Content Warning: Please be advised that the below article might mention topics that include prescription medication, substance use and dependency. 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.
Dopamine is generally known as a neurotransmitter that can play a central role in our ability to function, supporting the reward center in our brain—and possibly controlling the way we might feel and behave.
A lack of dopamine can lead to a variety of mental and physical health challenges, including high blood pressure, depression, substance use disorder and Parkinson’s disease. Low dopamine levels can be successfully addressed in many, however, so that the negative effects of a deficiency are limited.
In this article, we’ll cover dopamine, its possible range of effects and the importance of addressing a potential deficiency in this brain chemical.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is generally defined as a type of neurotransmitter—known by many as a messenger that can help deliver impulses to certain parts of the body. Often called the “happy hormone”, dopamine can be connected to our feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. It may also be partially responsible for helping us recognize the reward of a certain action, which can motivate us to achieve that end.
Dopamine is also generally classed as a monoamine neurotransmitter, which is one of four different types of known neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters can allow impulses from nerve cells to arrive at their targets, which could be glands, muscle cells, or other nerve cells.
Dopamine can also help us to learn new things, focus on tasks, and move our bodies.
Living With A Dopamine Deficiency
Experiencing a dopamine deficiency can be challenging, potentially making it harder for you to set goals or motivate yourself. For example: A lack of dopamine can lead to complex feelings and trouble controlling your emotions.
Low dopamine levels can also be linked to several different mental, physical, and neurodegenerative health conditions, such as depression, restless leg syndrome, and Parkinson’s disease. People who live with lower dopamine levels may also be more susceptible to developing a substance use disorder.
Symptoms Of Low Dopamine
Possible signs of a dopamine deficiency can vary depending on the cause of the deficiency for that specific person. For example, those who have low levels of dopamine connected to Parkinson’s disease may experience different symptoms than those whose low dopamine is linked to a mental health condition, like depression.
Possible symptoms of low dopamine can include:
- Muscle cramps, aches, pains and stiffness
- Lack of energy and motivation
- Difficulty eating and swallowing
- Chronic or recurring heartburn
- Mood swings
- Lowered sex drive
It can be helpful to note that a lack of dopamine is not generally considered a unifying cause of any of the above-mentioned related conditions (such as Parkinson’s), even though it may partially contribute to their development.
Causes Of Low Dopamine
The causes for low dopamine levels can range depending on the individual cases and presentations. Often, a dopamine deficiency can be connected to a physical or mental health condition. There is also evidence that suggests that stress, particularly chronic stress, can affect the brain’s ability to produce dopamine.
It can be important to remember that there may not be a “cause” for low dopamine in some cases. This might mean that dopamine levels may appear to be normal, but the receptors in the brain responsible for transporting dopamine might have alterations that can keep them from receiving it.
The use of some drugs can also alter the levels of dopamine in the brain or change how effectively the brain uses dopamine. So, too, can a person’s diet. For example: A diet high in sugar and saturated fat and low has been linked to altered dopamine levels in the brain.
Effects Of Excess Dopamine
While some people might experience decreased dopamine levels, others may experience a surplus of dopamine, which can also have mental and physical effects.
Excess dopamine can have many possible causes, such as using a specific medication to treat a condition connected to lower dopamine levels (like Parkinson's disease). It can also be caused by a lack of sleep in some.
A dopamine surplus has been linked to addictive behavior, such as compulsive gambling, drug and alcohol use (including tobacco), and addictions to food.
Excess dopamine, if left untreated, can lead to serious complications—such as schizophrenia and other mental health conditions.
Having balanced dopamine levels can help to ensure that we’re able to function physically, mentally and emotionally. If we have too little dopamine, we may struggle to get things done and can experience symptoms that can be commonly correlated to certain mental health conditions—such as depression or ADHD. If we have too much dopamine, we may become stressed, harbor excess energy and develop other complications.
Treating Low Dopamine Levels
Typically, to manage a dopamine deficiency, medical and mental health professionals might focus on addressing the condition it is linked to. For example: If an individual is diagnosed with depression, a healthcare professional may create a treatment plan that includes therapy and medication meant to help manage dopamine levels.
There are several different medications that can help treat dopamine deficiency and its possible underlying health concerns. For example: Certain depression medications help moderate the reuptake of dopamine, possibly creating elevated levels of the neurotransmitter in the brain.
For other conditions (e.g., Parkinson’s disease or restless leg syndrome), healthcare professionals may prescribe dopamine agonists—otherwise known as drugs that can mimic dopamine in the brain. Please note that many may find the most benefit from medication when it is given under the supervision of their licensed medical professional.
Psychotherapy can also help one to manage the emotional and mental effects of low dopamine levels. Often, a therapist can help motivate the individual, address a related mental health disorder and provide tips for navigating a dopamine deficiency at home. Additionally, physical therapy can help someone with low dopamine levels to possibly alleviate muscle issues that may arise out of a deficiency.
Certain lifestyle changes have been scientifically suggested to increase dopamine levels, such as exercising and meditating. These activities can boost dopamine naturally and improve the individual’s overall mood.
How Online Therapy Can Help Those Living With Low Dopamine
If you believe that you are living with low levels of dopamine or an associated condition, you may consider reaching out to a licensed BetterHelp therapist. With BetterHelp, you can participate in therapy remotely, which can be helpful if you’re struggling to leave the house or aren’t yet comfortable discussing mental health challenges in person. Your therapist can also connect you with engaging resources, such as at-home exercises, that can help you work through concerns related to a dopamine deficiency on your own time.
Is Online Therapy Effective?
Research suggests that online therapy can be a viable alternative to face-to-face therapy when one is working to live with symptoms that are often attributed to dopamine imbalances.
According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been clinically suggested to be effective in helping manage symptoms of depression.
With the guidance of a licensed mental health professional, it can be possible to work through a dopamine deficiency and live a full, happy life. BetterHelp can connect you with a therapist in your area of need.
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