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The down & dirty on women's wellness


Dopamine

Doped up on Dopamine

November 1, 2020

Dopamine is a s a hormone & a neurotransmitter that plays several important roles in the brain & body. Among other things, dopamine plays important roles in our cravings for certain substances, from chocolate to cocaine, & in our ability to feel energized & motivated. In our office, we refer to dopamine as the “molecule of more,” as this neurotransmitter has a unique role in generating a sense of pleasure, which can cause us to desire more of whatever might have stimulated its release. 


The primary function of dopamine in our brains is to activate the reward pathway, such that we seek out things that give us boosts of dopamine & abandon things that deplete our dopamine levels. In the time of COVID-19, we are all dopamine deprived, & it has led to such things as increased drug & alcohol use, the quarantine 15, & skyrocketing rates of depression. It is imperative that we all understand the functions & precipitators of dopamine production in our brains & that we actively seek out ways to maximize our circulating dopamine as we slog through the ongoing pandemic & its many consequences & hope for a brighter year to come.


As humans, we love to see ourselves as agents of free will responsible for managing, initiating, & restricting our behaviors. However, our dopamine pathways have a lot more control over what we are driven to do than we might realize. In particular, dopamine works on the limbic systems in our brains, which are primarily responsible for creating our sense of pleasure & for motivating our pleasure-seeking behaviors. High levels of dopamine here are responsible for that sense of pleasure. Dopamine is fleeting in its release & availability in this region, however, & the plummet causes us to repeat the behaviors that initially released the dopamine, resulting for some in potentially destructive behaviors that are difficult to manage (e.g., overeating, alcoholism, addiction).  In the cortexes of our brains, dopamine allows us to clearly see various alternatives when we are making decisions, to select wisely from among them based on the level of reward that will be attained, & to move actively towards ensuring accomplishment. Alterations in this particular pathway can be the cause of ADHD & depression, where decisions are much more challenging, behaviors can be impulsive & poorly planned, & alternate perspectives are hard to envision. In the basal ganglia of our brains, dopamine even influences our behaviors in that it alters the way we move our bodies. Too much dopamine & we develop tics. Too little dopamine & we get the shakes. In the hypothalamus & pituitary gland, dopamine prevents us from producing excessive prolactin, which is why we only lactate in response to particular hormonal concoctions (like those found in the postpartum period) that suppress dopamine receptivity in these regions, which can also be associated with the development of mood disorders in women. Dopamine also influences the thalamus, impacting our sense of wakefulness, such that more dopamine provides us with a stimulant effect, inducing a sense of alertness & engagement, while less dopamine results in a feeling of fatigue or an increased need for sleep. Dopamine energizes us, motivates us, & provides us with the stamina to achieve the goals we perceive as likely to provide us with the rewards we desire.


It is clear that, in our current era of chaos & disappointment, of cancellations & fear, optimizing our dopamine levels would be instrumental in assisting us to get through the days all the way to the other side of this pandemic. We are depleted of dopamine when we are in circumstances that feel defeating, unrewarding, & out of our control. Our dopamine surges when we approach rewards. The expectation of a reward triggers good feelings in our mammalian brains & produces the energy we need to achieve those rewards. 


With so much out of our control, our collective senses of rewards have shifted & we have turned to food (grubhub, anyone?), shopping, & substances to get us through our dreary days. Dopamine surges in response to sugar consumption, then crashes, leaving us looking for more. The same is true of caffeine & most addictive substances. We want more, now, again because we are looking for the dopamine increase these things afford us.


A better, more sustainable, less damaging means of increasing dopamine production in your brain is to set a goal for yourself & amend it each day. Set a goal with a clear sense of the reward you will receive when you achieve it. Take small steps towards the goal every single day. Your brain will reward you with dopamine every time you take a step. The repetition will systematically build a new dopamine pathway until it produces enough dopamine to allow you to release your other sources of dopamine that were potentially doing damage. You may already have goals set around your relationships, your career, or your financial state. You can focus on taking tangible steps to achieve these goals. Or, you may find that your goals have been altered by the changes that have come with the coronavirus upset. In that case, make personal goals: commit to learning something new, as mastering novel things & integrating novel ideas stimulates dopamine production. Committing to a rewarding hobby or sport & ensuring that you take regular steps to engage in it washes your brain in dopamine.


Be sure to avoid setting a few big goals, as these will take longer to achieve. It’s those short-term goals that keep your dopamine in check & keep you motivated & energetic enough to achieve the goals you’ve set. The key is to focus on what we can control in these unpredictable times & to avoid having circumstances define or destroy our goals. Set short-term, long-term, & middle-term goals so that you will always be approaching one & have a steady supply of dopamine to fall back on when one goal is foiled by cancellations, disappointments, & unforeseen events. 


When you meet a goal, immediately set another. It needn’t be big & it does need to be attainable. Spend some time thinking about the outcome & reward that you will receive when you achieve the goal, then let yourself run towards it, propelled by dopamine & feeling hopeful & excited about life, even in the time of COVID.