A neurotransmitter whose purpose is to send signals between neurons (nerve cells), dopamine plays an important part in sending information from the substantia nigra to the corpus striatum in order to promote purposeful, smooth muscle activity. This chemical is a precursor to or the substance from which noradrenaline (norepinephrine) and adrenaline (epinephrine) is formed. Depending on the kind of protein it combines with, dopamine can either inhibit or excite nerve cells.

When the level of dopamine in a person’s frontal lobe is high the person experiences pleasure and less pain. So, a person with naturally high dopamine levels may be able to tolerate pain well. A high level of dopamine can come from good genes, a good personality and/or a healthy lifestyle, which means that if a person eats a healthy diet, is physically active, and knows how to properly manage stress, it leads to high dopamine levels in his/her body. People with high levels of dopamine will, for example, tend to tolerate back problems or arthritis better than those with relatively low levels of it.

Dopamine is always associated with feelings of alertness, purposeful behavior and reward. It is often related to the brain’s “pleasure” system causing us to experience a feeling of enjoyment and a strong desire to do or keep on doing certain activities. It is dopamine that helps us to experience the feeling of pleasure whenever we use certain stimuli or drugs, indulge in sex, or eat our favorite foods. However, there is also a downside to high dopamine levels in the body. if we have high amounts of dopamine in our limbic system, it tends to cause memory and emotional problems; if it’s inadequate in the cerebral cortex, it may lead to a personality of extreme distrust in people making the person highly susceptible to episodes of paranoia which can ruin his/her social life..

Alcohol Addiction

One of the reasons why a lot of people consume alcohol is because it can boost the levels of dopamine in the brain, specifically, in the mesolimbic system. Alcohol disrupts the ability of the body to break down dopamine which causes the levels to remain high in the brain. When a chronic drinker all of a sudden stops drinking alcohol, the dopamine levels in her/his fall dramatically resulting in an inability to derive pleasure from normally pleasurable activities such as social interactions, eating, and exercise and the feeling of dysphoria (sensation of discomfort and unpleasantness) sets in instead.

The drop of dopamine levels related to alcohol withdrawal is a factor that causes strong cravings for alcohol by alcoholics. Not all people who drink alcohol become alcoholics. But people who very high dopamine releases when they drink alcohol (or even, coffee) are likely to become addicted to it more so when they are not into social gatherings or if they are very smart.

Acupuncture Treatment for Alcohol Addiction

For the treatment of alcohol addiction, acupuncturists usually focus on the acupoint Ht 7. This point helps prevent the levels of dopamine to subside in one part of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens during ethanol withdrawal. It can also help release dopamine when the patient is facing an ethanol challenge. When the Ht 7 is needled, the body is stimulated resulting in the normalization of the brain’s dopamine levels even if the patient had been drinking for a long time. Acupuncture sessions twice or thrice a week is recommended for people trying to quit. The treatments can help normalize the amounts of dopamine in their body so that they neither feel agitated nor depressed.

Smoking Addiction

Nicotine is an addictive substance. This is because it affects the central dopaminergic channels in a major way. The substance can induce feelings of reward and pleasure. Nicotine lowers appetite, boosts alertness, and activates the body’s central nervous system. Both men and women are prone to nicotine addiction but women smokers are more compelled to continue the habit because of fear of gaining weight when they stop. Nicotine addiction is the strongest type of chemical addiction. Even if the smoker cuts his/her smoking by 50%, it may lead to severe withdrawal symptoms like cravings for cigarettes, anxiety, cognitive dysfunction, anger, hunger, and sleep disorders. There are medications that can lessen dopamine reuptake to help smokers stop smoking. But, unfortunately, these medicines come with very harmful side effects and are especially dangerous for people who are currently taking meds that boost epinephrine and norepinephrine levels, for those who are just starting to abstain from alcohol, and for people who have uncontrolled hypertension, eating disorders, or epilepsy.

People who have been smoking for a decade or more are likely to have enzymes that have adapted to their habit. So, when they suddenly decide to quit smoking, they feel extremely miserable. Body and auricular acupuncture can help restore balance in the body. It also helps release “feel-good” hormones including endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine and helps lower stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are rebalanced through the stimulation of acupuncture needles. This is much better than just stimulating or inhibiting the metabolism of some of these hormones.

One notable case involving acupuncture treatment for smoking addiction involved a female who had been smoking a pack of cigarettes every day for 30 years. When she decided to quit smoking after her friend died of lung cancer and who also had smoked for decades, she selected acupuncture as her treatment of choice. She was treated for six weeks. During those times, she neither gained weight nor experienced any withdrawal symptoms. Needless to say, she was cured of her addiction. Another example of acupuncture’s ability to cure smoking addiction dealt with another female smoker who completed ear acupuncture treatment for 3 months; she also was cured of her addiction. Her daughter was very surprised of her cure since her mother had smoked heavily for more than two decades. Of course, there have been cases where the treatment was unsuccessful but this was because the patient never was really prepared to quit or because he/she was too busy going to his/her scheduled acupuncture treatments.

Morphine Addiction

Again, addiction to morphine is caused by the drugs ability to release dopamine in the person’s bloodstream. The worst part of morphine addiction is the severe withdrawal symptoms when you stop using the drug. In this regard, acupuncture can be an ideal treatment since it can very much lessen the symptoms of morphine withdrawal. A study done in Korea in 2005, dealt with the ability of acupuncture to alter the behavior and levels of dopamine in rats injected with morphine. The results were published in the Neuroscience Letter magazine. They showed that the needling of the HT7 acupoint, led to a substantial lowering of the rats’ behavioral hyperactivity due to a systemic morphine challenge and the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. These all meant that acupuncture had a therapeutic effect on morphine addiction by helping reduce the body’s sensitivity to morphine and by normalizing the levels of dopamine in the body.

Jamie Catlett is a licensed and board certified acupuncturist in Jacksonville, FL and the founder of Jacksonville Acupuncture Clinic.