Most people who want to know the best ways to increase dopamine naturally don’t actually have a good understanding of what dopamine is, or how it works. They still think of it as a simple happiness hormone – something that we are starting to realize isn’t necessarily the truth.
Or at least not the whole truth, anyway.
Yes, dopamine plays some very important roles within the human body. And yes, it certainly can make you want to pursue the things that you find pleasurable. But it isn’t actually responsible for pleasure itself.
I’ll use a great example provided from the guys over at The Verge to provide a little more detail.
“Dopamine plays a lot of roles in the brain. If the cells that produce dopamine are killed, [a rat] is not motivated to go out and do things. It’ll still enjoy something — like if you squeeze sugar solution into [his] mouth — because [his] pleasure systems are fine. But [he] won’t pursue it.”
And the same thing applies to you! If you killed off all your cells that make dopamine, you would be just as happy if I came over and poured sugar water in your mouth (however happy that might actually make you…).
But you wouldn’t feel the drive to fetch yourself some sugar water or ask me to come over and pour you some in order to have that enjoyable feeling again.
This is a kind of silly example in humans, of course! But it works for all kinds of pleasures, from finishing a crossword puzzle to hugging a loved one.
To understand how this works, we first need to take a step back and talk about what dopamine actually is and what it does in your brain!
What is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a special type of brain chemical known as a neurotransmitter. These unique chemicals are released by the nerve cells (or neurons) within the brain, which then carry signals to other nerve cells.
Dopamine is produced in three key areas of the brain:
- the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the midbrain
- the substantia nigra pars compacta (try saying that three times fast!) in the midbrain
- the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus
This image is in the public domain.
Dopamine has become such a famous compound because it controls what is known as “reward-motivated behavior”. Things that the brain perceives to be rewarding (such as new experiences and accomplishments) increase dopamine secretion in the brain.
This increased secretion makes you want to pursue or experience that same behavior again, in order to enjoy another burst of dopamine.
(It is important to note that, in addition to being released in response to positive behaviors, dopamine is also increased by most addictive drugs and addictive behaviors. I’ll get to that in more detail below, though.)
How is Dopamine Made?
Ok, things are going to get a little science-y for a second. But, this isn’t necessarily “essential” knowledge for understanding how to increase your dopamine levels. So, you are more than welcome to move onto the next section if super science-y stuff isn’t your thing!
If you’re a nerd like me, though, let’s go!
Chemically, a dopamine molecule is comprised of a catechol functional group (that is to say, a benzene ring with two hydroxyl side groups) bound to a single amine group. That means that dopamine is a very simple type of catecholamine, closely related to the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and epinephrine.
Dopamine Synthesis in Your Brain
Your body synthesizes dopamine primarily from the amino acid tyrosine. This amino acid is found in nearly every single type of protein, and can, therefore, be easily obtained through diet. It can also be produced in the liver from another type of amino acid known as phenylalanine.
Interestingly, while dopamine can be found pre-made in some of the food you eat, it cannot enter the brain from the blood. This means that the dopamine in your brain has to be synthesized inside the brain from tyrosine in order to perform its neuronal activity.
The creation of dopamine in your brain requires the following four biochemical steps:
- tyrosine, either obtained through protein-rich food or produced in the liver from phenylalanine, is transported across your blood-brain-barrier
- once within the neurons of your brain tyrosine is combined with a hydroxyl group to produce a compound known as “L-dopa” (the direct precursor to dopamine)
- L-dopa is then rapidly converted to dopamine by an enzyme called dopa-decarboxylase, which is located in the neuronal cytoplasm
- once created, dopamine is stored in vesicles in neurons found within the three key areas of the brain mentioned above, ready for secretion
What Does Dopamine Do?
I already explained that dopamine is a neurotransmitter that carries signals between neurons. I have also explained (albeit briefly) that dopamine is responsible for reward-motivated behavior.
But what does that really mean?
The Dopamine Reward
As I mentioned above, if you were to lose your ability to produce dopamine, you would still have the ability to enjoy things. Whether it be the taste of food, the kiss of your partner, or a solid exercise session (that’s not just me, right?), things you enjoy would still cause you to feel joy.
You would, however, lack the motivation to pursue those things again.
You see, when you perform an enjoyable action, you see an increase in dopamine secretion. This increased secretion of dopamine makes that activity seem more desirable and, as a result, you feel a need to participate in that activity again.
Basically, dopamine acts as a kind of neuronal sticky-note. It lets you jot down, instantly, “Hey! Do activity X again! It makes you feel happy and productive!”
Many people believe that this increased secretion of dopamine, this mental sticky note, acts as a motivational signal. It provides you with the energy and desire to perform tasks and activities that fulfill your emotional and mental needs the next time you have the opportunity to engage in them.
As a result, you could consider dopamine important because it promotes the execution of health positive actions.
Dopamine’s Other Functions
In addition to its essential role in helping you stay motivated and emotionally satisfied, dopamine has a number of other important functions within the human body, as well. These include:
- memory and learning: dopamine plays an important part in your ability to remember and learn, as it is integral for memory storage and retrieval.
- focus and attention: dopamine dysfunction can cause a decline in attention and focus. Moreover, moderate levels of dopamine have can improve your ability to switch attention effectively between tasks.
- love: the development of love is thought to be associated with the dopamine reward system. dopamine is released by touch and sex and it is essential to the formation of partner bonds.
- reducing inflammation: dopamine has been shown to interact with the immune system in the brain, causing a reduction in disease-causing inflammation throughout the entire body.
- staving off Parkinson’s disease: research clearly shows that low dopamine levels contribute to the onset of Parkinson’s disease. This suggests that having adequate levels of dopamine within the body may have a protective effect against this neurodegenerative disease.
What are the Symptoms of a Dopamine Deficiency?
Before I delve into the symptoms of a dopamine deficiency, I feel I should explain what this term really means. It’s a little bit misleading.
When you hear the words “dopamine deficiency” it simply sounds like there isn’t enough dopamine in your brain.
But this isn’t necessarily the case.
You can have plenty of dopamine in your brain and still experience the symptoms of a dopamine deficiency.
How is that possible?
Well, dopamine doesn’t work all by itself. It needs to interact with receptors on your brain cells and it needs to be removed from the receptor when it’s done signaling in order for your brain to experience the normal effects of dopamine.
This means that, in addition to just having too little dopamine in your brain, you can experience the symptoms of a dopamine deficiency if:
There are not enough dopamine receptors in your brain, or they aren’t working very well.
Your dopamine-removal system has become imbalanced, breaking down dopamine too quickly, before it has time to send a signal through your receptors.
Just keep this in mind as we move forward here because it means that dopamine deficiencies are a touch more complicated than their name suggests. But, it’s the commonly used name for too little dopamine signaling in the brain, so I’m going to stick with it here!
Okay — on to the symptoms!
Since dopamine impacts the body in so many different ways, its deficiency comes with multiple symptoms. As you can imagine, some of these are much more severe than others.
Let’s check out the most severe symptoms in detail.
Now, a little bit of a disclaimer here: Depression and its onset are thought to be multifaceted. Its cause cannot really be put down to one single thing.
For a long time, now, most researchers have thought that depression stems from a serotonin deficiency. Serotonin is another important neurotransmitter in the brain.
New evidence, however, is starting to suggest that dopamine deficiency may in fact be one of the primary underlying causes of this debilitating mental illness.
Studies now clearly show that decreased production of dopamine within the brain increases the risk of developing depression. Moreover, people with depression have been shown to have lower levels of L-Dopa (the precursor for dopamine, remember) in their central nervous systems.
This could explain why some of the most popular antidepressants (known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) don’t actually help everyone suffering from depression.
With this in mind, increasing dopamine levels naturally may by a beneficial step to helping reduce the severity of depression symptoms.
If you think you may be suffering from depression, however, please do not rely solely on the natural dopamine therapies in this article without having talked to a doctor or mental health professional. You may need more aggressive treatment to really address your symptoms. Your doctor will also be able to personalize a plan hand-tailored to your mental and physical health — something we definitely can’t do here!
If you don’t have access to a doctor or mental health professional, or you’re nervous about reaching out to someone in person, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) has a great online support group where you can reach out (anonymously) for help and start down the road to recovery.
You know that dopamine can make you seek out reward-driven behaviors. So, it might be unsurprising that its deficiency can make you do the opposite: avoid tackling new tasks and experiences.
Indeed, recent research has shown that the inactivity of certain dopamine receptors can mediate sensations of fear and anxiety, emotions that reduce risk-taking and undertaking new tasks Dopamine deficiency may even play an important role in the onset of social anxiety disorder.
As with depression, this research suggests that if you find yourself suffering from anxiety, it might be helpful for your symptoms to increase your dopamine levels in a healthy and natural manner.
Again, please reach out to a healthcare professional, or at least the ADAA support group, if you believe you may be experiencing symptoms of anxiety.
Whether Parkinson’s disease is caused by dopamine deficiency, or Parkinson’s causes dopamine deficiency, which then makes its associated symptoms worse, scientists are not yet sure.
But researchers do know that there is a definite link between the two.
Parkinson’s disease is characterized by changes in cognitive function, tremors and loss of movement control. All three of these are thought to be controlled, at least in large part, by dopamine signaling in the midbrain and people struggling with the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease have a limited amount of dopamine in their brains.
If you’d like to learn more about Parkinson’s disease, and natural, practical treatments, check out the Parkinson’s disease support group over at Daily Strength.
Milder Symptoms of Dopamine Deficiency
In addition to the three serious disorders linked to dopamine deficiency, there are a number of milder ways in which a dopamine deficiency can present itself. These can include:
- frequent muscle cramps, stiffness, and pain
- poor balance
- difficulty falling asleep and/or restless sleep
- low energy levels
- an inability to focus
- general feelings of fatigue and a lack of motivation
- unreasonable feelings of sadness and anxiety
- declines in sex drive and libido
- constipation and other digestive issues
Related Reading: Gut Health: 7 Reasons Why It’s Important
How Can You Increase Your Dopamine Levels?
I have already touched on how dopamine deficiency occurs through limitations in dopamine signaling. As you can probably imagine, increasing dopamine essentially refers to improving upon those same pathways.
This means that the common phrase “increasing dopamine levels” can actually mean one (or all) of the following three things:
- genuinely increasing the amount of dopamine synthesized in the brain
- increasing the number and sensitivity of dopamine receptors in the brain
- reducing the rate at which dopamine is broken down in the brain after secretion
At the end of the day, these distinctions don’t make any real difference in the effects on your brain, mood, and health when dopamine starts signaling better. It all feels the same.
But Nutrishatives is dedicated to presenting you with the whole, scientifically-based, story, so I wanted to make sure to mention these distinctions!
Unhealthy Ways to Increase Dopamine Levels
As I just covered, dopamine is a natural and healthy part of your brain! Dopamine, itself, isn’t unhealthy for you.
But there are unhealthy ways you can boost its levels in your brain to excessive levels: namely smoking, drinking, and taking drugs.
Research indicates that natural ways to increase dopamine levels, such as completing a new task or performing an activity that you enjoy, typically increase dopamine within the brain by around 50%.
Not too shabby! Just enough of a boost to make those behaviors desirable, increasing your likelihood of performing them again.
But, unhealthy behaviors blow this number out of the water.
Nicotine from tobacco smoke increases dopamine by around 200%.
Cocaine? By about 400%.
And amphetamines? By a ridiculous 1,000%.
Other (perhaps more common) behaviors and substances that can release abnormally high doses of dopamine (though not as high as illicit drugs) include:
Clearly, increasing dopamine moderately via natural, health-positive behaviors is a much better option for your health!
Health Effects of Unhealthy Dopamine Spikes
These huge spikes in dopamine completely overload the normal system of behavior-reward, taking something healthy and making it dangerous. Having such massive doses of dopamine at one time creates a need for the body to have these floods of dopamine regularly in order to simply create a normal sense of accomplishment and pleasure.
In doing so, the sense of joy you would normally receive from a regular activity becomes paltry in comparison. And, in the end, you become dependent on (addicted to) the drugs in order to feel good, leading to an insatiable drive for the drug – often at the sacrifice of your physical health, mental health, and relationships.
The damage to your health and relationships are the reason these drugs are considered unhealthy ways to boost dopamine.
11 Best Ways to Increase Dopamine Naturally
There is an abundance of research demonstrating that you can improve dopamine signaling through completely natural, health-positive means.
The 11 best ways to increase dopamine naturally, and healthily, are:
- eating more protein
- exercising regularly
- starting a meditation practice
- sorting out your sleep
- fixing your gut
- listening to music
- getting out in the sun
- trying yoga
- getting a massage
- drinking some green tea
- smashing some goals
Daily Checklist for Healthy Dopamine Levels
Take Home Message
Dopamine is an incredible compound that can impact numerous aspects of health. With this, it has the ability to drive health-positive behavior and influence how and why you make decisions each and every day.
Increasing dopamine naturally is a great way to boost your health and enhance your quality of life. So, give these tips a go and take the first steps to a healthier, more fulfilling life!