Addiction is a complex disease affecting the body, mind and spirit. For those suffering from addiction, it can be helpful to understand some of the science behind the addictive brain. Scientists have just begun to understand the mysterious interplay of chemicals known as neurotransmitters and how they affect mood, cognition, behavior and yes, addiction.
One such neurotransmitter to know is dopamine. Dopamine’s role in addiction and recovery isn’t completely understood, but what scientists and doctors do understand is that this brain chemical influences mood, motivation and behavior. Most, if not all, addictive substances interact with dopamine in some way, upping the amount of circulating dopamine in the brain and dramatically increasing the feeling of pleasure associated with substance abuse.
Since almost 30 percent of people are born with low dopamine function, it’s important to understand its role in addiction and recovery, and how to naturally and safely improve dopamine function. Understanding dopamine and taking steps to increase dopamine receptors naturally offers another way you can support your recovery.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter or brain chemical that acts as a messenger within the brain.
Just as a messenger delivers information from one person to another, dopamine and other neurotransmitters deliver messages among various areas of the brain and body. They do this through the production of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters circulate and are received by specialized receptor sites in the brain, where they then act on various structures in the brain itself.
According to Dr. Anya Mandal, M.D., dopamine was first discovered in 1910, but its function wasn’t completely understood until 1958. Originally it was thought to be simply a precursor chemical for norepinephrine and epinephrine, but Arvid Carlson proved that dopamine was a separate neurotransmitters in its own right. Carlson won the Nobel Prize in 2000 for this discovery.
Research on dopamine and its possible role in addiction really got underway in the 1990s. Today, genetic tests are available to assess the possible genetic risk of addiction.
How Dopamine Works
Dopamine is manufactured inside the brain from several chemicals, including the amino acid tyrosine. Once dopamine is released, specialized areas called dopamine receptors eagerly slurp up the dopamine floating about in the brain. Eating, drinking, sexual activity, strongly pleasurable activities and many recreational drugs stimulate the release of dopamine.
Dopamine receptors are important in the brain for several reasons. Receptor sites are specific to the hormones or neurotransmitters they’re keyed with, meaning that dopamine receptors accept dopamine but no other brain chemical.
The Brain Reward Cascade
In a paper on dopamine published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, researchers use the phrase brain reward cascade to describe the actions of various neurotransmitters and hormones on human behavior. It’s a great visual image, because it demonstrates just how addiction becomes its own cascading effect, a loop that circles back to feed the addiction and keep abusers locked into a cycle that’s hard to break free of on their own.
Let’s use chocolate as an example of the brain-reward cascade, since most people do feel a great deal of pleasure after eating their favorite chocolate. The pleasurable sensation as the chocolate melts in your mouth leads to a wash of dopamine and other neurotransmitters released in reaction to both the stimulation of the taste and texture of the chocolate and the chemical composition of the food itself. As these chemicals are released in the brain, they seek receptor sites to be absorbed back into the brain as part of the feedback loop or cascade.
The body likes this whole process, and signals the brain that yes, this was a good thing to do. Our bodies are geared towards survival, and good feelings after eating or sex are survival mechanisms to ensure we repeat the actions of eating and reproduction again, thus continuing the species. Dopamine may hearken back to a time when our caveman ancestors relied upon those chemical signals to continue living despite harsh circumstances.
When the brain chemicals stimulated action and response, the species continued to survive.
Today, however, this cascading loop can go haywire. The human brain wasn’t meant for constant stimulation, yet today we have a wealth of tasty foods, pornography to stimulate our sexual drives and yes, a plethora of recreational drugs and alcohol that powerfully stimulate the brain cascade. Although some humans can withstand this onslaught without harm, many become addicted to the ceaseless stimulation of dopamine in the brain.
Biologists believe that a genetic predisposition to producing fewer dopamine receptors comparative to the amount of circulating dopamine may be at the heart of many addictive behaviors. Too much dopamine and too few receptors fools the brain into being hungry for more dopamine because there aren’t enough receptors to absorb it.
Dopamine stimulates feelings of satiety, pleasure and satisfaction.
Each time you release dopamine, these feelings peak, and then drop off. To achieve the same measure of satisfaction and pleasure again, you need to repeat the action that caused it in the first place. Can you see a pattern of addiction developing here?
Scientists have long speculated that impulsive behaviors, including addictive behaviors, may be influenced by an imbalance between the amount of dopamine produced in the body and the number of available dopamine receptors.
In an article published in the journal Science and cited in Scientific American, Joshua Buckholz, a Ph.D. candidate, speculated that impulsive people might have fewer active dopamine receptors compared to the amount of dopamine their bodies are producing. In other words, there’s an imbalance in the brain, with too much dopamine swirling about with nowhere to go. The brain craves dopamine, and the behaviors these addicts engage in release more dopamine.
Because there aren’t enough receptor sites available, the person still craves the feeling of satiety that the dopamine hit should give them. Then they engage in the same destructive, impulsive behavior and release more dopamine, but still don’t feel the same surge of pleasure and satiety they should given the quantity of dopamine released. This is because there aren’t enough receptor sites to take it up and signal the brain that all is well. The result is an addictive cycle.
In the case of Buckholz’s study, these addictions take the form of serial dating and impulsive, destructive shopping, but the idea applies to all forms of addiction ranging from pornography addiction to drugs and alcohol.
Buckholz’s study is important because PET scan imagery actually showed researchers exactly what was going on in the brain during drug stimulation. The findings strongly suggested a neurobiological link between behaviors such as addiction and brain chemistry.
When There’s a Shortage of Dopamine Receptors
According to the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, individuals with low dopamine function seek ways to increase the amount of dopamine by stimulating their pleasure centers. They may self-medicate by smoking, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, overeating, or engaging in compulsive behaviors such as gambling or compulsive shopping. Addiction is actually an attempt to normalize the feelings of pleasure and response in a brain that may be miswired genetically by a poorly performing brain-reward cascade.
Addiction, a Multifaceted Disease
Although it’s tempting to blame genetics for all health problems, bear in mind that health issues, including addiction, are almost always an interaction among genes and the environment. The underlying genetic issue may be there, but the move from self-medication to addiction involves other choices and environmental factors.
No two people are alike, either. That’s why, although alcoholism and drug abuse tend to run in families, you can find an addict in almost every family tree. Some people find ways to self-medicate and normalize neurotransmitter imbalances without becoming addictive. There are indeed several things you can do to live a healthier, more balanced life without turning to addictions.
Can You Increase Dopamine Receptors?
As previously mentioned, dopamine is produced naturally inside the brain. It can’t cross the blood-brain barrier, which means that if you’re not producing enough dopamine, you can’t simply take a dopamine pill or get a dopamine injection to increase the circulating amounts.
Keep in mind that it’s not just the amount of dopamine and other neurotransmitters circulating in your brain, but the number of specific receptor sites available, too. A good analogy is a parking garage. In this analogy, the cars are like dopamine, and the spaces in the garage are like dopamine receptors. If there are too many cars and not enough open spaces in the parking garage, the cars have to keep driving around until a space opens up. The only way you can accommodate more cars in the garage is to increase the number of available spaces.
How to increase dopamine levels naturally, you ask? In your brain, the only way to increase the amount of dopamine absorbed into your system is by increasing the number of dopamine receptors.
How to Increase Dopamine Receptors Naturally
Whether the problem is that your body isn’t producing enough dopamine, or the circulating dopamine can’t find enough receptors to key into, is unknown. However, there are only a few methods uncovered by scientists to increase dopamine receptors naturally. Scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory found that eating fewer calories increased the number of dopamine receptors in the brains of rats, for example, so restricting your calorie intake and losing weight if you are obese may help.
Many people also seek to increase the amount of circulating dopamine in the brains in the hope of offsetting the need for addictive behaviors. The theory behind this approach is that by naturally and healthfully increasing the amount of dopamine available, individuals don’t have to turn to their drug of choice.
If you’re wondering how to increase dopamine levels, Natural Health Advisory has the following suggestions:
|• Avoid sugar, which disrupts dopamine levels.|
|• Eat foods rich in the amino acid tyrosine. Your body uses tyrosine to produce dopamine. Foods rich in tyrosine include bananas, eggs, yogurt, watermelon, cherries and meats. Supplements are also available but it’s probably safer to increase your natural sources of tyrosine; there is no recommended daily allowance for amino acids.|
|• Reduce your intake of caffeine, which can temporarily decrease the amount of dopamine in your brain.|
|• Decrease your stress, which also affects dopamine’s actions in the body.|
|• Get plenty of sleep. During sleep, your brain tackles many tasks, including dopamine production and reception. Sleep heals.|
|• Eat a diet rich in antioxidants, or take a multivitamin and mineral supplement that delivers plenty of antioxidants. Dopamine is easily oxidized; antioxidants combat this.|
|• Increase your magnesium intake or take a vitamin with minerals including magnesium. Low levels or deficiencies of magnesium can lead to lower levels of dopamine.|
Addiction Treatment at 12 Keys
All biological systems seek homeostasis, or balance. Your brain chemistry is no different. In order to truly heal from addiction, a multifaceted approach is best, one that encompasses body, mind and spirit. Just dealing with one aspect of addiction, such as a possible dopamine deficiency, may not be enough. More action may be needed.
12 Keys offers a balanced program and includes holistic nutrition, therapy and a 12-step approach to addiction and recovery that helps individuals achieve balance throughout their lives. In a supportive environment, you can heal from addiction and recover to lead a happy, healthy and productive life. The 12 Keys approach includes detoxification, individual and group therapy, 12-step counseling, working with fellow recovering addicts, nutritional counseling, exercise and private time to recover your sense of self and life purpose. Family involvement is also essential to a full and active recovery.
For more information on addiction and recovery services and the 12 Keys Model, call 12 Keys Rehab.