Understanding Dopamine: The Key to Happiness and Motivation (deep dive)

What is dopamine and how does it affect us?

Having fun is one of the main motivators in our lives. Dopamine plays an important role in this. We tell how it works and whether it is possible to maintain it at a high level without harm to health. It is one of the mosu crucial nootropics out there

Dopamine is a chemical that our brain releases when we anticipate pleasure or expect rewards. As soon as you smell your favorite scent (the smell of food, perfume, or a loved one) and feel joy, dopamine is released in your brain.

Dopamine is naturally released when something pleasant happens to us. Everyone has their own such events: from the anticipation of a good dinner to jubilation after the completion of the most difficult project.

How dopamine works

Dopamine is produced in the body in different parts of the body:

in the neurons of the brain. Such dopamine refers to neurotransmitters – substances involved in the transmission of nerve impulses. It helps nerve cells send messages to each other. It is the neurotransmitter dopamine that is meant when they call it the “hormone of happiness and pleasure.”

In the adrenal glands, kidneys and intestines. Synthesized outside the central nervous system, it does not participate in the transmission of nerve impulses, but is important for the regulation of the cardiovascular and other body systems.

Dopamine in the brain is produced when we are just looking forward to pleasure and when we do something pleasant. UCLA professor Loretta Graziano Breuning, author of The Hormones of Happiness, explains that the release of dopamine is a signal from the nervous system that a desired goal is within reach. The “chemical” reward system in our brains is very ancient – humans inherited it from their mammalian ancestors. Dopamine and several other neurotransmitters are released when we perform survival activities. We get a release of dopamine and, as a result, a feeling of joy both for achieving the goal and for thinking about victory.

Loretta Graziano Breuning, author of The Hormones of Happiness:

Dopamine creates a feeling of joy that a person finds something they need. It’s that feeling when people say, “Eureka! I found!”. A marathon runner gets a dopamine rush at the sight of the finish line. A football player gets a powerful dose of dopamine by scoring a goal and performing a “victory dance”.

But the effect of the dopamine reward is short-lived – the substance quickly breaks down and the pleasant feeling disappears. Therefore, after a while, a person again seeks pleasure or takes on a new business in order to get another release and once again experience a feeling of joy.

What does dopamine do

Dopamine in the body regulates many important processes.

  • Motivates and provides a sense of satisfaction

Dopamine is responsible for motivation and for the feeling of satisfaction after a successfully completed task [3]. The release of dopamine first gives us a stimulus to action – it motivates us (“it seems that if I do this, I will get something very attractive”), and then rewards for the work done with a pleasant sense of accomplishment (“I did it, I’m excellent”). Scientifically, this is called “motivational salience” (motivational salience), and scientists are still in the process of studying it.

  • Forms a sense of affection

Dopamine stimulates feelings of emotional tenderness and love. In the early stages of falling in love, the brain releases large amounts of dopamine along with other hormones. The euphoric feeling caused by the release of dopamine is the same feeling of delight and “butterflies in the stomach” of a lover.

In one study, scientists scanned the brains of people who viewed photos of their romantic partners. An MRI showed that dopamine was released in the subjects’ brains while looking. In addition, dopamine is responsible for the bodily sensations associated with attraction: if the pulse quickens next to a partner, breathing becomes shallow, and the skin warms up, this is also caused by an increase in dopamine levels.

  • Improves mental processes

According to recent research, dopamine is a powerful regulator of cognitive functions in the brain. It has a positive effect on mental abilities, learning, attention and memory, improves the processing of information by the brain. With a violation in the production and transmission of dopamine, various cognitive impairments can occur, ranging from dysgraphia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children, to schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.

  • Participates in many processes in the body

Dopamine, along with other hormones, regulates many biological processes in the body. As a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands, it:

  • Causes relaxation or constriction of blood vessels;
  • Accelerates the excretion of sodium and urine from the body;
  • Reduces the production of insulin in the pancreas;
  • Slows down peristalsis (wave-like muscle contraction) of the stomach and intestines;
  • Reduces the activity of lymphocytes of the immune system.
  • Thus, dopamine plays an important role in the functioning of the kidneys and pancreas, cardiovascular and immune systems.

Psychiatrist Mikhail Valuysky notes that dopamine is one of the most important substances that maintain blood pressure levels. In shock conditions, with a drop in blood pressure, ambulance doctors inject exactly dopamine – it perfectly maintains vascular tone, is quickly excreted from the body and does not cause much harm. At the same time, dopamine entering the bloodstream does not have the effect that dopamine creates inside the brain. You can enter dopamine to normalize blood pressure, but you should not expect that thanks to such dopamine, a person will fall into euphoria, the psychiatrist explains.

Why is it important to monitor dopamine levels in the body?

From birth, people have different initial levels of dopamine. The amount of dopamine that constantly circulates in the brain and body is different for each person: it is called the baseline dopamine level (baseline dopamine) and is most often genetically determined.

How and why dopamine deficiency manifests itself

When something happens that raises dopamine levels above baseline, a dopamine spike occurs. After such a jump, dopamine falls below the base level, that is, after a feeling of delight and euphoria, a person may experience lethargy and depression for some time [11]. This is a natural consequence of the “dopamine” reward.

But sometimes dopamine levels can be permanently lowered. Often this is due to overstimulation, that is, the “abuse” of the dopamine reward system. Endocrinologist, nutritionist, preventive integral and anti-aging medicine doctor at the GMTClinic Aesthetics and Quality of Life Clinic Marina Moldovanova explains why such overstimulation is not uncommon, especially among residents of large cities.

In the life of the inhabitants of a metropolis, the number of bright external stimuli is limitless: thrill-seekers and career achievers set themselves more and more goals without a break for rest. But the resources of the body are not unlimited – sooner or later, the natural production of dopamine decreases in the same way that sensitivity to this neurotransmitter decreases. Because of this, there is a desire to increase the dose of pleasure: eat more, drink more, conquer an even more dangerous mountain peak. This only aggravates the situation and leads to the development of chemical tolerance to dopamine, which disrupts metabolic processes, hormonal balance and negatively affects the nervous system. Often, in order to restore sensitivity to dopamine, intervention is needed “from the outside”: the help of a doctor and drug therapy.

Other serious causes of dopamine deficiency include:

  • Heredity
  • Damage to areas of the brain that produce dopamine
  • Diseases in which the production of dopamine is impaired (for example, Parkinson’s disease)
  • Taking drugs that suppress dopamine.

Signs of a lack of dopamine

There are a lot of symptoms of dopamine deficiency, and how exactly they manifest themselves depends on the underlying cause. For example, if low dopamine levels are associated with Parkinson’s disease, the symptoms will be very different than if they were associated with depression. Common deficiency symptoms include:

  • Lack of motivation, “drive”,
  • Feeling tired and unable to concentrate
  • Bad mood and anxiety
  • Feelings of depression and hopelessness, lack of pleasure from previously pleasant sensations,
  • Low sex drive
  • Sleep problems.
  • Another lack of dopamine can manifest itself in the form of tremors, loss of coordination, muscle cramps (in Parkinson’s disease), restless legs syndrome, or even gastrointestinal problems, including chronic constipation.

How and why dopamine overabundance manifests itself

An excess of dopamine is just as harmful as its deficiency. Psychiatrist Mikhail Valuysky explains that an increase in the level of dopamine in certain brain neurons can lead to the development of hallucinations – both visual and auditory. And an excess of dopamine in other neurons can cause the development of delirium and delusional ideas. This increase in dopamine is closely associated with the symptoms of schizophrenia. In the treatment of this mental disorder, drugs are sometimes prescribed that block the excess production of dopamine and thus reduce the symptoms of the disease.

  • A severe increase in dopamine levels may also be due to:
  • Taking certain medications
  • Tumors of the brain and nervous system (neuroblastoma),
  • Genetic diseases

An increase in dopamine activity may contribute to the symptoms of schizophrenia (blue bulb on the left). Dopamine decreases with anxiety and depression (minimum values in the figures in the middle), and during falling in love, along with other hormones, increases (blue bulb on the right).

How to measure dopamine levels

The level of dopamine in the blood can be measured using special tests: for example, using the study of catecholamine hormones in blood plasma. After spending it, you can find out the level of adrenaline, norepinephrine and dopamine. Such an analysis is carried out in the diagnosis of tumors of the nervous and endocrine systems. But dopamine in the brain is measured using positron emission tomography (PET) and other methods of functional neuroimaging. Sometimes such studies may be recommended, for example, in the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.

In medicine, there are still discussions about the informativeness of tests for dopamine levels, explains endocrinologist Kamilya Tabeeva, an expert in preventive and anti-aging medicine at the European Medical Center. Such studies can only indirectly talk about a decrease or increase in dopamine, since this substance is quickly destroyed and removed from the blood. For a doctor, obtaining information about the level of dopamine at the time of the test is not crucial in the diagnosis. And in some cases, the doctor may suspect a dopamine deficiency even without tests. For example, if a patient has a long-term low mood, excessive self-criticism, apathy, no desire to do anything, then the doctor may suggest depression. If there are manifestations of hand tremors, muscle spasms, slowing down of movements, this may indicate Parkinson’s disease. Both diseases develop against the background of dopamine deficiency.

Ways to increase dopamine levels in the body

Doctors and neuroscientists know ways to increase dopamine levels. Some of them do not cause harm to health, others – on the contrary. Andrew Huberman, professor of neuroscience and ophthalmology at Stanford University School of Medicine, talked about some of them in his podcast, pointing out how much each method raises dopamine levels compared to the base one.

  • Chocolate, on average, increases baseline dopamine levels by 1.5 times. This is a noticeable increase, which, unfortunately, passes after a few minutes or even seconds.
  • Coffee, tea, or other forms of caffeine increase dopamine slightly. But when combined with other dopamine-inducing actions, they enhance each other’s effect.
  • Sex. The desire for sex and the sexual act itself increase dopamine by an average of 2 times above the base level.
  • Nicotine increases dopamine 2.5 times above baseline, but this effect is short-lived.
  • Physical exercise affects dopamine levels depending on how you feel about it. If you enjoy running, for example, it can increase your dopamine levels to 2x your baseline. And if you do exercises reluctantly, then, most likely, there will be no release of dopamine at all.

Huberman emphasizes that some dopamine-boosting techniques work for everyone. And others – exercise, study, hard work, overcoming problems, have an individual effect on the production of dopamine, depending on how a person relates to them.

This infographic from the US National Institute of Drug Abuse shows how dopamine levels increase with different activities. Food, video games, and sex increase dopamine 1.5 to 2 times its baseline. The use of psychoactive substances raises dopamine significantly above the norm and this is fraught with great health risks.

What is dopamine fasting and how does it work?

Dopamine fasting or detox is the conscious withdrawal of excess “dopamine” rewards. Californian psychiatrist and psychologist Cameron Sepah suggested this method to his patients to make them less dependent on unhealthy behaviors: smartphones, constant communication and a variety of visual stimuli that are common in modern society.

The idea of dopamine fasting is to temporarily give up pleasant things that stimulate constant releases of dopamine, make yourself feel lonely or bored. According to Sep, this will “reset” the reward system, help you regain control over your own life and enjoy simple things.

Cameron Sepa calls for giving up 6 things that usually lead to problems and addiction:

  • Emotional eating,
  • Internet and video games,
  • Gambling and shopping,
  • Watching porn and masturbating
  • Hunting for thrills
  • Psychoactive substances.

Doctors differ on the benefits of dopamine fasting. Endocrinologist and nutritionist Marina Moldovanova is sure that the dopamine diet is a useful technique for restoring dopamine levels. The ideal option is to protect yourself from an excess of incentives, for example, every month for several days. This will increase the production of dopamine and the sensitivity of cell receptors to it. According to Moldovanova, it is worth limiting:

  • Fatty and sweet foods
  • Use of gadgets
  • Alcohol,
  • Any events that provoke vivid emotions.

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