Dr. Larson recently gave a lecture about the neurotransmitter dopamine, what it is, what we have discovered about it, and how utilization of it is so critical to the body and brain. In part one of the series, Dr. Larson discussed how science is finally beginning to understand the complexity and importance of dopamine. In part two, he discussed how critical it is for the body to properly utilize dopamine and what can happen when you don't have a sufficient supply of it. In the last part of the series, episode 52, he discusses how dopamine is converted, the factors necessary to utilize it properly, and things you can do to both enhance and to stunt the utilization and production of dopamine in the body and brain.
Phenylalanine converts to L-Tyrosine, which is considered a non-essential amino acid because it can be made in the body, with the assistance of phenylalanine hydroxylase. For an amino acid to convert, it needs a co-factor or co-factors. For Phenylalanine to convert to L-Tyrosine, it needs iron and BH4 (tetrahydrobiopterin). Therefore, if someone is iron deficient, or subclinically deficient, it can significantly affect their body's ability to produce L-Tyrosine.
L-Tyrosine then gets converted to L-Dopa, which is a precursor to dopamine. L-Tyrosine needs tyrosine hydroxylase, iron, and BH4 co-factors to convert to L-Dopa. For L-Dopa to convert to dopamine, you need the enzyme aromatic amino acid decarboxylase (AAAD), which requires the co-factor P5P (activated B6).
The first process or the conversion from Phenylalanine to L-Tyrosine happens in the liver. Once L-Tyrosine is produced it then goes to the brain. It crosses over into the brain through something called the large neural amino acid transporter, which moves L-Tyrosine to the brain where it is then converted to dopamine. In the brain, dopamine gets further broken down into metabolites and norepinephrine and epinephrine. BH4, which is a co-factor, can continually be recirculated from BH3 and BH2, which requires an appropriate amount of Vitamin C and P5P.
So, how can you increase your utilization and supply of dopamine?
Many things that can either enhance or decrease your utilization or production of dopamine. To not stunt your body's production of dopamine, you can stick to a low carbohydrate diet. High carbohydrate diets cause more glucose production and insulin, which can lead to insulin resistance, which excessively converts the use of dopamine into metabolites. That can deplete the usable amount of dopamine in the brain.
Also, stay away from an artificial sweetener called aspartame, Nutrasweet or Equal. PKU is a condition in the body caused by a genetic disposition where the body can't make phenylalanine hydroxylase, which is an enzyme that converts phenylalanine to L-Tyrosine. That is why in big bold letters all products that contain these chemicals say "Phenylketonurics: contains phenylalanine". If you have PKU the consequence of ingesting these chemicals inhibits phenylalanine to be broken down and can lead to brain damage.
In the average person, without PKU, these chemicals can flood the system, and since an excessive amount of them jump on the same blood transporter to make their way to the brain, it can lead to dopamine deficiency. Therefore, if you have an excess of aspartame in the system, it can significantly affect the production of dopamine.
Since it competes with the natural process of L-Tyrosine conversion to L-Dopa, aspartame can deplete the amount of dopamine that you have to use. Dysbiosis of the gut bacteria, or having an unhealthy balance of good versus bad bacteria in the gut, can lead to leaky gut. The consequence is that it leads to chronic inflammation and disallows good absorption of the nutrients that the body needs. And, therefore, decreases the production of dopamine by limiting the co-factors necessary for conversion.
Another important component to dopamine utilization and production is hormonal imbalances. Since hormones are essential for the basal ganglia area, any substantial nigra hormone deficiency can lead to a decrease in the production of dopamine. For men, low levels of testosterone can affect dopamine production. In women, low levels of progesterone and estrogen that can affect the proper utilization and production of dopamine.
Not having enough antioxidants in the body can substantially affect the area of the brain which is most vulnerable to oxidation, which can lead to chronic inflammation and can destroy neurons, thus interrupting the production of dopamine. Antioxidants like glutathione are a good way to get the antioxidants necessary if you are deficient, and can be taken either in a liquid liposomal form or intravenously. But, only do so under the guidance of a qualified provider. Anthocyanin, an antioxidant which is present in blueberries, helps to target the brain as does curcumin, which is found in turmeric and has been proven to have excellent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Co-factor deficiencies can also lead to dopamine deficiencies or utilization issues. If you don't have enough of the co-factors necessary for conversion, then your body cannot produce L-Dopa, which eventually converts to dopamine. Lastly, don't become addicted to substances. As talked about in part two, addictive substances and activities take over the way dopamine works. They "fry" the dopamine pathways. You can recover from addiction and restore the dopamine pathways, but it requires a lot of work.
So what can you do to enhance your production of dopamine?
The way that you can boost your dopamine production is through something called "kaizen". Developed in Japan, it is a practice of making small incremental changes on a continual basis. Each time that you work toward your goal in small ways, you receive a little boost of dopamine that encourages you to try again. Those small successes motivate you to reach bigger goals in the future. Exercise is also an excellent way to increase dopamine production and increases endorphins which also make you feel "good".
Exercise and getting outdoors both helps to increase endorphins, which give you a little boost of good feeling, and you need the Vitamin D as a co-factor to the conversion of dopamine in the system. If you are low on Vitamin D, it is possible to supplement. But, it is always a good idea to get an evaluation from a physician to know where your levels are before you begin any supplementation regimen.
Tons of studies have been done on the benefits of meditation. If you have all the other things above that can stunt dopamine production under control, the benefits of meditation can be vast. It can help to increase your mood and your positive and motivational behaviors. Music therapy, just like meditation, is an excellent way to enhance the production of dopamine in the brain, but the type depends on your individual taste in music.
The importance of getting enough and the right type of sleep cannot be overestimated. If you don't get the proper amount of sleep, dopamine production and healthy utilization is nearly impossible. Sleep deprivation is one of the biggest things that can stunt your dopamine production. Also, consider a weight loss program. Alongside the idea of a low carb diet, reducing your weight can help to cut insulin resistance. Reversing insulin resistance can also slow down the breakdown of the dopamine, thereby allowing dopamine more available to do it's job. Cold showers or cold therapy are also great ways to enhance your dopamine production.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter with neurological projections into the prefrontal cortex which separates humans from other primates. If you want to increase your motivation, the best way to do so is to encourage those things that will enhance not just the production of dopamine in your body, but also to avoid those things that will stunt it. Responsible for high order cost-benefit analysis problem solving, muscle movement and motivation, dopamine has a huge impact on our overall happiness and success in life. That is why doing all you can to maintain a healthy balance of dopamine will increase your overall health and help you to become motivated to reach any goal you set your mind to.