Dopamine makes us human. Curiosity, arousal, wanting, attention, purposeful actions, reward-seeking, movement – and the trap of repeating pleasurable behavior. Let’s learn about this marvelous chemical messenger…

It’s all dopamine. Without it, there is no pleasure, satisfaction – or addiction.

Last week I posted Our reward system and dopamine: A life-sustaining trap. If you’d like to learn about the anatomy and physiology of it all, as well as its compulsive behavior and addiction trap, give it a go.

Shortly after starting on the piece I knew there needed to be much more info. So we’re going to call this part two.

As it applies to the emotional and mental health disorders, let’s learn about dopamine…

What is dopamine?

In the brain, dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter, taking care of biz in a handful of distinct pathways. The most well known is our reward system, hence, dopamine is often referred to as the “feel good” neurotransmitter.

Other pathways address operations, such as motor control and governing the release of assorted hormones.

Dopamine influences all sorts of functions and states, including mood, motivation, and attention, as well as regulating movement, learning, and emotional responses. And, of course, it’s the power source for our reward system.

From birth, dopamine levels are critical. And when they’re too high or low, distress often accompanies.

Said distress can include ADHD, addiction, compulsive behavior, depression, schizophrenia, and OCD. Dopamine also plays a lead role in issues, such as congenital hypothyroidism, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and restless legs syndrome.

Dopamine is synthesized in several locations deep within the brain. The synthesis chain is phenylalanine to tyrosine to L-DOPA to dopamine.

What does dopamine do?

what is dopamine

Can you smell them?

“It is no exaggeration to say that dopamine makes us human.” That powerful statement comes from the Psychology Today article, Dopamine.

The craving many of us experience when cookies come out of the oven, the pleasure of smelling the morning coffee brewing, the joy of falling in love, the magic of sex, the irresistible desire for that “I’ll have another” cocktail…

It’s all dopamine. Without it, there is no pleasure, satisfaction – or addiction.

The addiction trap

In part one, I included the work of psychiatrist Dr. Amy Banks, who shared details regarding one of B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning experiments in the 1950s.

According to Banks, as the experiment began, electrodes were implanted into the limbic system of rat’s brains, and they received a small zap when they entered a specific corner of a box.

Skinner and the gang thought if the zap was unpleasant enough, the rats wouldn’t go to that corner.

But when the electrodes were placed in the brain’s nucleus accumbens, central in the reward system, something unexpected occurred. Not only did the rats not avoid the corner, they went back to get the shock 700 times in an hour. They even chose it over food. According to Banks, it was something the rats absolutely “needed” to do.

She applied it to humans…

The increase in motivation and energy that dopamine provides can be a good thing, but when your brain gets wired to compulsive behaviors that stimulate the dopamine reward pathway (addictions) then your life can be as out of control as the poor rat in Skinner’s Box.

And that’s the trap.

Managing dopamine levels

As we reviewed, one’s dopamine level can be high or low. And scientists have always been interested in how it affects behavioral challenges and disability.

If you have reason to believe your dopamine level is high or low, check in with your physician. And for sure do so before taking drastic action.

Increasing dopamine

what does dopamine do

A huge portion of basic self-care

Basic self-care is the place to start when it comes to naturally amping up levels of dopamine.

How ‘bout some ideas…

  • Eat foods rich in tyrosine. Remember, it’s part of the dopamine synthesis chain: cheese, meats, fish, dairy, soy, seeds, nuts, beans, lentils, and more. Supplements are available, but foods are the preferred choice.
  • Increase magnesium intake: seeds, nuts, soy, beans, whole grains, etc. Supplements are available.
  • Avoid processed foods, high-fats, sugar, caffeine
  • Proper sleep hygiene is mandatory – it fuels dopamine production
  • Daily exercise
  • Minimize stress
  • Consider using natural nootropics, including l-tyrosine and l-theanine

Take a look around. I’m sure there are others.

Decreasing dopamine

Poor lifestyle choices are most often the culprit when high levels of dopamine present. Let’s see: excessive stress, poor diet, lousy sleep, using substances, risky behaviors – we’re just asking for trouble.

Here are some ways to naturally reduce dopamine levels…

  • Replace those poor lifestyle habits with basic self-care
  • Review your prescription medications with your doc. Some may be causing problems, some may alleviate them. Hint: dopamine agonists activate dopamine receptors, while dopamine antagonists block dopamine receptors
  • Consider natural dopamine antagonists: bacopa, white mulberry, 5-HTP, lemon essential oil, noni fruit, magnolia bark, licorice root, vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)

Finally, I have to at least mention a dopamine fast. It ain’t exactly rocket science – it’s easing back on or eliminating what you believe may be causing your dopamine excess. Possibilities: food, substances, sex, pornography, social media, dating.

Dopamine fasting has its pluses and minuses, so I suggest you tap that link just above before taking the dive.

And if you’d like to learn more about decreasing dopamine levels, check out the Be Brain Fit article in the credits.

That’ll do it

Dang, I worked up a sweat writing this one. So much info, but that’s because dopamine is such a major player in our lives.

Name it: curiosity, arousal, wanting, attention, purposeful actions, reward-seeking, movement – and the trap of repeating pleasurable behavior.

Dopamine really does make us human.

For details regarding how the reward system and dopamine work together, head over to part one: Our reward system and dopamine: A life-sustaining trap

Thank you to Psychology Today for the info from Dopamine. Thanks to Be Brain Fit for the info from their piece How to Counter the Effects of Too Much Dopamine.

As always, the Chipur mood and anxiety info and inspiration titles await.

Bill White is not a physician and provides this information for educational purposes only. Always contact your physician with questions and for advice and recommendations.

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