Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, responsible for communicating different signals between your nerve cells and your brain, which is produced in two main brain areas: the substantia nigra and the ventral tegmental area. Both of these brain areas are very thin and small, but the dopamine produced here is extremely important, as it makes movement, speech, and gratifying behavior change possible. That being said, the underproduction or overproduction of this neurotransmitter can have detrimental effects on an individual:
A dopamine deficiency (or low dopamine levels) can result from drug use, poor nutrition, lack of sleep, and stress. This defect hinders one’s ability to experience pleasure, and therefore, can result in chronic fatigue, a lack of energy, and a loss of satisfaction with life.
Severe Effects of Underproduction
In addition to the aforementioned symptoms and effects of a dopamine deficiency, low dopamine levels can also result in the following more serious effects and conditions:
- Depression: It’s no surprise that low levels of dopamine can cause depression, as it stimulates rapid mood changes and makes it more difficult for an individual to enjoy everyday experiences.
- Restless Legs Syndrome: This syndrome is characterized by an irresistible urge to move one’s legs and is predicted to be caused by an imbalance of dopamine—again, this neurotransmitter is responsible for communicating messages concerning muscle movement.
- Parkinson’s Disease: When the brain cells that produce dopamine start to die off, an individual may have trouble initiating movement—a primary symptom of Parkinson’s disease. To counter this dopamine defect, Parkinson’s patients take medication that helps them make more dopamine.
- Dopamine Deficiency Syndrome: This is a rare hereditary condition with only 20 confirmed cases, which affects a child’s ability to move their muscles. Symptoms include muscle cramps, tremors, muscle stiffness, difficult eating and swallowing, uncontrollable eye movements, and difficulty speaking and forming words.
- Rapid Weight Gain: Low dopamine levels often lead to cravings for sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and saturated fats, which—combined with inactivity and fatigue—typically results in rapid weight gain.
- Difficulty Concentrating: A dopamine deficiency can inhibit an individual’s focus and concentration, especially if he or she experiences intense feelings of sadness as a result of the low dopamine levels.
How to Increase Dopamine Levels
We experience an influx of dopamine when we perform pleasurable activities. Based on this general rule, the following can help boost your dopamine levels:
- A healthy diet: You should eat foods rich in tyrosine, such as avocados, bananas, and meat, as it is fuel for making dopamine. You should also exercise regularly, as this will increase your blood calcium, and in turn stimulate the release of dopamine in your brain.
- Medication that increases dopamine: Depending on the symptoms and effects of your low dopamine levels, you may require a prescription medication to increase these levels. For example, individuals with Parkinson’s disease are often prescribed a dopamine booster called levodopa.
Similarly, it is possible for an individual to experience the very opposite of a dopamine deficiency: a dopamine surplus or high levels of dopamine. Symptoms of a dopamine surplus can vary from person to person, but agitation, anxiety, heightened feelings of pleasure, and hyperactivity are commonly seen.
Severe Effects of Overproduction
While a dopamine surplus can cause lesser effects like aggression, hallucinations, nausea, and suspicion, there are also multiple conditions associated with high levels of dopamine. These include:
- Schizophrenia: Specific subtypes of this condition are seriously influenced by an overproduction of dopamine. More specifically, when an individual with schizophrenia experiences symptoms like hallucinations and delusions, there is typically an excess of the neurotransmitter and dysfunction in the way it has been processed. To counter these effects and reduce dopamine, these individuals are given antipsychotic medication.
- Bipolar Disorder: Hyperactive dopamine receptors are thought to trigger a move from the depressive phase of bipolar disorder into the manic phase and dopaminergic activity is thought to increase during manic episodes. Individuals with this condition are often prescribed antipsychotic medications, which again reduces dopamine levels, to manage their manic episodes.
- Psychosis: Psychosis is characterized by a disconnect from reality and typically results from drug abuse or a mental illness. Certain symptoms are most likely heightened by unusually high levels of dopamine. Again, individuals are typically treated with antipsychotics.
How to Decrease Dopamine Levels
There are several ways to decrease dopamine levels, but the right one for you depends on the underlying effects of the dopamine surplus:
- Focus on dietary intake: In less serious circumstances, one can decrease dopamine effects by foregoing stimulants like caffeine and eating foods rich in serotonin.
- Take antipsychotics: As previously mentioned, conditions associated with heightened dopamine levels (such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia) are typically treated with antipsychotics.