What Is Dopamine And How Does It Affect The Brain And The Body?
By: Jon Jaehnig
Updated November 10, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Jeffrey Craven , MA, LMHC, LPCC, LLC
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention topics that include prescription medication, abuse of medication, and addiction. The information found in the article is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have.
If you've ever taken a psychology course, you've probably heard the word "dopamine." It's one of the most well-known of the body's many neurotransmitters, with over 110,000 research papers to its name. But though many of us have heard of dopamine, few of us understand it. So, what exactly is dopamine and how does it affect the brain and the body? Let's take a closer look.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. It’s a chemical messenger that sends information in between neurons. Neurons are the basic units of our nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord, nerves, and sense organs (like ears and eyes). It is most commonly associated with the brain's pleasure and reward system, but It also plays a role in controlling movement.
Dopamine can be found in two different areas of the brain. The first is the substantia nigra, which plays a role in both rewards and movement. The dopamine in the substantia nigra consists of the cells that die when someone has Parkinson's disease, which causes the tremors and other mobility difficulties that are characteristics of the condition.
Most of the dopamine in your body is produced in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the brain, which is the main player in the brain's pleasure and reward signaling center. Dopamine is created in the VTA and then released into other areas of the brain when someone does something that warrants a reward or pleasure response, or even when a person just anticipates a reward. Though most people associate a reward in the brain with behaviors like drug use or sex, dopamine also responds to behaviors that we need to survive, like eating or drinking water.
Humans need to experience some sort of a reward response through dopamine for these necessary behaviors to motivate us to keep doing them. Releasing dopamine, causing us to feel pleasure, is our body's mechanism to ensure we continue the necessary activities for good health.
Dopamine vs. Serotonin
Dopamine is often grouped with another neurotransmitter called serotonin. While the two neurotransmitters do have some similarities in that they are both chemical messengers for the brain, and both have positive associations in regard to mood, their core functions are quite different. Dopamine brings about positive feelings based on a certain action. Serotonin, on the other hand, functions more as a mood stabilizer. A deficiency in either serotonin or dopamine, however, can negatively affect overall mood and happiness.
What Does Dopamine Do?
Dopamine's two primary functions are motivation and movement. However, dopamine also plays a role in other cognitive functions, such as memory and focus.
Dopamine and Movement
As previously mentioned, dopamine produced in the substantia nigra (part of the basal ganglia region of the brain) helps control movement. The basal ganglia control many aspects of bodily movement and rely on the secretion of dopamine from dopamine-containing neurons to function properly. Thus, dopamine is necessary for the controlled movement to occur in its normal fashion.
Sometimes this facilitation is disrupted, however, and not enough dopamine reaches the substantia nigra and basal ganglia. When this happens, movement and control of movement and motor functions are greatly reduced. One of the main symptoms of Parkinson's disease is delayed or uncontrollable movements, which researchers have found is caused by a lack of dopamine in the substantia nigra. In this way, Parkinson’s disease and dopamine are closely related.
Conversely, sometimes the basal ganglia are overloaded with dopamine. While a lack of dopamine restricts movement, too much dopamine can cause the body to make too many movements. These uncontrolled, unnecessary movements are a common characteristic of Tourette syndrome.
Dopamine, Pleasure, and Rewards
Dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter involved in the brain's rewards system and feelings of pleasure. When someone engages in behavior the brain perceives as pleasurable, such as eating, dopamine is released, and the behavior is signaled as one that merits a reward. This motivates the person to perform the behavior again in the future. Another common dopamine trigger is sex. Sexual intercourse sparks the release of dopamine, along with the hormone and neurotransmitter oxytocin. These two things are what cause the euphoric feelings surrounding sex and contribute to the ongoing human desire to engage in sexual intercourse.
While the reward system is designed to motivate us to carry out behaviors that benefit our health, it can also motivate certain harmful behaviors when dopamine is artificially stimulated. One example of this is cocaine. This drug blocks the reuptake of dopamine, meaning that the brain's synapses are flooded with an unusually high amount of the neurotransmitter. This excess of dopamine leads to the euphoric feeling one may experience after using the drug. But it also interferes with the brain's natural dopamine system and can disrupt its normal cycles. Having abused drugs severely impacts the body’s ability to correctly release dopamine.
Despite feeling unusually euphoric immediately after using cocaine, in the long run, it causes someone to feel worse because the dopamine system does not function as it should. The brain responds to the extremely high levels of dopamine released due to drugs by naturally producing less dopamine on its own.
Dopamine and Addiction
The rush of dopamine experienced when using cocaine and other drugs also contributes to drug addiction. Because the brain experiences extremely high amounts of dopamine when someone uses drugs, usage of the drug becomes associated with rewards and pleasure. This means the person will be motivated to repeat the behavior to experience the same reward. This can rope someone into the cycle of addiction.
When dopamine is triggered again and again, someone not only becomes addicted, but will also begin wanting or needing larger amounts of the drug to produce the same feelings of euphoria, joy, or calm. The brain builds up a tolerance to the drug and produces less dopamine when the person uses it, so they will have to use more and more of the drug to feel the same rush of dopamine as they did upon initial usage. Keep in mind that drugs can cause a release of two to ten times more dopamine than natural triggers like eating or sex.
Dopamine and Memory
One of the lesser-known dopamine functions is its role in memory. Though dopamine is not produced in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain, dopamine secretions in that area help facilitate memory processing. This is a highly delicate function of dopamine, so even the slightest variation in the number of dopamine secretions in the area can severely impact one's memory.
Dopamine can also explain why we best remember things that interest us. When something is interesting to us or excites us, we get a spike of dopamine because the experience of learning about that thing is pleasurable. The dopamine secretes in the prefrontal cortex, so our memory is activated, and we are more likely to remember whatever we're learning about. When we find the subject boring, we do not have the same dopamine spike, so there is less dopamine in the prefrontal cortex, and thus it is harder for us to remember what we learned.
Teachers can greatly benefit from this information. Teaching in a way that stimulates students and invokes the brain's reward center, by having students participate in an activity or another engaging teaching method, can help students better remember the information.
Dopamine and Focus
Another dopamine function that teachers may want to be aware of is its role in focus and attention. Dopamine naturally responds to the optic nerves (those used for vision) to help someone focus their attention on a specific activity. When visually focusing on something, dopamine can help us keep things in our short-term memory. It is thought that low levels of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex may contribute to attention deficit disorder.
Dopamine and Happiness
As previously mentioned, dopamine is sometimes confused with another neurotransmitter, serotonin. Unlike serotonin, dopamine does not directly help control mood. But, it can still influence moods and emotions. Because it can bring about feelings of pleasure, dopamine is associated with feeling satisfied with a certain event or one's life in general, which certainly can influence happiness.
Some research also suggests that dopamine may play a role in depression, eating disorders, and other mental illnesses or disorders.
Dopamine and Sleep
Dopamine helps us feel more awake, and the body naturally produces more of it during daytime hours when we are more stimulated. As night falls, dopamine levels fall as well, helping us feel tired and ready for bed. People with low dopamine or with conditions such as Parkinson's, which is associated with low dopamine levels, may feel chronic tiredness during all hours of the day.
Can Therapy Help Someone With Low Dopamine Levels?
If you have depression or addiction issues, you might want to consider seeing an in-person or online counselor. Although it may be difficult to reach out for help, counseling is a great tool for many people to manage their condition. A licensed counselor can be a great person to have as part of your support system when dealing with depression and/or addiction.
How BetterHelp Can Support You
If you’re looking into online therapy, BetterHelp is an option. Their licensed professionals provide discreet and anonymous online counseling. BetterHelp has your back, no matter how severe you feel your depression or addiction may be. Avoid all the stress of traveling to meet a therapist in person and meet when it’s most convenient for you. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors.
"Therese provided some important perspective and guidance at a time I felt my world had crumbled beneath my feet. With Therese's help, I am on firm ground and striding forward once again. Thank you!"
"Stephanie managed to change the perspective I look into very quickly. She introduced how to change a circle of thoughts I have been stuck in after my loss. She improves my self confidence and self understanding. I find it amazing that it feels like she is there for me even though she is on the other side of the ocean. She also has a strong intuition and somehow is always there if things goes not well. I really started an amazing journey to become a more healthy, happier me with her guidance. I strongly recommend Stephanie to every woman who wants to find strength again."
Dopamine is an extraordinary part of our brain and body that helps us feel happiness, among other emotions. If you believe you may have a dopamine issue, there are tools available for you to move forward to a healthier and happier life. Take the first step today.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is dopamine and what is it responsible for?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that transmits chemical information between neurons. Higher dopamine levels can make us feel happy and euphoric. Lower levels of dopamine can contribute to unhappiness, sadness, and depression. The two components of the dopamine system are responsible for pleasure and movement.
How does dopamine make us feel?
The role of dopamine in the ventral tegmental area of the brain is to regulate the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. Dopamine makes us feel good, happy, lighthearted, and euphoric. On the flip side, low levels of dopamine can leave you feeling bored, depleted, and depressed.
What are the effects of dopamine on the brain?
Dopamine plays a role in stimulating parts of the brain associated with pleasure, reward, and movement. Increased amounts of dopamine are believed to contribute to happiness and elevated moods. Activities that cause an increase in dopamine are likely to be repeated.
What happens when you have too much dopamine?
Sometimes the parts of the brain that produce dopamine can be stimulated into producing too much dopamine. A dopamine spike can induce short periods of intense pleasure and euphoria. If the dopamine spike lasts for an extended period of time, opposite effects like anxiety can kick in.
What emotions does dopamine control?
Dopamine plays a key role in emotions related to happiness, joy, and pleasure. Increasing dopamine levels also increase euphoric feelings associated with the pleasurable brain stimulation caused by dopamine.
What hormone makes happy?
Dopamine and serotonin are two neurotransmitters that regulate the pleasure and mood centers of the brain. The effects of dopamine stimulate the reward and pleasure centers in the brain.
What is the fastest way to increase dopamine?
The fastest way to increase dopamine includes exercise, meditation, and participating in other pleasurable activities that stimulate dopamine release from the dopamine d2, d3 receptor.
Which drug releases the most dopamine?
According to medical experts, heroin is a drug that has the greatest impact on dopamine receptors. People who use heroin may experience a release of 200 percent more dopamine from central dopamine receptors.
What happens when you have low dopamine?
Boredom and depression can happen when you have low dopamine. The role of central dopamine in your brain is to keep you happy and motivated. When this dopamine is depleted, depression and boredom can set in and cause the opposite effects.
Does fasting increase dopamine?
There has been some evidence to show that fasting can increase dopamine levels in the brain. As a result, when someone is reintroduced to a specific food or similar stimulus, the reward center in the brain may respond with increased dopamine production.
What causes low serotonin?
Hormonal changes, external stressors, and certain foods like caffeine can deplete the levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is responsible for stabilizing mood and low levels of serotonin can contribute to instances of depression and other mental health disorders.
How does dopamine affect behavior?
Since dopamine operates primarily on the pleasure centers of the brain, its main functions are to regulate reward and pleasure. In other words, when someone experiences a release or "rush" of dopamine from taking part in a particular behavior, the likelihood of that behavior will increase.
Can low dopamine cause anxiety?
As dopamine regulates the pleasure and reward centers of the brain, not having enough dopamine in the brain can have the opposite effect. Low levels of dopamine in the brain can trigger symptoms of anxiety and depression or aggravate chronic mental health disorders.
How do you know if you have too much dopamine?
If you find that you're in constant motion, can't sit still or relax, and seem to be on a never-ending "high," you may be having an issue with the overproduction of dopamine. Talk to a licensed medical doctor or therapist to learn how to safely regulate dopamine levels in the brain.
Can too much dopamine cause anxiety?
Too much dopamine can cause anxiety when you feel like you've lost the ability to relax or calm down. When people experience an overproduction of dopamine, they may have a negative reaction as their body tries to accommodate the overflow of dopamine in the brain.
What antidepressant increases dopamine?
Norepinephrine and Dopamine Reuptake Inhibitors (NDRIs) are examples of antidepressants that are designed to increase the amount of dopamine retained in the brain. If you're on antidepressants or looking for a safe antidepressant to take to increase the amount of dopamine in your brain, talk to a licensed medical doctor or therapist to learn more.
How long does it take to replenish dopamine?
According to medical and mental health professionals, it can take as little as two to four weeks to replenish depleted dopamine in the brain. This time frame can vary depending on the person and the severity of dopamine depletion. Speak with a counselor, therapist, or medical provider to learn how to safely replace lost dopamine.
Which hormone is responsible for sadness?
Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that is responsible for regulating mood and emotion in the brain. Depleted levels of serotonin can lead to depression, anxiety, and similar mental health-related conditions.
Does CBD increase dopamine?
Some medical researchers believe that cannabidiol (CBD) can interact with dopamine and have positive effects on your mood. People now use CBD to alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and related conditions. To learn more about the benefits of CBD for mental health contact a licensed medical doctor or therapist.
What is the best supplement to increase dopamine?
According to researchers, some herbal health supplements that can increase the production of dopamine are Magnesium, Ginkgo Biloba, Probiotics, Green Tea, and Vitamin D.
What is a dopamine fast?
A dopamine fast consists of refraining from taking part in pleasurable or stimulating activities for a specific period of time. For example, activities like eating unhealthy foods, sex, listening to music, and video streaming. Completing a dopamine fast is set to "reset" your neurochemical system.
Does dopamine make you happy?
Not exactly. Although dopamine plays a role in mood and happiness, it does not directly relate to the production of the chemical cocktail known as happiness. Instead, dopamine is directly linked to an individual’s reward center. Rather than making someone feel happy, dopamine encourages a feeling of joy, euphoria, or excitement following a sophisticated feedback system, in which a reward elicits the distribution of dopamine. Eating a delicious piece of fruit, for instance, triggers dopamine, in part because eating itself triggers dopamine, and in part because sugar triggers dopamine production. This is not how happiness is produced on its own, but certainly plays a role in feelings of excitement and euphoria. This can lead people to feel happy or ecstatic in response to external stimuli.
Because dopamine is released via the brain’s reward center, it could even be argued that dopamine plays a role in feeling down. If you are accustomed to the ongoing dopamine “hit” gleaned from watching your favorite snippet of pornography, for instance, you may feel restless, uncomfortable, frustrated, or low until you are able to return to the source of your dopamine trigger. While it may seem simple enough to identify a single chemical source of happiness, the body’s hormonal processes and neurotransmitters converge to create a complex and interrelated mass of responses and reactions, which can convey a wide range of emotions and experiences.
What triggers dopamine?
Strictly speaking, dopamine would not be developed and released without amino acids, but amino acids themselves are not enough to formulate and disperse dopamine. Instead, dopamine is “triggered” by the brain’s reward center, which reacts and responds to any action or experience that elicits a feeling of pleasure or peace. Although the brain’s reward center is often associated with negativity, conjuring images of drug abuse and addiction, reward systems are just as necessary in a well-functioning, well-oiled neurological system as they are in a kindergarten classroom. The brain’s reward system is not just a conduit for addiction but is instead used to fuel and motivate human behavior.
Because neurological processes are extremely moldable and changeable (also called “plastic”), the exact trigger of dopamine can change and shift over time. Illicit substances can certainly yield a flood of dopamine and pave the way for addiction, but food, sleep, and hugging are also all responsible for the release of dopamine. Dopamine release can be triggered when an individual engages in sex or experiences arousal and orgasm. It can also be caused by exercise. The potential sources of dopamine release are staggering, as a release of dopamine is designed to motivate human behavior. When an experience or action is considered pleasurable or “good,” the brain releases dopamine to encourage the continuation of the action or experience.
What causes lack of dopamine in the brain?
Lack of dopamine can be caused by numerous things, some of them relatively easy to remedy, such as a lack of dopamine building blocks in your diet. Others are more complex, such as a breaking-down of nerve cells and bodily processes involving neurotransmitters. Still other causes of dopamine lack are psychological and warrant a quick search to find a psychiatrist or psychologist who is able to treat depression, anxiety, or addiction. Dopamine is an important part of the brain’s reward system and functions as the reward after a pleasurable activity. Without dopamine, the most decadent dessert in the world will not elicit the pleasurable shiver, growl, or sigh that is so often associated with a pleasurable experience. Consequently, dopamine lack is frequently associated with depressive disorders and Bipolar Disorder. This is one possible cause of a lack of dopamine in the brain, but in many cases, there is not a single source of dopamine depletion. Instead, dopamine lack often benefits from a holistic treatment lens, involving therapy, necessary medical intervention, and lifestyle changes, such as improved diet and increased exercise and human connection.
What does low dopamine feel like?
Low dopamine may feel just a little bit different to everyone who experiences it, just as a dopamine high can feel different for everyone. While some people might experience dopamine highs and lows as the differences between fire and ice, others experience low dopamine as a feeling of low motivation or indifference. Low dopamine could also manifest in feelings of restlessness, anxiety, or general discomfort, as dopamine essentially triggers feelings of excitement and euphoria. The exact experience associated with low dopamine levels could also vary based on the source of the issue. For example, in addiction, low dopamine could be more likely to show itself through restlessness and agitation, while people who are not struggling with addiction and withdrawal might experience low dopamine as a simple “low” period, without a great deal of discomfort or dread.
What gives the biggest dopamine release?
There are many ways to begin the domino-like process of stimulating dopamine release. Many of these are perfectly healthy and natural in the human body, such as eating, engaging in physical contact with someone else, exercising, and having sex. Though these sources of dopamine release are effective and strong, many illicit substances and behaviors trigger a much more substantial flood of dopamine, which can drown out the dopamine released by typical, standard, day-to-day dopamine triggers.
Although eating, sleeping, and touching are all powerful ways of boosting dopamine, they cannot compare (in terms of the size of dopamine output) to the more substantial reward centers involved in alcohol, drugs, and even pornography use. These substances and actions offer some of the biggest dopamine releases but also can have a negative effect – namely, addiction and tolerance. Any substantial surge of dopamine can prove itself problematic, as it creates a new baseline for dopamine release over time. This is the reason drug and alcohol users often need greater and greater quantities of their drug of choice to experience the same high. Researchers have suggested that pornography use escalates over the long-term. People who have engaged in any behavior that triggers a huge release of dopamine are more likely to experience mental health disorders, such as Bipolar disease (Bipolar Disorder) and depression. The wild ups and downs of excessive dopamine release can cause Bipolar disease-like symptoms of intense mood swings and periods of mania and depression.
Apart from the unnatural stimulants of dopamine are eating, sex, and even exercise. All of these actions can provide a perfectly adequate dopamine release, without the negative side effects associated with illicit substances.
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