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Dopamine: An Introduction to the “Feel-Good Chemical”

Do you get a rush of happiness when you eat a cookie? Do you feel the urge to go back for another soon after? That’s because eating a cookie triggers a release of dopamine – aptly nicknamed the “feel-good chemical” and “motivation molecule” – in your brain. The release of dopamine motivates us to seek more dopamine, encouraging us to perform that behavior again.

What Is Dopamine?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which is a chemical that sends messages throughout the brain and body. Dopamine in particular plays a role in many important functions, such as:

  • Learning and attention
  • Mood and emotions
  • Movement and motor control
  • Kidney function
  • Blood vessel function
  • Sleep patterns

One of dopamine’s most notable jobs is to help us feel pleasure as part of our brain’s reward and reinforcement system. From an evolutionary standpoint, this reward system encouraged us to seek behavior that promoted our survival, such as eating, drinking and reproducing. When dopamine is released, it gives us a sense of pleasure and motivates us to repeat those pleasurable behaviors.

Fortunately for us, the “motivation molecule” isn’t reserved for our most basic survival needs; we can receive a rush of dopamine from just about anything we enjoy – spending time with loved ones, going for a walk or listening to music. Unfortunately, some substances and activities that deliver dopamine are not in our best interest, such as impulsive shopping, video gaming, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and scrolling on social media. When used in moderation, most of these aren’t necessarily harmful, but they can become problematic in excess. Dopamine reinforces habits, so we should be aware of the habits we’re forming.

It’s important to note that illicit drugs and alcohol release a much more intense flood of dopamine than natural rewards do. For example, eating chocolate raises dopamine levels around 50 percent above your baseline. Alcohol increases dopamine levels by around 150 percent. Amphetamines (like meth) raise levels 1,000 percent.  The amount of dopamine released can vary from person to person depending on factors like individual brain chemistry. But repeatedly getting pleasure from higher-dopamine rewards can lead to more uncomfortable comedowns, addiction and can impede your brain’s ability to produce dopamine (and feel pleasure) naturally.

Finding a Balance

We shouldn’t be scared of dopamine; in fact, dopamine is integral to being human. A healthy level of the chemical makes us feel good. When dopamine levels are balanced, we feel productive, motivated, excited, optimistic, attentive, creative and more extroverted. Lower dopamine levels can make us feel unmotivated, depressed, fatigued, anxious, unfocused and restless. Low levels can also negatively impact sleep and cause weight fluctuations and digestive problems.

Dopamine imbalances are also linked to more severe health consequences. Many diseases are associated with high or low levels of dopamine. For instance, too little dopamine is believed to cause Parkinson’s disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression. Too much dopamine, on the other hand, is associated with mania, addiction, obesity and schizophrenia.

Healthy Ways to Regulate Dopamine

Maintaining healthy levels of dopamine can improve your overall happiness and feeling of well-being. There are several ways to achieve this in your daily life, including:

  • Exercise. Exercise releases healthy levels of dopamine and other feel-good chemicals like endorphins. Studies show that over time, regular exercise boosts available dopamine receptors, increasing your capacity for joy.
  • Healthy diet. Dopamine is made from the amino acid tyrosine, so it’s believed that eating a diet rich in tyrosine can boost dopamine Some tyrosine-rich foods include chicken, dairy, avocado, banana, sesame and soy.
  • Listening to music. Studies show that listening to music you enjoy can improve your mood and increase dopamine levels by about nine percent.
  • Spending more time outdoors. It’s well-established that exposure to sunshine increases levels of feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. Even just spending 15 minutes a day outdoors can improve stress, anxiety and depression.

[Hannah Sabitoni]

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