Dopamine is known as the feel-good neurotransmitter—a chemical that ferries information between neurons. The brain releases it when we eat food that we crave or while we have sex, contributing to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction as part of the reward system. This important neurochemical boosts mood, motivation, and attention, and helps regulate movement, learning, and emotional responses.
In lab experiments, dopamine prompts a rat to press a lever for food again and again. This is no different in humans; it’s the reason why we partake in more than one helping of cake. This press-the-lever action applies to addiction as well. People with low levels of dopamine may be more prone to addiction; a person seeking pleasure via drugs or alcohol or food needs higher and higher levels of dopamine.
Dopamine causes you to want, desire, seek out, and search. It increases your general level of arousal and your goal-directed behavior. Dopamine makes you curious about ideas and fuels your search for information. Dopamine creates reward-seeking loops in the sense that people will repeat pleasurable behavior, from checking Instagram to taking drugs.
A person with high levels of dopamine, whether due to temperament or to a transient—perhaps chemically induced state—can be described as a sensation seeker. The upside of sensation seeking is that people see potential stressors as challenges to be overcome rather than threats that might crush them. This mindset is a buffer against the stress of life. It increases their hardiness and resilience in the long term.
The release of dopamine creates a reward circuit in the brain. This circuit registers an intense experience (such as getting high) as "important" and creates lasting memories of it as pleasurable. Dopamine changes the brain on a cellular level, commanding the brain to do it again.
Swedish pharmacologist and neuroscientist Arvid Carlsson won the Nobel prize in 2000 for his research on dopamine, showing its importance in brain function. He helped show that the neurotransmitter is heavily involved in the motor system. When the brain fails to produce enough dopamine, it can result in Parkinson’s disease. The primary treatment for Parkinson’s disease is a drug called L-dopa, which spurs the production of dopamine.
Dopamine has also been implicated in schizophrenia and ADHD; the brain systems underlying these conditions (as well as substance abuse disorder) are complex. The activity of the dopamine system depends on the state of one’s dopamine receptors, and in people with these conditions, the chemical interacts with other factors in ways that have yet to be explained.
It is no exaggeration to say that dopamine makes us human. Beginning in infant development, dopamine levels are critical, and mental disabilities can arise if dopamine is not present in sufficient quantities. Dopamine is implicated in genetic conditions like congenital hypothyroidism. Dopamine deficiency is also implicated in other conditions such as Alzheimer's, depressive disorders, binge-eating, addiction, and gambling.
In this neurodegenerative disorder, the decline begins with the dopamine-producing cells in the brain where movement is coordinated. As these cells degrade, motor function is compromised, which includes tremors, rigidity, bradykinesia or slowed movement, as well as changes in speech and gait.
Scientists who study neurological and psychiatric disorders have long been interested in how dopamine works and how relatively high or low levels of dopamine in the brain relate to behavioral challenges and disability.
There are ways to up one's dopamine levels naturally, and basic self-care is the place to start. A night of fitful sleep, for one, can reduce dopamine drastically. Here are some tips to boost levels:
- Eat foods rich in tyrosine including cheese, meats, fish, dairy, soy, seeds, nuts, beans, lentils, among others. While tyrosine supplements are available, consuming foods is preferred.
- Up magnesium intake with foods such as seeds, nuts, soy, beans, whole grains, among others.
- Avoid processed foods, high-fats, sugar, caffeine.
- Proper sleep hygiene is mandatory, as it fuels dopamine production.
- Exercise daily.
- Avoid stress, apply techniques such as meditation, visualization, breathing exercises.
- Consider the use of natural nootropics including L-Tyrosine and L-theanine.