Dopamine: Everything You Need To KnowJan 02, 2023
Written by Inka Land, MSc neuropsychology
What is dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and neuromodulator that impacts your everyday, emotions, and behaviors.
- A neurotransmitter is a hormone in the brain that is real nerve cells and affects a specific receptor in the next nerve cell. For example, dopamine molecules can bind to D2 receptors and initiate "dopaminergic behavior."
- A neuromodulator is a hormone that alters brain processes outside of its own target receptors. For example, dopamine can modulate the activity of neurons that release serotonin.
What does dopamine do?
Dopamine is found in all human brains and is essential for normal behavior, motivation, and action. Dopamine is critical for goal-driven behaviors like work, planning, focus, and learning. It helps to keep us moving, both mentally and physically. It also supports social behavior and fluent speech. Read more of the specific roles below in dopamine pathways.
Dopamine works in pathways that affect different aspects of behavior and cognition. Three main ones, and their effect on your behaviors, are listed below
Dopamine mesocortical pathway
Also called the Saliency-Attention Pathway is essential for cognition and energy levels. This pathway goes from Substantia Nigra to the Prefrontal Cortex. In this system, dopamine keeps you alert, and focused on your task and helps process information in the working memory. So it helps to stabilize information in your mind, prevent distracting thoughts, brainstorm, and stay alert and oriented to tasks.
Mesocortical dopamine helps you to
- Plan and form strategies
- Solve problems
- Maintaining ideas in the working memory
- Areas: Ventral tegmental area, motor and premotor cortex, & prefrontal cortex
Dopamine mesolimbic pathway
The mesolimbic pathway is essential for motivation and following rewards. This pathway goes from the ventral tegmental area to the prefrontal cortex. It's also called the Reward Prediction Error Pathway because it's making calculations on which things might be rewarding and enjoyable and which ones not so much. This has affected your behavior. In this system, dopamine helps to create memories between an action and a feeling of pleasure and makes you motivated to repeat pleasurable behaviors in the future. Thus, you need it for achieving life goals and work tasks but… it's also the pathway involved in addictions and repetitive habits.
The mesolimbic dopamine pathway helps you to:
- Create memory cues of rewards and punishments
- Create desires
- Reinforce behaviors
- Form addictions
- Be impulsive
- Areas: Nucleus accumbens, hypothalamus, amygdala, hippocampus, striatum, & prefrontal cortex
Dopamine nigrostriatal pathway
This pathway is mostly involved in motor actions. In this pathway, Dopamine controls help to start movements, direct them, and control their accuracy and fluidity. In Parkinson'Parkinson'sdopamine-producing neurons start dying in this pathway first which leads to the loss of movement, and later mood issues and inability to focus.
The dopamine nigrostriatal pathway helps you to
- Select proper motor movements
- Initiate and terminate motor movements
- Have fluidity in your movements
- Areas: Substantia nigra, putamen, & caudate nucleus
Nummenmaa, L., Seppälä, K., & Putkinen, V. (2022). Molecular Imaging of the Human Emotion Circuit. Social and Affective Neuroscience of Everyday Human Interaction, 3–21
So, all together cognitively and behaviourally, dopamine increases your motivation, helps you to focus, makes you achieve goals, and guides motor actions.
Dopamine precursor and how it's made
Dopamine is classified as catecholamine because its precursor is tyrosine. Tyrosine is an amino acid found in proteinous foods like meat, fish, chicken, tofu, and milk. Tyrosine travels to the brain where It's firstIt'sverted into another amino acid, L-dopa. Then, enzymes turn L-dopa into dopamine which is stored in vesicles of the brain cells for later release. Stress hormones like noradrenaline and adrenaline are made from dopamine.
Dopamine production: Tyrosine (diet) -> L-Dopa -> Dopamine -> Noradrenaline
Where is dopamine produced?
Dopamine is produced in three main brain areas: the substantia nigra, the ventral tegmental area, and the hypothalamus. Dopamine is also produced in the gut and affects gut functions, but this article focuses on the brain and cognition.
How dopamine is released?
Dopamine is released from the vesicles of the brain neurons. It has both a fast-acting release and a slow-acting release.
The slow-acting release is a milder, constant release of dopamine that helps with movement, motivation, alertness, and working memory. Especially when you need to keep some information in mind for a long time and process it.
The Fast-acting release of dopamine happens in response to some pleasurable stimulation, like eating a piece of chocolate. At this moment, a big burst of dopamine is released to create a memory for the source of pleasure. The next time an idea of chocolate pops into your mind, dopamine is released already before eating the chocolate, and directs attention and behavior to eat chocolate, which again makes you release dopamine and strengthens the desire to eat it later. This is called reinforcement learning.
Although high dopamine rise feels pleasurable, it tends also to dip down fast and cause a subsequent feeling of short-lived sadness or void. You may have experienced this after having the last bite of the chocolate.
If a signal is no more followed by a reward, dopamine is downregulated. For example, if the chocolate was spoiled and caused an upset stomach, the brain's dopamine is downregulated. This helps to break the addiction cycle.
The fast-acting dopamine system can override the slow-acting dopamine system that you use to sustain focus for work and attention. In other words, the chocolate desire can override your focus.
Do you have too much dopamine?
So what if you can't focus or your motivation is low? Do you need more or less dopamine?
This depends on your dopamine profile. Some people have more baseline dopamine in the brain whereas others have less. A COMT-gene affects this. If you have a genetic profile called "VAL/VAL", your brain breaks down dopamine faster and you have less dopamine circulating in the brain. So you might benefit from "boosting dopamine" especially in situations when you need to focus.
If you have a genetic profile called "MET/MET", you break down dopamine slower and have more dopamine available in the brain. In this case, you may benefit from avoiding dopaminergic stimulation and slowing down dopamine release. This is because too much dopamine can disturb focus and lead to anxiety and impulsivity.
Too high dopamine
Too high levels of dopamine may feel like you're constantly going into overdrive and you have difficulties controlling your addictions and behaviors.
Symptoms of high dopamine
- feeling very goal-driven
- poor self-control
- poor control of emotions
- poor control of anger
Too low dopamine
Too low dopamine can cause a lowering of activity and emotions, and a lack of motivation to do things.
Symptoms of low dopamine
- lack of motivation
- low mood and apathy
- lack of emotion
- low energy
- inability to focus
- hard to plan things
- hard to switch attention between tasks
- inability to feel pleasure
- social withdrawal
- loss of verbal fluency and reduced speech
- hard to initiate movement
- lack of movement accuracy
How to boost dopamine naturally?
To boost dopamine, support the slow-phase tonic production and release of dopamine. This is because fast dopamine peaks are short-lived and disrupt the long-term baseline dopamine balance.
- It's important to get the building blocks of dopamine from the diet. This means you should eat foods that have tyrosine and phenylalanine. These include meat, fish, eggs, tofu, lamb, poultry, and nuts.
- Avoid causing fast-acting dopamine release too frequently. For example, chocolate, coffee, sugar, binge eating, alcohol, and scrolling social media can cause these kinds of dopamine bursts. Instead, focus on eudaimonic pleasures like nature, positive social connection, meditation, and eating whole foods.
- At work, learning to enjoy the process instead of merely getting it finished. This help leads to a more steady supply of dopamine rather than a fast release when it's done.
- Sleep enough.
- Maintaining circadian rhythm.
- Prevent blue light exposure in the evening and night.
- Get enough sunlight during the day.
- Improve gut health.
- Practice cold immersion (for example, a cold shower in the morning)
How to lower dopamine naturally?
To lower dopamine, reduce fast-acting dopamine release. If you have a high baseline of dopamine, and you easily get hyperalert, you may need to reduce your intake of caffeine, dark chocolate, and certain supplements like L-tyrosine and mucuna pruriens.
Make sure you have enough relaxing activities in your days: rest yoga, meditation, breathing practices, and stress reduction in general.
Too low serotonin levels can also cause excessive dopamine production in the brain. To support serotonin production, you should also get tryptophan and carbohydrate from the diet.
To balance dopamine, consider "dopamine detox" or dopamine fasting. This means that you reduce activities that produce fast-acting dopamine spikes (and drops) for about 30 days. This is the period recommended by experts and should be enough for you to rebalance baseline dopamine levels. You can do dopamine fasting with any stimuli that you feel slightly addicted to like social media, caffeine, certain apps, gaming, sugar, binge shopping, or binge eating.
Dopamine helps you act, move, and work, keeping you alert. You need dopamine to plan and achieve life goals, to be successful at work, and to execute motor actions.
If you have too much of it, or it spikes too often, you may feel agitated, anxious, and in constant move. If you have too little of it, you may feel unmotivated, apathetic, and feel reluctant to do things.
Dopamine balance is important. Reducing addictions and fast-acting dopamine spikes can help balance baseline dopamine. Those who have higher baseline levels of dopamine benefit from relaxing eudaimonic pleasures rather than fast-acting addictive pleasures. Everyone's dopamine balance benefits from sufficient sleep, aligning circadian rhythm, exercise, and dietary protein.
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