Dopamine

Dopamine is ‘a key transmitter’ in the brain. It’s often known colloquially as the ‘pleasure’ hormone. Clinical research has shown that levels of dopamine can significantly impact wellbeing . Whilst it is known for the way that it catalyses feelings of satisfaction and motivation, it is also linked with key bodily functions, such as memory, sleep, and concentration. Dopamine, therefore, is a core regulator. Neurotransmitter and hormone health is key to our overall psychological and physiological wellbeing. But what can happen If our dopamine is not as active as expected or if a dopamine rush is stimulated by risky,  problematic behaviour?

What is Dopamine?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. It is one of the major neurotransmitters, alongside others such as serotonin, glutamate and acetylcholine.

What are neurotransmitters?

Our bodies and brains are made up of complex networks that alter our functions. One key system in our brain is the central nervous system. Our central nervous system assists us in regulating our physical and psychological wellbeing through the management of specific chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are ‘endogenous chemicals that allow neurons to communicate with each other throughout the body.’ This means that they are naturally produced in our systems.

Each type of neurotransmitter is associated with a specific type of function. Dopamine is characterised as the ‘pleasure’ chemical and is described as regulating:

  • Emotion
  • Learning 
  • Reward
  • Motor control 
  • Executive function 
  • Pain management 

In short, dopamine helps us to feel motivated, emotionally regulated and alert. These can all contribute to feeling a sense of pleasure but also deriving a sense of ease in everyday tasks. 

Research has implicated dopamine in a range of psychiatric conditions. For example, ‘dopamine deficiency’ has been associated with anxiety, depression, restless legs syndrome and Parkinson’s disease. But a deficiency in the neurotransmitter can lead to a range of other symptoms, such as:

  • panic attacks
  • fatigue
  • hypotension
  • nausea
  • irritability 
  • suicidal thoughts 
  • difficulty sleeping  

The science of dopamine

Dopamine is endogenous – that means that it is always present in our systems. However there are some stimuli that can cause an increase or decrease in dopamine activity. Chemically, some stimuli may be considered as ‘excitatory’ meaning they lead the dopamine in our system to become more active, or, it influences receptor sites to respond as though there is more dopamine available. On the other hand, some stimuli can be ‘inhibitory,’ which can lead to a decrease in dopamine activity. There are natural ways to increase and decrease our dopamine levels, however, and these can be everyday things that we come across in our lives. 

What does it do?

A dopamine rush can be stimulated by any of the following things:

  • drinking alcohol 
  • drinking caffeine 
  • using drugs
  • using nicotine
  • consuming sugar 
  • eating 
  • shopping or spending money 
  • social media 
  • risky or ‘thrilling’ activities 

These rushes are typically short-term or short-lived. There are ways to increase your dopamine levels in a less ‘boom and bust’ way. Researchers have identified that dopamine is made from tyrosine. This means that consuming rich foods can alleviate some of the difficulties associated with dopamine deficiency. Some examples include:

  • increasing protein intake (especially poultry)
  • dairy 
  • avocados
  • bananas
  • specific seeds (such as pumpkin and sesame)
  • soy 

Dopamine levels can also be targeted in a more consistent way through:

  • meditation and practising mindfulness  
  • eating probiotics to improve gut health 
  • exercising frequently 
  • keeping to a regular sleep cycle 
  • getting enough sunlight 

Working on improving your dopamine activity in the long term can alleviate the need to engage with pleasure-seeking behaviours. This is significant as engaging with such behaviours repeatedly can lead to reliance on dopamine peaks. This, in itself, can lead towards the development of an addiction. 

The role of Dopamine in addiction

Lots of different things can stimulate a ‘dopamine rush.’ Whilst this rush is usually short-lived, our brains can start to connect specific stimuli to feeling good and, therefore, associate specific activities with pleasure. This starts to build a dopaminergic network in our brains. This both physiologically and psychologically conditions us to associate specific activities with a sense of reward. Not only do we then feel that repeating a specific behaviour or activity will make us feel good, but we may also find that the other things that previously provided a rush of dopamine for us may no longer have the same effect. But when the dopamine stimulus is a maladaptive behaviour with potential addictive potential, this can be quite risky.  

This can lead to structural changes in the brain, where dopamine receptor activity severely decreases. This means that over time, we may find that we need to engage with stimuli more frequently in order to feel the same effect. We may still be able to produce and excite the dopamine in our brains, but if the receptors are no longer working in the same way then our central nervous system may not be able to ‘notice’  the presence of the dopamine.  

Dopamine can play a part in the development of both substance use disorders and behavioural addictions, potentially feeding into:

Drugs linked to Dopamine

Whilst any drug use theoretically impacts dopamine, there are specific substances that have been particularly linked with changes in dopaminergic activity. There are two key types of drugs in this category – stimulants and opioids.

Stimulants

Stimulant drugs (such as cocaine, caffeine, cannabis and amphetamines) increase the brain’s levels of ‘free dopamine.’ This increase leads to the intense high associated with these drugs. However it can also lead to periods of mania and euphoria, which can, in themselves, be dangerous symptoms to manage.

Opioids

Opioids (such as heroin, morphine and codeine) excite dopamine neurons. This leads to an increase in ‘opiate motivation’ as the dopaminergic pathways in the brain become restructured in response to heavy opioid use. This leads to repeat use and cravings, as well as intense withdrawal symptoms partially due to dopamine depletion. 

Dopamine addiction

When we feel dopamine-deprived, we can often find ourselves searching for small moments of solace. The more distressed we feel, the smaller these windows of opportunity to feel better may appear. Dr Anna Lembke, a psychiatrist from Stanford, explains that a constant exposure to dopamine can have a negative effect. This can lead to a ‘dopamine deficit state’ where we feel low, tired, irritable and panicked. When this happens, we could be said to be experiencing a type of dopamine addiction itself. But how do we manage this in a supposedly ‘dopamine overloaded world?’ There are several steps you can take to counter overreliance on dopamine hits:

  • seek rehab for addiction support by contacting us today
  • be honest with yourself about how you are feeling and your reliance on dopamine-giving activities 
  • practice meditation 
  • focus on good nutrition 
  • ‘dopamine fast’ – break from your pleasurable activity (this may mean having a social media detox or pausing your sugar intake for a short period of time)
  • engage in activities that provide a sense of achievement  in the long-term, rather than short, immediate gratification 
  • practice self-care 
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(Click here to see works cited)

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