What is Dopamine and How Do I Get More Out Of It?

Learn how to increase dopamine naturally to boost your mood and improve mental sharpness.


Photo by Bruce Mars at Unsplash


Feeling motivated that you can go through a week’s chore in one single day? Feeling good after accomplishing your to-do list? You have dopamine to thank for that feeling of pleasure. On the flip side, low levels of this brain chemical wreak havoc on your emotions. So, an understanding of how to increase dopamine naturally is importantyour well-being could depend on it.


What is Dopamine?


Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter that’s produced in the brain. Neurotransmitters are considered chemical messengers that transmit signals from nerve cells to trigger specific actions from target cells. Dopamine, in particular, is associated with how we anticipate reward and feel pleasure.

For instance, if your favorite food is pizza, just the smell of freshly baked pizza is enough to cause a spike of dopamine in your brain. This increase gives you the motivation to follow that smell and get your hands on that pizza. Once you’ve satisfied your craving, high levels of dopamine in your brain will reinforce this behavior, making you follow the same pattern of behavior in the future.


And this is not just about food either. The same scenario could play out in different aspects of your life whether you’re vying for promotion, saving up for a much-anticipated trip, or going on a shopping spree. This incessant cycle of motivation, reward, and reinforcement is what makes us think, plan, focus, strive, and accomplish great things. Unfortunately, this same cycle gone haywire is also the mechanism behind addiction.


What Causes Low Dopamine?


There is a myriad of reasons that cause low dopamine levels. The most common ones include:


Drug Abuse


At the onset, some drugs can cause an increase in dopamine. Cocaine, for instance, is known to induce that feeling of euphoria by increasing dopamine levels.


Long-term use of the drug would lead to tolerance, however. With the reward center of the brain constantly overstimulated, the pathways become so overwhelmed that they won’t be able to handle the prolonged bombardment of dopamine. The brain reacts by either decreasing dopamine production or by reducing the number of dopamine receptors. In both instances, the body will feel the toll of having low dopamine levels in its system.


Poor Diets


People whose diets consist mostly of saturated fats, high sugar, and/or low protein are most likely to suffer from low dopamine levels. Eating food high in sugar and saturated fats regularly can reduce dopamine signaling. And much like drug abuse, this will ultimately dull the reward response of the brain so that you’ll have to eat food with higher amounts of sugar in order to feel satiated.


In addition, diets low in protein could also reduce dopamine levels. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. And amino acids like tyrosine and phenylalanine are needed for the body to produce dopamine.


Medical Conditions


Some mental and neurological health conditions are closely linked to low dopamine levels. Parkinson’s disease, for instance, causes degeneration of some parts of the brain. So neurons in the affected part will no longer send signals, causing the body to produce less dopamine.


People with mental health issues like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression may also have low dopamine levels.


Stress


Chronic exposure to stressors could impair the body’s ability to produce dopamine, according to a study by the University College London. This finding could explain why people who are exposed to long-term trauma and adversity are vulnerable to mental health issues compared to people who are not.


Symptoms of Dopamine Deficiency


Those who have low dopamine levels in their blood will feel changes in their body. While symptoms may vary depending on the underlying cause of dopamine deficiency, you need to look out for the following common symptoms:


• Low energy

• Inability to focus

• Reduced libido

• Feeling unmotivated

• Mood swings

• Disturbed sleep

• Loss of balance

• Spasms, muscle cramps, and tremors

• Low self-esteem

• Feeling of guilt

• Anxiety

• Delusions

• Hallucinations


How to Increase Dopamine Levels Naturally


There are several medications used to treat dopamine deficiency. These drugs are given to either repair dopamine receptors, produce more receptors, or delay the breakdown of dopamine in the brain. However, these medications are mostly reserved for people with underlying medical conditions.


Fortunately, medications aren’t the only answer when you have low dopamine levels. Here’s how to increase dopamine naturally:


Eat a Balanced Diet


Eating a healthy and balanced diet is essential for our body’s fitness and development. Turns out, food can also be the key to increasing dopamine naturally. In particular, you need to load up on foods that are rich sources of amino acids and antioxidants like tyrosine, phenylalanine, and resveratrol. These nutrients are essential for the production of dopamine. They can be found in food like:


• Meat

• Fish

• Dairy

• Coffee

• Eggs

• Avocados

• Nuts


Have Enough Sleep


Try going without sleep for a night. If you’ve done that before, you know that you wouldn’t be at your best self the morning after. Your mental faculty suffers. You’ll have trouble concentrating and accomplishing the tasks at hand. Researchers found that all these symptoms might have something to do with changes in the dopamine receptors when you’re sleep-deprived.


The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults must have 7-9 hours of sleep every night. If you’re low in dopamine, it’s best to heed that advice.


Be Physically Active


Several studies have shown that exercise can lift up our spirit and make us feel good. In fact, getting physically active is recommended for people with mental health issues to help relieve symptoms. It’s because exercise can increase dopamine levels and receptors leading to feelings of pleasure and motivation after each exercise.


In fact, a study involving people who were in treatment for methamphetamine abuse show that walking, strength training, and jogging three times a week improved their dopamine levels after eight weeks.


Meditate Regularly


Sometimes, the best gift you can give to yourself is time. Time to meditate and just be. Time to take in everything and be aware. Time to calm your mind and free yourself of worries. This is a gift that keeps on giving. Because as you invest time in prayer, meditation, or self-reflection, improved physical and mental health is your reward.


One experiment involving 8 meditation teachers has shown that after meditating for 1 hour, they enjoy a 65% increase of dopamine compared to those who are sitting idly.


Listen to Music


Music has a way of soothing our soul and calming our nerves like nothing else can. Turns out, it's also a major dopamine booster. Listening to your favorite playlist could stimulate activity in the reward center of the dopamine, giving you a good dose of this neurotransmitter. In fact, music therapy is one of the common nonmedical interventions for those who are suffering from Parkinson’s disease.


Get Enough Sunlight


If you’re feeling down and need a quick mood-booster, a bit of time under the sun might be in order. Studies have shown that sun exposure could increase feel-good neurotransmitters, including dopamine. Sunlight will not just increase the number of dopamine receptors, it also triggers the body to produce Vit. D, which in turn, activates the release of dopamine.


Learning how to increase dopamine naturally is vital for your physical and mental well-being. So the next time you feel down in the dumps, you know what to do. You don’t have to turn to unhealthy habits just to feel better when you know there’s a better way of getting out of the funk.