Five Foundations of Dopamine Deficiency
- Type II Diabetes
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Substance Abuse
What is Dopamine?
If you do not have a foundational understanding of the body’s nervous systems, it may be hard for you to understand dopamine and its function. The nervous systems of the body, both the portion located in the brain and spinal cord and the portion in the rest of the body, rely on chemicals to transmit messages between nerve cells. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure, motivation and excitement. It regulates our heart rate, circulation, kidney function, mood, sleep cycles and more. One common “nickname” for dopamine is the brain’s reward system. That means dopamine deficiency, changes in the amount of dopamine being produced in the body, or an unbalanced supply of the chemical can affect the body in many ways, including psychological and physical.
When studying the condition of dopamine deficiency, it must be understood that such a disruption in the brain’s reward system may occur in the production phase or during the reuptake process. “Reuptake” is necessary to maintaining a balance in the levels of dopamine (and other neurotransmitters) in the body. It is a process by which cells absorb the unused (or excess) chemicals to reprocess them. So, something can disrupt the functioning of dopamine by affecting its production or by causing excess dopamine to build up. As research progresses, it becomes clear that several organic brain disorders and environmental stimuli may contribute to the same observable effect. Below are five of the leading causes of this deficiency.
1. Major Depressive Disorders and Dopamine
While common sense might lead one to believe that dopamine deficiency causes depression, that sense would be incorrect. It is the reverse, as scientists have recently discovered. The neurotransmitters that are produced and distributed in the brain are interconnected. If one or several falls below a critical threshold, this impacts the entire system. While the dopamine reward system is what is primarily thought to induce feelings of physical pleasure, when serotonin and norepinephrine are disrupted or depleted, this may send improper signals to the reward system that produces and processes dopamine.
Scientists believe, though the research is new and somewhat untested, that a large concentration of serotonin ( another neurotransmitter) in the brain “tricks” the dopamine receptors into absorbing the serotonin instead. That leads to a dopamine deficiency. Serotonin has been dubbed the “happiness” molecule, while dopamine is the “motivator” molecule. In other words, they have different functions, and must be balanced for healthy functioning.
Doctors have begun to ask their older patients if they are depressed. The reason is recently discovered data about how aging affects dopamine production. An article on the website ponderthepreposterous says that the body sees a six-to-seven percent loss in dopamine production for every decade of life. That leads to impaired cognition, muscular rigidity and a lessened sense of satisfaction. Aging and dopamine are interrelated, as are aging and depression.
2. Complex Dopamine Scenarios in Schizophrenia
In the case of schizophrenia, the complexity of the brain and the neurotransmitter networks that help regulate and build cognitive function becomes apparent. One cannot merely assess the levels or presence of dopamine and add or subtract from what is discernable. As with other types of psychosis and neurological disorders, dopamine produced in one area of the brain and that produced in another area of the brain is out of balance. A study published in the Frontiers of Psychiatry reported that in the hippocampus, PET scans indicate hyperactive dopamine production, while in the prefrontal cortex, it is deficient. In order to understand how this impacts individuals, the related neurotransmitters must also be assessed.
Think of this lack of balance in terms of tire pressure. Yes, it is a stretch, but mechanics know that a variety of malfunctions in cars can be caused by a difference in the inflation of the tires. Basically, tires that are on the same axle should be inflated to the same pressure. An under inflated tire wears faster and may be prone to blow outs. Over-inflated tires don’t have as much contact with the road surface and can lessen maneuverability of the car. Tires inflated to different pressures can result in accidents, affect mileage and cause other problems. In other words, for the car to function in a “healthy” manner, there must be a balance.
3. Type II Diabetes
While some report that diets high in fat or the condition of obesity itself is related to dopamine shortfalls, this is not strictly true. The key is insulin, hence, Type II or “insulin resistant” diabetes. In this metabolic disorder, beta cells in the pancreas overproduce insulin, to which the body is unresponsive. Insulin can cross the blood-brain barrier, and this is where excessive or persistently high levels of the hormone become a severe problem. It binds to several types of receptors, including those intended for dopamine in the brain. This blocks the uptake of the neurotransmitter and results in a chronic and escalating deficiency, according to a study published in ACS Chemical Neuroscience. The individual, seeking the food-associated gratification usually supplied by the brain’s reward system, will repeat their attempts to attain dopamine by eating known pleasure-inducing foods, which compounds the problem.
4. Parkinson’s Disease And Loss of Dopamine Production
Parkinson’s Disease is a chronic condition that affects the central nervous system, and especially the parts of the nervous system that control movement. Most people have seen the way the disease has ravaged the actor Michael J. Fox and the toll it took on boxer Muhammed Ali. People are familiar with the tremors and difficulty in walking, impaired speech and other symptoms. Parkinson’s damages the “substantia nigra” cells which produce dopamine. When it damages the basal ganglia cells, dopamine produced in this area is decreased. That impacts movement and motivation. As the disease progresses, less dopamine is produced, and the symptoms of Parkinson’s increase. In addition to movement, this includes depression, memory impairment, anxiety, and possibly hallucinations. Unfortunately, the cells do not regenerate, but treatment includes pharmaceuticals that can be converted to dopamine in the brain. There has been only “modest success” in these treatments, and Parkinson’s Disease, at this time, is always fatal.
This condition is one in a group of what scientists call Motor System Disorders (MSD). Unfortunately, as the degenerative disease progresses, it directly impacts the neurons that produce and process dopamine, effectively killing them. Parkinson’s is directly responsible for destroying both the brain’s means and methods to use this essential neurotransmitter. While there is no cure, patients may supplement organic dopamine with two drugs that act to resupply the brain from without—Carbidopa and Levodopa.
5. Overtaxing the System with Substances
Dopamine is the chief neurotransmitter in the pleasure-reward system. It’s also tied to memory formation and learning, among other functions essential to maintaining a pulse. When humans have a pleasurable experience, they also form a memory of that experience thanks to dopamine. This allows them to repeat the pleasurable experience in the future. Drugs and alcohol stimulate the release of dopamine, and a memory of that suite of sensations is formed. This remembered pleasure, rather than legitimate chemical dependence, is often the root of addiction. Consequently, the more frequently substances are abused, the more deranged the dopamine reward system becomes. Eventually, it may even cease to function.
Another way to look at this is that many substances, including alcohol, opium, cocaine, meth and others “hijack” the brain. They increase the production of dopamine temporarily ( bringing about the feeling of elation called “the high.”) They also change the way neurotransmitters flow to the receptors or even bypass the system, impersonating the real neurotransmitters and sending out false messages about mood, concentration, pleasure and feelings of well-being. As the impersonators replace the real neurotransmitters, the body produces less of them, resulting in a deficient supply. To achieve the good feeling state, the body must rely on the drugs.
Short-term users find their systems return to normal quickly, but long-term use may result in permanent damage to the neurotransmitter-producing cells.
The discussion of substance use and its relation to dopamine depletion should also include things like stress, obesity and poor nutrition, all of which create chemical imbalances for the neurotransmitters.
Stress causes the body to produce a substance called cortisol. While cortisol is necessary to the body for survival, a concentration of the substance can wreak havoc on neurotransmitter receptors. In other words, it inhibits them from receiving the messages carried by the dopamine. When dopamine levels are low, the body sends cortisol to the rescue as a short-term fix. It provides the energy needed by the metabolism. If the body doesn’t slow down its production of cortisol, however, the body begins to depend upon it and to produce less dopamine. While the substitute is a safety measure, its side effects are weight gain, high blood pressure and other injurious conditions.
This enzyme breaks down neurotransmitters. Too much of it, or too little, results in a decrease of dopamine. The enzyme level is related to obesity and it damages receptors the way alcohol and other addictive substances do. Recent studies showed that obese people had fewer receptors than did people of normal weight. Since dopamine affects motivation and activity levels, obese people were less likely to get needed exercise to lose weight and perpetuate the problem. Plus the brain may urge overeating ( a pleasurable activity) to stimulate “depressed reward centers of the brain.”
Like drugs and alcohol, sugar causes the body to produce a temporary surge of dopamine followed by a “crash” in levels. The instability damages the receptors the way drugs do, resulting in impaired ability to regulate the dopamine levels and the body requires more and more sugar to achieve the “reward.” Some of the expected side effects are obesity and diabetes.
On a Positive Note
Articles giving negative information should always close on a positive note. Although there are several things that can lead to a decrease in dopamine levels, some things can actually raise them. Here are several ways to raise dopamine levels.
Protein contains amino acids. One of these, tyrosine, can be converted by the body to dopamine. Another amino acid, phenylalanine, can be used to make dopamine as well. Both can be found in protein-rich foods like turkey, eggs, beef, legumes, dairy and soy.
Eat Less Saturated Fat
Fat may disrupt dopamine signaling, and researchers have linked it to inflammation which limits dopamine production. Additionally, some studies show decreased memory and “cognitive functioning” in people who eat high saturated fat diets, but there is not extensive research in this area.
The gut is often called the second brain because of the number of dopamine-producing nerve cells that are found there. Some bacteria that exist in the gut are also capable of producing dopamine. Although there isn’t a lot of research in the area, studies seem to indicate that some bacteria, when consumed in large enough amounts, reduce anxiety and depression.
Although studies haven’t found that aerobic exercise increases dopamine levels, research indicates that an hour of yoga, six days a week, does result in higher amounts of dopamine.
In the morning, the body releases high levels of dopamine to help the body get active. The amount falls at night to promote rest. Lack of high quality sleep disrupts that rhythm.
Listen to Music
Studies showed a nine percent rise in dopamine when people listened to instrumental music.
A study using experienced yoga instructors showed they had a 64 percent increase in dopamine levels after an hour of meditation as opposed to just resting.
Although excessive exposure to the sun can be harmful, a study of 68 healthy people showed the highest levels of dopamine in those who had the most exposure to the sun.
Our brains, while often compared to computers, are far more complicated than any machine ever created. They function and help us move through the world by producing and using a suite of hormones and neurotransmitters. But when one as critical as dopamine becomes imbalanced, serious issues may arise. Dopamine deficiency is caused by, rather than acting as a causal agent for, a host of neurological conditions, health imbalances, and even intentional substance misuse, which science has only recently come to understand.
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