Dopamine naturally occurs in the brain, but the neurotransmitter also plays a significant role in addiction. Although studies consistently show that dopamine surges can lead to addiction, many experts believe that dopamine’s role in addiction is more complex than that. Understanding how dopamine works, its role in the brain and body, how it makes us feel, and how it’s connected to addiction can help people understand the complexity of substance misuse. Addiction isn’t easy to solve, but learning more about dopamine can help behavioral health experts effectively treat substance use disorders.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that naturally occurs in the brain. The nervous system uses dopamine to send messages back and forth between nerve cells. That’s why some people refer to dopamine as a chemical messenger.
Dopamine is also known as the “pleasure chemical,” but the neurotransmitter doesn’t actually produce pleasure. Instead, dopamine plays a role in how we experience pleasure. Dopamine reinforces feelings of pleasure by connecting pleasurable sensations to certain behaviors. In other words, when we do things that feel good, dopamine links that particular behavior or activity with a pleasurable sensation.
Think of it this way: when the brain produces dopamine in response to something we’re experiencing, we feel good. Feeling this way makes us want to do more of whatever we’re doing so that we can keep feeling good. When we continue the behavior, our brain produces more dopamine, reinforcing pleasure-seeking behaviors.
For example, when we exercise, our brain produces dopamine in response. This encourages us to continue to exercise in the future, creating a reward loop that promotes healthy behaviors.
How Dopamine Affects Our Daily Life
Dopamine directly influences many neurological, cognitive, and behavioral functions in the body. For example, dopamine has a direct impact on:
- The way we move our bodies
- How blood flows through the body
- Reinforcement and reward
- How we digest the food we eat
- Our thoughts and emotions
- How well our hearts and kidneys function
- Our memory and ability to focus
- Our mood
- How the body processes pain
- Our sleeping patterns
- How we respond to stress
- How well the pancreas functions
- How the body regulates insulin
- What arouses and motivates us
- The regulation of certain hormones and glands in the body
Dopamine influences everything from how we move and think to how we remember and behave. When we have the correct amount of dopamine in our bodies, we tend to be in an ideal mood for learning, planning, and productivity. When our bodies have a dopamine imbalance, our motivation, focus, alertness, and happiness may falter.
Even though unbalanced dopamine levels can be challenging to detect, having too much or too little dopamine can greatly affect our physical and mental health.
An Overabundance Of Dopamine
Like most chemicals in the brain, dopamine functions best when the nervous system has the proper amount. Too much dopamine can wreak havoc on our lives in many ways. Having an overabundance of dopamine can make us:
- Less empathetic
- Tired or unable to sleep
- Experience hallucinations
Having too much dopamine can also make us more likely to take risks and act impulsively, which can, in turn, make us more prone to addiction.
Excessive dopamine can also increase the risk of mental health disorders such as:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- The manic phase of Bipolar Disorder
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
When the brain doesn’t produce enough dopamine, we can develop a dopamine deficiency. Some of the most common symptoms associated with low dopamine levels include:
- Low mood
- Low energy
- Lack of motivation
- Sleep disorders
- Difficulty paying attention
- Reduced sex drive
- Feeling hopeless
- Hallucinations and delusions
- Weight fluctuations
- Muscle cramps and stiffness
- Mood swings
- Chronic back pain
Having a dopamine deficiency can also make us more susceptible to developing the following conditions:
- Major Depressive Disorder (MDD)
- Parkinson’s Disease
What Is Dopamine’s Role In Addiction?
Even though dopamine doesn’t create pleasurable feelings in our body, the neurotransmitter can motivate us to repeat behaviors that lead to addiction. By linking enjoyable sensations with certain behaviors, dopamine motivates us to do certain activities repeatedly. Dopamine can help fuel addiction because:
1. Dopamine Links Addictive Behavior To Pleasure
One of dopamine’s critical functions in the brain is to connect sensations of pleasure to certain behaviors that the brain associates as enjoyable. These activities can include eating, drinking, exercising, having sex, and listening to music. Unfortunately, the brain can also experience temporary euphoric feelings through the use of alcohol, illicit drugs, or high doses of prescription medications. When this happens, dopamine reinforces this behavior, too, paving the way for addiction.
2. Dopamine Encourages Pleasure-Seeking Behavior
Once an addiction develops, dopamine can encourage a hard-to-break cycle of pleasure-seeking behavior. This reward-seeking loop causes us to seek out the very substances that the brain has associated with pleasure, even if they are harmful and dangerous. When we satisfy this desire, a burst of dopamine sends a message to cells in the brain that something important is happening that needs to be remembered. This memory motivates our future actions, making it easier to repeat the activity. Sadly, this process can also contribute to the formation of unhealthy, addictive habits.
3. Dopamine Triggers Impulsive Behavior
When we act on these unhealthy addictive habits, we experience larger dopamine surges. Unfortunately, these surges can “teach” the brain to seek out drugs and alcohol at the expense of healthier goals and activities. This desire can be so powerful that it develops into an urge or craving that’s hard to control, triggering impulsive and compulsive behavior. When we lose control of these urges, our impulses take over. Unfortunately, impulsive behavior allows addiction to thrive. These dopamine-influenced “reflexes” can linger for years. That’s why some people who have been drug-free for a decade can experience cravings when they return to an old neighborhood or place where they once used drugs or consumed alcohol. The brain remembers the link between that place and pleasure, which encourages addictive behavior.
Experience Dopamine The Healthy Way
Dopamine can be a blessing and a curse. The neurotransmitter can make us feel pleasure through positive, healthy activities, but it can also make us feel like we need harmful, addictive substances to experience pleasure. The good news is the brain can rewire itself to experience pleasure from natural sources of dopamine, such as exercise, sleep, music, meditation, laughter, and spending time outside in nature.
Our brain-focused treatment programs can help you experience the benefits of dopamine naturally. Contact us today if you’re ready to experience the upside of dopamine and live a thriving, enjoyable, sober, and purposeful life.
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