “the silent treatment.”
- Mental health disorders: These may include ADHD, OCD, paranoia, psychosis, bipolar, and schizophrenia.
As you can see, you can have too much of a good thing. Excess dopamine can play a role in someone going over the top and making poor life decisions.
What Causes Elevated Dopamine?
You can have elevated dopamine levels due to overproduction, conversion, or clearing issues. Drugs can profoundly impact dopamine, which is why substances like cocaine and amphetamines are so dangerous. Even nicotine can massively increase your dopamine production. Prescription drugs, too, can activate dopamine receptors in the brain creating an exaggerated effect. For example, anti-depressants and ADHD medications can overdo their dopamine-boosting action.
Another underappreciated cause of elevated dopamine is our modern lifestyle, which emphasizes stimulation from all sources: screens and scrolling, caffeine, drugs, sugar, news updates, stress, etc. Silicon Valley biohackers have recognized this ongoing stimulation and have promoted the idea of a “dopamine fast” as a sort of reset.
While it’s questionable whether this could lower dopamine, taking a break from these stimulants now and again never hurts.
What Can Help Lower Dopamine?
The field of psychiatry and the traditional medical system use antipsychotic drugs to counter the effects of dopamine gone wild. But the inhibition-by-medication approach doesn’t consider the reason(s) dopamine is so high in the first place.
Balancing out elevated dopamine levels requires knowing what is causing them to be too high. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, managing stress well, and minimizing your caffeine and sugar intake. Be aware if your medications raise dopamine levels as a primary effect or a side effect. A Wellness Way practitioner can review your health history with you and recommend proper testing based on your body’s needs.
In pharmacology, any drug used to inhibit dopamine release is called a dopamine inhibitor or antagonist. Certain supplements can also work in this way. For example, licorice root contains a compound called isoliquiritigenin, which can block dopamine production, helping to create balance. Inhaling lemon essential oil may also help. Research has found that lemon oil vapor significantly accelerates dopamine turnover in the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center.
Don’t Guess, Test!
Many people turn to questionnaires or quizzes to find out their neurotransmitter levels. While doing so may give you some idea, it’s not accurate, and depending on which one you use, you could be completely off-base. At The Wellness Way, we can test your neurotransmitter levels to determine what the imbalance is, and how the body is being overstimulated or understimulated. Then we can find out where the problem is, and which signals are reaching the brain. We often begin with food allergy testing or stool testing, as imbalances in the gut greatly influence neurotransmitter activity. Once we have the results, we create a customized plan of action to help your body and brain get back to balance. Contact a Wellness Way Clinic today to start feeling like yourself again.
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