Dopamine has different roles in different areas of your brain. In the thinking areas, it makes you able to focus your attention. Low levels of dopamine in this area are linked with ADD/ADHD. In the movement areas, it helps you control how your body moves. Extremely low levels here lead to Parkinson's disease, which is characterized by tremors and problems with balance and coordination.
People with fibromyalgia (FMS) and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS or ME/CFS) generally have low dopamine levels as well. Symptoms of both conditions include both cognitive effects as well as movement and balance problems.
No neurotransmitter acts alone. They all work together in a complex web of activity that scientists are really just beginning to understand. Still, experts have been able to associate different neurotransmitter imbalances with certain conditions and symptoms and find some ways to help boost or decrease activity.
Low dopamine levels are associated with the following symptoms:
- Stiff, rigid, achy muscles
- Impaired fine motor skills
- Cognitive impairment (called brain fog or fibro fog)
- Inability to focus attention
- Poor balance and coordination
- Strange walking pattern (gait), frequently with small steps
High levels of dopamine, on the other hand, are associated with addiction, euphoria, hyperstimulation, excessive focus, suspicion, and the inability to separate what is important from what isn't. If you're taking medication that increases your dopamine levels, you should let your doctor know if you have symptoms of high dopamine, which is associated with psychological side effects.
Neuroleptic (antipsychotic) drugs lower dopamine levels, so if you're taking anything in this class for another condition, you'll want to talk to your doctor about symptoms that could be related to low dopamine. Common drugs in this class include:
- Clozaril (clozapine)
- Haldol (haloperidol)
- Risperdal (risperidone)
- Seroquel (quetiapine)
- Zyprexa (olanzapine)
Increasing the Availability of Dopamine
Drug treatment of low dopamine levels may include stimulant therapy with Ritalin, Concerta and Methadate (all of which contain methylphenidate).
We don't have a lot of research confirming that food can boost dopamine levels in your brain, and even if it can, it would take prohibitively huge amounts to have the desired effect. In spite of the lack of hard evidence, some practitioners recommend:
- Tea (black or green)
- Apples, bananas & watermelon
- Blueberry extract
- Red wine
- Beets, beans & legumes
- Wheat germ
Supplements believed to help raise dopamine levels include:
- L-Theanine (supplement form of amino acid unique to black and green tea)
- Omega-3 fatty acids, from fish oil or flax seed oil
- Rhodiola rosea
A note on tea & theanine: Studies show theanine increases both norepinephrine and dopamine while lowering glutamate levels, all of which can have a positive effect on those of us with FMS and ME/CFS. Research is mixed, however, on how theanine impacts serotonin levels. If you decide to try theanine, track your symptoms to see if serotonin-related symptoms get worse.
While it's generally safe to experiment with these kinds of foods, don't expect miracles and avoid extreme changes to your diet. Be sure to make changes slowly, and track your dietary changes and symptoms in a symptom journal to get an accurate gauge of what may be helping. You should always work with your doctor to decide what methods to try and how successful your treatments are.
- Serotonin Dysregulation: Symptoms & Treatment Options
- Not Enough Norepinephrine: What It Does & What to Do About It
- GABA & Glutamate: Calmness vs. Stimulation & Over-stimulation
Amino Acids. 2008 Jan 15. [Epub ahead of print] All rights reserved. "Theanine, gamma-glutamylethylamide, a unique amino acid in tea leaves, modulates neurotransmitter concentrations in the brain striatum interstitium in conscious rats."
Goldstein, J. Alasbimn Journal2(7): April 2000. AJ07-5. "The Pathophysiology and Treatment of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Other Neurosomati Disorders: Cognitive Therapy in a Pill."
Nutritional neuroscience. 2006 Oct-Dec;9(5-6):251-8. "Dietary supplementation with blueberry extract improves survival of transplanted dopamine neurons."
Progress in neuro-psychopharmacology and biological psychiatry. 2008 Jul 1;32(5):1243-50. Epub 2008 Apr 7. "Resveratrol, a red wine polyphenol, protects dopaminergic neurons in MPTP-treated mice."
Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2008 Feb;33(2):188-97. All rights reserved. "Genetic evaluation of the serotonergic system in chronic fatigue syndrome."