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Dopamine is our main “focus” neurotransmitter that also regulates our pleasure/reward circuits, memory, and motor control (physical movement and coordination). It acts as either an excitatory or inhibitory neurotransmitter, depending on the dopamine receptor it binds to. Dopamine is made from the amino acid tyrosine and is the basic building block for other brain chemicals such as norepinephrine and epinephrine, which as a group are called catecholamines. Like norepinephrine and epinephrine, dopamine is stored in vesicles in the axon terminal of the nerve cell.
Adequate dopamine levels are needed to allow us to focus our attention in the moment and attend to matters at hand (remember that attention deficit is at least in part due to low dopamine). Dopamine is the main player in regulating our reward circuitry and pleasure centers (hence dopamine’s role in addictions). This all-important brain chemical is also critical for memory and motor skills.
Problems can ensue if dopamine is too high or too low. For example, dramatically elevated levels, the so-called “dopamine storm,” can be associated with hallucinations, delusions, agitation, mania, and frank psychosis. Such a state, fortunately rare, is clinically obvious and constitutes a medical emergency. On the other hand, low dopamine states are quite common and sometimes go years without being identified, let alone treated.
Low dopamine levels can cause depression, loss of motor control, loss of satisfaction, addictions, cravings, compulsions, low sex drive and poor attention and focus. When dopamine levels are elevated, symptoms may manifest in the form of anxiety, paranoia or hyperactivity.
If you answered yes to any of the above, you could have low dopamine levels.
Test dopamine levels with the NeuroAdrenal Profile test. A simple urine test can determine your dopamine levels.
For our office based patients, we usually recommend the NeuroAdrenal Profile test. See below for details.
Dopamine levels are depleted by stress, certain antidepressants, drug use, poor nutrition and poor sleep. Alcohol, caffeine and sugar all seem to decrease dopamine activity in the brain.
Food sources of dopamine increasing tyrosine include almonds, avocados, bananas, dairy products, lima beans, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds.
Dopamine is easily oxidized. Foods that are rich in antioxidants, such as fruits and vegetables, may help protect dopamine-using neurons from free radical damage. Many healthcare professionals recommend supplementing with vitamin C, vitamin E and other antioxidants.
Foods such as sugar, trans fats, cholesterol and refined foods interfere with proper brain function and can cause low dopamine. Consumption of trans fats and cholesterol should also be reduced because they can clog the arteries to the brain, heart and other organs.
Caffeine must also be avoided by persons with depression. Caffeine is a stimulant which initially speeds up neurotransmission, raises the amount of serotonin, and temporarily elevates mood.
Dopamine precursors are specific amino acids that our brains utilize to manufacture dopamine. Neurotransmitters are frequently not supplied in great enough levels by our modern diet or in the way our brain best utilizes them. As stress further depletes supplies, it is difficult, if not impossible, for the brain to restore necessary amounts to proper levels. Dopamine supplements may then be required to increase dopamine and other neurotransmitter supplies. Dopamine supplements increase dopamine naturally, with little to no side effects.
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