Everything You Need to Know About Dopamine
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of motivation and reward. Balanced dopamine levels help keep your mind sharp and your body healthy. Having too much or too little dopamine can quickly offset your health and mood. Over time, it can raise your risk for serious diseases. In this post, you'll learn what affects your dopamine levels, how to tell if you have an imbalance, and what you can do about it.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is one of many neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers that trigger effects throughout the body when released. The brain synthesizes dopamine naturally by transmitting the amino acid tyrosine into dopa and then into dopamine. It travels along four major neuropathways, giving it a massive impact on the way you feel mentally and physically.
How Dopamine Makes You Feel
Dopamine makes you feel rewarded, satisfied, or accomplished. It regulates your major cognitive functions like decision-making, memory, and motivation.
As part of your nervous system's "fight or flight" response, dopamine also makes you focused, alert and attentive. It's considered a feel-good chemical that directly stimulates the central nervous system by attaching feelings of pleasure to specific behaviors, and is naturally released from activities like exercise, sun exposure, eating, sex, and listening to music. Substances like alcohol and recreational drugs also release dopamine, which over time can cause addiction.
Signs and Symptoms of Dopamine Deficiency
These are some of the clues that you may have a dopamine deficiency:
- Poor focus and short attention span
- Mood-related mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, or mood swings
- Low motivation
- Short-term memory loss
- Chronic fatigue
- Low sex drive
- Restless leg syndrome (RLS)
- Your hands tremor when you're at rest
- Chronic constipation
Unfortunately, there's no test you can take to see if you're dopamine deficient. However, your doctor can help diagnose your symptoms and rule out other health issues that could be causing them.
Can You Have Too Much Dopamine?
You can also have too much dopamine, which also causes symptoms. They can include high libido, anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, mania, and more.
Dopamine and Addiction
Addictive substances and behaviors that cause a rush of dopamine often produce these same symptoms as a result of the brain's excessive dopamine exposure. Addiction to dopaminergic activity leads to dopamine deficiency in the long run because the dopamine level required to satisfy the abundance of dopamine receptors in the addicted brain continues increasing with time.
How To Prevent Dopamine Dips
Generally, balancing your dopamine levels is as simple as getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, and managing stress. Here's what you need to do to avoid low dopamine levels:
Get Enough Sleep
Not getting adequate sleep reduces the number of dopamine receptors in your brain, thereby slashing your uptake in dopamine during the day. Adults typically need between seven to nine hours of sleep each night. If you often wake up and take time to fall back to sleep, work on improving your sleep quality using relaxation techniques before bed, such as stretching and meditation. You can also try a natural supplement like melatonin if you have trouble sleeping through the night.
Aerobic workouts and strength training release endorphins and increase dopamine levels. In a clinical study on people with Parkinson's, a disease marked by chronically low dopamine levels, aerobic exercise was shown to increase dopamine release according to MRI brain scans. It works by supporting the dopamine pathways so they can functionally release dopamine to areas of the brain that benefit.
Techniques to manage stress such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, and journaling can also boost dopamine. Studies have proven that even enjoying music and art triggers dopamine release. That said, part of cultivating a balanced lifestyle includes making time to relax and let go. Create a to-do list for what you need to get done in the day, and reward yourself with time for fun once you've checked everything off.
Eat a Healthy Diet
To prevent dopamine crashes, eat saturated fats and processed sugars in moderation. Fatty, sugary foods flood the brain with dopamine, requiring you to eat more of the same food to trigger dopamine release. Eat more fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fat sources like avocados, nuts, and seeds. Besides reducing sugar and saturated fat in your diet, it's also important to avoid excessive caffeine and alcohol intake.
Take Nutritional Supplements
While you can't take dopamine directly as a supplement, natural supplements can help prevent the common nutritional deficiencies that contribute to chemical imbalances. We don't always get all the micronutrients we need from foods. Here are some key nutrients for supporting your body's natural dopamine production:
- Vitamin D is required for dopamine synthesis, so shoring up a deficiency with sunlight or vitamin D supplements can significantly boost dopamine levels. According to researchers, an estimated 41 percent of the US population has vitamin D insufficiency, making it one of the most common deficiencies.
- Probiotics don't just help with digestion, but also with focus and mental clarity. In part, that's because gut microbiota is directly involved in the synthesis of dopamine, which delivers these benefits.
- Omega-3 Fats are long-chain polyunsaturated fats, which support brain health in various ways. Omega-3s are shown to increase dopamine levels in the prefrontal cortex, which is where most of your conscious thinking and perception happens. Fish oil is the best source of omega-3s because it has both long-chain omega-3 fatty acids your brain requires, including docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
Balancing Dopamine Levels Naturally
Lifestyle choices like diet, exercise, sleep, drug abuse, and how you manage stress all affect your dopamine levels. Generally, unhealthy choices will cause dopamine dips and congruent mood swings, and fatigue. Doing what's good for your body and mind will support dopamine release in a healthy way by supporting your brain's natural dopamine pathways.
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