Dopamine is central to the function of our brains and nervous system. But what exactly is it? In the emerging field of neuroscience, dopamine is a neurotransmitter or messenger molecule involved in nerve cell communication. Discovered in the 1950’s, we now know it plays a critical role in central nervous system function such as movement, pleasure, attention, motivation and mood.
But what about our thoughts? It is estimated that we have 60-80,000 thoughts per day. That boils down to 2500-3300 thoughts per hour. What is most noteworthy is that 80% of our thoughts are negative (that’s for all people). Is there any way of figuring out if those 80,000 thoughts in a person’s day are wrong? Delusional? Not acceptable? Not true? We can tell if a person cannot string sentences together and might draw the conclusion that they have disordered thoughts. But – many people who have had damage to the brain, such as in strokes, have clarity of thought, but have difficulty with speech or finding the right words.
In other cases, a person might believe the devil is after him, or that his thoughts are being broadcasted, or he is being threatened by aliens. Delusional thoughts are not based in reality. If there is reality in the history of a particular belief system, it is not delusional – it is a legitimate concern for the person. Truly delusional thoughts are usually accompanied by abnormal behaviours and the inability to self care. People do not need to be labeled as mentally ill for having an emotional reaction to an external pressure, if that reaction is non-violent and the reasons can be articulated. Otherwise every single person would be considered to be mentally ill.
People who believe in God, think atheists are delusional or in denial – while atheists firmly believe that those who believe in God are delusional. Some people believe the Bible is literalistic, while others argue it is mostly metaphorical. Is there a diagnostic test to determine how many delusional thoughts crop up in one persons mind? Nope. Not one. The criteria used to be that there had to be documented evidence of serious impairment, but all that has changed in the past ten or fifteen years. Now it is anyone and everyone who can be targeted for chemical restraints.
If it is obvious or can be proven that a person has lost touch with reality, such as when they exhibit bizarre behaviours, have visual and auditory hallucinations, are severely impaired, distressed, or become a risk to themselves or others – then it makes perfect sense to diagnose and treat them. But in recent years, hundreds of fairly normal or justifiable behaviours and thoughts have been turned into illnesses. Active children are drugged with Ritalin. People who are not even noticeably mentally ill are being treated with potent neuroleptics. Life has its struggles – we should be allowed to do our level best to overcome them without interference or loss of autonomy.
In real medicine, every doctor and specialist relies on a detailed history and a battery of tests before making a diagnosis. Conclusions are drawn based on evidence of cellular pathology and abnormal test results, which can be tracked and measured. Even at that, getting a second opinion might bring about an entirely different diagnosis, simply based on the interpretation of results.
In a rational and evidence based reality, and according to all medical diagnostics, diseases cannot be identified based solely on brief interviews, especially when they involve subjective value judgements, power imbalances and coercion. There are way too many blind spots along with a lack of objective data. Perhaps this is the reason for a lack of cure in the field of psychiatry. In all other aspects of medicine, the objective is to cure the disease. Another very interesting thing to note about the field of psychiatry, is that they themselves have a much higher rate of suicide and mental health disorders than the general population does.
No one can track or measure a persons thoughts in order to make a diagnosis about thoughts. It is purely subjective, and can only be deemed pathological if the person is acting on thoughts in a way that threatens public safety or contributes to a disturbance of the peace. Given that I have a medical background, I am very skeptical of any opinion or diagnosis that has no diagnostic criteria whatsoever.
For example, those who worry about accidents that never happen, about children out for the night, or get obsessive about germs, or worry they have a cheating spouse, yet he is not having affair – are actually fairly common delusions. The same goes for those who refuse to believe a cheating spouse is having an affair, or that their fifteen year old is taking heroin – are also things that reflect an altered reality, because they are in denial of the truth.
The solution to dealing with life’s problems has to be around gaining insight and wisdom. We each have a unique life journey and challenges, therefore finding out how to be open to what is happening, without fretting over things that are not happening is important, yet tricky.
How many of us are freaking afraid of spiders, garter snakes and mice? Those are irrational fears, because non-poisonous little vermin cannot hurt us. We are bigger and smarter than they are, yet some of us will go straight up and screech the house down at the sight of one.
I know because they scare me too. I have tried to convince myself not to have such an adrenalin rush over them. If there are any snakes or mice around, the only workable solution I have come up with, is to wear shoes (not barefoot or sandals) and try to make a fair bit of noise, so they don’t run or slither under my feet – or come near me. I sat down one day after a close encounter with a mouse – and I asked myself, with pounding heart and my feet up on a chair. What is it about them?
I know mice and garter snakes are harmless, and they don’t want to encounter me either, so what is the problem? I theorized that the adrenalin reaction is mostly because I am afraid of stepping on one, especially in bare feet. It is the tactile and imagined feeling of having a snake or mouse under my foot that freaks me out. Come to think of it – I did step on a coiled up garter snake once in my bare feet. I shrieked loud enough to sound an alarm like there was an axe murder underway. To some people – it is laughable and ridiculous to be afraid of a harmless small animal. Is it a feature of mental illness? Why should it be? I have never met anyone who does not have some irrational fears, anxieties or worries. Honestly, although it may sound crazy – I think it is normal.
How about those who are comfortable financially and are actually quite wealthy? In many cases, they can build up nest eggs worth millions of dollars – but to talk to some of them, you would think they are in dire straights and have to worry about every nickel. For a high percentage of people who fret about money – they fear poverty, and in many cases grew up in poverty. Therefore they have associations with the loss of status and struggles it brings, are highly motivated to avoid it, and worry endlessly about it – even when they have plenty of money. For lots of them, they have enjoyed a steady growth in assets and income over a long period of time – therefore all those worries are actually delusional.
Farmers worry about drought or hail. They get their crops off year after year, but the fear of such a huge loss over which they have no control, can overwhelm them and cause them to become brooding and negative. We all battle imaginary problems, because we know untoward things can and do happen to people.
A growing number of people fear climate change, end of times, and global disasters. They are prepping themselves, and in some cases become obsessed with it to the point of making drastic changes in their lives. Everything begins to revolve around achieving total self-sufficiency. They spend almost all of their time planning for, and worrying about something that may not happen in their lifetime. Does this make sense to the average person? Yet, they have a right to thought, belief and opinion – so they plan their lives according to their beliefs.
Some people worry and fret about their physical health, and many have imaginary illnesses. Every bump is a cancerous tumour, and every bit of indigestion or false positives in lab or mammogram results signals a dire outcome. Most things we tend to worry about hardly ever happen. However once is enough to cause reactions and triggers from then on. We are not like gazelles grazing peacefully in a meadow, who suddenly get chased by a mountain lion. If they were like us, they would not be able to graze peacefully ever again, but they do – and we too, are best to deal with it more like they do.
Every individual has billions of thoughts, which may or may not be completely logical, or even rooted in reality (such as people who are cult indoctrinated, or even writers of fiction). What about all the near death experiences? Some of the descriptions sound like LSD trips, but who can say what happens but them? Who really knows, and who really cares what the range of beliefs or experiences are? The Orwellian notion of “thought police” is far-fetched, yet seems to be a part of the maladies and modalities assigned to ordinary people, in order to define ideas, worries, thoughts and beliefs – as sickness. At one time this included gays who wanted to “come out of the closet” and slaves who wanted to be free.
What exactly is a delusional thought? It is a thought or belief that the person with power or interviewer does not believe in himself (based on a value judgement, power and dominance, lack of information, or political belief)? Anything can be a delusional thought, depending on another persons value system alone. Beliefs by themselves should not be the basis for diagnostic criteria. All too often throughout history, people have been mistreated and discriminated against for thought, belief and opinion. It robs freedom and all reasonable discourse. It is also a slippery slope.
What about measuring mood? The dopamine receptors in the brain suck up the available dopamine and have an impact on mood. Since glucose feeds the brain, fluctuating blood sugars contribute to our mood as well. Hormones are also intricately connected with dopamine and mood. Perhaps more than any other concept about mental health – is that we feed our thoughts, which in turn affects our mood.
What is a mood disorder? Mood is a result of emotions. Emotions are the primary motivators of all human behaviour. A mood disorder happens when there is destabilization or unacceptable behaviours associated with mood. These include prolonged episodes of euphoria, depression, anger, or a flat and disinterested affect.
It is important to regulate emotions in order to remain stable. The purpose of emotions is to help with (but not dominate) decision making. For example, the purpose of anger is to make a grievance known. Therefore communication is central to utilizing emotion, but it must be done in a way that is honest, respectful and forgiving. In most cases, proper communication will alleviate the negative emotion by getting clarification through feedback.
Many emotionally induced situations result from miscommunication or misunderstanding. Oftentimes we are simply grumpy for a day or two, and it is not anyone’s fault. In this case, we are best to find ways to alleviate it through exercise, music, meditation, conversation with a friend – or simply being patient, and let it go by. How often do we feel dismal one day and then fine the next day? It is a good idea to ask ourselves, “what has changed in my life to make me feel this way”? Quite often it is simply a normal fluctuation associated with neurochemistry or even the weather. Like the weather, emotions and mood vary from day to day, so acceptance of this simple fact, is part of staying stable and productive regardless of how we feel.
We can keep in mind that certain personality factors can make people more mercurial. Artists and creative individuals tend to me more emotionally expressive. Gifted individuals experience more intense emotions as a trait of being gifted. Burn out can lead to a loss of motivation or a flat affect. Chronic stress or a chaotic environment, such as when we are moving, can affect our emotions and reactions temporarily. Major life changes such as divorce, grief, birth of a child, financial losses, and many other external factors can disrupt our emotions. Humans are very adaptable, but often we need time to adjust.
Regardless of what emotion we are feeling, we can know it is temporary, and the most important thing is to maintain self control. Things like communication, crying, or time alone – do not signal a loss of control. But things like self harm, violence, binging, door slamming, yelling, etc. do signal a loss of self-control. All people must keep emotions in check enough to avoid any sort of unlawful behaviours. We also must keep in mind that things like “the silent treatment” and withholding love through constant disapproval – are not unlawful reactions, but are emotionally damaging to our loved ones.
In addition to experiences, memories, negative and positive emotions, problem solving, and responses to stress (which is mostly fear based), we store information in our brains for future retrieval, in order to help us survive. We develop those survival skills and coping mechanisms based on what we have experienced in life. We cannot eliminate memories or experiences, but we can adapt to change, and then reroute the circuits to help eliminate stressful or fear based reactions when triggered. Triggers are usually activated due to associations, or the recognition of similar patterns, even though the circumstances may be different.
There is no reliable method of measuring dopamine. Symptoms of too much dopamine include euphoria, psychosis, aggression, insomnia, and increased sex drive. Symptoms of low dopamine include decreased motivation, sleep disturbances, depression, fatigue, forgetfulness and memory loss. Dopamine regulation is linked to norepinephrine and multiple other neurotransmitters and receptors in the body, therefore any disease process associated with the central nervous system and movement can have multiple causative factors.
The fact there are no ways to measure dopamine levels should tell us that unwarranted and unnatural chemical interference with dopamine is based on potentially faulty guesswork. Doctors are expected to make decisions about dopamine based on medical history, lifestyle, and symptoms. If the medical history is overlooked, as it often is in psychiatry, that means there is a high risk of misdiagnosis and mistreatment. There are multiple medical conditions that mimic symptoms of low dopamine. These include thyroid deficiencies, type 2 diabetes, MS, poor diet, hormonal imbalances, tumours, certain types of cancer, and addictive substances.
Anything that interferes with or artificially increases dopamine will eventually burn out the dopamine stream. For this reason, it is wise to avoid any substance, medication or activity that interferes with the bodies natural dopamine streams. But what if there are conditions such as anxiety, mood disorders, lack of motivation, or other mental health labels that indicate dopamine depletion or overstimulation?
Fortunately, there are natural ways to increase dopamine:
Meditation (not medication) has been proven to increase dopamine levels. Many people meditate while sitting in a sauna, through prayer and fasting, or just by setting aside a quiet time without interruption to focus on healing and well-being. I have found that sleep meditation videos will put me back to sleep if I wake up in the middle of the night. They have helped train my brain to get sufficient sleep
Write a daily to do list. Specific goals, both short term and long term help to increase motivation and decrease stress – both of which improve dopamine levels.
Increase the intake of foods that contain L-Tyrosine. These include avocados, fish, eggs, cheese, bananas and pumpkin seeds. There are many other foods with direct and indirect effects on building dopamine levels.
Exercise is probably at the top of the to do list for increasing dopamine. Not surprisingly, the best exercise to do is the one you enjoy the most. For some it is running, and for others it is cycling, swimming, or weight lifting. Since dopamine has an intrinsic link to movement – we are best to get up and get moving, which is of particular importance for those with sedentary desk jobs. The best dopamine enhancer is through interval training, which involves short bursts of energy, followed by a brief rest, and then another burst. This can be done through sprinting, water running or cycling. Another often overlooked aspect of movement is in stretching. Stretching not only helps muscle flexibility, but it also has components of meditation that can be incorporated into a daily routine. I suppose this is the reason yoga is such a popular form of exercise.
Intermittent fasting. There is a wide range of fasting methods, from prolonged to intermittent. I know for certain that fasting is an incredible healing method – because it can reset the immune system. For years I was plagued with allergies and a cascading histamine reaction, combined with colds throughout the entire winter months. Since the fast, I have not had a single cold and no longer have the histamine, allergic response. I have not been routinely doing intermittent fasting, but after this mornings research on dopamine, I plan to follow an intermittent fasting plan. Typically this is in a 16-8 hour ratio, meaning that you fast say from 8 pm until noon the following day, and then eat light and nutritious food for the remainder of the day – avoiding stimulants such as sugar and alcohol. This can be done one or two days a week with positive results. With regards to longer fasts, such as the one I did (21 days) I have learned that it takes 7-10 days to reset the immune system. The healing crisis depends on the amount of toxins in our blood stream and fat cells.
Take time off from all technology, including gaming, social media, Internet browsing – and basically any activity or addiction that artificially elevates dopamine. The reason for this is that by artificially elevating dopamine levels, we eventually burn them out.
Drink green tea.
Create something. Whatever creative expression or hobby you are attracted to, will increase dopamine – whether it is writing, drawing, painting, photography, music, gardening, or building with wood. When you hear terms around finding avenues to increase “creative juices” or getting in a state of “flow” – these are references to naturally improving dopamine streams. It makes sense, because all creative endeavours involve the brain, some amount of movement, motivation, and measurable results.
Social inclusion, good conversation, supportive families, and helping others will improve dopamine levels naturally. When joy is shared, it is joy doubled – and when sorrow is shared – it is sorrow halved. We all have the capacity to heal, as well as to help others to heal.
Getting enough sleep cannot be underestimated when it comes to mental health, clarity, motivation and the immune system. Some people do seem to need less sleep – but in reality all people need 7-9 hours of sleep each night to rest and restore the body to maintain optimal health. It is best to avoid artificial sleep aids because there is more happening at a subconscious level when we sleep, than can ever really be understood.
Cold showers or ice cold baths are also on the Scandinavian list of things to do to increase dopamine levels. I suppose the best time to start this plan would be in the hot summer months. A dip in an icy cold river or lake would do the trick even better! Who can bring themselves to getting into an ice cold bath in the middle of winter? It’s definitely not on the instant gratification list!
Enjoy fresh air and the beauty of nature every single day. A good aim is to get at least two hours of fresh air daily. Children thrive in fresh air. Many of our favourite memories involve playing outside or seeing some magnificent aspect of nature, such as wildlife, sunsets, and snowy mountain peaks.
Humour is one of life’s best releases and functions beautifully as a natural and spontaneous mood elevator. Nothing else can compete with wit and laughter. Wit involves the flashing comparison between two things, and lets us quickly see that we take life’s challenges far too seriously. Satire switches a negative thought into a humorous one. Funny people make us laugh. One funny person is far better than ten psychiatrists talking in a tin bucket. Comical banter among friends is delightful – because humour sheds far more truth and light on the human condition than a 974 page manual can.
This brings us to the things to avoid, in order to prevent a depletion of dopamine in our systems. Ironically, anything that leads to instant gratification messes with dopamine levels. “First it giveth and then it taketh away” – as the Proverb goes. The things to avoid:
Too much of anything for prolonged periods will stimulate and then exhaust dopamine levels. These activities include gambling, alcohol, all drugs, social media, Internet browsing to excess, gaming, watching television, etc. It is good advice to apply some of the principles of fasting to Internet, television, phone usage – or any other activity with mood elevating or “escapism” components. Even exercise, if done to excess – can be addictive and counter productive.
Avoid or restrict fast foods to once or twice a month, as opposed to habitual use. There is a fat/sugar balance in processed and fast foods known as the “bliss factor”. This addictive blend of sugar and fat can create an unnatural dopamine stream that will lead to a depletion and subsequent lows, destabilization of blood sugar, and other unpleasant side effects. Be wary of additives, especially MSG and artificial sweeteners.
Whatever we do as individuals to escape what is happening around and within us – will eventually deplete dopamine. This is an inventory only we as individuals can assess and learn to moderate.
Stress cannot be avoided completely. But the stress hormones released by the adrenal glands play an important role in mood, anxiety and mood disorders. Therefore it is important to recognize what the stressors are and create a “to-do list” to alleviate and prevent stressors from creating a spiralling downward effect on our well-being.
Challenging negative thoughts. I have learned that many negative thoughts have origins and associations with painful memories. We often get mired down in negative thoughts that are triggered by a memory association, and then mushroom into a big deal without the evidence or rationale to support our reactions.
Since dopamine was first discovered in the fifties – there has been more than a hundred thousand research articles written about it. Although some of those articles are quite controversial and narrow, we can help ourselves by increasing practical knowledge around the subject.
Knowledge is power because it is the precursor to sifting and then applying those basic principles to our own lives. We can make changes to our own dopamine levels without the need for toxic medications that have numerous side effects, damage the brain, alter neurochemistry in unknown ways, interact with food and anything else we ingest – and have few if any proven benefits.
We do have the capacity to monitor and change our own thoughts and habits. There is no scientific evidence whatsoever to prove that drugs can change ingrained thought patterns. Similar to our physical bodies, we can exercise our thoughts to help eliminate unfounded negativity by recognizing triggers and changing our reactions to them.
We now know that opiates (and many other prescription drugs) will interfere with, and quickly bind to dopamine receptors in the brain. But overall, the complexity of the drugs that interfere with dopamine and neurochemistry is poorly understood pseudoscience lacking in knowledge about the overall global impact on all bodily functions. Our bodies and brains involve complex systems that interact with one another at a molecular level.
There is nothing holistic about chemical interferences with dopamine. Dopamine is not just about improved mood – it is central to all movements, to include coordination, balance and the communication between billions of neurons and nerves. We do not want to mess with dopamine – if we really know what is good for us. Our bodies are smarter than poorly understood, rudimentary and narrow minded science. We are not meant to be guinea pigs. Doctors are not meant to be gods, guided by Big Pharma and profit motive either.
Pharmaceuticals are rapidly becoming the number one cause of death in all age groups. There is not enough empirical evidence due to pharmaceutical lobbying to even measure the depth and breadth of other damages caused by them. As just some examples, these drug induced hazards include falls, accidents, uncharacteristic violent outbursts, drug induced suicides, drug induced movement disorders and life threatening agranulocytosis. There are interactions with other drugs, interactions with food, interactions with alcohol, individual genetic markers, destabilizing and sickening withdrawal and detox symptoms, irreversible damages to the nervous system, damages to liver and kidney function, permanent brain damage, increased risk of cardiac arrest and stroke – and many other iatrogenic medical hazards that are secondary to the injudicious use of psychoactive medications.
There are huge profit motives surrounding the over prescribing of potent mood altering and psychoactive drugs and pain killers. We only need to do one hour of research, or less – to convince us that countless people are falling victim to addictions and harm stemming from the pharmaceutical profit motive. We can avoid those pitfalls by making some specific and positive changes to lifestyle and patterns of thought. We have a fundamental right to say no to them.
Self discipline is the basis for self control. In the absence of creating any harm through overt behaviours (such as violence), no one has the right to “thought reform” another human being. Freedom of thought, belief and opinion is a fundamental human right, which is clearly stated in the Canadian Charter of Rights – as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
CANADIAN CHARTER OF RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS
Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law:
Guarantee of Rights and Freedoms
1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.
2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
- (a) freedom of conscience and religion;
- (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
- (c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
- (d) freedom of association.
We are wise to acknowledge negative or irrational thinking for our own well-being and mental health – but in the absence of creating any real danger to anyone, thoughts cannot be diagnosed or monitored by anyone other than the individual. See if there is anyone, regardless of their education or inclinations toward pharmaceutical pseudoscience – who can challenge that thought!
It takes a thought provoking resistance to avoid being coerced into taking prescription drugs as a damaging pseudo cure for life’s difficulties. We do have the capacity to overcome emotional, physical and psychological toxicity – whether it has been inflicted upon us or self-induced. Like the lyrics in the Guy Clark song “To Live Is To Fly” –
“We all got holes to fill
Them holes are all that’s real
Some fall on you like a storm
Sometimes you dig your own”
Disclaimer – The opinions in this article are my own and not intended to undermine required treatment or medications. The information provided is to encourage research and seek methods of reducing over prescribing for seniors. The Beers list provides a comprehensive list of high risk medications to help inform the public. The link https://www.guidelinecentral.com/summaries/american-geriatrics-society-2015-updated-beers-criteria-for-potentially-inappropriate-medication-use-in-older-adults/#section-420
Copyright Valerie J. Hayes and Quiet West Vintage (2019). Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Valerie J. Hayes and Quiet West Vintage with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.