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.
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:
- Behavioral disturbances
- Cognitive disorders
- Diseases (Such as Parkinson’s)
- Hormonal imbalances
- Mood disorders
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:
- Behavioral disturbances
- Brain fog
- Mental health disorders
- Mood swings
- Delusional behavior
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Low self-esteem
- Lack of motivation
- Suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self-harm
- Low sex drive
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.
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
- 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.