James Dixon takes a look at what dopamine deficiency really is, what causes it and how it can be reversed.
Dopamine plays a central role in regulating feelings of wellness and pleasure, and our sense of reward. It is also essential for maintaining optimal focus and motivation, as well as for experiencing satisfaction and interest.
Adequate production of dopamine is necessary for peak health, as limited amounts of dopamine – or a dopamine deficiency, in other words – can lead to various physical and mental health issues.
In particular, dopamine deficiency can be ruinous to your wellbeing; physically, emotionally, and mentally.
Dopamine is a monoamine neurotransmitter that is made in the hypothalamus, a central grouping of nerves within the brain. Its creation runs through a few stages. First, the brain will transform the amino acid tyrosine into dopa. Dopamine is then made from this dopa.
Dopamine is not only a neurotransmitter, but also a neurohormone that works in conjunction with epinephrine and norepinephrine as one of the three main catecholamines.
All are created within the adrenal gland. Dopamine is tasked with creating feelings of pleasure, drive, reward, and gratification, and is the main hormone responsible for the feeling of accomplishment.
Dopamine plays a significant part in addiction and addictive behaviors. The brain can develop a craving for ever-growing levels of dopamine, reward, or gratification, leading to obsessions with activities such as sex, eating, gambling, winning, or increasing overall wealth. Alcohol and many illegal drugs can also cause large surges in dopamine release.
Dopamine plays a crucial role in various bodily functions such as learning, memory, focus, sleep, mood, and controlling motor skills. It can impact motivation, vascularity, heart rate, the health and function of your blood vessels (acting as something of a vasodilator in lower levels), pain processing, kidney function, focus, lactation, nausea and vomiting, and the fight-or-flight response.
Dopamine can assist in the removal of urine and excess sodium from the body, reduce insulin production in the pancreas, protect the gastrointestinal (GI) lining, decrease GI motility, and suppress lymphocyte activity in the immune system.
As you have seen, it is crucial to many aspects of our physical and mental health.
Dopamine’s impact on your mental health
Dopamine plays a crucial role in maintaining appropriate mental wellbeing. Lower dopamine output in various sections within the brain can be linked to many mental health concerns.
While the causes of mental health issues are often complex and multifaceted, dopamine levels have been linked to conditions such as schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Excessive dopamine levels in certain parts of the brain have been linked to symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions, while low dopamine levels can lead to low attention, focus, drive, and desire.
Medications such as Ritalin work by increasing dopamine output and are commonly used to treat conditions like ADHD, there are also some nootropics that can help with ADHD in much the same way.
As mentioned earlier, addiction and addiction-like behaviors are associated with dopamine.
Drugs that are addictive, such as cocaine, primarily work by causing large, rapid surges of dopamine to be released, which activate the reward centre of the brain and create a feeling of immediate pleasure and satisfaction.
However, with recurrent drug abuse, the reward system becomes overwhelmed, its threshold raised, which leads to increased cravings and the need for higher doses to achieve the same results. Additionally, drug use can constrain the body’s natural ability to produce dopamine, leading to dependence on the drug in question to regulate mood.
Elevated levels of dopamine, whether caused by drug use or natural factors, have also been associated with increased aggression and competitiveness, as well as a reduced impulse control.
When dopamine levels are low, its absence can cause a decrease in drive and enthusiasm and is closely tied to depressive symptoms. Symptoms may include insomnia, fatigue, low mood, decreased libido, impaired sexual function, a lack of optimism, and slow speech and movement.
Low dopamine levels also play a part in neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, which is characterized by the slow death of the nerve cells that create dopamine. This may lead to muscular spasms and stiffness.
What does dopamine deficiency really mean?
As we have seen, dopamine is a neurotransmitter and hormone that helps to carry chemical messages between nerve cells in the brain or between the brain and the other parts of the body. It plays a crucial role in various bodily functions. These include memory and learning, motivation and, reward, and muscular control and movement.
Low dopamine levels, also known as dopamine deficiency, are associated with health conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and depression, as well as an increased susceptibility to risk-taking and addiction. Dopamine is produced in specific areas of the brain, and low dopamine levels can result from injury to these areas or problems with nerve cell receptors that receive and transmit dopamine.
Several health conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease and cocaine addiction, have been linked with dopamine deficiency due to nerve cell depletion and dopamine loss in specific areas of the brain or damaged dopamine receptors and decreased output of dopamine.
As we have seen, dopamine plays a crucial role in the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Low levels of dopamine can lead to a variety of symptoms, including a lack of motivation, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, anxiety, anhedonia (the inability to experience pleasure from the kinds of experiences that you used to enjoy), depression, low sex drive, and sleep disturbances. In addition, low dopamine levels can cause physical symptoms such as hand tremors, poor balance, poor control, muscle cramps, muscular stiffness, and restless legs syndrome.
Cognitive changes, such as issues with your short-term memory, daily task management, and simple problem-solving, can also occur. Low dopamine levels have also been linked to symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), including anger and low self-esteem, forgetfulness, anxiety, heightened impulsiveness, and poor organizational skills.
Negative symptoms of schizophrenia, such as social withdrawal, reduced emotions, and anhedonia, have also been associated with low dopamine levels. GI symptoms such as chronic constipation have also been reported. The specific symptoms experienced by an individual with dopamine deficiency can vary depending on the underlying cause of the deficiency. For example, symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease would differ from those associated with schizophrenia.
Diagnosing dopamine deficiency
Healthcare providers do not usually diagnose dopamine deficiency by checking dopamine levels through blood testing alone, as it does not provide sufficient information about how the brain reacts to dopamine stimulation. Rather, they typically gather the patient’s medical history, ask about lifestyle factors such as alcohol and drug use, evaluate symptoms, conduct physical examinations, and conduct additional tests as needed.
Based on this information and the robust picture it paints, healthcare providers can then determine if a medical condition related to low dopamine levels is present.
If a person is suspected to have Parkinson’s disease, their healthcare provider may recommend a dopamine transporter test. This test comprises radioactive agent injection, similar to a dye, into the patient’s bloodstream. The radioactive agent is then tracked using a medical imaging technique called single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT).
In individuals with Parkinson’s disease, the affected areas of the brain show a distinct pattern on the SPECT scan due to the damage of nerve cells and low dopamine output. This test can aid in the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease by providing a visual representation of the changes in the brain associated with the disease.
Treating dopamine deficiency
Treating dopamine deficiency will depend on the deficiency’s primary cause. In the case of Parkinson’s disease, levodopa may be prescribed.
Alternatively, dopamine agonists such as pramipexole (Mirapex®), ropinirole (Requip®), or rotigotine (Neupro®) may be used.
These drugs function by imitating dopamine’s effects. They cause nerve cells to react in similar ways, fulfilling the roles generally accomplished by dopamine. Restless legs syndrome is also treated with dopamine agonists such as pramipexole, ropinirole, or rotigotine.
For depression, selective serotonin uptake inhibitors such as fluoxetine (Prozac®) may be used to affect both serotonin and dopamine neurotransmitters. We can treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with methylphenidate (Concerta®, Ritalin®), which will bolster dopamine activity.
Getting dopamine levels just right
Fortunately, there are methods of managing dopamine levels inside a certain scope.
Firstly, it is important to tackle the dopamine imbalance’s base cause. Consulting with your healthcare provider is recommended, as a specialist can advise and guide you along this process.
Dopamine imbalance can be caused by lifestyle factors and/or mental health issues like drug abuse and/or dependency, excessive stress, poor sleep quality, excess bodyweight or obesity, or dietary factors such as excessive saturated fat or sugar intake.
Adrenal gland concerns can also impair dopamine levels. In many cases, medication prescribed by a doctor can be helpful. For example, common medications like antidepressants and mood stabilizers can be beneficial if a lack of adequate dopamine output is causing depression or schizophrenia, or if either concern is depleting dopamine output, locking you into a potentially vicious cycle.
Counseling and therapy can enable you to more easily interrupt this vicious cycle yourself, enabling you to regain proper dopamine output and improved overall mental wellbeing. Patients with medical concerns like Parkinson’s disease will often be given drugs to help increase their bodies’ dopamine output.
Experimental research on human participants has shown that exogenous dopamine doses regularly injected via intravenous pump can alleviate symptoms and arrest deterioration.
There are also lifestyle changes that can help to balance dopamine output, especially for those with low levels. Addressing the lifestyle factors mentioned above is a good starting point. Mitigating stress levels, getting enough sleep, avoiding addictive substances, and maintaining an active lifestyle can all help.
Exercise is particularly effective in elevating mood and managing stress, and any form of physical activity that you enjoy can be beneficial. Meditation represents a good tool for bolstering dopamine output. It couples well with physical training methods such as tai chi and yoga. Massages and frequent, high-quality socializing have both also been shown to bolster your dopamine output.
Diet is also key for maintaining a healthy dopamine balance. Eating lots of leafy green vegetables, healthy fats, and proteins is a good way to go about things.
Foods that are high in l-tyrosine, an amino acid that is converted into dopamine, are also important. Almonds and avocados are great plant sources of l-tyrosine, as are bananas, whilst lean beef, eggs, and chicken are very good animal sources.
Plenty of micronutrients, supplements, and botanicals may additionally help in heightening dopamine production. Vitamin D, magnesium, turmeric and omega-3 are all thought to help. Supplement with these to bolster your dopamine output (see below).
Supplements to boost dopamine production
There are several supplements that are believed to increase dopamine levels in the brain. These include:
- Tyrosine: This is a natural amino acid that serves as a precursor to dopamine. Dopamine is created from tyrosine, so increasing your intake of this amino acid may help boost dopamine levels.
- L-theanine: Another precursor to dopamine, L-theanine is an amino acid that is found in green tea. It is believed to help increase dopamine levels by promoting the production of dopamine in the brain.
- Vitamins D, B5, and B6: This vitamin grouping is essential for the production of dopamine in the brain. Vitamin D is synthesized in the skin when exposed to sunlight, while B5 and B6 are found in a variety of foods.
- Omega-3 essential fatty acids: These healthy fats are found in fish, nuts, and seeds, and are believed to help increase dopamine levels in the brain.
- Magnesium: This mineral is involved in many processes in the body, including the production of dopamine. Increasing your intake of magnesium-rich foods or taking a magnesium supplement may help boost dopamine levels.
Dopamine deficiency – a final note
The subject of low dopamine levels is complex and cannot be viewed in a simplistic manner. It is important to note that low dopamine levels will often not be the direct cause of a medical condition, but rather there will be a link or association between them.
We don’t fully understand where causation and correlation play their parts. For instance, while lower dopamine levels are associated with obesity, it is not clear whether unhealthy food choices and lack of exercise cause low dopamine levels or whether low dopamine levels activate the brain’s reward system, the one that makes choosing unhealthy foods and avoiding exercise more pleasurable.
Additionally, neurotransmitters do not work remotely from one another, and dopamine works closely with other neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Therefore, understanding the role of neurotransmitters in the body is a very complicated subject.
If you suspect that your dopamine production may be off, it is always a good idea to discuss your concerns with your doctor. As we have seen, dopamine plays a crucial role in both physical health and mental wellbeing. Low dopamine output has been linked to various medical conditions, including depression, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, restless legs syndrome, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Fortunately, there are treatment options and plans known for ably managing these conditions. However, it is important to consult with your healthcare provider before considering any methods to raise low dopamine levels.
Working together, you and your medical team can determine the best course of action in realizing healthy dopamine levels. Doing so will be essential in maintaining your overall physical and mental wellbeing. By optimizing your dopamine levels, you can significantly improve your quality of life.
A healthy lifestyle and diet are excellent places to start in managing dopamine deficiency. Regular exercise, a balanced diet, and stress reduction techniques can all help to increase dopamine levels naturally.
Additionally, your healthcare provider may recommend medications or other therapies to help manage your condition. With the right treatment plan, you can effectively manage dopamine deficiency and improve your overall health and wellbeing.
This article was written by: James Dixon – SOMA Analytics PT, Nutritionalist & Published Author
James Dixon is one of the key players in the SOMA Analytics’ team. He is a personal trainer and is educated to Masters level. He is a published author and is a keen advocate of high quality nootropic supplements. James enjoys helping others to reach their peak both physically and mentally and believes that expressing his knowledge through his writing is an effective way to positively impact the wellbeing of others on a larger scale.