Don’t be Dopy, be Dopeaminey

Dopamine; what is it, what does it do, why is Andrew writing about it?

Well, since dopamine is a neurotransmitter and heavily involved in brain function, let’s go to to learn the basics:

Dopamine is one of the brain’s neurotransmitters—a chemical that ferries information between neurons. Dopamine helps regulate movement, attention, learning, and emotional responses. It also enables us not only to see rewards but to take action to move toward them. Since dopamine contributes to feelings of pleasures and satisfaction as part of the reward system, the neurotransmitter also plays a part in addiction.

Okay, there’s the basics. On the plus side, in transmitting information between neurons, dopamine:

  • Regulates physical and mental processes
  • Helps us with delayed gratification and rewards

Unfortunately, on the minus side, dopamine:

  • Contributes to feelings of pleasure/satisfaction/happiness, thus playing a part in addiction.

What does this have to do with a healthy lifestyle? A whoooooole lot. Follow along.

First off,

Dopamine problems are implicated in ADHD, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression, bipolar disorders, binge eating, addiction, gambling, and schizophrenia.

So, proper dopamine levels are important for all around physical and mental health.

Fortunately, most of us have dopamine levels that are pretty normal (that’s kind of what “normal” means), and we won’t have to live with those problems. But even with normal dopamine levels and response, we can find ourselves having difficulties.

Let’s circle back to addiction and take, for example, video games. There is a fear that video games are like addictive drugs. Seriously, a couple of years ago there was a New York Post headline, “IT’S DIGITAL HEROIN: HOW SCREENS TURN KIDS INTO PSYCHOTIC JUNKIES.” But is it really true?

Short answer, no.

Longer answer, video games raise dopamine levels because they are fun, and dopamine is involved in our “…feelings of pleasure and satisfaction.” Thing is, gaming basically doubles dopamine levels (about the same amount as eating junk food or dessert). On the other hand, addictive drugs like heroin, crack or speed raise dopamine levels 10x.

So, unless you’re going to seriously argue that you’re addicted to pizza or Rocky Road, then with the exception of truly anomalous cases (and I know they exist) you really aren’t “addicted” to video games.

Of course, even though their not true addictions, too much pizza, potato chips, Rocky Road or video games are bad for you, and what do they have in common? They’re generally unhealthy.

Too many empty calories = weight gain.

Too much sitting around watching a screen = tech neck, loss of muscle tone and weight gain.

Screens at night mess with your sleep and lack of sleep = cognitive decline, forgetfulness, mood swings, lowered immune response, weight gain, increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease and lowered sex drive.

So what do we do about it. Everything enjoyable thing we do gives us a little dopamine hit, and there are a lot of enjoyable things that are…not so good (my father likes to joke, “Everything I like is illegal, immoral, fattening, or causes cancer”). How do we keep the negative activities to a minimum? Well, why not substitute one for the other?

Dopamine “…enables us not only to see rewards but to take action to move toward them.” The very act of planning and embarking on a healthier lifestyle will invoke the dopamine response. Doing an activity you enjoy will invoke the dopamine response. And, finally, achieving one of the goals you set for yourself will invoke the dopamine response.

Dopamine. It’s a part of our physical and mental makeup. If we let it get away from us, let it take over, it will ruin us. But, if we harness it, it’s another tool in the toolbox of living a healthier life.