Dopamine is frequently associated with positive emotions and a feeling of euphoria. However, researchers have discovered other interesting functions of dopamine – for example, its role in adverse events, where it carries out an important task in helping learn how to avoid negative situations. Dopamine can be used to treat people with Parkinson’s disease (disease which impairs locomotor activity), so we know that dopamine has a role in the regulation of movement as well.
It has been found that dopamine also helps in sleep regulation, as it promotes wakefulness, contrary to melatonin which makes us feel sleepy. It can be used to treat narcolepsy and other disorders characterized by Excessive Daytime Sleepiness.
What is dopamine?
Dopamine is one of the numerous neurotransmitters of our nervous system. As a neurotransmitter, it carries information from one neuron (nerve cell) to another.
In order to send out information, a neuron releases neurotransmitters into space between itself and another neuron. This space is called a synapse. Neurotransmitters then get attached to the receptors of the following neuron, giving out their piece of information. A signal called action potential fires and moves through the neuron to the next synapse. While this signal gets carried through the neuron, some of the neurotransmitters return to their original neuron whereas some get decomposed in the synapse. The number of receptors is prone to change and may increase or decrease.
Dopamine is mainly responsible for motivating us and making us feel happy when we expect something good to happen or when we receive a reward for something we had done. Dopamine is also considered ‘guilty’ for the euphoria people have when gambling or abusing drugs which increase dopamine levels.
It is produced by a small number of neurons in parts of the brain called substantia nigra (SN) and ventral tegmental area (VTA). When neurons from these areas get activated, they release dopamine.
SN takes over when it comes to rewards and movement. If dopamine-producing neurons from substantia nigra die, as it happens with Parkinson’s disease, a person experiences problems with movement (trembling), coordination, memory, depression, and sleep. This means dopamine plays a role in all of the mentioned physical and psychological aspects.
When it comes to VTA and its role in dopamine production, there are still areas that haven’t been agreed upon. One part of VTA is responsible for the feeling we get when good things happen unexpectedly, while the other plays a role in learning from adverse events by releasing dopamine as soon as aversive stimuli stop.
Findings from a study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism have shown that a substantial amount of dopamine is produced by gastrointestinal tract, spleen, and pancreas. This has made the story of dopamine more complicated and intriguing.
Loss of dopamine may lead to mood disorders such as depression, sleep disorders, and movement issues.
Does dopamine keep you awake?
Dopamine definitely plays an important role in keeping us awake. Moreover, an unpublished study described in Psychiatric Times shows that dopamine levels change throughout the day and night, helping our circadian system work properly.
A group of primates was subjected to a regular sleep-wake schedule. In a laboratory where they were tested, the lights were turned on every morning at 7 am and turned off in the evening at 7 pm. Researchers used telemetry to record primates’ sleep-wake cycle and microdialysis to keep track of dopamine levels. It showed that dopamine levels were the highest at 7 am – the time their bodies were trained to wake up. These levels would slowly decrease until after lunch – at about 3 pm, after which they would hit a low. From this point on, dopamine would start increasing again until 7 pm, what was believed to be a ‘circadian alerting signal’. After this time and until 10 pm (sleep time) the levels were constantly decreasing. After primates were asleep, their dopamine levels were increasing steadily again until morning.
It seems that wakefulness is tightly connected with increasing dopamine – its levels are high when subjects were most alert and lowest when their energy levels plummeted.
A surprising observation was that even though dopamine neurons were inactive at night, dopamine levels would still increase. Whether this is connected to other dopamine sources mentioned earlier or not is still unexplained.
How does dopamine promote wakefulness?
Dopamine is able to inhibit melatonin – a neurotransmitter which promotes sleepiness and prepares the body to sleep. By inhibiting melatonin, our sleepiness is also inhibited. As the morning approaches, the number of dopamine receptors increases in the pineal gland (one of three main glands responsible for our sleep-wake cycle), which prevents melatonin to keep us in the sleeping state.
It is believed that dopamine can be used in the successful treatment of individuals with disturbances of circadian rhythm.
Dopamine and REM sleep
The release of dopamine is observed in REM sleep as well as in NREM sleep. A clinical study has shown that the reward system in the brain is activated during dreams. The researchers believe the effects of dopamine are what gives us motivation while we dream.
They have presented a Reward Activation Model (RAM) for sleep and dreaming. This model explains that the mesolimbic dopaminergic system (ML-DA), the system involved in reward and emotion, is employed in sleep to assist memory consolidation, rapid eye movement, and more. As ML-DA dysfunction is linked to disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, and addiction, researchers hope that their model, RAM, will help better understand these mental disorders.
Another study performed on PD patients (Parkinson’s disease patients) has used MRI to try and make connections between REM dream vividness, dream recall, and dopamine. They have brought up a hypothesis which states that dopamine plays an extremely important role when it comes to the quality of our dreams, as well as whether we will remember them or not.
Sleep deprivation and the role of dopamine
Being sleep deprived for a short time may have great effects on your mood. Staying awake for one night can boost dopamine level – this is how your body tries to maintain alertness – but it will also make you feel euphoric and uplifted.
An interesting study was conducted regarding antidepressant benefits of sleep loss. In the study, depression was successfully treated by sleep deprivation. Some subjects were even reported to have had long-term benefits as their mood had stabilized and the state of certain areas of the brain was turned back to normal.
However, this positive short-term effect shouldn’t be taken for granted. All of the problems related to sleep deprivation still occur – slow response, difficulty learning, sleepiness. Depriving yourself of sleep can disrupt your circadian rhythm, make you more hungry throughout the day, and unable to focus.
How to increase your dopamine level?
If more dopamine activity means we are happier and more motivated, we all want to increase dopamine levels. However, although drinking coffee and having sweet snacks may increase our dopamine level instantly, they can disrupt natural dopamine production.
Here are some natural ways to increase your dopamine levels:
- Get enough sleep. Dopamine is related to your ultradian rhythm (24-hour rhythm of your body). Making sure you sleep well will leave room for healthy dopamine release.
- Listen to your favorite music. Enjoying your favorite song will turn that boring bus ride into a nice sunny day! Research has made a correlation between high dopamine levels and music.
- Avoid stress. This doesn’t mean you should not appear in that important meeting, but make sure to treat yourself to something nice, like mindfulness, a massage or a comedy film.
- Exercise regularly. It is well known that regular exercise will improve your health, posture, sleep, and dopamine level. Take a long walk, ride a bike or take up pilates lessons – whatever suits your age and needs.
- Consume foods which help your body produce dopamine. These include amino acids Tyrosine (found in bananas, almonds, avocados), L-Phenylalanine (found in dairy products, chicken, meat, eggs), vitamin B6 (found in oatmeal, brown rice, vegetables) and vitamin C (found in citrus fruits, kiwi, mango, pineapple, berries).
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