Dopamine is important for optimal mental function as well as many of our daily habits and behaviors
It plays an important role in movement, food preference, learning, attention, habits, mood, and more.
But dopamine's conversational popularity is probably due more to its role in driving our most decadent urges - essentially sex, drugs, and rock n roll - than its less titillating mechanisms.
Here, we'll discuss how dopamine affects various cognitive functions and how natural remedies like nootropics for dopamine can help balance dopamine levels in your brain for brighter mood and better overall mental performance.
What is Dopamine?
Dopamine has become a part of mainstream culture as well as a popular research topic in neuroscience.
And although dopamine has been the focus of more than 110,000 research papers over the last 60 years, it remains a source of controversy among the medical community.
Dopamine's popular definition differs depending on the context, but scientifically speaking, it is a naturally occurring brain chemical that can stimulate pleasure, euphoria, motivation, attention, and movement.<1>
And it does all this through an intricately linked communication system of neurons that talk to each other via specialized receptor sites.
The “Reward “ Chemical
Dopamine is usually triggered when your brain expects a reward from certain behaviors. It triggers positive feedback and a surge of energy that results from behaviors that enable you to achieve that reward.
Dopamine alerts us to things that meet our needs and motivates us to pursue the things that meet our need and desires.
Dopamine is important for many of our daily behaviors.
For instance, it:
- stimulates physical movement
- influences dietary cravings
- affects how we learn
- can lead to addictive behaviors.
Key Point: Dopamine is labeled the "reward hormone" because the brain releases dopamine as a reward for taking steps to reach a goal.
Without enough dopamine, motivation declines. Causing a decrease in pleasure received from usually enjoyable activities like hobbies, exercise, music, sex, or social interactions.
In addition, low dopamine has been implicated in impulse problems and ADHD.
In other words, inadequate dopamine levels can limit cognitive performance and cause a bad case of the blues.
Learning About Rewards
Few neurons actually make dopamine.
A decline of dopamine-manufacturing nerve cells in the substantia nigra is linked to cognitive decline - especially cognitive functions related to movement.
But the functions of other dopamine-releasing neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) are less well defined, and their roles and mechanisms remain a controversial topic among neuroscientists.
One of the best-defined roles for VTA dopamine neurons relates to learning about rewards.<2>
VTA dopamine neurons become activated when something beneficial happens. In an evolutionary aspect, this might include the sudden availability of food or an opportunity for leisure time or procreation.
While dopamine is largely a positive influence on human behaviors, it is also the mechanism that influences addiction to most abused drugs - which cause the release of dopamine and is believed to contribute to their addictive properties.
How Dopamine Works in the Brain
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that nerve cells use to send messages. When a neuron releases dopamine, it crosses a tiny gap called a synapse and attaches to a dopamine receptor on a neighboring neuron.
When dopamine levels are depleted in the brain, signals become jumbled, like static on a television or radio channel. Faulty signals can impair cognitive functions like mood, attention, learning, behavior, movement, and sleep.
Different parts of the brain produce different neurotransmitters. Two brain areas are mainly responsible for dopamine production:
1) Substantia Nigra
The substantia nigra is a tiny strip that spans both hemispheres at the base of the brain in a region called the midbrain.
Dopamine from the substantia nigra sends signals that prompt movement and influence speech. When dopamine-producing cells in this area die, movement can become impaired.
Extreme dopamine deficiency can result in shakiness, tremors, difficulty walking, eating, or speaking, and general inability to control physical movement. Drugs or implants that stimulate dopamine production can sometimes alleviate these symptoms.
2) Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA)
The nearby ventral tegmental area (VTA) is another area of the midbrain that produces dopamine. The VTA plays an important role in motivation, thinking, emotions, and addiction.
But VTA dopamine's best-known role is learning about rewards. VTA dopamine neurons light up when something good happens, causing the brain to signal pleasure. Over time, this mechanism reinforces behaviors that lead to "rewards" and result in feelings of pleasure.
Both of these midbrain areas together are smaller than a postage stamp, but the dopamine they produce carries messages throughout much of the brain.
Dopamine uses many important pathways throughout the brain to send messages. But dopamine that influences mental constructs like motivation, attention, addiction, or lust mainly travels the mesolimbic pathway.
Dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area use this pathway to send messages to the nucleus accumbens and the cortex.
Dopamine and Cognition
As the "reward chemical," dopamine signals feelings of pleasure and contentment for certain behaviors, often linked to survival needs.
This promotes a good mood, which in turn boosts other cognitive functions.
Current research suggests that the prefrontal cortex is a recurrent site of integration between mood and cognition and that mood affects executive functions.<3>
Since dopamine levels influence mood, proper dopamine levels and good cognitive function are closely linked.
And mood can impact more than cognitive performance. You mood can affect everything from academic test results to job promotions to social relationships.
With a positive mental state, you are more likely to achieve your goals and desires, whatever they may be.
But a consistently sour mood can keep you from reaching your goals and having the life you want.
Insufficient dopamine levels can cause emotional imbalance and poor mood. And dysfunctional interaction between dopamine and serotonin mechanisms in the prefrontal cortex can lead to aggression.<4>
Movement and Motivation
Since movement often leads to perceived reward, movement is closely linked to motivation - and dopamine also influences motivation.
Without motivation, physical activity can seem undesirable, while laying on the couch seems like a more rewarding activity.
But with a lack of physical activity, motivation can decline, leading to a cycle of inertia.
Dopamine produced in the substantia nigra plays an important role in helping initiate movement. Decline in dopamine-producing cells in this brain region can result in loss of executive functions that drive movement and motivation.
But numerous studies have shown that boosting dopamine can improve cognitive function - including movement and motivation.<5>In addition, improved dopamine production can improve cognitive decline associated with dementia, age-related memory loss and head trauma.
One of dopamine's main functions is reinforcement of rewarding behaviors. For instance, dopamine is largely what prompts lab animals to repeatedly press a lever or learn the best route through a maze in order to get food.
It’s also partly responsible for food cravings and why you'll have another slice of pizza , even if you're full. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though.
Dopamine's role in reward and reinforcement plays an important role in evolution and survival, helping us learn where and how to find crucial staples like food and water so we can go back for more.
Because of its roles in reward and reinforcement, dopamine affects focus and concentration. We usually consider something that leads to a reward as worth our attention.
Dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens may increase in people with post-traumatic stress disorder during periods of heightened vigilance or anxiety. In this brain area, dopamine isn’t related to reward.
Instead, it prompts salience. Salience is more than attention. It is a signal to pay close attention to something.
Dopamine's influence on salience may be part of the mesolimbic pathway's role in attention deficit disorders and may also influence or reinforce addictive behaviors.
Dopamine from the VTA usually tells the brain when to expect or receive a reward. That reward might be a piece of pie or a favorite song. This dopamine flood signals a desire to repeat the behavior that led to the reward.
And that helps people modify their behaviors in order to get more of that rewarding experience.
Low dopamine levels can cause us to lose interest in important activities like eating and drinking and can lose pleasure in things that once brought us joy, bringing on a state called anhedonia.
Insufficient levels of dopamine can lead to various cognitive impairments, ranging in severity from mild to extreme.
Dopamine Deficiency Symptoms:
- Decreased motivation
- Mood swings
- Poor memory
- Inability to focus
- Impulsive behaviors
Extreme dopamine deficiency can causes permanent degeneration of motor skills, resulting in muscle rigidity and tremors.
Support Dopamine Naturally in 6 Ways
There are many ways you can help your brain maintain good dopamine levels. Instead of giving in to cravings or relying on quick, but often harmful, artificial fixes, try balancing your dopamine with these tips:
1) Reduce sugar intake
Sugar disrupts dopamine levels, causing an unnatural and highly addictive sugar high. And sugar stimulates the same euphoric pathway targeted by alcohol and drugs.
Limit sugar intake to reduce cravings and protect natural dopamine levels. If you struggle with a sweet tooth, chromium picolinate supplements can help decrease sugar cravings.<6>
2) Limit caffeine
Like sugar, coffee gives you a temporary energy boost, but it can deplete dopamine in the long run. Minimize coffee consumption or switch to decaf to counter dopamine deficiency.<7>
3) Set a healthy routine
One easy way to boost dopamine is to follow a regular sleep pattern. Ideally, every 24-hour cycle should include seven to eight hours of sleep and regular periods of physical activity.
Irregular sleep cycles combined with lack of exercise can drain dopamine levels. Adequate periods of activity and rest allow the brain to recharge its stores of neurotransmitters.
4) Decrease stress levels
Dopamine deficiency is related to high stress levels. While you can’t always control your circumstances, you can find many ways to help deal with daily stress and anxiety better.
Meditation, deep breathing, yoga, tai chi, reading, praying, journaling, and many other stress-reducing practices can help reduce stress and protect dopamine levels.
Magnesium deficiency can lower dopamine levels, and experts estimate over half of Americans don’t get enough magnesium from their diet.
Common symptoms of magnesium deficiency include salt or carbohydrate cravings, high blood pressure, constipation, rapid heartbeat, sore muscle, fatigue, headaches, poor mood, and anxiety.
The antioxidants contained in vitamins like C and E protect brain neurons that use dopamine. Taking a high-quality daily multi-vitamin can help protect neurons from free-radical damage and ensure an ample supply of key nutrients needed for healthy cognitive function.
Peak mental performance begins with good nutrition.
The brain requires an extensive amount of a wide range of micronutrients for proper cognitive functioning. Without the right amount of these essential nootropic vitamins and minerals, our cognitive power can fade, while overall brain health weakens.
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Stress is an inescapable part of the human experience, and extreme or chronic stress can cause or exacerbate a plethora of mental and cognitive dysfunctions. L-tyrosine may help mitigate the effects of high stress.
N-Acetyl L-tyrosine is the active and more bioavailable form of L-tyrosine - a precursor to catecholamines, including dopamine.
Clinical trials show L-tyrosine bioavailability can influence the synthesis of both dopamine and norepinephrine in experimental animals – and probably in humans.
- Stress increases catecholamine levels, which can be followed by depletion. L-tyrosine can reduce stress-induced catecholamine increase and protect normal dopamine levels.<8>
Tyrosine forms DOPA, which converts to dopamine. By supporting dopamine production, N-Acetyl L-tyrosine supplements can enhance cognitive function and mental performance, especially under stressful situations.<9>
L-theanine is an amino acid that induces alpha brainwaves for a state of alert relaxation.
Found in green tea and some mushrooms, L-theanine can cross the blood-brain barrier to boost dopamine levels.
It's natural antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects reduce the symptoms of mental and physical stress and improve learning and memory.
In addition to increasing dopamine and other brain chemicals that promote feelings of calm, L-theanine reduces brain chemicals that are linked to anxiety and stress, helping to protect brain cells against the long-term effects of stress and age-related neural damage.
L-theanine works with caffeine to enhance cognitive skills.
Research shows L-theanine combined with caffeine can improve attention, enhance visual information processing, and increase accuracy while multitasking.
- A single dose of L-theanine - as low as 100 mg - significantly improves attention and focus compared to placebo.<10>
CDP Choline, one of the major components in Citicoline, encourages dopamine release and improves overall dopamine levels by acting as a dopamine agonist and inhibiting dopamine reuptake.
Because Citicoline is water soluble, the body readily absorbs it into the bloodstream, giving it a 90% bioavailability rate and increasing its effectiveness.
But this is just one of many reasons Citicoline is one of the best overall nootropics for dopamine.
- Research along with preliminary evience in clinical trials on its effectiveness at reducing cravings in cocaine users suggests that Citicoline's effect on the dopamine-reward system can help reduce food and drug cravings and control appetite.<11> And Uridine, the other major component in Citicoline, may help when combined with CDP choline.
Uridine, along with CDP Choline, promotes the growth of new dopamine receptors in the brain by activating D1 and D2 receptor signaling, helping to prevent dopamine receptor burn out, especially in brains with fewer dopamine receptors.
This mechanism helps optimize mental function and improve both mood and cognition.
Rhodiola rosea, or golden root, is a popular plant used in traditional medicine across Asia and Eastern Europe.
Some of Rhodiola's benefits include boosting mood, increasing energy, enhancing work performance, and reducing the symptoms of physical and mental stress.
Rhodiola exerts multiple effects on the central nervous system, including improving dopamine's stability and inhibiting dopamine reuptake, helping to reduce anxiety and fatigue and boosting the brain's ability to handle stress.
- Evidence from human studies suggests rhodiola can significantly reduce feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress-related fatigue compared to placebo.<12>
Rhodiola can enhance the permeability of the blood-brain barrier, allowing for better transport of dopamine - which improves physical and mental energy, and promoting overall brain and mental health.
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- Brookshire B. Explainer: What is Dopamine? Science News for Students. 17 Jan 2017.
- Creed MC, Ntamati NC, Tan KR. VTA GABA neurons modulate specific learning behaviors through the control of dopamine and cholinergic systems. Front. Behav. Neurosci., 22 January 2014. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2014.00008
- Seo D, Patrick CJ, Kennealy PJ. Role of Serotonin and Dopamine System Interactions in the Neurobiology of Impulsive Aggression and its Comorbidity with other Clinical Disorders. Aggress Violent Behav. 2008 Oct;13(5):383-395. doi: 10.1016/j.avb.2008.06.003
- Michell R, Phillips L. The psychological, neurochemical and functional neuroanatomical mediators of the effects of positive and negative mood on executive functions. Neuropsychologia. 2007. 45: 617-629.
- Cubells, J. M. and Hernando, C. Clinical trial on the use of cytidine diphosphate choline in Parkinson's disease. Clin.Ther 1988;10(6):664-671.
- MacPherson K. Sugar Can Be Addictive. Princeton University Department of Psychology and Neuroscience Institute. 10 Dec 2008.
- Acquas E1, Tanda G, Di Chiara G. Differential Effects of Caffeine on Dopamine and Acetylcholine Transmission in Brain Areas of Drug-naive and Caffeine-pretreated Rats. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2002 Aug; 27(2). doi: 10.1016/S0893-133X(02)00290-7
- Young S. L-Tyrosine to alleviate the effects of stress? J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2007 May; 32(3): 224.
- Leon SL, et al. The dopamine D4 receptor gene 48-base-pair-repeat polymorphism and mood disorders: A meta-analysis. Biol Psychiatry. 2005 May 1;57(9):999-1003.
- Foxe JJ, et al. Assessing the effects of caffeine and theanine on the maintenance of vigilance during a sustained attention task. Neuropharmacology. 2012 Jun;62(7):2320-7. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2012.01.020.
- Killgore WDS, et al. Citicoline Affects Appetite and Cortico-Limbic Responses to Images of High Calorie Foods. Int J Eat Disord. 2010 Jan; 43(1): 6–13. doi: 10.1002/eat.20658
- Olsson EMG, von Schéele B, Panossian AG. A Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Parallel-Group Study of the Standardised Extract SHR-5 of the Roots of Rhodiola rosea in the Treatment of Subjects with Stress-Related Fatigue. Planta Med 2009; 75(2): 105-112. doi: 10.1055/s-0028-1088346