Everybody’s talking about dopamine. Most of us associate dopamine with pleasure – or the slump we experience when we don’t feel it. But dopamine is much more than the lift you get when you IG post gets another like, or your sweetie hugs you, or you get another hit of your addiction.
What is dopamine?
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that controls reward motivated behavior. Dopamine is also responsible for the release of hormones, motor control, and also acts as a vasodilator.
Where does the word dopamine come from?
The word dopamine was coined in 1959. It combines Dopa, meaning “a phenolic amino acid C9H11NO4 occurring naturally or prepared synthetically” and amine, meaning “any of a class of basic organic compounds derived from ammonia by replacement of hydrogen with one or more monovalent hydrocarbon radicals.”
How is dopamine made?
The direct precursor of dopamine, L-DOPA, is synthesized indirectly from the essential amino acid phenylalanine. It can also be synthesized directly from the non-essential amino acid tyrosine. These amino acids are found in nearly every protein and so are readily available in food, with tyrosine being the most common.
Although dopamine has thought to be manufactured solely in the brain, research into Parkinson’s disease has found that up to 50% of our dopamine can actually live in the gut.
What does dopamine do?
Dopamine plays a huge role in our systems when it comes to pleasure and reward. When we accomplish a goal, whether it is as monumental as scaling Mount Everest or as simple as scoring 30+ points in Words With Friends, our systems are flooded with dopamine. Dopamine is integral to motivation. In fact, although low levels of serotonin were once thought to be the cause of depression, some symptoms of depression can actually be attributed to dopamine malfunction, such as low motivation and a loss of enthusiasm for things that were once of interest.
Is it better to have higher or lower levels of dopamine?
Too much dopamine has been linked to schizophrenia, ADHD, and bipolar disorder. Too little dopamine is said to play a major role in Parkinson's. A dopamine imbalance can cause disturbed sleep, weight gain or loss, difficulty swallowing, and muscle aches and pains.
If your brain associates certain behaviors with the pleasure created by a rush of dopamine, it will compel you to participate in those behaviors to repeat the reward. However, your body will eventually reduce the amount of dopamine that it releases when you do the same activity. This is why dopamine plays a huge role in addiction – addicts often have to consume more of the substance they are addicted to to experience the rush they did in the early stages of their addiction.
People affected by Phenylketonuria (PKU) have difficulty breaking down phenylalanine, one of the amino acids L-DOPA is synthesized from. When Phenylketonurics experience high blood phenylalanine levels it can cause disruptions in neurotransmitters like dopamine, resulting in anxiety and mood swings.
What depletes dopamine?
As with other neurotransmitters, an unhealthy gut can negatively impact dopamine function, as well as how effectively the body can manufacture it. Diets high in sugar can also suppress dopamine.
What raises dopamine levels?
As with all neurotransmitters, dopamine levels are impacted positively by healthy choices. Exercise, getting enough sleep, and nutrition with a focus on consuming enough protein will ensure adequate levels. Tyrosine, the amino acid directly involved in the synthesis of L-DOPA, can be found in chicken and turkey, cheese, pumpkin seeds, soy products, avocados, and bananas.
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Dopamine cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, so supplementary dopamine is not an option. However, gabapentin is often used as a mood booster for recovering alcoholics, as well those suffering from chronic pain.
Is there a relationship between dopamine and chronic pain?
A study at the University of Texas found a relationship between dopamine and chronic pain in a study on mice. By removing a group of neurons called A11, which contain dopamine, chronic pain in the mice was relieved. There are not yet studies to support this as an option for humans, but it appears promising.