While serotonin generates good feelings, dopamine helps put them to good use—in other words, dopamine provides the drive and motivation to get stuff done. It is also responsible for helping us wake up in the morning as well as aiding with memory, motor function, learning, social functioning, and prolactin secretion.
All that said, dopamine is best known for being the body’s pleasure and reward system. Ever feel great after accomplishing a goal? That’s dopamine at work. The idea is to provide these great feelings so that we do the things we need to do to keep our species alive, such as eat and procreate. For example, the article titled “A Molecule of Motivation, Dopamine Excels at Its Task” cites a study wherein dopamine-deficient mice become so apathetic they would rather starve than gather food. And as the researchers point out, we are not talking about an animal like a sloth here—these mice are the same little guys that chew through electrical wire to get breakfast!
But the question is, what happens when this reward system gets abused? Think of how many times you’ve seen someone drop everything they’re doing to answer a text. You could be at the altar on your wedding day, but still, if that phone goes off, you need to know who it is and what they want. This is an example of our pleasure-and-reward system gone awry. In 2017, the TV show 60 Minutes explored the use of “brain hacking” by cellphone manufacturers. The hacking, the show hosts said, creates a metabolic addiction to manufacturers’ products by influencing dopamine production.
How does this lead to addiction?
Obviously, it’s not just cell phones that light up our dopamine pathway—foods, drugs, gambling, thrill-seeking, and alcohol are right up there on the list, too. How does this happen? Regardless of the source of pleasure, the brain registers it in the same way—dopamine combines pleasure with learning, memory, and drive. In short, if something makes you feel good, you remember that feeling, learn how repeat it, and have the drive to go and get it. And if that “something” isn’t so good for you, the more you “feed” that bad habit, the harder it is to shake.
A study published in the 2010 edition of Nature Neuroscience outlines this scenario beautifully. To test reward thresholds in rats, researchers split rats into three groups: one with unlimited tasty fatty food, the second with access to this food only one hour per day (with normal lab fare for the remainder of the day), and the third as a control group. As expected, the well-fed group become obese and the limited group became binge eaters, consuming over 66% of their daily calories in just that one hour per day.
Why? Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, states addictive drugs can flood the limbic brain with as much as 5 to 10 times the normal amount of dopamine. Over time, the brain can begin to think of this excessive level as normal and therefore require that elevated amount to function. And it’s not only the actual substance that raises these levels, but the thought of them as well. Remember Pavlov’s dogs? They had the same chemical reaction to the ringing of a bell as they did to the actual tangible reward. The need for these dopamine spikes can be associated with the intense craving for these addictive behaviors.
We can see how food can modify the brain to create addictive behaviors. As we discussed earlier, when folks repeatedly do something that releases dopamine, over time, their overwhelmed dopamine receptors start to downregulate. With a reduced number of receptors, they need more and more of the substance to get the same reward. In a 2001 issue of Lancet, both gamblers and obese individuals were found to have limited number of dopamine receptors, most likely due to overexposure to their respective dopamine-releasing activities.
In addition to our neurotransmitters and genetics, addiction can be the result of having issues with other metabolic functions. For instance, food addiction may also be associated with malnutrition and not getting the basic dietary precursors we need to manufacture good levels of neurotransmitters. Again, if we have a gut infection or any type of malabsorption, we will not get the vitamin and mineral cofactors that we need.
So how are we expected to make lifestyle changes if our own dopamine (and other neurotransmitters) can turn on us?
How can we improve dopamine utilization?
We know that low dopamine can affect our drive and motivation as well as lead to addiction, all of which makes change really difficult. But there are a few other things that may help you with dopamine levels.
Did you know that exercise increases dopamine receptors while it also boosts levels of dopamine as a reward of a job well done? As with anything, start small so that you can be successful, we want to set up a positive loop, not a negative one! In addition, since dopamine is easily damaged and made ineffective by oxidative stress, exercise may help fight free radicals (as do foods high in antioxidants, such as fruits and veggies).
To increase levels, food is always our go-to way to improve our health, so look for foods high in tyrosine (an amino acid). These foods include almonds, avocados, bananas, dairy products, lima beans, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds. Other dopamine-increasing foods include green leafy vegetables, apples, beets, chocolate, oatmeal, nuts, and seeds. Coffee and green tea can also boost levels over time, but they may also wear out the receptors and wind up reducing the rush.
It turns out that chewing also stimulates dopamine release. Dr. Christopher Miles, PhD, at the University of Cardiff found that the stimulus of chewing gum causes a spike of dopamine that helps the brain focus. Maybe that’s why chewing gum is so pleasant and keeps us focused in school! He also suggests doing new things since when the brain “…encounters something new, it will produce the dopamine surge that can translate into increased cognitive functioning.”
Meditation has been found to relieve stress as well as help regulate mood and attention (which in turn affects dopamine levels). In addition, sleep has been shown to enhance concentrations of neurotransmitters and their receptors.
Music has been found to help improve dopamine levels, so sing, play, enjoy, and support your inner musician.
If you need a bit of a boost, supplements can help. Again, work with your practitioner to try to address the root cause of your dopamine issues. Some supplements act as a precursor to dopamine while others function as cofactors. Choline may help upregulate dopamine receptors whereas Mucuna pruriens may help increase levels. Rhodiola, an adaptogen, may help manage stress as well as inhibit the breakdown of serotonin and dopamine. Genetic SNP support may be needed by some to help manufacture and clear dopamine. Finally, essential fatty acids may reduce inflammation in the brain, thus increasing our dopamine levels. If all else fails, your doctor may have a trick up his or her sleeve in the form of dopamine-modulating pharmaceuticals.