What is dopamine and why do you want it?
What if I told you that there is one chemical in your body that can help you experience joy, concentrate on your work, stay motivated and find satisfaction with how you spend your time? You’d probably want as much of it as possible, just like everyone else.
We humans have evolved to deeply desire dopamine, the miraculous molecule that keeps us focused on these rewarding behaviors.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a type of molecule used by the neurons in our brains to communicate with each other. It is responsible for many of our favorite feelings, from joy and pleasure to the sense of reward we get from accomplishing a goal.
Often called the motivation molecule, the quest for dopamine is much of what inspires us to work hard for future rewards. It is the anticipation of this reward that powers us through the difficult path to our goal.
When our dopamine system is working properly, we feel motivated, focused, happy and sharp. When our dopamine system is out of balance, we can feel tired, depressed, fuzzy headed and uninspired by life.
Low Dopamine Symptoms
Dopamine is a crucial part of many or our brain’s processes. When we aren’t producing enough or we lose sensitivity to the dopamine that we are producing, we can experience a number of negative symptoms.
Dopamine deficiency can include any of the following symptoms.
- Problems with motivation or concentration
- Low sex drive
- Loss of pleasure
- Mood swings
- Feeling distant from others
- Caffeine or sugar cravings
- Overwhelm from stress
- Inability to lose weight
Causes of Dopamine Deficiency
Low dopamine levels can be caused by anything from poor lifestyle choices to underlying health conditions. By knowing what behaviors can disrupt our dopamine production, we can make better choices for our health and happiness.
Scientific evidence suggests that diets high in sugar, particularly high fructus corn syrup, and saturated fats can reduce dopamine.
With less dopamine available to help motivate good food choices, people can get caught in a vicious cycle where one bad choice causes them to make another bad choice. This cycle of poor choices is a pattern that we see in other dopamine depleting behaviors, like addiction.
Many addictive behaviors cause our brains to release a big dose of dopamine. This big dose feels good because humans have evolved to want more dopamine. Smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and watching porn all release dopamine.
These behaviors can become problematic when repeated exposure causes the brain to hypersensitize its reward circuitry, making it more focused on getting more of whatever was causing the dopamine release. This hypersensitization hijacks normal conscious thought to keep the person focused on acquiring more of the addictive experience.
After the short burst of euphoria from the dopamine spike has passed, the person now feels the opposite, a depressing lack of dopamine. This can manifest in tiredness, sadness, apathy or just a general lack of enthusiasm.
The fastest and most unhealthy way to fix this is by engaging in more of the addictive behavior. Except that the next time, it will take even more to get the same result.
Drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines are addictive because they cause the brain to release massive amounts of dopamine. Similarly, people can become addicted to gambling or sex because these activities can also trigger a large dopamine release.
Prolonged stress is damaging to every part of our physical and emotional health. Our dopamine system is no different.
Studies show that chronic stress changes the way our body reads its own DNA, causing it to change the dopamine signaling in the brain. Finding ways to alleviate stress is critical for every aspect of our health. Some stress relievers, like meditation and exercise, have been shown to have a direct benefit to dopamine production.
How to Increase Dopamine Naturally
The most effective way to increase dopamine is to combine healthy dopamine promoting behaviors with a pro dopamine diet and supplementation. Because the dopamine system is complex and not just a simple button that we push to get more benefit, working to balance the system from multiple angles simultaneously is most likely to get us the results we are looking for.
Dopamine is primarily made from either of two amino acids tyrosine or phenylalanine. For our body to be able to produce enough dopamine, we need to consume enough of the raw materials.
High protein foods like meat are great sources of these nutrients, but don’t despair if you’re a vegan or vegetarian, there are plenty of plant sources as well.
Here is a list of some of the best foods you can eat to help your body to produce dopamine, but any tyrosine rich food can give your body the basic building block it needs.
As mentioned above, reducing the sugar in your diet can have a positive impact on your dopamine system.
Coffee and Caffeine
One of the main reasons that coffee is so popular is that it gives us a nice dopamine boost. If you’ve ever had a hot cup of coffee change your mood from a groggy stupor to a motivated worker bee ready to win the day, then you know the feeling.
The problem with coffee is the same as with other substance that quickly boost our dopamine. With repeated use, they start to lose their effect and we begin to need them just to get back to normal. This doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy a nice cup of coffee in the morning, just be careful with increasing your intake.
A nice alternative to coffee is green tea. Green tea has lower levels of caffeine than coffee, so it won’t cause as big a dopamine spike and withdrawal. Green tea also contains an amino acid called L-Theanine that calms the mind and protects the brain from excess dopamine.
In the last few years there has been an explosion of research on the positive effects of probiotics. Everywhere you look, a new product is promising to boost these beneficial bacteria that live in our digestive tract.
We now know that we depend on these good bacteria to break down the food we eat into simpler nutrients that our bodies need to thrive. Additionally, these beneficial bacteria help to increase the levels of key neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.
Our guts are full of many strains of bacteria, both good and bad. Certain strains of probiotics can limit the growth of bad bacteria that produce neurotoxic substances like LPS. LPS is a contributor to anxiety and depression and the loss of dopamine neurons in the brain.
Taking a probiotic supplement that contains the bacterial strain Lactobacillus plantarum can boost dopamine levels in the brain. Psychobiotics are the new field of mood boosting probiotics that can influence the gut flora to improve emotional health.
Regular exercise has been shown to both increase dopamine in the brain and to reduce some of the effects of dopamine related ailments like Parkinson’s Disease.
If we know that exercising is healthy and that it makes us feel good, then why is it so hard to motivate ourselves to get out and do it? New research suggests that this lack of motivation to exercise might be due to a lack of dopamine receptors.
This can be quite a bind. We need to exercise to boost our dopamine, but we’re not getting enough dopamine to motivate us to exercise in the first place. What can we do?
Here is a hack to escape this depressing cycle of inactivity. If you’re having trouble exercising, set an easily attainable goal. It can be as low as walking around the block. Then go do it.
Setting and achieving a goal is an easy way to get more dopamine. Plus, doing a little bit of exercise helps to reverse the effects of being immobile, making it easier to exercise even more in the future. Creating a series of small wins is great behavioral hack to get more dopamine.
Every year meditation is getting more popular. Just look at the increase in searches for “mindfulness” on Google over the last 15 years.
In addition to all the health benefits of meditation, people like to meditate because it makes them feel good. This is likely in part because mediation increases dopamine release in the brain. One study found that an hour of meditation produced a 64% increase in dopamine production versus resting quietly.
Like exercise, the best way to start meditating is to just commit to a short period. Even a 5-minute meditation can be helpful. Each time you meditate, the dopamine it releases will help you to solidify this new, positive habit.
Getting regular, quality sleep is one of the cornerstones of physical and emotional health. Sleep is just as important as diet and exercise to your health routine. Even missing one night of sleep can cause your brain to reduce its dopamine receptors.
Getting regular, quality sleep can help balance your dopamine levels, improving your alertness, concentration and mood during the day. Many of the behaviors that can help regulate dopamine levels, like exercise, meditation, reducing caffeine and losing weight, can also help improve sleep.
There is nothing like an awesome mixtape to put us in a great mood. Listening to music lights up the pleasure centers of our brains where lots of dopamine is released.
Have you ever listened to a song that was so good that it gave the chills? That feeling is related to a 9% increase in dopamine. In fact, just anticipating listening to a favorite song can trigger a dopamine release.
Music can also be a great tool to motivate exercise. Going for a run is a lot more fun with your favorite rock anthem carrying you along. Now you are doing two things to boost your dopamine and enjoying yourself as well.
Maintaining healthy body weight is immensely beneficial to nearly every aspect of your physical and emotional health. This is also true for your dopamine system.
Compulsive overeating can actually damage the reward circuitry of the brain, causing less dopamine to be available. Eating food is a powerful way to trigger a dopamine release. The current scientific belief is that dopamine deficient people will overeat to cause their brains to release the dopamine that they’re lacking. These are the same brain circuits that we see activated in addiction.
Research has also found a link between a lack of dopamine receptors in the brain and obesity. It appears that it can work both ways. Overeating can cause dopamine deficiency and dopamine deficiency can cause overeating. This double incentive to overeat certainly gives some insight into the global obesity epidemic.
To break this cycle, people need to find other ways to stimulate their dopamine production while they get their eating under control. Finding a fun physical activity to do regularly can both help them lose weight and boost their dopamine. Remember, setting and accomplishing small achievable goals is the way to grow a robust dopamine system.
Taking a Cold Shower
Perhaps you’ve heard of Wim Hof, the Ice Man and his legions of students fearlessly conquering the cold. Wim Hof has inspired people all over the world to experiment with cold exposure to improve their health and moods.
Taking a cold shower can quickly provide a big dopamine boost. Studies show that immersing yourself in water that is 14°C/57°F can boost your dopamine by as much as 250%.
Many fans of this method use it as a coffee replacement. There is also evidence to suggest that this cold exposure could boost your immune system.
Harnessing Your Brain’s Reward System
Dopamine motivates us to act by stimulating us when we anticipate that something important is about to happen. This burst of dopamine acts as emotional motivation and an energy boost to complete the activity.
By understanding how our brains dole out dopamine, we can organize our work and time so that our dopamine circuitry keeps us motivated.
One key strategy to master our dopamine circuitry is to break large tasks or projects up into small pieces. As we complete each piece, we get a dopamine boost, motivating and energizing us to continue. This effect can be further strengthened by crossing the tasks off on a to do list as they are completed.
When we accomplish a larger goal, celebrating is a way to get a bigger dopamine boost. By planning this celebration beforehand, we can also tap into an anticipatory dopamine boost that can carry us through to completion.
Receiving pleasurable touch is a powerful way to boost dopamine and your mood in general. Hugging a friend not only causes us to release dopamine, but other feel good neurochemicals like oxytocin and serotonin.
Petting a dog can also boost dopamine and even endorphins, while reducing the stress hormone cortisol. If you don’t have human friend or a dog friend handy, getting a massage can increase dopamine levels by as much as 31%.
How to increase dopamine with supplements
Often when people want to boost their dopamine, they look to supplements first. While there are a number of supplements that can be quite helpful in increasing dopamine, they work best when combined with some of the strategies explained above.
It’s not possible to put pure dopamine into our bodies and expect it to boost our mood and concentration, because a system called the blood brain barrier prevents it from entering into our brains. Instead, we can supply our bodies with the raw materials they need to produce dopamine.
The neurons in our brains synthesize dopamine in a series of linear steps, similar to an assembly line. This process starts with a chemical called phenylalanine which is converted into l-tyrosine. L-tyrosine is made into levodopa, which can then be turned into dopamine.
We can supplement with any of these three substances to make it easier for our brains to produce more dopamine.
While some people supplement with phenylamine to boost their dopamine production, most choose to use substances that require fewer metabolic steps get to the desired end product. Phenylalanine must first be converted to tyrosine, which can then be converted into L-dopa and then finally into dopamine.
L-tyrosine is the building block for a number of important brain chemicals called catecholamines, which include dopamine. The amount of tyrosine that is converted into dopamine is tightly regulated by an enzyme called tyrosine hydroxylase.
This means that unless you are tyrosine deficient, taking l-tyrosine isn’t likely to give you a big dopamine boost. That being said, L-tyrosine is also a building block for norepinephrine, another important neurotransmitter for concentration and motivation.
Mucuna pruriens is a bean common to Indian Ayurvedic medicine. It contains significant levels of L-dopa, the main raw material for dopamine. It also appears to have neuroprotective effects that could help protect the brain in high demand situations that could lead to oxidative stress.
Mucuna is arguably the best natural supplement to provide the essential building block of dopamine.
Vitamin B6 is essential for the last stage of dopamine production, where an enzyme converts L-dopa into dopamine. It’s believed that this reaction is limited by the availability of vitamin B6. This limitation is of particular interest to those who are supplementing with L-dopa rich Mucuna pruiens. By paring Mucuna with B6, it’s likely that more of the L-dopa will get converted to dopamine.
It appears that magnesium can help with symptoms of depression, through its actions on both the dopamine and serotonin systems of the brain.
Fish Oil (Omega3 Fatty Acids)
Omega3 fatty acids are most commonly supplemented through fish oil, but there are algae sources available for vegans.
Consuming omega3 fatty acids has broad benefit for the brain and circulatory systems. Studies have shown that a deficiency in omega3s can lead to depression and impaired function of the serotonin and dopamine systems of the brain. Certainly, anyone experiencing symptoms of dopamine deficiency should make sure that they are getting adequate omega3s through their diet or supplements.
Curcumin is the primary medicinal compound found in the turmeric root. It has broad benefit for the brain and body and is often recommended as a daily supplement for health and longevity.
Research has shown that curcumin increases the levels of both dopamine and serotonin in the brain and has anti-depressant effects. It is important to note that very little curcumin is absorbed by the body unless it is taken with piperine, a chemical found in black pepper.
Uridine is a nutrient most commonly found in brewers yeast. It helps the neurons in the brain to maintain and repair their delicate phospholipid membranes.
Uridine also encourages neurite growth, which is an important part of neuronal regeneration. One study found that supplementing with uridine for 1 – 6 weeks produced an 11.6-20.5% increase in dopamine released in the striatum, a brain region associated with motivation.
Iron is an essential nutrient that our bodies need to survive. Among many other important functions, we use it to produce tyrosine hydroxylase, the enzyme the converts tyrosine into L-dopa.
Someone suffering from an iron deficiency might not produce enough of this enzyme. Even if they are getting plenty phenylalanine and tyrosine in their diets they wouldn’t be able to produce sufficient dopamine. By supplementing with Mucuna though, it’s possible avoid this biochemical traffic jam.
While our bodies require iron, too much can be deadly. Make sure to check with your doctor before taking iron supplements.
Vitamin D has been shown to both increase the release of dopamine and to reverse some of the damage caused to the dopamine system by high fat diets and obesity. Research has found that people with low vitamin D are at a much higher risk for depression.
Vitamin D has broad health benefits and it’s important to make sure that we consistently get enough of it to thrive.
Ashwagandha is also know by the nickname Indian ginseng. It is taken for a broad array of health benefits, from improvements in sexual health to mood enhancement. Research has shown that ashwagandha has strong protective effects on the brain’s dopamine system.
SAM-e is produced by our bodies and also taken as a supplement taken for a wide range of benefits, from alleviating osteoarthritis pain to diminishing the symptoms of depression.
SAM-e appears to cause large increases in dopamine in the brain. It is commonly used to ease the symptoms of depression.
Some studies have suggested that it’s unsafe to combine SAM-e with L-dopa. As L-dopa is one of the primary active constituents of Mucuna, it’s probably best not to combine these two supplements.
Ginkgo biloba has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over a 1000 years. It’s been used to treat everything from asthma, to poor circulation, to memory problems, to fatigue.
Modern research has shown that Ginkgo can increase dopamine levels in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region responsible for planning and impulse control.
L-theanine is an amino acid found in green tea. It is responsible for green tea’s calming properties.
As a bonus, L-theanine is calming and can smooth out the jitters that caffeine or stress can cause.
Which dopamine supplement should you take?
As we’ve explained above, the brain’s dopamine system is a series of complex feedback mechanisms. More dopamine isn’t necessarily better. What tends to improve quality of life is getting the right amount of dopamine in the right part of the brain at the right time.
The dopamine system is one of many systems in the brain that regulate the quality of our conscious experience. The serotonin system, acetylcholine system, glutamate system and the GABA systems are just as important to quality of our emotional and cognitive function.
With this in mind, we created a supplement designed to boost and balance the major systems of the brain in a sustainable, healthy manner. TransZen provides the essential nutrients necessary for optimal mental function and positive mood.
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