What is dopamine?
Dopamine is a chemical released in the brain that makes you feel good. Having the right amount of dopamine is important both for your body and your brain.
Dopamine helps nerve cells to send messages to each other. It’s produced by a group of nerve cells in the middle of the brain and sends out messages to other parts of the brain.
What is the role of dopamine?
Dopamine is responsible for allowing you to feel pleasure, satisfaction and motivation. When you feel good that you have achieved something, it’s because you have a surge of dopamine in the brain.
It’s possible, however, that you start craving more of this dopamine ‘reward’, which is caused by many pleasant experiences, including eating nice food, having sex, winning a game and earning money. Alcohol and many illegal drugs cause a surge of dopamine too, which is partly why people get addicted to them.
Dopamine also has a role to play in controlling memory, mood, sleep, learning, concentration and body movements.
What happens if I have too much or too little dopamine?
Having low levels of dopamine can make you less motivated and excited about things. It’s linked to some mental illnesses including depression, schizophrenia and psychosis.
Having too much dopamine — or too much dopamine concentrated in some parts of the brain and not enough in other parts — is linked to being more competitive, aggressive and having poor impulse control. It can lead to conditions that include ADHD, binge eating, addiction and gambling.
In Parkinson’s disease, the nerve cells that produce dopamine gradually die. Because dopamine helps control the muscles, this leads to problems with muscle stiffness and movements.
The symptoms of a dopamine imbalance depend on what is causing the problem. They include:
- muscle cramps, spasms or stiffness
- digestion problems, such as constipation or reflux
- trouble sleeping
- moving or speaking more slowly than usual
- feeling tired and unmotivated, or sad and lacking hope
- having low libido (sex drive)
How can I adjust my dopamine levels?
You can boost a low level of dopamine by addressing the cause of the problem. This could be a mental illness, stress, not getting enough sleep, drug abuse, being obese, or eating too much sugar and saturated fat. Low dopamine can also be caused by a problem with the adrenal glands.
You can increase your dopamine levels naturally by eating a healthy diet, including foods rich in L-Tyrosine (the protein needed to make dopamine). These include almonds, avocados, bananas, beef, chicken and eggs. Turmeric, vitamin D, magnesium and omega-3 supplements are also claimed to increase dopamine levels.
Activities that make you feel good will also raise dopamine. These include exercising, meditating, having a massage and getting enough sleep. Thinking about your achievements and all the good things in your life can also help.
If low dopamine is causing depression or schizophrenia, your doctor may give you medicines such as antidepressants or mood stabilisers, as well as other treatments for mental illness.
People with Parkinson’s disease are usually given medicines to boost their dopamine levels. These can often cause a big improvement in symptoms.
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Last reviewed: April 2021