How often do you think about the more than 80 billion neurons in your brain? The continuously work together, communicating with the help of neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers. These important messengers play a key role in our day-to-day body functions, and of these messengers, dopamine is the most extensively researched.
Dopamine is responsible for several aspects of human behavior and brain function. It allows us to learn, move, sleep and find pleasure. But too much or too little of the neurotransmitter is associated with some major health issues, from depression and insomnia to schizophrenia and drug abuse.
So let’s dive in to this important brain messenger and how it impacts our health.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (or chemical messenger) and “feel good hormone” that sends messages between nerve cells in the brain. It binds to receptors in the brain, making them send signals from one cell to another..
This causes cellular changes that can affect your well-being in a number of ways.
It plays an important role in many everyday behaviors, including how we move, feel and eat. It helps us regulate movement and supports reward regulations in the brain.
Research also highlights that dopamine receptors are found in the kidneys, pancreas, lungs and blood vessels outside the central nervous system.
To make dopamine, an amino acid called tyrosine changes into precursor dopa, a compound found in nervous tissue, and then into dopamine. It’s produced in three parts of the brain: the substantia nigra, ventral tegmental area and hypothalamus of the brain.
A common question is “what’s the difference between serotonin vs. dopamine?” Both are neurotransmitters, but serotonin functions as a mood regulator, while dopamine is connected to the “pleasure center.”
In moments of pleasure and reward, we get a rush of dopamine, and when levels are too low, we feel a lack of motivation and feelings of helplessness.
The brain’s reward system is strongly linked to dopamine. The neurotransmitter functions to promote feelings of enjoyment and reinforcement, which leads to motivation.
Role in Mental Health
Dopamine is considered an essential element in the brain reward system. Although dopamine neurons account for less than 1 percent of the total neuron count in the brain, research suggests that this neurotransmitter does have a profound effect on brain function and mental health.
This is called dopamine dysfunction, and it indicates that the neurotransmitter isn’t interacting with receptors in the brain properly.
When this hormone is produced normally in the body, we don’t even notice it — the body (and mind) functions as it should. But when levels become too high or too low, that’s when our behavioral and physical functions are impacted.
This “feel good hormone” is involved in reward-related incentive learning, and it modulates behavioral choices, especially reward-seeking behaviors. Studies also indicate that several mental health disorders involve these pleasure responses from neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine.
For instance, a chemical change in the brain drives addictive behaviors, causing mental health issues like:
- eating disorders
- compulsive sex behaviors
- internet gaming addiction
There’s also a clear relationship between depression and dopamine deficiency, according to animal and human studies. Dopamine levels that are too low may also cause issues including:
- trouble focusing
- mood changes
- insomnia and sleep disturbances
- lack of motivation
- feelings of guilt and hopelessness
Abnormal dopamine levels (either too high or too low) are also linked to many pathological disorder, including:
- Tourette’s syndrome
- Parkinson’s disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Huntington’s disease
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Drug abuse
Because dopamine receptors directly regulate the neurotransmission of other neurotransmitters, research shows that a dysfunction can lead to issues with motor activity and neurological function.
How to Increase It
1. Eat Tyrosine Foods
Eating tyrosine foods is especially important for people with dopamine deficiency.
Tyrosine is an amino acid that serves as a precursor for dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine. Studies conclude that tyrosine influences dopamine levels, so consuming more of the amino acid can hel reverse a deficiency.
The best tyrosine foods (or dopamine foods), that are easy to incorporate into your diet include:
- grass-fed meats, pasture-raised poultry and wild-caught fish
- pastured eggs
- organic dairy products
- nuts and seeds
- beans and legumes
- whole grains (like quinoa and oats)
- some protein powders
In order to boost dopamine levels by eating tyrosine, you need to consume a well-balanced diet that’s rich in micronutrients. Tyrosine needs adequate amounts of vitamin B6, folate and copper to be converted into neurotransmitters.
L-tyrosine is also available in supplement form, which may be helpful if you can’t get enough of the amino acid in your diet.
It’s also important to avoid dopamine-depleting foods, like excessive amounts of saturated fats and refined (and artificial) sugars, which can cause a short-term spike in the hormone but lead to deficiency over time.
2. Get Enough Sleep
Getting enough sleep helps the brain regulate production of this hormone. Our circadian timing system is the body’s internal clock or biological pacemaker.
In the morning, dopamine levels rise naturally, allowing us to wake up and start the day. In the evening, levels fall so we can turn the brain down and settle in for the night.
Sticking to a consistent bedtime every night and wake time every morning promotes the proper production of this neurotransmitter.
Studies find that when dopamine receptors decrease in the brain due to sleep deprivation, this is associated with reduced alertness and increased sleepiness.
There are three major neurotransmitters that are modulated by exercise: noradrenaline, serotonin and dopamine. It’s the connection between physical activity and these neurotransmitters that allow exercise to positively affect brain function.
Animal studies have shown that treadmill exercise counteracts motor dysfunction by increasing dopamine production in the brain. In addition to this, wheel running has been shown to have a protective effect against neurotoxicity and on dopaminergic neurons.
4. Practice Mindfulness and Kindness
Studies have found that when we practice mindfulness meditation and yoga, it helps increase dopamine levels and reduce feelings of anxiety. Incorporating a yoga practice or any type of meditation, be it seated, walking or laying, can help regulate the production of neurotransmitters that play a role in brain health.
Dopamine levels also increase when we’re rewarded or after pleasurable experiences, so it makes sense that practicing simple acts of kindness can help boost levels of this feel-good hormone.
5. Use Supplements
There isn’t exactly a dopamine supplement, but there are supplements that may help to boost levels naturally. Here are some of the best supplements for increasing levels of this hormone:
- Vitamin D: A 2016 study displays how vitamin D treatment modulates dopamine circuits in the brain. Using a vitamin D supplement for this reason has been shown to support treatments for drug addiction and dopamine-dependent behaviors.
- Probiotics: Researchers have learned that bacteria can synthesize and respond to hormones and neurotransmitters. This means that adding more good bacteria to your gut, and reducing bad bacteria, can have positive effects on dopamine levels.
- Curcumin: A study published in Psychopharmacology found that curcumin was able to increase serotonin and dopamine levels in mice.
- Mucuna pruriens: Mucuna pruriens is a tropical plant that contains high levels of L-dopa, which is the precursor to dopamine. For this reason, mucuna pruriens supplements are used in Ayurvedic medicine for improving Parkinson’s disease.
In addition to these natural ways to boost dopamine levels, there’s a pharmaceutical drug called Levodopa that’s used to increase levels and treat Parkinson’s disease.
There are also dopamine agonists, which make up a class of drugs that bind to and activate the dopamine receptors in the brain. These drugs make the body think it’s getting enough of the hormone, and they’re used to treat a range of health conditions, including depression, insomnia and fibromyalgia.
Studies indicate that dopamine plays a role in many brain, behavioral and body functions, including:
- behavior and cognition
- voluntary movement
- pain processing
- sense of reward and punishment
- heart rate
- blood pressure
- sleep and dreaming
- electrolyte balance
Risks and Side Effects
We absolutely need this neurotransmitter to function properly, and there are many ways to boost levels naturally. But levels are also increased with some not-so-healthy actions or substances, like drinking alcohol, eating sugary foods, using drugs like nicotine and cocaine, and engaging in other “rewarding” behaviors.
These acts of “self-medicating” can cause health issues down the line and sometimes be self-destructive or addictive behaviors.
When it comes to using pharmaceutical medications that boost dopamine or mimic it in the brain, there are some possible side effects, including nausea, dizziness, hallucinations, impulse control disorders and low blood pressure.
While increasing these hormones is important for some health conditions, reducing the production of this neurotransmitter is sometimes necessary.
Dopamine antagonists are a class of drugs that reduce dopamine activity in the brain. These drugs are used on people who produce too much of the hormone and deal with health issues like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
- Dopamine is commonly called the “happy hormone” because it increases in moments of pleasure and reward. It’s a chemical messenger that interacts with neurons throughout the brain.
- Levels too high or too low can have major impacts on our health, impacting the way we feel, learn and behave.
- For people dealing with a dysfunction, eating foods high in tyrosine, engaging in regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and practicing meditation and kindness can have a positive impact.
- There are also supplements that help increase this happy hormone, including probiotics, vitamin D, curcumin and mucuna pruriens.