You might have heard that dopamine is the “feel good” neurotransmitter. In many ways, it is.
Dopamine is strongly associated with pleasure and reward. Of course, it’s not as simple as just that. In fact, there’s a lot more to this complex chemical.
Dopamine is involved in neurological and physiological functioning. It’s a contributing factor in motor function, mood, and even our decision making. It’s also associated with some movement and psychiatric disorders.
We take a look at dopamine’s many roles and the signs that your dopamine levels are off.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter made in the brain. Basically, it acts as a chemical messenger between neurons.
Dopamine is released when your brain is expecting a reward.
When you come to associate a certain activity with pleasure, mere anticipation may be enough to raise dopamine levels. It could be a certain food, sex, shopping, or just about anything else that you enjoy.
For example, suppose your “go-to” comfort food is homemade double chocolate chip cookies. Your brain may increase dopamine when you smell them baking or see them come out of the oven. When you eat them, the flood of dopamine acts to reinforce this craving and focus on satisfying it in the future.
It’s a cycle of motivation, reward, and reinforcement.
Now imagine that you’ve been longing for those cookies all day, but your co-workers scarfed them down when you were sidetracked by a conference call. Your disappointment might lower your dopamine level and dampen your mood. It might also intensify your desire for double chocolate chip cookies. Now you want them even more.
Aside from its “feel good” function, dopamine is involved in many body functions. These include:
- blood flow
- executive functioning
- heart and kidney function
- memory and focus
- mood and emotions
- motor control
- pain processing
- pancreatic function and insulin regulation
- pleasure and reward seeking behavior
- stress response
Keep in mind that dopamine isn’t acting alone. It works with other neurotransmitters and hormones, such as serotonin and adrenaline.
An array of environmental factors also affect your physical and psychological well-being.
The right amount of dopamine usually goes along with a pretty good mood. It’s ideal for learning, planning, and productivity.
Dopamine contributes to feelings of:
A flood of dopamine can produce temporary feelings of euphoria.
Low dopamine is one reason you may not be in the best mood. You might have:
- reduced alertness
- difficulty concentrating
- less motivation and enthusiasm
- poor coordination
- movement difficulties
Lack of sleep may lower dopamine levels
Lack of dopamine can make you sleepy — but not sleeping may also lower your dopamine.
Conditions associated with low dopamine levels
Some conditions that may be associated with low dopamine are:
- Parkinson’s disease; symptoms include tremors, slowed movement, and sometimes psychosis.
- Depression; symptoms include sadness, sleep problems, and cognitive changes.
- Dopamine transporter deficiency syndrome; also known as infantile parkinsonism-dystonia, this condition causes movement abnormalities similar to those of Parkinson’s disease.
Very high levels of dopamine can make you feel on top of the world, at least for a while. It can also put you into serious overdrive.
In excess, it may be a contributing factor in:
Too much dopamine may play a role in:
Certain drugs may interact with dopamine in a way that becomes habit-forming.
Nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs with addictive qualities activate the dopamine cycle.
These substances can cause a quicker, far more intense dopamine rush than you’d get from those double chocolate chip cookies. It’s such a powerful rush that you’re left wanting more — and soon.
As a habit forms, the brain responds by toning down the dopamine. Now you need more of the substance to get to that same pleasure level.
Overactivation also affects dopamine receptors in a way that makes you lose interest in other things. That can make you act more compulsively. You’re less and less able to resist using these substances.
When it becomes more of a need than a want, this is addiction. If you try to stop, you might go through physical and emotional symptoms of withdrawal.
Even if you’ve stopped using the substances for a long time, exposure to the substance may trigger your desire and put you at risk of relapsing.
Dopamine doesn’t bear sole responsibility for creating addiction. Other things, like genetics and environmental factors, play a role.
Dopamine also interacts with other neurotransmitters and hormones. For example, the neurotransmitter glutamate is involved in the pleasure and reward cycle in the brain.
The researchers noted that testosterone, estrogen, and glucocorticoids interact with each other and impact dopamine levels. This can affect brain maturation and cognitive function in adolescence and into adulthood.
These interactions are complicated and not entirely understood. More research is needed to fully understand how dopamine interacts with other neurotransmitters and hormones.
Dopamine’s claim to fame comes from its effect on mood and pleasure, as well as the motivation-reward-reinforcement cycle.
We know that dopamine serves many vital neurological and cognitive functions. Despite a lot of research, there’s still much to learn about dopamine’s interactions with other neurotransmitters and hormones.
See your doctor if you have movement abnormalities, symptoms of a mood disorder, or believe you’re experiencing addiction.