Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in rewarding, motivation, attention, and even regulation of body movement. It can also have a profound effect on our emotional responses. Optimal level Is essential for our best possible physical and mental state. When dopamine is released in larger quantities, it creates a sensation of pleasure and reward. This motivates us to repeat a specific behaviour. On the other hand, low dopamine levels are connected to decreased motivation and excitement for things that would usually excite people. In most cases, dopamine levels are well regulated in the nervous system. However there are actions that can naturally increase these levels. Ingesting less saturated fats and more protein, probiotics, exercise, sleep, listening to music, meditation, exposure to sunlight, and the use of certain food supplements. This is where cannabis also gets involved.
When we think of financial success, achievements in life, personal relationships, or sports, we often imagine the wins and losses. Something in our brain and body has to keep track of it. Did I win or lose? What disappoints us? What are we celebrating?
Motivation for More
A very good example is wealth. Somebody has 100,000 monetary units. His perception of wealth is strongly connected to the number a person sees on their bank account. This number transforms into a chemical signal strongly connected with the number of monetary units this person had in the past. If it is more than before, dopamine is naturally released.
This is also how development and innovation we can see surrounding us happens. It motivates us to pursue new things, innovate, build, and create. Furthermore, it creates a desire for new things. Dopamine is often described as a reward signal; however, a more precise definition would be, that it encourages motivation and longing to seek rewards. Additionally, it is also a way to determine where exactly we are in our lives and how well or bad, we are doing. This can happen in short term as in waking up every day, or longer term when performing retrospection of our lives or finishing a multi-year project.
It all depends on how much dopamine was released in our body in the past days, months, years, and it is subconscious. It is a compound that creates our perception of time, an interval meter. In this article we will take a closer look at what dopamine actually is, how it works, how we can affect it, why it is extremely important, and what is its relationship with cannabis.
WHAT EXACTLY IS DOPAMINE?
Dopamine has a very important role in the body and the brain. It is also produced by plants and most animals. In the brain it works as a neurotransmitter, which are compounds released by neurons (nerve cells) to transmit messages to other nerve cells. Neurotransmitters are produced in specific parts of the brain; however, they have a systemic effect on many regions. In the brain there are multiple pronounced dopamine pathways. One of them has a large role in motivation component of reward motivated behavior. Expectation of most types of rewards increases dopamine levels in our brain. Furthermore, many medications that can cause addiction, increase its release , or block its return back to neurons after the release. Other dopamine pathways in the brain affect our motor function and control of various hormones release. These pathways and cell groups make the dopamine system, which is neuromodular.
Functions Outside of Central Nervous System
Outside of the central nervous system, dopamine primarily works as a local paracrine information transmitter. It inhibits the release of norepinephrine (noradrenaline) in the vascular system and acts as a vasodilator (in normal concentrations). It enhances the excretion of sodium and urine. In the pancreas, it decreases insulin production, decreases gastrointestinal motility, and protects intestinal mucosa. It is also present in the immune system, where it decreases lymphocyte levels. In every system except the vascular, dopamine is produced locally and affects the surroundings of the cells that released it.
In popular culture and media, it is often presented as the main compound, which produces the feeling or pleasure. However, current pharmacological opinion is that it provides a motivational meaning. In other words, dopamine signals the detected motivational importance (desirability) of the outcome. With this it drives organism behaviour to reach the outcome (goal), or to move away from it.
The release of dopamine can be achieved with activities such as sex or internet and social media browsing. However, pleasure is not the problem, but pleasure experienced without prior request to pursuit it, which is very damaging for people. Additionally, there is a problem of proximity and accessibility of these pleasures. People “overuse” dopamine via different sources (common phenomenon in many technologies). Furthermore, context, which is very untypical nowadays, creates another problem (example Tik Tok videos). Historically, it is the first time that humans write with their thumbs, which is a relatively small change. The second, larger change is connected with space and time. Usually (before the digital revolution) people walked from one room to another, from meadow to the forest, from our yard to our house. Nowadays, we can access ten thousand contextual contents in 30 minutes of Instagram or Tik Tok use.
Science predicts that people striving for success today, will have to create their own internal limits or internal control of these activities. Positive future will have to include self-regulation. When we think about the reasons we are in a bad mood or depressed, maybe we just overdosed on dopamine and need to stop. We must stop interactions that cause such behaviour, and our satisfaction will return. It is essential not to remain in a state of exchange between maximums and minimums or between pain and pleasure.
TIME SEGMENTATION AND DOPAMINE
One of the interesting questions about are brain is how we segment time? Recently, some interesting research were conducted, which showed interesting results in the example of watching a sports competition. Independent of the team that scores (even if it is the team we do not support), a short, weak hit of dopamine occurs, which tells us this was one segment of time. This also makes dopamine the primary way of segmenting time. The second, a bit more unusual is our blinking. Every time our eyes close, we reset our perception of the world. Blinking frequency is determined by the default dopamine levels in our brain. When people are excited and do not blink often, they are actually not segmenting time normally.
This is also the reason why people with depression are highly focused on the past. Always thinking and processing the past. When their dopamine levels change to a healthy level, they start to think much more about the future and are more engaged in the present. This is how the relationship between time perception and blinking, and dopamine and blinking are created. Our conceptualization of time is strongly connected to dopamine peaks and their frequency. That is why a person spending more time in deep meditation, can start to develop intuitive internal representation of fluid time. This person maintains dopamine balance. This means, that a person has control over the outside and over conceptualization of their life.
Fluid Space and Time
When people have low dopamine levels, they tend to overestimate time and when it is low, they tend to underestimate time. For example, we have to catch a plane in a hurry. We are standing in a queue at the airport. In that moment we think that the person before us is moving extremely slow. In reality, our perception or frame rate is much faster. Similar effect occurs when we are browsing through messages, the internet, social media. We feel as the time is moving very fast. This means that we divide time into smaller fractions. We segment it in more detail.
On contrary, many people involved in car accidents experience that moment as in slow motion. In this case their frame rate is slower or in other words, we take larger chunks of time and segment them less detailed.
Dopamine is a part of dynamic process with which we adjust time perception. If we could very precisely detect time, by minute, this would result in very regular intervals of dopamine release. Sex and sleep are activities in which time and space have a very “fluid” relationship. When we are asleep, it is very difficult to determine time and space. This is also the nature of sleep, where we close our eyes (long blink) and stop detecting external information. In sleep we can perceive events happening very slowly or very fast. Time and space are very fluid. On contrary, when we are awake, they are anchored with physical events detection (stimuli from the outside). Perception of these external factors is regulated with the systems dopamine quantity.
Dopamine deficiency symptoms depend on various causes. For example, a person with Parkinson’s disease will experience different symptoms compared to a person with dopamine deficiency due to medicine use or abuse. There are some very important nervous system conditions connected to dopamine system malfunction. Furthermore, their treatments work in way that they change the effects of dopamine. Parkinson’s is a degenerative condition, that causes tremor and impaired motor skills. It is caused by the loss of dopamine releasing neurons located in the middle brain area called “substantia nigra”. It is also proven that with schizophrenia, change in dopamine level activity occurs, and most drugs that treat it include its antagonists, that reduce the activity. Similar drugs that act as its antagonists are one of the most effective ones when it comes to nausea. Restless legs syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are connected to dopamine activity reduction as well.
Below is a list of some signs and symptoms of medical conditions connected to dopamine deficiency:
- Muscle cramping, cramps, and tremor,
- muscle stiffness,
- loss of balance,
- difficult eating and swallowing,
- weight loss or gain,
- frequent pneumonia,
- trouble sleeping and disturbed sleep,
- low energy levels,
- inability to focus,
- moving or speaking slower than usual,
- inexplicable sadness and tearfulness,
- mood swings,
- low self-esteem,
- suicidal and self-harmful thoughts,
Causes of Dopamine Deficiency
Low levels of dopamine are connected to many mental health conditions; however, it does not cause these conditions directly. The most common conditions are:
- psychosis (including hallucinations),
- Parkinson’s disease.
Scientists believe that medicine and drug abuse can also affect its levels. Studies have found that regular use of medicine or drugs can change the threshold required to activate dopamine cells and signaling. Consequences result in threshold increase and due to this it is harder for a person to experience the positive effects of dopamine. Furthermore, it decreases the level of D2 receptors and dopamine release.
Additionally, food rich in sugar and saturated fats can inhibit dopamine as well. Lack of protein in our diet can result in I-tyrosine deficiency, amino acid, which helps with its production in our body. One of the studies also showed that people who are overweight and have a certain gene, are more likely to be dopamine deficient.
Measuring Dopamine Levels
There is no reliable way of measuring its levels in our brain. There are only some indirect ways to determine imbalance in brains dopamine levels. Doctors can measure the density of its transmitters, that positively correlate with nerve cells that use dopamine. Test includes injecting of radioactive material, which binds to dopamine transmitters, that doctors can measure with a camera.
Doctor evaluates the symptoms of an individual, lifestyle effect, and medical history to determine the potential state connected to low dopamine levels.
DOPAMINE AND CANNABINOIDS
It is well known that short term cannabis use indirectly increases dopamine levels in our brain. Cannabinoids alone do not affect dopamine neurons directly, but through endocannabinoid system (ECS). ECS temporarily inhibits GABA (Gamma – Aminobutryric Acid) inhibitors. GABA neurons are neurons that inhibit dopamine release – if ECS inhibits GABA, dopamine increases. You can read more about the endocannabinoids system here.
Endocannabinoids Regulate Neurotransmitter Activity
Endocannabinoids and their receptors have an important role in many physiological processes in the brain as well as in different peripheral processes such as regulation of immune system, cardio-vascular system, reproductive endocrine processes, and metabolism control. In the brain, endocannabinoids are involved in processes such as movement control, nociception, rewarding brain, learning and memory, diet, vomiting, and additionally they also have an important role in various events connected to brain development. The long list of brain functions where endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors are strongly active is a product of many studies developed in the last 20 years of research.
Inclusion of ECS in this long list of brain functions is most likely a consequence of its ability to interact with a specific neurotransmitter in many areas of the brain.
Dopamine is one of the neurotransmitters, which is often connected to the effects of cannabinoids inside of central nervous system. Under or over activity of dopamine pathways can lead to conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or schizophrenia, for which new therapies based on cannabinoids were suggested. Most researchers agree that the effects of cannabinoids on dopamine activity are often indirect and conducted by post-synaptic or pre-synaptic mechanisms.
Cannabis and Short-Term Dopamine Release
Studies have shown that THC is more effective than CBD when it comes to short term positive effects on dopamine. In 1997 study (on rats), they concluded that THC stimulates dopamine neurons in the midbrain. After almost 20 years the effects were confirmed on people. This was conducted by Dr. Bassong and his team in a 2016 study. They pointed out, that in terms of dopamine, very intensive use of THC is not recommended, as it can cause long-term malfunction of dopamine neurons (in long term the levels of dopamine can decrease).
The Effects of THC on the Dopamine System
Scientists conducted studies specifically connected to the effects of THC on the dopamine system of the brain. They especially stressed that THC levels of cannabis sold on the street increased at least 3 times in the last 20 years. The research concluded that THC affects the dopamine system in different ways. THC changes the feedback process of cells and the dopamine system. It affects cells by binding to cannabinoid receptors, which increases the production and release of dopamine. In seldom use it can cause effects such as lower stress levels, appetite stimulation, short term memory issues, decision making difficulties, and increased creativity. With chronical use, the effects on dopamine system become stronger and can affect the user in every moment, even when they are out of the psychoactive state.
If consumed often, our brains adapt. Dopamine system tries to eliminate the effects of imbalance of dopamine floods. This is called “numbness” and it reduces the precision of the system which it affects. Rewards become less rewarding, motor functions less precise, memory is impaired, motivation decreased, it is harder to control emotions, and users often experience more negative emotions.
Research show, that through time these effects can be turned around. When individuals stop consuming THC, their brain start recovering and dopamine system returns to the level of sensitivity where it started before chronical THC use. It is important to know, that THC does not destroy brain cells, it only alters the way they work. Although, there is always a small risk it can set off a chain of events leading to pathological brain changes.
MORE IS NOT ALWAYS BETTER
Dopamine is an important brain compound, that affects our well-being, feeling of reward and motivation. It also helps with body movement regulation. The body usually regulates its levels well, however, there are some dietary changes and lifestyle changes that can naturally increase its levels. Balanced diet with enough protein, vitamins and minerals, probiotics, and a moderate level of saturated fats can help create a higher level of dopamine. Lifestyle is very important as well, as we must have quality sleep, enough exercise, listening to music, or meditate, and spend a lot of time out under the sun.
All these activities affect the optimal levels of dopamine. Its deficiency has a very strong effect on the quality of life, affecting it physically and mentally. Final and one of the most important facts is that we do not get caught in the trap of dopamine overproduction, which will be more and more common in today’s world. It can lead to some very serious psycho-physical problems.