How Dopamine Agonist Drugs Work
By Sarah Fader
Updated February 17, 2020
Reviewer Audrey Kelly, LMFT
Dopamine is a major player in brain chemistry, influencing our moods, motivation, and movement. When the dopamine system in the brain isn't working the right way, serious physical and mental problems can happen. For some people, dopamine agonist drugs provide a solution.
What Is A Dopamine Agonist?
Simply put, a dopamine agonist is a chemical agent that initiates a reaction in the dopamine system. What does that mean? To understand, you may need more information.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a chemical called a neurotransmitter. It acts as a messenger to carry the message of pleasure or motivation to other parts of the brain that can interpret the message and respond accordingly.
If the dopaminergic system is functioning properly, the message is sent and received. Afterward, the message channel is closed when the dopamine binds to the dopamine receptor.
What Are Dopamine Receptors?
Dopamine receptors are parts of the brain cells in dopamine-sensitive areas of the brain. They are the parts of the neurons that receive the message. A dopamine receptor is composed of a protein containing 400 amino acids.
Types Of Dopamine Receptors
Differences in the main amino acid sequence make for different dopamine receptors. The D1 dopamine receptors are the most common in the brain, but scientists don't completely understand them yet. At this point, it seems that the D1 receptors influence behavior by the way they regulate the D2 receptors.
The dopamine D2 receptor is the type that dopamine agonist drugs affect. These dopamine receptor agonist drugs activate the dopamine receptors and the signaling pathways for dopamine.
Agonist vs. Antagonist
In general terms, an agonist works for something, while an antagonist works against it. The protagonist of a story, for example, is the main character who works toward her or his own goals. Those who oppose the protagonist can be seen as antagonists, because they thwart the protagonist from reaching her or his goals, at least for a while.
In pharmacology, agonist and antagonist have meanings that are similar to their general definitions.
Drugs or natural substances that stimulate the dopamine receptors are dopamine agonists. Dopamine agonists take the place of dopamine and affect the receptors in its place.
Drugs or natural substances that block dopamine receptors to keep the response from happening are dopamine antagonists. A dopamine receptor antagonist may be used if you have hallucinations or delusions.
Dopamine Agonist Drugs
Dopamine agonist drugs are used for several different dopamine deficiency conditions. They have been successful in treating Parkinson's Disease, restless leg syndrome, and ADHD. They may also be helpful for some people with depression.
Aripiprazole (Abilify) is a partial dopamine agonist used as an antipsychotic. Several other full agonist drugs used are used to treat Parkinson's Disease and Restless Leg Syndrome. These include:
- Ropinirole (Requip)
- Pramipexole (Mirapex)
Indirect dopamine receptor agonists include dopamine reuptake inhibitors and dopamine releasing agents. The following drugs are in this category.
- Cocaine also affects dopamine receptors indirectly.
While dopamine agonist drugs can be extremely helpful for these conditions, they also have a few side effects. Some of the side effects are:
- Low blood pressure upon standing
- Weight loss
- Nausea and vomiting
- Fatigue or weakness
- Sleep attacks
- Irregular heartbeat
- Muscle twitching
- Addictions to gambling, shopping, porn, etc.
- Withdrawal syndrome after long-term use
What Is A Natural Dopamine Agonist?
A natural dopamine agonist is a substance that comes to you through your diet to create the same effect as a dopamine receptor agonist drug. Foods and supplements that can increase your dopamine level include:
- Wheat germ
- Ripe bananas (especially the dark spots)
- Raw almonds
- Sunflower seeds
- Fruits and vegetables that contain antioxidants
- Theanine supplements or teas
- Tyrosine supplements
So, why do you need to increase your dopamine? The main reason is if you have a dopamine deficiency. Parkinson's Disease, restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy, and ADHD are examples of conditions related to dopamine deficiency. A dopamine agonist drug increases dopamine transmissions to allow your brain to function better.
Causes Of Dopamine Deficiency
Several different ways can cause dopamine deficiency. Parkinson's Disease is associated with the loss of nerve cells and dopamine.
Repeated drug use can change what it takes to activate the dopamine cells. It can also cause a decrease in D2 dopamine receptors.
A diet high in sugars and fats suppresses dopamine. If you don't get enough protein in your diet, you might not have enough L-tyrosine, which is needed to synthesize dopamine in your body. Obesity has also been linked to dopamine deficiency.
Stress is also linked to dopamine deficiency. Stress affects not only the functionality of dopamine but also the brain's ability to synthesize it.
Symptoms Of Dopamine Deficiency
Dopamine deficiency can cause a wide range of symptoms. These include:
- Muscle cramps, stiffness, twitching, and aches
- Balance problems
- Difficulty swallowing
- Slowed speech
- Lack of motivation
- Sleeping too much
- Restless legs syndrome
- Mood swings
- Depressed feeling
- Loss of pleasure in daily activities
- Cravings for sweets, fats, and alcohol
- Trouble losing weight
- Low sex drive
Serotonin Deficiency Symptoms
Serotonin deficiency has some of the same symptoms, but others are different. Low serotonin symptoms can include:
- Panic attacks
- Irritable bowel
- Eating disorders
- Obsessions and compulsions
- Muscle pain
- Chronic pain
- Migraine headaches
Here are some of the main differences in serotonin vs. dopamine deficiency symptoms:
Serotonin deficiency causes insomnia while dopamine deficiency causes too much sleepiness.
Only dopamine deficiency causes problems with physical movements, such as muscle twitching, tremors, and balance issues.
Restless legs syndrome and Parkinson's are related to dopamine deficiency, not to serotonin deficiency.
However, both kinds of deficiency can cause problems with depression and anxiety, although they may have different symptoms for each of the two deficiencies.
How Dopamine Agonist Drugs Help
Dopamine agonist drugs increase your brain's ability to make and use dopamine. They turn on the dopamine receptors so the dopamine in your brain can do its work. After all, it doesn't help to have a lot of dopamine if your receptors can't receive it.
When enough dopamine is present and is being used effectively, symptoms of dopamine deficiency may go away or at least diminish.
By contrast, dopamine antagonists bind dopamine receptors so that you don't get the effects of too much dopamine. These effects can include hallucinations, delusions, hypersexuality, and impulse-control disorders such as gambling addiction.
Dopamine antagonist drugs are used as antipsychotics to treat bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. They can also be used to treat nausea and vomiting.
Do I Need a Dopamine Agonist Or Therapy?
You might wonder, "Do I need to take a dopamine agonist drug, or would therapy help with my anxiety/depression?" It's best to talk to a doctor or psychiatrist if you feel you have symptoms of dopamine deficiency that might require medication.
Agonist Drugs vs. Therapy
The thought of taking a new medication can be distressing in itself. It might end up bringing you relief from the low-dopamine symptoms you're having. You can try diet changes first, but if the symptoms persist, you need to see a doctor about it.
Psychotherapy can also help the brain change so much that the symptom relief is about the same as with medications. At this point in the research, it seems that the relapse rate is lower for people who have psychotherapy than who take medications.
What's Right for Me?
Only you can decide what course you want to take right now. If you're having severe symptoms or thoughts of suicide, you need to go immediately to seek help in your local community.
Dopamine Agonist Drugs?
Dopamine agonist drugs can help you increase your dopamine. There are a few drawbacks that some people would like to avoid. These drugs may come with any of the side effects mentioned above. The medication has a cost, although how much that is will depend on the specific medication you take. You're also committing to treatment for a substantial period if you choose these medications.
Self-Help For Dopamine Deficiency?
If the symptoms are milder, you have more options. You can try diet and other dopamine-boosting natural remedies first. You can also spend some time learning more about how dopamine agonists work and what you can do to help them work better.
Therapy For Depression and Anxiety Caused by Dopamine Deficiency?
Therapy is another choice you might make, with or without dopamine agonists. If you're more comfortable with talking about your problems than taking a pill to solve them, therapy might be the ideal starting point for you. No matter what other choices you make, you can benefit from psychotherapy as well.
If you find that you would like to talk to a psychiatrist about dopamine agonists at any point or switch to them altogether, you can leave therapy without the kinds of side effects that you might have with the medications.
At BetterHelp.com, you can talk to a licensed therapist for online counseling. You can discuss your symptoms and concerns about your mental health, as well as learn more about how to activate the dopaminergic system in your brain.
Online therapy is extremely convenient since you can do it when and wherever you choose. Switching therapists is an easy process, too, if you're concerned that the first therapist you talk with isn't a fit for your needs.
Whatever you do, know that there is help available to you. You can live a happier, more satisfying life when you get the help you need!