How To Increase Dopamine Naturally (and Recover From Dopamine Deficiency)
When I first heard the term “dopamine deficiency”, I thought to myself, “Oh goodie! Yet another medical ‘condition’ fabricated by marketers who want to sell me something!”
After all, the majority of individuals who are diagnosed with ADHD have unintentionally corroded their focus and concentration through poor lifestyle decisions and don’t have a clinical problem (but big pharma will never tell them this).
Yet, this hasn’t stopped pharmaceutical companies from cashing in on the population’s ignorance and medicating over 4.8 million Americans with drugs like Adderall (which is basically prescription meth) and Xanax.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of cases in which individuals, young and old, suffer from genuine attention disorders. Which caused me to ask the question, “If there is credible evidence supporting ADHD and ADD, is it possible that these claims of ‘dopamine deficiency’ could have some merit?”
So I decided to dig a bit deeper and find out.
I wanted to know: “What is it, what causes it, and how can it be treated?”
My findings were a bit surprising…
What is Dopamine, and What Does it Do?
At the most basic level, dopamine is a neurotransmitter or “chemical messenger” that is naturally produced in the human body.
Like all neurotransmitters, dopamine shuttles between cells and then binds to molecules called receptors which then relay signals from one cell to the neighboring cells.
While most of you are probably familiar with the pleasure/reward function of dopamine in the brain, dopamine is actually responsible for a number of different actions and reactions that you are likely unaware of.
And while research into dopamine functions and effects is still being conducted, there are six primary and important ways that dopamine affects your daily life.
Within the brain, there are two main areas where dopamine is produced. The first is the substantia nigra, a tiny strip of tissue at the base of your brain in a region known as the midbrain. Dopamine produced in this part of the brain is responsible for helping with movement and speech.
The basal ganglia is the main structure in your brain controlling a wide variety of bodily movements, and in order for it to function at peak efficiency, the substantia nigra must secrete a specific amount of dopamine.
When dopamine secretion is decreased, or when dopamine doesn’t reach the basal ganglia, voluntary motions can become delayed or uncoordinated as is common with Parkinson’s disease.
On the flip side, when the basal ganglia is flooded with too much dopamine, the body will start to make unnecessary and involuntary movements, i.e. the repetitive tics that you notice in individuals with Tourette’s.
Dopamine secretion has also been shown to affect your prefrontal cortex, specifically as it pertains to your ability to retain information.
Whenever dopamine is released during an event or experience, the brain will typically remember that event. When it is absent, research typically shows an inability or reduced ability to effectively recall information.
This explains why you can easily recall new and exciting information from months past but often struggle to recall the mundane details of this morning’s conversation.
Dopamine is commonly known as “The motivator molecule”, because in addition to regulating movement and memory, it is also the chemical compound responsible for nearly all human motivation, inspiration, and achievement.
While dopamine was once believed to simply regulate the the rewards system in our brain that is associated with completing certain tasks (e.g. sex, work, eating), recent studies have found that dopamine is actually released before the completion of those tasks and is thus responsible for motivating our behavior.
As UConn researcher John Salamone put it “Low levels of dopamine make people and other animals less likely to work for things, so it has more to do with motivation and cost/benefit analyses than pleasure itself.”
In addition, studies have found that dopamine is actually released during times of high stress, in order to motivate us to avoid something. For example, when soldiers with PTSD hear gunfire, their dopamine levels instantly spiked.
4. Pleasure & Pain
Historically, dopamine is known as the neurotransmitter responsible for modulating the pleasure and reward centers in the brain. And while those findings still stand today, new research has also shown a link between dopamine and pain perception.
Evidence suggests that decreased levels of dopamine contribute to the pain of chronic injuries and the pain associated with symptoms from Parkinson’s.
Like everything on this planet, Dopamine follows Newton’s Third Law. Despite all of the benefits associated with dopamine, it does have a dark side. Specifically, dopamine is the primary driver behind a wide variety of addictions ranging from cocaine, to nicotine, to alcohol.
Now that you have a comprehensive understanding of how this powerful little molecule works and what purposes it serves in our everyday lives, the question that should be on everyone’s mind is, “What happens when things go wrong and how can I fix it?”
Symptoms of Dopamine Deficiency
Dopamine-deficient persons have a difficult time enjoying even the smallest thrills in life.
If you believe that you might be dopamine deficient, there are a few telltale signs to watch out for.
Apathy and Lack of Motivation
If you were once a “go-getter” whose goals have now been relegated to the realm of “I don’t care”, odds are good that there is something wrong with the dopamine levels in your brain.
Whether you are struggling to pull yourself out of bed in the morning, are unable to stay concentrated at work, or have noticed a serious decline in your grades, I strongly suggest that you take a moment to consider that the problem might not lie with you per se, but rather with your brain’s ability to sufficiently secrete the dopamine required to help you kick ass.
Weakened Libido and Sexual Performance
Let’s face it, sex is a pretty darn important part of life. It has driven both accomplishments and atrocities for thousands of years and has played an integral part in our species development of societal, religious, and governmental constructs.
So it should go without saying that any healthy adult should want sex…. And a lot of it.
While one should expect their libido to decline with age, if you notice an inexplicable drop in your sex drive, or the inability to adequately perform between the sheets, it should be an immediate red flag and indicator that your dopamine levels might be out of whack.
Moodiness and Irritability
Are you normally a bright and chipper person? A self-proclaimed optimist? A happy-go-lucky care free spirit? Good for you! At least, if you stay that way.
One of the biggest symptoms and indicators of dopamine deficiency is moodiness, irritability, and mood swings. If you find yourself unexplainably irritable, pissed off or generally depressed for days or weeks at a time, it is possible that you are suffering from a dopamine deficiency and not traditional depression.
Other Symptoms of Dopamine Deficiency
While dopamine deficiency can often produce severe symptoms like the ones mentioned above, it can also manifest itself in a number of more innocuous ways.
Here are a few more symptoms to watch out for if you believe that you might be dopamine deficient.
- Engaging in addictive and other destructive behaviors
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Inability to interact with others, peers and opponents alike
- Insomnia and other sleeping problems
- Instances of memory loss
- Lack of ability to concentrate
- Lack of ability to experience pleasure
- Unable to complete tasks, large or small
Since these symptoms can be dangerously misdiagnosed as ADD, depression, or bipolar disorder, I highly recommend that insist on having your dopamine levels checked before beginning any sort of serious medication.
What Causes Dopamine Deficiency?
Dopamine deficiency is typically a symptom of imbalance in a person’s life, not the root cause itself. There are a number of different factors that can play into a person’s dopamine deficiency, the most common of which are nutrient deficiency due to poor diet, addictions, thyroid disorders, obesity, and certain prescription drugs.
One should be particularly conscious of dopamine deficiencies if they have been diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar or been prescribed an antiemetic (commonly used to treat nausea and vomiting).
The antipsychosis drugs that are most commonly used to treat these illnesses are called antagonist drugs and actively repress the amount of dopamine in the brain.
What It Means to ‘Increase Dopamine in the Brain’
While there are a number of ways that one can increase their dopamine levels, the formula for optimizing your dopamine secretion isn’t as simple as “More dopamine = Better life.”
A study conducted by a group of Vanderbilt scientists tested the correlation between dopamine and motivation. What they found was that while “Go-getters” experienced dopamine dumps in the striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the “lazy” test subjects also secreted high levels of dopamine.
However, the “slackers” had high levels of dopamine dumped into the anterior insula, the area of the brain most commonly associated with emotion and risk-assessment.
So clearly, there is more to the equation than simply increasing dopamine in your brain. It is also imperative that you increase dopamine to the right areas of your brain, and ensure that your brain is able to effectively utilize the dopamine being secreted.
When you take these factors into consideration, there are five main methods for “increasing” dopamine:
- Creating more dopamine
- Improving current dopamine receptors so that they are faster and better
- Creating stronger dopamine receptors
- Recirculating dopamine more evenly throughout the body
- Increasing the amount of time required to break down dopamine in your body
Even though these methods for improving your body’s dopamine production and utility extends far beyond “increasing dopamine”, we will use this phrase as an umbrella term for the sake of convenience.
How To Increase Dopamine the Wrong Way
If someone is unaware of their dopamine deficiency, it can be easy to fall into a wide variety of negative habits and activities that are actually symptoms of their deficiency and not the problem in and of themselves.
Here are just a few ways people will commonly (and unknowingly) attack their deficiency.
The brain has an uncanny ability to “autocorrect” problems in its chemistry. Unfortunately, it’s ability to autocorrect is about as effective as your iPhone’s and can often lead to a number of dangerous activities and outcomes.
Many individuals suffering from dopamine deficiencies will develop a proclivity for risky and addictive behavior including (but not limited to)
- Unprotected sex with multiple partners (which often leads to STDs)
- Binge drinking
- Workaholism (which typically results in high levels of stress and anxiety)
- Excessive pornography use
- Video games
In short, a dopamine deficient individual does what they see fit to make certain they can increase dopamine levels throughout their daily grind. The danger lies in the relatively small “hit” of dopamine produced by these activities.
Since most of the aforementioned activities only produce about a 50-100% temporary elation in dopamine levels, they can quickly develop into full blown addictions as the brain searches for more and more ways to get its next fix.
The real danger lies in situations where an individual will go to even more extreme lengths to raise their dopamine and experience “euphoria”.
The most common example is a nicotine addiction that results in a dopamine increase of roughly 200 percent.
Other dopamine-deficient people develop more serious addictions to more dangerous drugs. The greatest culprit of which is cocaine. Cocaine increases dopamine levels by 400 percent, and amphetamines, which have a similar molecular structure to cocaine cause a 1000 percent increase!
Needless to say, these levels are extravagant and can be all too dangerous to the brain, let alone the negative effects they can have on the rest of the body.
This mode of survival is a dangerous one, but it can be easily averted in a few ways. Lifestyle and diet changes along with a proper treatment method are what bring about the best ways to increase dopamine levels effectively and efficiently for the long term.
Fixing dopamine levels in the brain does not need to be a complex task. As a matter of fact, the simplest way to replenish low dopamine is to reduce your consumption of a few, select foods.
Foods That Increase — and Then Rapidly Deplete — Dopamine
The American diet is wrought with foods that can easily cause dopamine depletion. If you are suffering from dopamine depletion, one of the first steps that you should take is to subtract these foods from your diet before you worry about adding any kind of supplementation.
Processed saturated fats are a major culprit for dopamine depletion as they basically effective neuter the activity of your dopamine receptors. However, in the big scheme of things, they don’t even shine a light to the dangers posed by sugar.
While sugar obviously increases dopamine for a short amount of time, it has a greater negative effect on the body over the long term. In many instances, consuming too much sugar on a regular basis can actually lead to neurological addictions similar to those experienced by cocaine users.
This reality can have harsh impacts on the body for longer periods of time as it can lead to more dangerous diseases like diabetes and obesity.
Artificial sweeteners are not the right thing to pick up instead of sugar, either. The most widely known artificial sweetener, aspartame, is known to decrease both dopamine and serotonin levels. When both of these neurotransmitters are deficient in the brain, a person can feel the symptoms mentioned above all the more strongly.
So if you a simple and surefire way to immediately increase dopamine in your body, put down the twinkies and pick up a salad.
Healthy Ways To Naturally Increase Dopamine
While the previous section should give you a good idea of what not to do if you are suffering from a dopamine deficiency, oftentimes, simple subtraction is not enough to balance out the dopamine equation.
If you are looking to quickly, naturally, and effectively increase your levels of dopamine, there are three primary ways you can accomplish this goal: Dietary changes, intentional supplementation, and lifestyle changes.
Dietary Changes to Boost Dopamine Levels
Luckily for you, increasing your dopamine through your diet doesn’t require you to eat weird foods or odd herbs. You can typically increase dopamine levels simply by increasing the amount of certain foods you already eat.
In most cases, dopamine production comes from tyrosine, an amino acid that can only be found in protein-rich foods. Diets that are high in tyrosine give an individual the right building blocks essential for performing dopamine synthesis.
Here are a list of foods, spices, and drinks that are known to be high in tyrosine, and therefore, garner higher levels of dopamine production:
- Fava beans
- Green, leafy vegetables
- Green tea
- Lime beans
- Olive oil
- Sea vegetables, like seaweed
- Sesame seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Soy products
- Wheat germ
Bananas are an especially great way to increase “dietary dopamine”. Other foods that are high in natural probiotics, like kefir and yogurt, are also great ways to increase dopamine.
Regardless of whether or not you are suffering from dopamine deficiency, it is likely that you already include these foods in your daily diet. The only thing left for you to do now is to increase the number of these foods you consume on a daily basis.
Lifestyle Changes that Can Help to Increase Dopamine
Depending on the severity of your dopamine deficiency, dietary changes alone might not be enough. There are several, easy to implement “lifestyle hacks” that can quickly increase your dopamine levels (and come with a slew of other benefits).
Here are a few of my favorites.
1. Soak Up the Sun
Sheryl Crow knew what she was talking about when she wrote the song “Soak Up the Sun”. Getting outside in direct sunlight is one of the quickest ways to increase your dopamine since there is a direct correlation between vitamin D deficiency and dopamine deficiency. (which is why it’s one of the best things to supplement with)
In addition to increasing dopamine, direct sunlight plays a number of other critical roles in improving one’s health. From regulating your circadian rhythm, to improving your eyesight, and boosting your immunity, getting 15-20 minutes of direct sunlight everyday is one of the quickest and most effective ways to improve nearly every aspect of your life.
Exercise is another way you can quickly increase dopamine in your body and begin recovering from a deficiency. Exercise affects dopamine levels by reducing the amount of Catechol-O-Methyltransferase (COMT), an enzyme in the bloodstream designed to decrease the body’s levels of epinephrine, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
The presence of too much COMT can lead to a severe breakdown in dopamine that can be clearly found in the prefrontal cortex. It is important to note that this part of the brain oversees executive and higher-level cognitive functions.
By starting a simple exercise regimen, the “official” recommendation is only 2.5 hours a week, you can set your brain on the path to recovery and achieve a number of added benefits in the process.
Meditation, while once perceived to be “Woo woo” and mystical has been irrevocably proven to transform your brain and body. However, proponents of meditation should be aware of the caveat that meditation must be practiced consistently for the benefits to be realized.
Long-term practice of meditation is one of the only ways to achieve a lasting effect on the body’s baseline dopamine count.
One of the most effective ways to get an instant release of dopamine is to go and hug, kiss, or cuddle with someone that you love.
Numerous studies have found that physical touch can drastically affect brain chemistry (especially during developmental years) and something as simple as a hug can immediately lower cortisol levels, increase dopamine and serotonin production, and secrete oxytocin (the bonding chemical).
While hugs and kisses are great, if you want to get the biggest bang for your buck (according to science) you should opt for regular tickle fights and a weekly massage which have both been shown to increase dopamine, albeit temporarily, by up to 31%.
5. Ambient Music
The final lifestyle change I recommend (or rather the research recommends) is the strategic use of music.
Studies have shown that listening to your favorite Jay-Z or Journey song will result in a low level release of dopamine. However, if you want to take things to the next level, actively creating or performing music creates a surge of dopamine far surpassing the release from passive listening.
Supplements That Increase Dopamine
While dietary and lifestyle improvements can help you quickly raise your dopamine levels, sometimes you need to call in the big guns.
If your dopamine deficiency is negatively impacting your ability to live a normal life or drastically affecting your mental well being, you likely don’t want to wait for the lifestyle changes to “kick in” which will typically cause you to turn to some form of supplementation.
With strategic supplementation, you can address other physical deficiencies that might be leading to your low dopamine levels.
Here are the supplements that you should start taking to quickly increase dopamine levels.
L-tyrosine should be considered your first line of defense when supplementing for dopamine deficiency. Because, if you will remember our discussion earlier in this article, L-tyrosine is the primary amino acid responsible for dopamine production.
It should make sense then that a deficiency in L-tyrosine would result in low levels of dopamine since, in the absence of this amino acid, dopamine can be effectively synthesized in the brain.
The best version of this supplement to consider is n-acetyl-l-tyrosine because it is the one most readily received by the body.
2. Mucuna Pruriens
A tropical legume called Mucuna pruriens is another supplement to consider as it produces L-dopa, a precursor to dopamine. This legume is marketed as being able to improve brain health, including mood and memory.
Allegedly, it can also help repair broken libidos and act as an anti-aging agent. More notably, people with Parkinson’s disease will also find that their symptoms are lessened by supplementing with mucuna pruriens.
Curcumin is another popular supplement for increasing dopamine in the body. The main reason behind taking this supplement is how easily it can cross the barrier between blood and the brain. It has become a popular, natural way to treat depression for this very reason.
4. Ginkgo Biloba
Ginkgo biloba is a supplement widely used by older generations since it serves to improve brain health and prolong age-related memory loss. Although less common in its application, this supplement is also used to treat depression and anxiety due to its effect on dopamine levels.
5. GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid) & L-theanine
Tea lovers who prefer drinking green and black tea obtain a great deal of L-theanine, which is great for producing more dopamine. At the same time, it also focuses on increasing the serotonin levels, too, by relaxing gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) molecules for the better. In cases where tea is not a favored drink, L-theanine can be consumed via a pill form.
The gatekeeper to the brain, phosphatidylserine, is responsible for making sure nutrients do their job while simultaneously eliminating waste and toxins from the brain.
Dopamine levels can be increased with this gatekeeper, along with memory, learning, and concentration. Also, it can even level out symptoms of ADD.
Magnesium is known for preventing muscle cramps and spasms just as much as it has become known for helping insomniacs to find sleep easier. There are studies that indicate this much sought after sleep occurs due to an increase in dopamine.
Other Supplements that Might Increase Dopamine
A sulfate known as pregnenolone has also shown the ability to increase dopamine. Studies indicate this increase only in animal subjects thus far.
An age-old treatment for depression is St. John’s Wort. This natural antidepressant works because it increases dopamine levels in the body. Studies suggest that it also works the same way on serotonin and norepinephrine as well.
Seafood is the most common place to find this next supplement, but pill forms have become very popular on the market, too. Fish oil, also known as DHA, increases dopamine up to 40 percent in the frontal cortex. This supplement can also result in an 89 percent raise of tyrosine-hydroxylase, which is needed to synthesize dopamine.
Another wildly popular supplement is ginseng. It has a beneficial effect on the brain’s ability to pay attention because of how it affects dopamine production, which also increases the brain’s ability to process cognitively in a smooth manner.
The final “supplement” I would recommend you try if suffering from low dopamine levels is modafinil also known as provigil. While modafinil requires a prescription and should only be taken under careful supervision, many studies have shown that modafinil can be an effective way to increase dopamine levels in the body.
In addition to its direct effects on dopamine, modafinil is often touted as one of the best nootropics among many acclaimed biohackers and entrepreneurs who use the drug to increase their productivity, wakefulness, and motivation without using harmful and addictive substances like Adderall or cocaine.
Supplements that Decrease the Amount of Dopamine in the Brain
Just as there are supplements that increase dopamine in the brain there are a number of supplements that do the opposite.
While they are not “bad”, the following substances should be avoided by individuals with dopamine deficiencies.
Insomniacs or other persons needing to change their sleeping patterns around for one reason or another rely on melatonin. In many cases, this supplement causes a great depletion of dopamine in order to make a person feel sleepy.
Another popular supplement is 5-HTP. Because long-term use of this supplement can cause serotonin to be depleted over time, it negatively affects dopamine levels.
This situation increases the chances of or worsens diagnosis for neurological diseases and psychiatric disorders. Anecdotal evidence suggests that people who do currently have a psychiatric disorder should avoid 5-HTP.
Hormones that Increase Dopamine in the Brain
When lifestyle and dieting changes coupled with a few supplements are not enough to replenish dopamine in the brain, some other options need to be considered.
In this case, looking for a greater problem at hand, such as a hormone imbalance, might be the place to lay blame for depleted levels of dopamine.
Here are some hormones that can influence dopamine production.
Estrogen is known for having a great effect on women in many ways. Doses of estrogen can help increase dopamine for many women, but especially those women within the late phases of their menstrual cycles.
**IMPORTANT NOTE: Too much estrogen can cause far worse problems than it solves. Therefore, the use of exogenous estrogen should only be done under the strict supervision of a certified medical professional.**
Another hormone that shows signs of being beneficial for dopamine production is ghrelin. Specifically, this hormone induces an increase in dopamine in the prefrontal cortex.
Other Tactics for Increasing Your Dopamine Levels
With some of these supplements, diet changes, and lifestyle improvements come instances where other areas of life are also positively affected. In many cases, the other results from these changes can also lead to even more dopamine production.
For instance, people that exercise regularly and eat well are more likely to achieve a good night’s sleep than people who do not. Dopamine plays a large role in sleep regularity, so finding a way to sleep more routinely will make sure that dopamine is used correctly.
It is also important to note that dopamine controls the natural creation and usage of melatonin in the body. By optimizing your lifestyle and practicing good sleep hygiene, you will eliminate your dependence on melatonin and increase the natural production of dopamine in your body.
Research also indicates that there is a connection between weight loss and the way the brain produces and uses dopamine (this is where exercise and healthy eating creates a virtuous cycle).
First and foremost, it rids the body of toxins built up from a lifetime of eating processed foods, consuming sugar, and drinking too much coffee (even I am guilty of this one).
Individuals experiencing a period of steady weight loss are more likely to experience happiness and thrill in their achievements, so this factor better aligns the way dopamine works in the brain.
An interesting fact to note is that people who are obese do not gain as much pleasure out of eating as society claims. In fact, individuals who are obese need to eat more to get the same hit of dopamine as a healthy individual, thus creating a vicious cycle of overindulgence.
Taking a cold shower in the morning is an easy way to boost your productivity and focus throughout the day and quickly (but temporarily) boost your dopamine levels.
For most people who are suffering from dopamine depletion, strategic lifestyle, diet changes, in conjunction with smart supplementation will be more than enough to restore the brain’s balance and help you feel like your normal self.
I strongly recommend that you test out the information outlined in this article before resorting to injections and other severe medical treatments. But, as always, if you are suffering from severe depletion, have thoughts of suicide, or any other significant mental or physical diseases you associate with dopamine deficiency, immediately seek advice of a certified practitioner.
Do you have any questions about dopamine deficiency? Any personal anecdotes or studies you want to share? Let me know in the comments below!