What is dopamine and why does it matter?

Dopamine is a chemical made in several areas of the brain and is a way nerve cells talk to one another. We call those types of chemical neurotransmitters, and this one in particular is a neurohormone. Society is becoming a little familiar with these scientific terms as over-diagnosing and over-medicating mental illness has reached an all-time high. TV commercials for pharmaceuticals are making some of these words more accessible as well. But you may be most familiar with it as the Parkinson’s disease neurotransmitter because of the publicity around beloved actor Michael J. Fox’s diagnosis with this neurodegenerative disease; brain cells are damaged or die and can no longer make enough dopamine to process through a very specific brain circuit and lead to tremors and loss of motor control. Dopamine is also involved in other pathologies I address. For example, HIGH levels in a different brain pathway are associated with schizophrenia.

But less extreme deficiencies of dopamine are also affecting us in incredible ways. Dopamine is the “Molecule of More” drug that helps to create drive, motivation, focus, and concentration. You release it more when you get rewarded in some way. It feels good. And can be a bit addictive. It makes us restless, curious, relentless, unsettled…it is the wanderer ready to explore and can get bored very quickly with the same old same old.

Can you start to see that if you’re chronically tired, low energy, unmotivated, lack feelings of happiness and joy, struggle to feel pleasure, can’t seem to find anything you’re passionate enough about to act upon, start self-diagnosing yourself as ADHD because you struggle to concentrate and focus, and love to procrastinate, that you may very well just need to upregulate your own production of dopamine to feel better? Indeed, we know low dopamine is at the center of diagnoses such as depression and is key in addictive disorders (it’s the surge of dopamine from the reward of obtaining the “drug’ of choice that gives the feel-good high the user is chasing whether that is food, sugar, gambling, porn, caffeine, or sex, to name a few.)

Almost all the QEEG (electrical activity recorded brain maps) I am analyzing in my office over the past two months center around low dopamine and the symptoms that deficiency creates. My Practice Members are entrenched in criticizing themselves as “lazy procrastinators” and the like. They have bought into the diagnostic label of Western Medicine of “major depressive disorder” as a lifelong condition so they will always need to take a drug to help regulate since they are inherently “broken” and “f-ed up.”

But what if you AREN’T broken or lazy or ADHD or permanently chemically imbalanced because you can’t manage to get the laundry done and the kitchen clean every night? What if this isn’t about some defect in your character because you can’t genuinely feel as happy as you think you are supposed to? What if you actually CAN’T just read some affirmations and join a gym/box and keep up with the uber motivated, extra competitive people there who are “JUST DOING IT?”

What if you have depleted yourself of dopamine from poor eating habits? Or nobody told you that you can make it from the morning sunlight and that by never seeing the sunrise and being at a computer screen all day you are depleting yourself of DOPAMINE?

Why doesn’t anyone teach you THIS before they prescribe Ritalin?

Or what if your dopamine circuits are burned out from repeating inappropriate dopamine-seeking behaviors and thoughts in any attempt to get that dopamine hit we all need? (Those things are like social media, gambling, porn, sugar, alcohol, drugs, TikTok, btw.)

Or, gasp, what if you have a genetic mutation making it difficult to MAKE dopamine? After all, if you are a Val/Val COMT, you most likely are running a low baseline of dopamine but if you are Met/Met, you probably have a HIGH dopamine level. Wouldn’t that be good to know? 

Would this give you permission to stop criticizing yourself?

Would this give you some permission to acknowledge biochemical individuality and empower yourself to make simple changes to improve the quality of your mood-regulating chemistry?

What do you do to increase dopamine?

First, I prefer you have some type of evaluation with someone trained with knowledge in this area. But here are some general things:

1. Morning Sunlight on Naked Eyes
But, if you want some safe ways to increase the substrates that the body uses to make dopamine, I will post some in the next blog post. Hint, it includes eating tyrosine-containing foods, decreasing sugar which depletes dopamine levels over time, adding a supplement or two, learning to diminish the effects of stress, and creating a lifestyle with dopamine reward incentives.

2. Optimize Sleep

3. Exercise especially lifting weights

4. Meditate

5. Avoid inflammatory fats like seed oils

6. Avoid sugar

7. Avoid addictive substances such as meth, heroine, opioids, alcohol, sugar, porn, gambling, screens

8. Eat protein-rich animal foods containing tyrosine naturally

That’s a quick start! What questions do you have about dopamine deficiency? Ask me in the comments!