The human brain is awash with chemicals. Isn't it amazing that our behavior and emotions are influenced by a sudden release or lack of certain compounds in specific regions of our brains?
Among hundreds of such compounds, dopamine stands out. Discovered by Dr. Arvid Carlsson in 1957, this chemical gained notoriety for its role in addictions, depression and a host of other mental disorders.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that regulates many activities in our body. It includes memory, cognition, sleep, motion control, and pleasurable reward to name a few. It is primarily synthesized by the substantia nigra and the ventral tegmental areas of the brain. Abnormal dopamine levels may lead to several disease conditions, including drug addiction and Parkinson's disease.
Functions of dopamine
Dopamine basically works as a neurotransmitter: a compound released by neurons to pass on signals to their adjacent neurons. In fact, there are various dopamine pathways inside the brain. Many are associated with an individual's reward-motivated behavior, motor control, and hormone regulation.
Besides playing an active role in the central nervous system, dopamine serves as a chemical messenger in the peripheral nervous system.
It increases the urine output of the kidneys, thereby promoting the excretion of sodium. It also brings down the insulin production of the pancreas.
Dopamine also affects the immune system and the digestive system. It reduces the activity of lymphocytes and protects the intestinal mucosa.
Why Is Dopamine so Important?
The dysfunction of the dopamine system is responsible for various nervous system disorders. A loss of dopamine-releasing nerve cells in the substantia nigra, a part of the midbrain, is found to cause Parkinson's disease, which is characterized by motor impairment and frequent tremors.
What causes a dopamine deficiency?
Dopamine deficiency can be an underlying cause for many serious medical problems. People with this condition remain in a demotivated, energy-less state most of the time. Some of them even exhibit suicidal tendencies.
Studies have found that acute stress inhibits the secretion of dopamine. In alcohol addicts, the brain areas secreting dopamine will be depleted. These individuals need to consume alcohol every day to function normally.
In an experiment conducted by the Brookhaven National Laboratory, it was found that obesity limits the number of dopamine receptors in the body thereby causing a dopamine deficiency.
However, the most common reason for low dopamine levels can be a prolonged use of common street drugs like Cocaine, Meperidine, and Amphetamine. Other causes include lack of sleep, hypothyroidism, influenza, genetic problems. It is also linked to a deficiency of growth hormone (GH), zinc, magnesium, iron and Vitamins C, D, B3, and B6.
Symptoms of dopamine deficiency:
One of the most important symptoms of low dopamine levels is persistent depression characterized by fatigue, chronic boredom, mood swings, and a lack of desire to exercise.
In a majority of cases, people tend to compensate the depressive feeling with stimulants. That includes caffeine, nicotine, drugs and alcohol, slowly getting people addicted to them.
2. Excess Sleep and Poor Libido:
A dopamine deficiency caused by insufficient levels of magnesium, zinc, and iron may lead to oversleeping.
Individuals with this problem have negative thoughts and believe that they can't accomplish anything in life.
This also leads to a significant drop in sex drive.
3. Mental distractability:
People with poor dopamine levels suffer from a lack of concentration. They experience an intense feeling of sadness, with poor memory and cognitive abilities.
To deal with this, many people turn to nootropics, or smart drugs, to help wake their brain up by increasing focus, attention, productivity, and other actions that decrease with low dopamine levels.
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4. Sudden weight gain:
Dopamine deficiency results in a craving for foods like sugars, soda, saturated fats and alcoholic beverages.
This leads to obesity. You will gain weight in no time.
How to test for dopamine levels?
If you have the aforementioned behavior and symptoms, consult a physician. They'll determine the dopamine levels with the help or either a blood test (catecholamine test) or a urine test.
If the levels are found to be alarmingly low, the doctor prescribes a treatment plan. This plan includes medications, diet programs, in addition to a few lifestyle changes.
Fortunately, dopamine levels can be boosted by regular exercise and consumption of foods like almonds, bananas, apples, fish, and strawberries.
Medications, or supplements, typically include Vitamin B6 and Phenylalanine, which is a precursor (a compound that will turn into) dopamine.