What Is Dopamine? What Happens When The Dopamine Level Is High Or Falls Down? 

Ever wondered why you have the urge to eat, sleep, or do something apart from sitting and staring blankly at a point? Although it may all seem like regular body functions, there is a key role of the neurotransmitter Dopamine in it. It is a hormone often associated with happiness. It is often called a feel-good hormone that makes us feel happy in our lives. 

While all of this is correct, it is just the surface of what dopamine really is. Yes, it is a feel-good, happiness-generating hormone, but how does it do that? Does it really generate happiness? Or are there many other functions of dopamine?

According to the scientific definition in (“dopamine | Definition & Effects | Britannica”), Dopamine is defined as A nitrogen-containing organic compound formed as an intermediate compound from dihydroxyphenylalanine (dopa) during the metabolism of the amino acid tyrosine.” 

And about the function of Dopamine, the (“dopamine | Definition & Effects | Britannica”) said, “Dopamine also functions as a neurotransmitter—primarily by inhibiting the transmission of nerve impulses.”

Let’s say dopamine doesn’t make us happy, but it generates the desire for food, sleep, and other activities. The key word here is desire. Say, for example, it generates the desire for food, which generates hunger, and when you finally eat, there’s a sense of satisfaction, and dopamine rewards us with happiness. If there is no dopamine in the body or low dopamine, then one might not even want to move their muscle to do anything. This is what Dopamine does: generating desire so that we would work towards them. 

To learn more about this hormone, its functions, how it travels through the body and what happens when Dopamine levels drop or spike, and how to deal with it when this happens, stay on the article.

What is Dopamine also Called?

It works as a reward system. When you complete some task or eat the chocolate cake you have been craving for, it is released, which latches onto the receptor neurons, and the signals are sent through our nervous system, and that chocolate cake ends up rewarding you with happiness, all thanks to dopamine.

Apart from being called the reward system, it is commonly known as the feel-good hormone. 

Dopamine is primarily known as a neurotransmitter since it acts as a chemical messenger among neurons.

And according to the (“dopamine | Definition & Effects | Britannica”), Dopamine is also known as hydroxytryptamine. 

How do Neurons release Dopamine, and what Happens after Dopamine is released?

Dopamine is produced in the substantia nigra pars compacta, the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain, and the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus. 

Neurons produce neurotransmitters. Since the chemical Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, it is synthesized by the neurons in the neuron terminal, also called the axon terminal, where it is stored in vesicles (small sacs). Whenever the neuron receives a signal, it releases Dopamine. 

The release of Dopamine: An electrical impulse originates in the body of the cell. This signal travels down the axon to the axon terminal. This triggers the vesicles to release Dopamine into the synapse. Synapse is the space between the neurons. 

What happens after Dopamine is released?

Once the Dopamine enters the synapse, it latches itself onto the nearby Dopamine receptors present on the dendrites of the neurons to alter membrane currents. After that, the Dopamine comes off from the receptors and then binds to the transporters (protein) of the neuron they exited, so they can be sucked back up into the axon terminal after successfully completing the task.

What is the molecular formula of Dopamine?

C8H11NO2

What are the Functions of Dopamine?

As mentioned before, It does play a key role in almost all bodily functions. It is a hormone, or neurotransmitter as we would like to call it, responsible for creating the desire and rewarding us with happiness when the desire is satisfied. But this is not the only function of Dopamine.

Once it is released into the bloodstream, it is responsible for:

  • Pleasurable reward
  • Movement
  • Attention
  • Memory
  • Arousal
  • Lactation
  • Mood
  • Motivation
  • Sleep
  • Learning

Apart from this, dopamine acts as a vasodilator or vasoconstrictor, which means it relaxes or constricts the blood vessel when it is low or high respectively. In the immune system, it leads to the reduction of lymphocyte activity. It also leads to a reduction in insulin production in the pancreas. It increases the removal of urine and sodium from the body. It protects the gastrointestinal lining by slowing the movement of the content. 

When is Dopamine released into the Bloodstream?

It is released into the bloodstream when pleasurable acts are carried out. Once you do something that incites pleasure in your system, dopamine is released. 

Below listed are some of the activities that result in the release of dopamine:

Eating

Sleeping

Caffeine

Sex

Recreational drugs

Alcohol

Scrolling through the internet

Exercise

Painkillers

Listening to your favorite music

Now the activities listed above are both toxic, like drugs and alcohol, and regular, like eating and sleeping. This brings us to summarize that dopamine is both good and bad for our system. For example, when a human consumes drugs, a high amount of dopamine is released, which results in a high amount of pleasure, and once it is habituated to be released in higher amounts, the person will get addicted to drugs. This will result in the person being disinterested in doing other activities like exercising, working, or studying resulting in low dopamine release. Hence, excessive release of dopamine is harmful.

This brings us to the next question…

What Happens when the Dopamine Level Increases?

Addiction: 

As stated previously, high dopamine levels can lead to addiction. Once our system picks up the habit of high dopamine released in our bloodstream every single time we do that specific activity, it demands more and more of that activity, which in turn leads to addiction. It can be alcohol, drug, streaming through the internet for hours, etc. While so, it can also lead to anxiety, sleepless schedules, high libido, improved ability to focus, mania, and increased energy, among others. 

Hallucinations:

Hallucinations are also the result of high dopamine levels. When an individual goes through low dopamine levels, the majority of the time, they are put through dopamine-targeting drugs that are given to them to increase their dopamine levels. Some drugs are more powerful than others, and they lead to a surge in dopamine which causes hallucinations. This happens mostly in the case of Schizophrenia patients. 

Obesity:

Do you crave that chocolate cake or your favorite ice cream on daily basis? Do you want to eat it the first chance you get, no matter if you have eaten it just yesterday? Do you dip your hand in a bag of chips, and one hour later, you discover you have nothing left in that bag? This is dopamine playing its tricks on you to satisfy itself, and it’s rewarding you with a happiness system.

It creates your hunger and your cravings. Your hunger is for general food, but your cravings, you need to get a grip on them, because once you consume those bags of chips, the messenger will alert the dopamine in your system every time you consume a bag of chips. Its release for such foods is high, and it develops cravings that make you want to finish that entire bag of chips even if you know how toxic it is for your system. So is the matter with sweet things and alcohol.

Ultimately, such uncontrolled consumption of toxic food leads to obesity.

Mania:

Murder for a chocolate cake. Sounds like an intriguing title for books, might even write one, but what if it was true? 

That high you get every time you do something that you had desired makes you want to do it again and again. It’s okay if it’s a rollercoaster ride. What if the man who runs the roller coaster tells you that you cannot go again because you could only go thrice? You certainly won’t murder him, but that does make your face fall, and certainly, your mood would not be enthusiastic after listening to that; you might even end up arguing to let you go in.

Mania is a heightened state of mood where a person is overly enthusiastic with no will to sleep but is hyperactive all the time. Mania develops in three stages. The first stage is a mild one known as hypo mania, the second stage is acute mania, and the third is delirious mania which draws a fine line between a person having mania and psychosis.

It can put you at risk of mania. When a person who practically lives on the high of drugs knows what it is like when the drugs are taken away. They are hit with a thousand different things at the same time, they start speaking faster than normal, they don’t have a grip over their body, they are restless and sleepless, and many other things that are chaotic because that’s how it is inside the person’s brain.

Total chaos. That is what happens when you are habituated to living on a high of dopamine. A drug addict can even end up murdering someone for not providing them with drugs, and the chances of that happening are more than a person murdering someone for chocolate cake.

Delusions:

According to beliefs, excess dopamine can lead to abnormal salience, which is considered the base through which delusions form. Delusion is a psychiatric or psychosis condition where reality is experienced in an abnormal way. Delusions and hallucinations are key symptoms of schizophrenia.

Now that we know how dangerous it is when the dopamine spikes to a high on a daily basis, we will move on to learning what the low dopamine symptoms are, and then we shall move on to how to regulate the amount of dopamine in our system.

What are Low Dopamine Symptoms?

An injury can cause a dopamine low, or if your body does not respond to dopamine receptors, or it can be due to damaged nerve cells. Either way, it can lead to many drastic things.

By now, we have seen how dangerous it gets when dopamine levels are constantly used to being high. A person ends up always being on the high of their moods, cravings, and behavior, and if not then they seek it. But when the release of dopamine is low, it can lead to lows in the mood, loss of enthusiasm to do the things you once loved or practically most of the things; it might also generate the constant urge to sleep!

What are some low dopamine symptoms?

Lack of Motivation:

Since dopamine is the reason why desires are generated in our system, low dopamine does not generate the desire to move a muscle and complete that task. We can take the example of studying here. Why it is that when you open a book you want nothing but to sleep? It’s because sleep provides a higher amount of satisfaction and our system considers it to be more rewarding as the dopamine released is more compared to the time we spend studying or working. Hence, this leads to a lack of motivation to do necessary day-to-day activities.

Feeling tired all of the time:

Lack of motivation to do anything is the stepping stone to tiredness. It can feel like a huge deal to even move a muscle and grab a plate of food. 

Lack of concentration:

Imagine you have your exams the next day, and you open your book to study, but all you can think of is scrolling through reels on social media or going out and doing other things but studying. This is because studying seems like a dull activity and does not result in much higher satisfaction than scrolling through social media does.

Now, no matter how much loss not studying can cause, even if there is the fear of failing the exams, it all seems to be lost at the back of our minds because what is in the front is high dopamine-providing activities. This brings us to the conclusion that always seeking that high can spoil the low dopamine activities for you.

You feel anxious or moody:

When things don’t seem as lucrative as they are supposed to, you feel moody, or anxiety rushes in when you are about to present in a room full of people; it is all dopamine tricks. Presenting in a room full of people is not exactly what introverts desire. Hence there’s no doubt the dopamine level is about as low, so you end up with the feeling of anxiety.

There is no more pleasure felt from the activities that you once found to be pleasurable:

There was a time when I enjoyed reading books, but now that I write my own, reading books most of the time seems like a task, or I end up comparing my writing to the writing in the books, and it ends up making me feel anxious and moody. This point isn’t about being anxious or moody, but the one thing I which was once like a walk under a sky full of stars is now only a walk under the yellow street light. Not so lucrative anymore. All thanks to dopamine!

Depression and feeling of hopelessness:

How would a person feel due to lack of motivation, constant tiredness, mood swings, and anxiousness everywhere they go or on a daily basis, and that urge to do nothing but dwell in the numbness of our brain? It would ultimately lead to depression. It would generate a path where one doesn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel but only darkness. Apart from this, it also leads to the development of other low dopamine symptoms that are similar to depression.

Low sex drive:

While high dopamine leads to an increase in libido, low dopamine results in a low sex drive and the urge to indulge in sexual activities is frozen or lessened due to the non-reactiveness of the brain.

Other symptoms of low dopamine are disrupted sleep schedule, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, and gastrointestinal problems.

What is Dopamine Detox?

When I said earlier about regulating the dopamine level, this is what I meant. Dopamine detox is nothing but getting rid of the high levels of dopamine so you do not end up falling prey to addiction, or bringing up low dopamine levels, so you don’t end up with a lack of motivation.

Dopamine detox is lessening the high dopamine activities and focusing on getting used to the low dopamine activities.

I would suggest making a list of activities that make you desire them, such as activities that end up rewarding you with higher satisfaction, and on the other side of the list add the activities that make you want to not do them, there’s no desire to do the activity so you drag yourself through it. Such activities can be scrolling through social media and binge-watching and exercising, and studying. These activities can be added respectively. 

Now, if on daily basis I spend nine hours on social media, then I will cut the time to fifteen minutes. I will spend my time more on low dopamine activities like studying, exercising, cleaning, and working, and I will reward myself with fifteen minutes social media break every couple of hours. If diligently followed, this ends up regulating the constant nine hours high and dividing it into small pleasure moments.

There can be other activities that can be scheduled in such a way that more time is allotted to low dopamine activities, and high dopamine activities are scheduled in a way where we make them our pleasure for some minutes and once the brain gets used to it, it regulates the level of dopamine release. It should be practiced with determination to better one’s condition.

If the dopamine high is caused due to severe reasons like addiction to alcohol or drugs, or if the low is resulting in depression, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia, then one must contact the professionals to handle the situation with care in their own way.

What is the difference between Dopamine, Adrenaline, and Serotonin?

As stated previously in the article, dopamine and serotonin are mostly considered to be similar as they are both feel-good hormones, and so is dopamine associated with adrenaline, but dopamine is the forerunner of adrenaline.

Let us see their differences.

Dopamine: The whole article is based on dopamine, and by now, we know that it is a neurotransmitter located in the VTA, Substantia nigra pars compacta, and the hypothalamus. This hormone is responsible for generating desire and making us crave things so that it would reward us with satisfaction and happiness upon achieving the desired thing, which is why it is also known as the feel-good hormone known for its rewarding qualities.

Adrenaline: Adrenaline, on the other hand, is also a neurotransmitter or a hormone that is secreted from the adrenal glands and the medulla oblongata. Adrenaline is mostly activated in fight or flight situations. An adrenaline high can make your heart pump faster, which results in more supply of blood throughout the body, especially the brain, your lungs breathe faster, and your pupils dilate. An adrenaline high pumps you up with more energy; hence it is associated with a dopamine high. Though adrenaline coursing through can be an after situation of dopamine high. And it is also derived from amino acids.

Serotonin: Ah, yes, another hormone that is associated with happiness and amino acids. Low serotonin levels also generate symptoms similar to a dopamine low. Serotonin is responsible for being the nervous system’s messenger, affecting our digestion, sleep, sexual desires, and many other activities. It is known to be a mood stabilizer, a happy hormone that helps prevent depression. It is mostly associated with dopamine due to the similarity of amino acids forming hormones.

There can be more details on adrenaline and serotonin-like this whole article on dopamine, but that just leaves us with another topic for a fresh blog on amino acid-related hormones!

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