Hormones 101

Dopamine your reward reaction

Written by Moody

Where it is released from?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced in two main areas of the brain, the substantia nigra and the ventral tegmental area - its release is triggered by nerve cells out of the hypothalamus.

What is its main function?

Dopamine acts as a chemical messenger between cells in the brain, relaying information through pathways that facilitate movement and reward-motivated behaviour, such as exercise or listening to your favourite music.

The reward and reinforcement element of dopamine’s function motivates humans to repeat behaviours that they experience as satisfying, like helping someone or giving a friend a present you know they’ll love.  Dopamine’s release has therefore also been linked to addiction because of its purpose to drive people to repeat behaviours that feel rewarding. When we participate in an activity which triggers dopamine release, the message is - do this activity again. This can be said for harmful and habit-forming drugs such as cocaine, alcohol and nicotine; the dopamine system produces more amounts than usual when we’re using addictive substances, prompting repetition. The same applies to compulsive activities such as gaming or social media -  these are apt examples of environments that encourage “compulsion loops” whereby we become entranced by the sense of satisfaction.

What are the effects of imbalances in this hormone?

The right levels of dopamine in the brain are imperative for both physical and mental wellbeing. Considering dopamine’s connection to our movements and emotional responses, any imbalances in the hormone understandably can interfere with our moods and cause us to feel sleepy and unmotivated. Common low dopamine symptoms include fatigue, depression, memory loss, mood swings, low libido and persistent struggling with maintaining a content and healthy lifestyle. Insufficient levels can be linked to Parkinson's disease and depression but symptoms associated with low dopamine levels due to drug use, are different to those associated with diseases such as Parkinson's. Repeated drug use could lead to a dysfunction in dopamine’s cell activation meaning that it may lead to difficulty in experiencing the positive effects of dopamine in the future.

What is its relationship to lifestyle: diet and stress?

Low dopamine has not only been linked to repeated drug use but also poor diet and lifestyle - the lack of motivation to do things that feel satisfying or rewarding as a result of low dopamine levels, can just further perpetuate further health issues. It’s important to understand too whether the lack of motivation is connected to other deficiencies within the body. Hormone health and the balanced functioning of other neurotransmitters such as serotonin or insulin could also play a huge part in understanding these signals. It’s no surprise then that exercise can aid in the stimulation of dopamine - the build up of heat in the body coupled with feeling of satisfaction after a run or session at the gym could be something we all relate to in some way. Dopamine helps our bodies remember this feeling so we’re inclined to repeat it.

When dopamine levels are low, this can also lead to the desire to reach for stimulants such as sugar, caffeine or alcohol, often making the situation worse. This may seem like good solution in the moment but using substances as a crutch to mask deeper issues, only adds additional layers of dis-ease, that will need to be looked at eventually. Why wait until it’s bad enough? We must remind ourselves to listen carefully to what our bodies are saying.  Sadly, for many of us, symptoms of imbalances have become so normalized, we don’t take them as seriously as we could be.

Words by Amy Mabin

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