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Dopamine is responsible for so many functions in the body, that calling it the "feel good" neurotransmitter really doesn't do it justice.

What are the major pathways for dopamine?

Dopamine has 4 major pathways (mesocortical, mesolimbic, nigrostriatal, and tuberoinfundibular) and they all do slightly different yet very important things in the body.

The mesocortical pathway primarily goes to the PFC (prefrontal cortex) . The PFC is responsible for cognitive processing to perform executive functions (planning, self-control, organization, working-memory, adaptable thinking, time management).

The mesolimbic pathway goes to the limbic structures (nucleus accumbens, amygdala, & hippocampus) and also to the PFC to engage the Reward System. The limbic structures are responsible for our immediate reactions, fears, and emotions. The Reward system main purpose is to reinforce behavior (behavior doesn't have to be pleasurable).

The mesolimbic & mesocortical pathways together are what helps us have focus, motivation, and avoid procrastination. These are the typical symptoms associated with low dopamine that get discussed and diagnosed frequently (ADHD, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, psychosis).

But the other two pathways are just as important for a well functioning body.

The nigrostriatal pathway is responsible for voluntary movement. Initiating and controlling movement all starts with this dopamine pathway.

The tuberoinfundibular pathway goes to the pituitary. The pituitary gland does a lot and it's often called the "master gland". It regulates most of the hormones and endocrine system including growth hormone, prolactin, thyroid stimulating hormone, and the release of all of the sexual hormones (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone). The pituitary also helps with stress response, blood pressure, and fluid balance.

Because of the diverse functions that dopamine is responsible for initiating, low dopamine can cause a variety of problems that get overlooked until there is a big problem.

How do you test dopamine levels?

There is no one definitive way to test dopamine levels. Dopamine resides in the brain and does not cross the blood brain barrier so the only way to get a reading of the levels is to go into spinal fluid. And even if you do that, it only tests the current levels of dopamine not the ability of the brain to produce dopamine.

The most important thing you can do is to be aware of the symptoms of low dopamine, especially the overlooked symptoms.

What are 5 overlooked symptoms of low dopamine?

When it comes to dopamine levels, many people are unaware if they have low dopamine. This lack of knowledge can often lead to problems down the road. Here are seven symptoms of low dopamine that you need to be aware of:

1 - Frequently getting dizzy

Since dopamine helps the body regulate blood pressure, people with low dopamine often have low blood pressure. The most common symptom of low blood pressure is frequently getting dizzy. This gets overlooked because many people get slightly nervous at the doctor's office. When you get nervous it raises your blood pressure. If you have low blood pressure and you are nervous, your blood pressure will look normal.

2 - Clumsy

If you've ever dropped something that you were holding on to and you didn't mean to, that is due to an interruption in your voluntary movements. Dopamine regulates voluntary movement. Sadly, doctors don't often ask their patients if they're clumsy and it doesn't get noticed until they start developing Parkinson's disease.

3 - Urination issues

Whether you can control your bladder like a camel or feel like you have to pee more frequently or have incontinence problems, low dopamine is often the root cause. If you could hold your pee like nobody's business when you were younger but then developed hyper bladder activity, that's an overlooked symptom of low dopamine. It's a little more complicated than what can easily be described in a paragraph but it involves both the nigrostriatal and tuberoinfundibular pathways.

4 - Muscle Cramps

If you're consuming sufficient magnesium and potassium yet find yourself cramping up (or having restless leg syndrome), it's probably low dopamine causing it. Frequent muscle cramps that get worse and worse (dystonia) are the beginning signs of Parkinson's.

5 - Low libido

Dopamine is directly tied to stress and the production of the reproductive hormones. If you were getting chased by a tiger (aka stress) you shouldn't be thinking about having sex. Most of us are crazy stressed. Stress impacts your levels of dopamine. When you have low dopamine, you will produce less of the reproductive hormones that will make you want to get it on. So yes, your low libido is because of your hormones... but your hormone imbalance is most likely tied to low dopamine!

Want to know how to increase your dopamine levels naturally? Check out my "Biohack Your ADHD Naturally" masterclass. As you just learned, you don't have to have ADHD to have low dopamine but if you have ADHD you do have low dopamine levels. So most things that will help people with ADHD will help people with other low dopamine issues.

What is ADHD and what are the symptoms?

ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The symptoms of ADHD vary from person to person depending on the different type of ADHD they have. Some people with ADHD may only have problems with focus, while others may be hyperactive and impulsive as well. There is no one "right" way to have ADHD, and everyone experiences symptoms differently.

There are three different types of ADHD:

  1. Hyperactive-Impulsive. This is the one that most people are familiar with because it has the most outward facing characteristics. Most common in young boys, people with this type have difficulty sitting still and fidget a lot. Interrupting people, due to impulse control, is another common characteristic.
  2. Inattentive. These people get bored easily and attention is sporadic. They will lose focus, lose things, and make simple mistakes. This is more commonly diagnosed in girls.
  3. Combined. With this diagnosis, the symptoms fluctuate between the two frequently. (This is what I have)

While everyone struggles with these symptoms, people with ADHD experience these symptoms daily and it affects their overall functioning at home, school, work, and in social situations.

How does dopamine play a role in ADHD?

Dopamine plays a major role in ADHD because it is responsible for focus, motivation, and pleasure. It is responsible for activating the brain's "Reward System" but that name is not really accurate. At the time of the early research, the studies that were set up to test the role of dopamine all used rewards, meaning something "positive," but in reality the function of dopamine is to pay attention or take action when something is uncertain. This is why dopamine is linked to addictions and other non "rewarding" behavior. (Check out my blog post "What is Dopamine?" to learn more about this amazing neurotransmitter)

When someone has ADHD, their dopamine levels are usually low. While the cause of ADHD is still unknown, there seems to be two main theories why dopamine is low: over active dopamine transporters (the transporters use the dopamine quicker than what can be produced) and structural differences in the gray matter of the brain.

The prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for executive functions such as focus, motivation, and lots of other important social functions, is modulated by dopamine. Regardless of the cause of low levels of dopamine, the way to help people with ADHD is to get control over their dopamine levels.

How can orgasms help increase dopamine production?

There are two other neurotransmitters that are tied to dopamine production: norepinephrine and serotonin. Typically, the medications that are prescribed and help people with ADHD either increase dopamine & norepinephrine (Adderall, Vyvanse, etc) or increase serotonin (Wellbutrin, Effexor, and other anxiety or depression medications). All three of these neurotransmitters play an important role in having ADHD symptoms or not.

Having regular orgasms increases the production of these neurotransmitters. From the moment you begin getting aroused, you increase norepinephrine. As you build towards an orgasm, you increase dopamine. After you orgasm, your body ramps up serotonin production.

Another added bonus is that when you orgasm, your brain produces gamma brain waves (so does meditation, but orgasms are much more fun then meditating). Gamma has been known to increase brain gray matter density. As you just learned, the gray matter has a role in dopamine production. The more you can increase your brain gray matter, the better your dopamine levels will be.

Giving yourself a quick orgasm is the quickest way to increase dopamine levels in your body without the use of medication. But quick hits of dopamine from an orgasm aren't enough to sustain increased production levels.

Developing a self pleasure practice will increase dopamine over time

I'm all for grabbing my vibrator and giving myself a quick orgasm to help me get motivated when I'm procrastinating on a task, but that's not always an option. And quick bursts of dopamine don't create sustained dopamine levels.

There needs to be an increase in norepinephrine AND serotonin along with dopamine in order to make lasting effects. If you are using orgasm to alter your neurobiology, then long, sustained sexual encounters are the key. The more time you spend in arousal, the more you "train your brain" to increase norepinephrine and dopamine. Your serotonin production levels after an orgasm are determined based on the amount of dopamine. If you have lower dopamine leading to orgasm, you will produce lower levels of serotonin after orgasm.

But it's more than just the production of dopamine. Remember how gamma waves increase brain matter? Well, self pleasure practices that are based on neurobiology will increase the time you spend in gamma brain waves and Alpha brainwaves.

Alpha brain wave state is when you are focused and alert. Beta brain waves are when your brain is thinking quickly and solving problems, but focus is not a priority. People with ADHD have an imbalanced time spent in Beta brain waves as compared to neurotypical individuals who have a good balance between alpha and beta.

While long, intense rounds of passionate sex are definitely a fun and great way to increase your dopamine levels, not all of us have partners and even those that do have partners don't always having marathon sessions. And besides, your health and well-being should be in your hands, not your lovers.

Developing a self pleasure practice will help you increase your dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels while simultaneously increase the amount of time you spend in Alpha brain waves. A win for neurotypical people. A win-win for people with ADHD.

What is dopamine?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical messenger, that helps relay messages between nerve cells in our brain. Dopamine is released whenever we need to pay attention usually because an outcome is uncertain.

Commonly referred as the "reward" neurotransmitter, using the word "reward" isn't about whether something is good or bad but refers to the "Reward System" in the brain. Originally, all of the research was done using experiments that "rewarded" the test subject. Thus, the name "Reward System." Over time, scientists have learned that this system does much more but the name never got changed. Dopamine's role in the Reward System is to signal the brain to repeat an action which is why dopamine is tied to addiction and motivation. Dopamine is released any time you anticipate something... good or bad.

When you are anticipating a reward or outcome, dopamine is produced in a couple structures of the midbrain (VTA & substantia nigra) & basal forebrain (nucleus accumbens). Depending on the location, the dopamine then moves to help control motor function or to the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is the area of the brain responsible for executive cognitive functions such as focus, paying attention, self control and self awareness, memory, and learning. Dopamine is a powerhouse of a neurotransmitter.

How does dopamine affect our behavior?

Neurotransmitters don't work alone, they work in conjunction with other neurotransmitters. In order to create a habit, you need dopamine (to pay attention so you can repeat the behavior), acetylcholine (high emotions = important), and norepinephrine (energy to take action). Together, these neurotransmitters are responsible for creating new neural pathways.

With sufficient dopamine, you can create new habits and have the motivation to enforce behaviors that you find enjoyable even if they are slightly uncomfortable. However, without sufficient dopamine, creating new neural pathways is difficult thus creating new habits are difficult. It will be easier for your brain to repeat behaviors based on already established neural pathways. So any unwanted behaviors are going to be really hard to change without sufficient dopamine levels.

Unwanted behaviors don't just include bad habits like forgetting to brush your teeth, remembering to unpack your lunch box, and getting distracted from what you are working on, unwanted behaviors also include our thoughts.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for thought. Every thought you've ever had began because your brain produced dopamine to start the thinking process. Remember how dopamine is the repeat signal? Well, when you have negative thoughts such as being critical of yourself, complaining, doubting yourself, and not feeling good enough, these kinds of thoughts have high emotional importance which means your brain is going to produce acetylcholine. And since negative thoughts create stress, your body will produce norepinephrine (take action) to give you energy to get out of the stress. Together, you're creating or reinforcing neural pathways to repeat those same thoughts.

Why is it important to have high dopamine levels?

Besides needing dopamine to change unwanted behaviors and create new habits, with low levels of dopamine the body has to work harder to function in daily life. In particular, when there are low levels of dopamine the body experiences more stress. When the body is stressed, the body produces cortisol. When there are high levels of cortisol then it is harder for the body to perform the maintenance functions such as sleeping, digesting, and producing the sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone). This creates a cycle of low dopamine production > increase cortisol production > lower dopamine > increase cortisol, and so on.

How to break the low dopamine/stress cycle?

There are two ways to stop the low dopamine/stress cycle: Stop cortisol production or increase dopamine.

During sleep, cortisol production is inhibited. With proper amounts of sleep then the brain can begin increasing dopamine production but only after the body has "cleaned up" after itself. But we can't all take a nap whenever we want and most of us have bad sleep habits.

Does that mean you are doomed? No, you can increase dopamine production.

How to increase dopamine levels?

The mechanisms behind dopamine production are quite complex but to break it down in simple terms: the quickest, easiest, most convenient way of increasing dopamine is through pain(stress) or pleasure. In order to understand how to increase levels, first we need to know when dopamine is produced and then you can understand how you can increase dopamine levels through pain and pleasure.

How does pain trigger dopamine production?

Pain does not always come in the physical form. Pain often comes in the form of anxiety and depression. Anxiety and depression cause stress. If you're familiar with the stress response (fight, flight, freeze, flop, and friend) then it'll be easier to understand why dopamine is produced.

Anytime something in our environment is uncertain (stress), our brain is ready to take action (norepinephrine). If the situation causes an emotional response (acetylcholine) then the brain pays attention to catalog or capture the situation. If we take action that increases our emotional response (escaping from danger, reducing stress, playing a game, feeling appreciated, feeling wanted, sense of belonging, worthiness, etc) then our brain creates dopamine so we can repeat the behavior in the future to reduce the uncertainty of events.

This is why dopamine is at the heart of addiction. Addictive behaviors reduce stress in the moment even if they cause more stress over the long term. Most of us are familiar with the typical examples of:

  • over eating - eating is tied to feelings of comfort and belonging and there are other physiological factors,
  • drug and alcohol use - reduces the feelings of stress,
  • gambling - anticipation of a result (win or lose), and
  • shopping - the anticipation of a reward.

Truly, any behavior that has some level of stress (anxiety and/or depression) attached to it can become an addiction. Checking your phone, anticipating likes on social media posts, reading to escape, exercising, listening to podcasts, and watching YouTube videos are examples of very common behaviors that become addictions to lots of people.

Unfortunately, as we learned before, stress causes cortisol production which then actually ends up decreasing dopamine production over the long term. But luckily, pleasure is another pathway to dopamine production. I don't know about you, but I'd rather use pleasure than pain to increase my dopamine levels.

How does pleasure trigger dopamine production?

The way the brain produces dopamine from pleasure is actually the same mechanism as for pain: whenever we are doing something, if the situation causes an emotional response (acetylcholine) then the brain pays attention to catalog or capture the situation. If we take action (norepinephrine) in pleasurable activities that increase our emotional response (laughing, feeling happy, joy, satisfaction, worthiness, belonging, etc.) then our brain creates dopamine so we can repeat the behavior in the future to reduce the uncertainty of events.

It's just a matter of what kinds of activities you want to fill your day with. Do you want to fill your day doing things that reduce stress in the moment but aren't exactly pleasurable. Or would you rather fill your day with pleasurable activities that reduce stress? Personally, I prefer to increase dopamine levels using a self pleasure practice.

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