What is Dopamine?

Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter molecule in the central nervous system enabling information flow between cells. Vital for the control and coordination of movement, dopamine is also involved in keeping us alert, active and motivated. It is necessary for “executive” functions such as constructive thinking, concentration and memory formation. Dopamine is also required for the generation of pleasurable feelings and sexual desire and it has a positive effect on the heart, circulation and metabolic rate. Scientific studies link low dopamine levels/function with:

  • anxiety and depression
  • cravings and addictions
  • fibromyalgia
  • obesity
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Restless Legs Syndrome

Dopamine receptors

At least five different dopamine receptors (D1-D5) have been identified across the nervous system and it seems that the density and variety of receptors we each have vary considerably depending on our genetic tendency and our development in the womb and during childhood.

Dopamine levels and functioning reflect our individual receptor repertoire and are reduced by stress, lack of the right nutrients, ageing and certain medications. Additionally, from mid-life, dopamine levels start declining at a rate of approximately 13% each decade, which accounts for many of the general symptoms of ageing such as fatigue, poor sleep quality, reduced emotional activity, depression, reduced motor activity, loss of muscle tone and cognitive function etc.

In women, low dopamine levels in mid-life exacerbate the physiological and psychological effects of declining oestrogen, producing more severe hot flushes, night sweats, sleep disturbances and mood swings.

For men, the effects of falling testosterone such as; decreasing muscle mass, increasing body fat, reduced physical energy/endurance, gradually decreasing libido, loss of bone density, increasing cholesterol etc are all exacerbated by declining dopamine.

Emotionally, dopamine is required to generate:

  • feelings of pleasure
  • feelings of attachment and love
  • a sense of altruism (unselfish concern for the welfare of others)
  • integration of thoughts and feelings

and low dopamine may be associated with:

  • anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure)
  • difficulty in feeling love and sensing attachment to another
  • difficulty in accessing and expressing real feelings
  • a lack of remorse about actions
  • distractibility

Dopamine and depression

The adult brain is formed from our experiences in childhood and it has been shown that early social deprivation or stress can lead to permanent reduction in dopaminergic neurones especially in the prefrontal cortex of the brain where they are usually very dense, affecting the capacity for positive emotionality. An unsatisfactory early relationship between mother and child for example, results in fewer dopamine receptors and a constricted capacity for pleasure and reward in later life, increasing the propensity of depressive episodes.

The newer pharmacological teatments for depression are known as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). The basis for their use is that depression is caused by low serotonin levels n the brain. SSRIs work by inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin back into the nerve cell, thereby increasing the level existing at the synaptic cleft. However, this entire approach to treating depression is now in question and the drug companies promoting these SSRIs for years are now focussing their research efforts towards the wider role of dopamine.   

Improving dopamine levels/functioning

Conventional medicine treats tonditions associated with low dopamine levels/function with dopamine agonists – drugs that stimulate dopamine receptors. Unfortunately, in time, this constant and unnatural high level of stimulation desensitises the dopamine receptors so that drug effectiveness declines with time and drug dosages then need to be increased. This further desensitises the receptors (which are already in short supply) and increases negative side effects.

Improve dopamine levels naturally

Dopamine is made in the body from the amino acid tyrosine which is derived from the proteins we eat or from the amino acid phenylalanine. Unfortunately, eating more tyrosine-rich foods does not automatically confer higher dopamine levels.

However a proven way to improve dopamine levels is with phenylethylamine (PEA) (1).

PEA is a molecule we produce endogenously (made in the body) and which is known to have specific neuro-regenerating properties. We produce PEA when we feel happy, joyous and calm. People in love have particularly high levels (hence it has been coined the “love molecule”) as do long-distance runners – partly explaining the anti-depressant effect of exercise.

Importantly, PEA also has the ability to raise the level of freely circulating dopamine in the brain.

Products containing significant quantities of PEA able to access the central nervous system to positively influence low or declining dopamine levels/function include: Klamath flakes, MEMaid, QuietLEGS, VitalCALM, VitalLIFT, VitalMAX and VitalWOMAN.

If you would like any further information on any of these products or to seek advice from our pharmacist, please call free on 07748312313 between 10-4pm, Monday-Friday.


  • Murata M., Katagiri N., Ishida K., et al., Effect of beta-phenylethylamine on extracellular concentrations of  dopamine in the nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex. Brain Research 2009 May t;1269:40-6

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