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How Does Dopamine Drive Our Behavior?



Medically Reviewed by Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.

What is Dopamine?

Dopamine is one of the “feel good” chemicals in our brain. Interacting with the pleasure and reward center of our brain, dopamine — along with other chemicals like serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins — plays a vital role in how happy we feel. In addition to our mood, dopamine also affects movement, memory, and focus. Healthy levels of dopamine drive us to seek and repeat pleasurable activities, while low levels can have an adverse physical and psychological impact.

When the brain has a healthy level of dopamine, we feel good. Our motivation increases. We’re productive. We plan well. We learn quickly. We’re driven, excited about life, focused, and attentive. Healthy levels of dopamine can also make us more social and extroverted. This “feel good” neurotransmitter also helps increase our empathy for others, making us more willing to adapt to others’ needs. Dopamine can also stimulate creativity. All of these attributes help produce the pleasurable feelings dopamine is known for. When the brain doesn’t have enough dopamine, however, our motivation plummets, our emotions change, and our behavior can take a drastic turn for the worse.

Low dopamine levels, also called “dopamine deficiency,” can make us feel fatigued and restless. Instead of feeling full of life, low levels of dopamine can leave us feeling unmotivated, depressed, and anxious. Our ability to focus wanes. Our sleeping habits suffer. Our mood worsens. We start to experience brain fog. Even our body struggles to maintain a sense of vitality when the brain doesn’t produce enough dopamine.

If low dopamine levels continue, we might experience shakes and tremors. Our weight may start to fluctuate. In other cases, we may find ourselves struggling with chronic back pain, constipation, weight fluctuations, and a reduced sex drive. Extremely low levels of dopamine can even lead to an inability to feel pleasure from activities we previously enjoyed. The good news is there are many ways we can naturally increase our dopamine levels.

How to Naturally Increase Dopamine

Engaging in healthy lifestyle practices can be one of the easiest ways to naturally increase dopamine levels. Exercise, massage, meditation, gardening, reading, or even playing with a pet can help increase dopamine levels. Getting regular, good-quality sleep can also help keep our dopamine levels balanced. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night and proper sleep hygiene. We can also naturally boost dopamine levels by:

  • Listening to music. A small study investigating the effects of music on dopamine found that people who listened to instrumental songs that gave them an emotional response had a 9% increase in brain dopamine levels.
  • Maintaining a healthy diet. Foods that are rich in tyrosine like almonds, eggs, fish, and chicken are especially good for boosting dopamine levels.
  • Spending more time outdoors. Science consistently shows that low exposure to sunshine can reduce levels of mood-boosting neurotransmitters including dopamine. Similarly, increased sunlight exposure can help raise dopamine levels.

Of course, addictive substances greatly affect our dopamine levels. If you’re struggling with addiction, your brain will need a period of time to “reset” to natural dopamine production.

What are Neurotransmitters?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, sending messages to the brain.

Neurotransmitters are defined as a group of chemical agents released by neurons. These chemical messengers link the brain and spinal cord to muscles, organs, and glands by sending “signals” to perform certain functions in the body. They also interact with specific sites called receptors located throughout the brain to regulate emotions, memory, cognitive function, attention span, energy, appetite, cravings, sensitivity to pain, and sleep patterns.

Imbalances in these chemicals impact our behavior and quality of life and can create a vast amount of health issues, such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Addiction
  • Behavioral disturbances
  • Cognitive disorders
  • Diseases (Such as Parkinson’s)
  • Fatigue
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Mood disorders
  • Obesity
  • Pain

Scientists have identified more than 100 different kinds of neurotransmitters to date. Even though these neurotransmitters have different functions and affect different parts of the body, they all fall into one of the following categories:

  • Excitatory neurotransmitters encourage a cell to take action.
  • Inhibitory neurotransmitters decrease the chances of a cell taking any type of action, leading to a relaxation-like effect on the body.
  • Modulatory neurotransmitters can send messages to several different neurons at the same time. They can also communicate with other neurotransmitters.

Dopamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter. Dopamine communicates with brain cells and encourages them to act in a pleasurable, excitable, euphoric way. The excitatory nature of dopamine is also one of the reasons why the chemical messenger motivates us. By encouraging our brain cells to take certain actions, dopamine influences our behavior. But dopamine differs from most neurotransmitters. Even though dopamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter, the chemical messenger can encourage or prevent action depending on the receptors present.

Dopamine’s excitatory effects encourage us to seek out pleasurable activities. On the other hand, dopamine’s inhibitory effects can decrease impulse control, rational thinking, and executive thinking. Whether dopamine encourages pleasure-seeking activities or hinders logical thinking, the neurotransmitter greatly affects how we behave.

For example:

  • High levels of dopamine caused by drinking, drugs, gambling, playing video games, or using social media can trigger dopamine’s excitatory effects. This “excitement” motivates us to continue the activity, which can eventually lead to addiction.
  • Dopamine’s excitatory and inhibitory effects can cause schizophrenia. Brain areas that run on dopamine can become overactive, encouraging an overabundance of brain cell action which can cause hallucinations and delusions. At the same time, dopamine attached to certain receptors inhibits impulse control and logical thinking, allowing the hallucinations and delusions to continue.

Even though scientists continue to study dopamine’s effect on behavior, some believe an increased risk of addiction may be a result of our DNA.

How Dopamine Affects Our Behavior

One of the most prominent neurotransmitters that impact human behavior is dopamine. When we experience pleasurable events like eating satisfying food, sexual activity, or drug use, our body releases dopamine. Our brain then associates the release of dopamine with pleasure and creates a reward system. For example, when you eat comforting food, your brain releases dopamine, which makes you feel good. Therefore, your brain assumes this is a reward and encourages you to repeat this behavior, even though the comforting food may not be the healthiest choice for your body.

Dopamine is associated with reinforcement. It is thought to be the chemical that motivates a person to do something repeatedly. Reward and reinforcement help us create our personal habits. Humans gravitate toward positive experiences and avoid negative ones. Dopamine is what drives us to create these patterns. This is why people with low dopamine levels may be more likely to develop addictions to drugs, food, sex, or alcohol.

Dopamine and Mental Health

Dopamine deficiency can have adverse physical and psychological effects

It is important to note that abnormally low levels of dopamine are not only associated with addiction but can cause physical and mental impairments because this major body chemical controls many body functions.

Low dopamine has been linked to impairments such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Addiction
  • Behavioral disturbances
  • Brain fog
  • Mental health disorders
  • Mood swings
  • Delusional behavior
  • Depression
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Lack of motivation
  • Suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self-harm
  • Low sex drive
  • Psychosis

A release of dopamine is what tells the brain whether an experience was pleasurable enough to experience again. When there is a lack of dopamine, it can cause people to change their behaviors in ways that will help release more of this chemical. They will pursue activities that trigger their reward center, even if these activities are harmful or taboo. They may seek illicit drugs or alcohol or engage in other harmful, addictive behaviors. An imbalance of dopamine can create an unhealthy reward system response in the brain.

The Relationship of Dopamine to Substance Abuse

The genetics department of the University of Utah explains, “all addictive drugs affect brain pathways involving reward — that is, the dopamine system in the reward pathway.” The impact that drugs and alcohol have on the natural reward center is more intense than is naturally found in the body. This over-stimulation may, according to university researchers, “decrease the brain’s response to natural rewards” and may result in a person’s inability to feel pleasure except as triggered by the abused substance.

Because dopamine is the chemical that drives us to seek positive experiences and avoid negative ones, when this reward system is damaged, human behavior patterns may change to seek out harmful situations and substances as a means of pleasure.

Going from a low dopamine state to a high dopamine state due to the use of illicit drugs is one example of how a person can damage their cognitive function. Though drug use is harmful, the brain only recognizes that it is a source of pleasure and does not seek to stop the behavior. The person’s mind now sees drug use as a pleasurable experience, even if this is an irrational choice for their overall health.

The brain may view many negative experiences as positive ones when its reward system has been damaged. This is true not only with drug use but also in situations such as trauma bonding, where a person stays in a relationship regardless of how harmful or abusive it may be. Though the reality of the interaction with this person may be damaging, the brain does not recognize it as such. This is a clear example of how powerful brain chemicals can be.

Addictive Personality Theory

Some scientists have coined the term “addictive personality theory.” This theory supports the premise that certain personality types are more likely to become addicted to drugs or alcohol, depending on factors such as genetics and biochemical makeup. However, other researchers suggest that factors such as early exposure to illicit drugs, familial support, and socioeconomic status can impact a person’s likelihood of becoming addicted.

Mental health issues may also correspond with a higher risk of addiction. Research suggests that people with mental health conditions may be more likely to abuse mind-altering substances. Some researchers believe that those with a mental health diagnosis, such as schizophrenia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, are more likely to turn to illicit drugs to “self-treat” their disorder.

Does Increased Risk of Addiction Lie within our DNA?

There is much debate in the current medical community as to whether addiction is a choice or a disease, and whether low dopamine might be a contributing cause for addiction. Some in the addiction medicine community believe that certain people are more genetically predisposed to addiction, suggesting that a person’s likelihood of addiction lies within their DNA. Every individual responds to substances differently. For example, some people become intoxicated very easily, while others can withstand higher amounts of alcohol before getting drunk. Differences like these may be influenced by variations in genetic makeup.

Genetic variants associated with these types of responses are central to the argument for the “genetic predisposition to addiction” theory. This theory suggests that substance abuse can run in families because of an underlying inherited component.

Scientists estimate that genetic factors can account for about 50% of our vulnerability to addiction. Thanks to technology, scientists have been able to isolate certain gene sequences that seem to indicate a greater risk of drug or alcohol addiction. These gene sequences determine how the body produces certain proteins. The way these proteins operate or don’t operate can help determine our likelihood of addiction.

One study, for example, discovered that mice with low levels of PSD-95 were highly sensitive to cocaine. Mice with normal amounts of PSD-95 were less likely to become addicted to cocaine. Another animal study revealed that cocaine, opioids, and amphetamines use a protein called DARPP-32 to affect and influence the brain. When the protein was removed from the brain, mice no longer responded to the drugs they once abused. Even though these studies were done on mice, research shows that genetics can also increase the risk of addiction in humans.

Scientific data shows that children of addicts are 8 times more likely to develop an addiction. Most families don’t talk about their history of substance abuse, so generational addiction is more common than many people realize. With an estimated 80 million Americans currently living or having lived with a spouse or family member struggling with alcoholism, knowing your family’s addiction history is important.

Addiction is a complex condition that isn’t caused by one single factor, but scientists do believe that our DNA can, in fact, increase or decrease our likelihood of addiction.

“This [connection] isn’t a gene for a specific trait necessarily. It’s a gene-by-environment interaction,” Dr. Kathleen Brady explained. “You can be genetically predisposed but never develop a substance use disorder because you live in a protective environment,” she continued. “But if you have the vulnerable gene for alcohol abuse, and you experience early life trauma of some sort, there could be epigenetic changes that lead you to have an exaggerated stress response to future stress and be more vulnerable to the development of alcohol dependence.”

In short, our genes determine our responses to trauma, which can make us less or more likely to abuse addictive substances. The good news is our genes are not our destiny. Developing healthy coping skills, healing from past trauma, and spending time in healthy, stable environments can help us avoid and break the cycle of addiction, despite our genetics.

Symptoms of Low Dopamine

It is obvious that dopamine plays a major role in how humans behave. Low amounts of this neurotransmitter can negatively impact a person’s quality of life. Dopamine levels impact mood regulation, muscle movement, sleep patterns, ability to store and recall memories, concentration, appetite, and ability to express self-control. When there is an imbalance in this chemical, a person cannot function at an optimal level.

Possible symptoms of low dopamine may include but are not limited to:

  • Aches and pains
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Tremors
  • Muscle spasms
  • Stiffness/difficulty moving
  • Loss of balance
  • Disturbed sleep patterns (such as insomnia or excessive sleeping)

It is important to note that everyone is different and may not exhibit the same symptoms. If you suspect you or someone you care for may have a dopamine deficiency, there are many ways your healthcare provider can help.

Neurotransmitter testing can identify specific biochemical imbalances. A neurotransmitter panel can check the levels of brain chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, GABA, glutamate, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.

An astute doctor will most likely run a series of tests to accurately gauge any deficiencies you may have. Neurotransmitters are one of the principal factors that can impact your life. With the help of a knowledgeable healthcare team, you can regain control of your health.

Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.

Dr. Saeed is a psychiatry specialist with over 40 years of experience in the medical field. He received training in General Psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where he was selected as the Medical Director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. He currently serves as the medical director at Into Action Recovery Centers. Full Bio

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