Dopamine: The brain’s key to happiness

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Many studies have examined the benefits of regular exercise, meditation, and massages for dopamine production. (Photo: Envato Elements)
The human body is complex, with many intricate mechanisms and regulatory pathways enabling it to operate — mental health functions within the context of this sophisticated biological system. However, society often fails to notice the fundamental connection between mind and body. For example, a systematic 2012 review of 13 studies found that the public considers mental illness to be most commonly caused by stress or worry, behaviors, and low self-esteem.اضافة اعلان

Although personal and environmental factors can heavily influence mental health, physical changes in the body also contribute to the manifestation of mental health conditions. Many biological mechanisms forge connections between psychological and physical health, and understanding these mechanisms can help shed light on the seriousness of mental health disorders and the importance of seeking treatment. One such mechanism is dopamine.

The chemical messenger
Dopamine is popularly known as the reward and pleasure hormone, but its true function is often overlooked. As a “chemical messenger”, it serves as a hormone and a neurotransmitter. This means that, while it can communicate messages with the entire body (as a hormone), it also sends signals within the brain (as a neurotransmitter).

Dopamine plays three main physiological roles in different brain pathways, all of which require tight regulation. The first is movement, which is achieved via the nigrostriatal pathway. The second pathway, known as the mesocorticolimbic pathway, plays a role in mood, motivation, and reward. Often, dopamine is referred to as the pleasure hormone because of its effects via this pathway. Dopamine is also responsible for a concept known as operant conditioning, which exploits the reward centers of the brain to develop behavior. This ultimately affects learning and memory development. The final major pathway, the tuberoinfundibular pathway, plays a role in lactation by inhibiting a hormone known as prolactin.

Effects of abnormal dopamine levels
Since dopamine is responsible for a range of bodily functions, any condition that alters the production levels of this hormone can have a significant impact. The nigrostriatal pathway is where any abnormalities have the most drastic effect. A dopamine overload can cause involuntary movements, as commonly observed in Huntington’s disease. Conversely, when there is too little dopamine, movements become less fluid, a symptom exhibited by Parkinson’s patients.

Dysfunction in the mesocorticolimbic pathway causes serious mental health conditions. Excess dopamine in this pathway can cause psychosis, euphoria, and hallucinations. These are commonly known effects of narcotics such as cocaine and methamphetamine but also occur among schizophrenia patients. On the other hand, lowered levels of dopamine cause symptoms of depression, particularly anhedonia or the inability to feel pleasure, which is common among those with major depressive disorder (MDD). Although MDD is more closely attributed to dysregulation of another neurotransmitter, serotonin, dopamine deficits appear to coincide with MDD and can make it more difficult to treat.

Finally, irregular dopamine levels also affect the tuberoinfundibular pathway. As mentioned, dopamine acts as an inhibitor of prolactin, which is largely responsible for lactation. Low neurotransmitter levels can result in high levels of prolactin in the blood (hyperprolactinemia), which causes abnormal milk discharge (galactorrhea) and lack of menstruation in women, and impotence and enlarged breast tissues in men.

Symptoms of low dopamine
In extreme cases, dopamine deficits or overloads can cause serious physical and mental health conditions. However, adverse symptoms are likely to appear even if dopamine levels fall at the lower end of its regulatory range. Typically, when dopamine is within the normal range, individuals should feel happy, motivated, alert, and focused. Lowered levels can impact many aspects of life and daily functioning.

Cognitive changes, such as short-term memory lapses, inability to concentrate, and mood swings, may appear. Mood swings may even manifest as anger, low self-esteem, anxiety, and impulsiveness. Low dopamine may also lead to insomnia, further worsening daily functioning and causing difficulties in solving simple mental problems. Additionally, dopamine deficits can affect relationships, causing social withdrawal and impaired emotional functioning.

Low dopamine levels can also produce physical symptoms. One of the most common physical conditions is restless leg syndrome, the uncomfortable and irresistible urge to move the legs. This condition typically worsens at night, leading to its general classification as a sleeping disorder. However, it can also occur during the daytime, when the individual is sitting still. Dopamine irregularities may also cause gastrointestinal symptoms, such as chronic constipation.

Natural ways to increase dopamine
Many conditions tied to abnormal dopamine levels require medical intervention and medication. If you notice severe symptoms, especially movement-related symptoms or hallucinations, it is important to contact your doctor as soon as possible.

On the other hand, there are natural ways to increase dopamine levels that may help mitigate difficulties for those suffering from mood-related symptoms. Some of these methods may even help with MDD management.

There are two main means of naturally increasing dopamine: diet and the reward pathway. Foods do not directly augment dopamine production, but by ensuring that your body has access to the neurotransmitter’s basic building blocks, you can help boost production.

One of the most important compounds within dopamine is tyrosine, a natural amino acid that serves as the starting point for dopamine production. Other important dietary elements include vitamins D, B5, and B6, omega-3 essential fatty acids, and magnesium. Foods that contain these components and have been shown to help increase dopamine levels include chicken, almonds, apples, avocados, bananas, chocolate, leafy green vegetables, green tea, lima beans, and oatmeal.

Another way to naturally increase dopamine levels is by stimulating the brain’s reward centers. This is primarily done by engaging in healthy, enjoyable activities. Music is one example that has been studied in great depth by researchers. You can stimulate your body to release dopamine by simply listening to music you enjoy. It may even be possible to condition your body to be happy through music. Try listening to a particular song or playlist when you are in a good mood or doing an enjoyable activity. Then, when you feel down, listen to the same song. This could trick your brain into releasing dopamine.

Along with healthy hobbies, try engaging in activities that reduce stress and provide relaxation. Many studies have examined the benefits of regular exercise, meditation, and massages. Additionally, it is important to get enough sleep every night since sleep deprivation can have serious negative effects on dopamine levels.

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