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What is dopamine deficiency?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and a hormone. It communicates chemical messages between nerve cells in your brain or between your brain and the rest of your body. It plays an important role in many of your body’s functions, including memory, motivation, learning, reward and movement.
Dopamine deficiency means having a low level of dopamine. Low dopamine levels are linked with certain health conditions like Parkinson’s disease or depression. It may also make you more susceptible to taking risks or developing addictions.
What causes low dopamine levels?
Dopamine, the neurotransmitter, is made in select areas in your brain. You could have low dopamine levels if there’s an injury to the areas of your brain that make dopamine. You could also have a low level of dopamine if your body doesn’t properly respond to dopamine (if there’s a problem with nerve cell receptors that pick up and pass along the chemical message).
Certain health conditions are linked to dopamine deficiency. For example, people with Parkinson’s disease have a loss of nerve cells and dopamine in particular areas of their brain. And people with cocaine addiction need more and more of the drug to achieve the positive effect because of damaged dopamine receptors in their brain and decreased dopamine release.
What are the symptoms of dopamine deficiency?
Symptoms of dopamine deficiency (low dopamine levels) may include:
- You lack motivation, “the drive.”
- You’re tired.
- You can’t concentrate.
- You’re moody or anxious.
- You don’t feel pleasure from previously enjoyable experiences.
- You’re depressed; you feel hopeless.
- You have a low sex drive.
- You have trouble sleeping or have disturbed sleep.
Other symptoms of low dopamine levels include:
- Hand tremors or other tremors at rest, loss of balance or coordination, increased muscle/limb stiffness, muscle cramps (symptoms of Parkinson’s disease).
- Restless legs syndrome.
- Problems with short-term memory, managing daily tasks and solving simple thinking problems (symptoms of cognitive changes).
- Problems with anger, low self-esteem, anxiety, forgetfulness, impulsiveness and lack of organizational skill (symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
- Social withdrawal, reduced emotions, don’t feel pleasure (negative symptoms of schizophrenia).
- Gastrointestinal symptoms, including chronic constipation.
There are many symptoms of dopamine deficiency. What you might experience depends on your underlying cause. For instance, your symptoms would be quite different if your low dopamine level were associated with Parkinson’s disease than they would be if they were associated with schizophrenia.
How is dopamine deficiency diagnosed?
Dopamine deficiency isn’t a medical diagnosis. Healthcare providers rarely check dopamine levels. A blood test alone doesn’t provide much useful information, either. For example, a blood test can measure dopamine levels but can’t determine how your brain responds to dopamine. Instead, your healthcare provider will gather your medical history, ask lifestyle questions (including alcohol and drug use), ask about your symptoms, examine you and order any needed tests based on your symptoms. With this information and the findings from your tests, your healthcare provider will determine if you have a medical condition related to a low dopamine level.
If your healthcare provider suspects you have Parkinson’s disease, they may order a dopamine transporter test. This is an imaging test that involves injecting a radioactive agent (like a dye) into your bloodstream, and then tracking it using single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT). If you have Parkinson’s disease, damaged nerve cells and loss of dopamine in the affected areas of your brain create a distinct pattern visible on the scan.
How are conditions that are linked to dopamine deficiency treated?
Treatment of dopamine deficiency depends on the underlying cause.
- Parkinson’s disease. Levodopa may be prescribed for Parkinson’s disease. In some cases, dopamine agonists, such as pramipexole (Mirapex®), ropinirole (Requip®) or rotigotine (Neupro®) may be used. Dopamine agonists work by mimicking dopamine, causing nerve cells to react in the same way.
- Restless legs syndrome. This condition is also treated by the dopamine agonists pramipexole (Mirapex®), ropinirole (Requip®) or rotigotine (Neupro®).
- Depression. Treatment of depression may include selective serotonin uptake inhibitors, such as fluoxetine (Prozac®), that affect both the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine to make them work.
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This condition can be treated with methylphenidate (Concerta®, Ritalin®), which increases dopamine activity.
How can I increase dopamine levels in a natural way?
If you think you have a low level of dopamine, see your healthcare provider. You may have a disease that’s associated with dopamine deficiency that’s treatable. If an illness can’t be diagnosed, you may wish to try remedies that naturally increase dopamine. Keep in mind that further research is needed on the effects of food on neurotransmitters such as dopamine.
- Eat a diet that’s high in magnesium and tyrosine-rich foods. These are the building blocks of dopamine production. Tyrosine is an amino acid. It’s absorbed in your body and then goes to your brain, where it’s converted into dopamine. Foods known to increase dopamine include chicken, almonds, apples, avocados, bananas, beets, chocolate, green leafy vegetables, green tea, lima beans, oatmeal, oranges, peas, sesame and pumpkin seeds, tomatoes, turmeric, watermelon and wheat germ.
- Engage in activities that make you happy or feel relaxed. This is thought to increase dopamine levels. Some examples include exercise, meditation, yoga, massage, playing with a pet, walking in nature or reading a book.
What supplements raise dopamine levels?
Supplements that increase dopamine levels include:
- Tyrosine. Tyrosine is a natural amino acid and a precursor to dopamine. (Dopamine is made from tyrosine.)
- L-theanine. L-theanine is another precursor to dopamine.
- Vitamin D, B5 and B6. These vitamins are needed to make dopamine.
- Omega-3 essential fatty acids.
What else do I need to know about dopamine deficiency?
Low dopamine levels can’t be looked at in a “black and white” way. It’s a complex subject. It’s important to know that low dopamine levels don’t cause medical conditions. There’s a link or association, but low levels don’t directly cause the medical conditions. Even more confusing are the concepts of causation and correlation. For example, lower dopamine levels are linked with obesity. It’s known that the foods you eat and exercise can affect how your brain uses dopamine.
However, do poor food choices (foods that don’t boost dopamine levels) and lack of the motivation to exercise cause a low dopamine level or does a low dopamine level in the brain trigger the “reward system” that makes choosing junk food and not exercising more pleasurable? Finally, no neurotransmitter works in isolation from others. Dopamine, for example, works closely with serotonin. As stated, understanding neurotransmitters is a complex subject.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Dopamine deficiency can affect your physical and mental health. Many medical conditions are linked to low levels of dopamine, including Parkinson’s disease, restless legs syndrome, depression, schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Treatments are available to manage these conditions. Other methods to raise low dopamine levels may be considered; but, be sure to speak to your healthcare provider first. You and your healthcare provider will work together to find the best approach to manage your dopamine deficiency.
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