Dopamine is a popular neurotransmitter that is believed to play a primary role in motivation, pleasure, and mood. When a person experiences pleasure from activities like having sex, watching porn, using drugs, or even intense physical exercise – dopamine is at work. Additionally, dopamine plays a vital role in motor control and cognitive function.
Increasing dopamine is known to improve cognitive function, particularly attention and memory tasks. This is why individuals with various forms of cognitive impairment, attentional deficits, or neurodegenerative disorders experience marked improvement when they take drugs that elevate extracellular levels of dopamine.This is also why college and graduate students use dopaminergic nootropics to perform better on exams.
Unfortunately, there are many ways in which a person could deplete their dopamine reserves and also certain conditions that may result in abnormally low extracellular levels of dopamine. Long-term psychostimulant use, illicit stimulant abuse, and other addictions likely deplete dopamine. Additionally, various conditions like Parkinson’s disease and ADHD tend to benefit from increasing dopamine concentrations.
Is dopamine the underlying problem?
Many people assume that dopamine is the root cause of their mental woes. Obviously if you have a condition like Parkinson’s disease, it is likely a big culprit. If you used or abused psychostimulant drugs for an extended term, it also is likely a problem that needs to be corrected. However, just because you may find that certain dopaminergic drugs make you feel “better” or more functional, does not mean that your underlying problem was low dopamine.
That would be akin to drinking alcohol, feeling better while you drink, and claim to have an ethanol deficiency; it’s not the same thing. Keep in mind that just because you used Adderall for depression with some success, does not mean that depression was from dopamine instead of serotonin. All that means is that increasing dopamine levels improved your depression – it may not have been the root cause.
How To Increase Dopamine Levels
There are many ways in which you can increase dopamine levels. Obviously if you have an extreme neurological disorder like Parkinson’s, you’ll probably want to go the pharmaceutical route due to the fact that the pharmaceuticals are more potent and will allow you to function. On the other hand, if you have low dopamine as a result of abusing psychostimulants, you’ll want to put forth the hard work of increasing your dopamine levels naturally.
Most people will want to focus on increasing dopamine levels with natural methods. Keep in mind that a bulk of natural methods require consistent effort and time before you see results. Your dopamine levels will not go “0 to 100” overnight, but they will gradually increase overtime. The natural route is best for those who don’t want to “crash and burn” with months of post-acute withdrawal symptoms after discontinuing a potent psychostimulant.
Brain waves: There is some speculation that certain brain waves may be associated with the increase and release of dopamine. One method that doesn’t have much science behind it that may prove to be beneficial is that of increasing faster-paced brain waves. When the brain’s electrical activity (brain waves) speed up, different neurotransmitters are likely released than when activity is slower.
An experiment with mice involving chambers with light-pulses revealed that mice exposed to higher frequency light pulses resulted in stronger reward learning. This suggests that a higher frequency likely gave rise to faster firing of brain rhythms which increased firing of dopaminergic neurons. Lower frequency rhythms were significantly less effective than the high frequency bursts.
Therefore it would make logical sense to increase the dominance of beta waves, and perhaps gamma waves to determine whether any effect can be obtained. Both beta and gamma are fast waves that can be increased with brainwave entrainment. Another effective method that may increase beta waves is that of neurofeedback, which involves putting electrodes on your scalp and training yourself to consciously increase faster wave activity.
Caloric restriction: It is known that caloric restriction is associated with longevity and an increased lifespan. Restricting the number of calories you consume may also have an effect on neurotransmitter levels and dopamine neurons. Researchers discovered that chronic “mild” caloric restriction resulted in significantly different neurological activity compared to non-food restricted mice.
Mice that are restricted from excessive food consumption had increased bursts of activity from dopaminergic neurons and the effects of a psychostimulant (cocaine) were enhanced. Researchers postulated that these effects may be similar in humans and that the efficacy of psychostimulant drugs may be enhanced via chronic caloric restriction. In addition to increasing dopamine concentrations, you may end up living longer from restricting calories.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23966705
Dietary intake: Another natural way to increase dopamine levels is that of altering your diet. The goal should be to eat foods that increase dopamine, or more specifically, foods high in L-Tyrosine – an amino acid precursor that crosses the blood-brain barrier and converts to dopamine. If you have been shoveling down loads of carbs, but aren’t eating much protein, you’re probably deficient in L-Tyrosine, which inevitably results in lower than optimal dopamine.
You may want to consider eating more meats, nuts, poultry, and fatty fish (for omega-3s). Keep in mind that eating the optimal amount of healthy protein such as: whey isolate, pasteurized eggs, seaweed, grass-fed beef, and fatty fish has potential to increase L-Tyrosine, and thus dopamine.
Goal setting/achievement: When we achieve goal that we worked hard towards and get the reward associated with achievement, dopamine is released. The brain is naturally wired to seek out more reward because the dopamine rush associated with achievement feels pleasurable. If you’re willing to put forth some effort to increase your dopamine, you should set a goal.
Even achieving a small goal will result in a positive feedback loop, fostered by dopamine release. A bigger goal will be tougher, but the dopamine rush associated with its accomplishment may be more profound than achieving a smaller goal. If you are struggling with low dopamine, you may currently be apathetic to accomplishing any goal – it may seem pointless.
To get over this hump, start by setting a very tiny goal – such as cleaning your room, doing the dishes, or vacuuming the living room. This will train your brain to embrace the hard work so that it can “earn” the dopamine release. Set a goal to lose 5 lbs. in 2 weeks or to read a book in 3 weeks. Think of the reward that you’ll get for achieving that goal (e.g. you’ll be smarter, healthier, etc.).
Obviously you’ll want to come up with something that fits your personality. If you have set a complex goal, break it up into smaller tasks so that you get some sense of achievement / reward along the way. While goal setting may be tough at first, achieving goals is the ultimate healthy dopamine rush and creates a positive feedback loop.
Meditation: There is significant evidence that various types of meditation can increase concentrations of dopamine in the cortex. This means that if you learn how to properly meditate, and commit to a daily practice, you will alter concentrations of various neurotransmitters, including dopamine. There is evidence in particular that mindfulness meditation is capable of increasing signaling in areas of the brain involved in emotional regulation and control of attention.
It is the increased activity in these regions that has been found to increase the release of dopamine. While meditation may not be an ideal strategy for everyone, and requires consistent effort over a substantial term to achieve the dopaminergic boost, smartphone apps like Headspace can help you start. There’s a reason I consider meditation among the best Adderall alternatives; it works if you put in the work.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3044190/
Massage therapy: It has long been suggested that one way to keep dopamine levels high is to avoid stress, and engage in relaxing activities. One such relaxing activity that has some scientific support for increasing dopamine levels (and serotonin) is that of massage therapy. Researchers reviewed studies that analyzed cortisol levels (via saliva or urine) and found that cortisol decreased by over 30% after massage therapy.
In addition to the cortisol reduction, it was found that both dopamine and serotonin levels increased on average by nearly 30%; these were measured by urine. Based on the results of this study, it may be logical to think that dopamine concentrations may increase to the approximate extent that cortisol levels decrease following massage therapy. If you think your dopamine may be low, you may want to consider getting a regular massage.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16162447
Physical exercise: Although certain studies demonstrate that aerobic exercise for 30 minutes won’t increase synaptic concentrations of dopamine in the human brain, most of these studies are extremely small scale and need to be replicated with larger sample sizes to confirm preliminary findings. Despite these findings, many experts believe that physical exercise may increase dopamine receptors, enhance dopaminergic activity, and boost levels of dopamine in certain regions.
It may take more than just one 30 minute aerobic activity to increase the dopamine concentrations. Many speculate that one exercise session is unlikely to significantly alter concentrations of neurotransmitters, but consistent exercise over a long-term may boost dopamine levels. There are many psychological benefits of exercise including growth of new brain cells and increasing BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor).
In rodent studies, voluntary exercise is associated with a neuroprotective effect, which leads to improvements in motor control and muscle functioning. There is also evidence that consistent exercise may inhibit the development of Parkinson’s disease – a condition characterized by low dopamine. Exercise is thought to alter dopamine uptake in the brain for improved functioning.
Even if exercise doesn’t have a direct effect on dopamine concentrations, it may have an indirect one. The fact that exercise acts as a neuroprotective agent means that it may protect against free radical damage that may occur as a result of stress. Exercise may also influence dopamine activity due to the fact that endogenous dopamine production is closely tied to the regions responsible for endorphin release from exercise.
Animal research clearly demonstrates that exercise increases dopamine synthesis by elevating serum calcium levels. Many disorders characterized by low dopamine tend to improve in animal models with frequent exercise. Part of this improvement may be a result of enhanced dopaminergic activity in response to exercise.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12758062
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18274707
Sleep: To ensure that your brain increases dopamine naturally, you’ll want to make sure that you’re getting enough sleep. Lack of sleep has been shown to reduce concentrations of neurotransmitters and their receptors. While a reduced receptor count doesn’t necessarily mean that the neurotransmitters themselves are reduced, it’s generally not a good sign to have insufficient receptors to respond to the dopamine.
Therefore you should always strive to focus on both sleep duration and quality. You should wake up feeling rested and recovered. You shouldn’t be waking up in the middle of the night multiple times as this destroys sleep quality. If you’re physically active, strive to get more sleep than if you don’t exercise much.
Oddly enough, pulling an all-nighter for just one night actually increases dopamine concentrations in the brain. That said, prolonged sleep deprivation will likely reduce dopamine and will burn out the receptors. Additionally lack of sleep is associated with increased cortisol and free radicals – leading to less overall dopamine.
Sunlight exposure: There is evidence that ties sunlight exposure in humans to dopamine receptor count. It is known that sunlight can affect serotonin levels, but the amount of light exposure may also influence dopamine. An older study from 1983 discovered that animals frequently exposed to bright lights had increased concentrations of dopamine near the eyes.
Some hypothesize that it takes at least 30 to 60 minutes per day to achieve the dopamine boost from bright light. Humans evolved being outside, exposed to the sun on a daily basis. Lack of sunlight may trigger a cascade of neurotransmitter and vitamin deficits, all of which likely have a symbiotic relationship. Do yourself a favor and get enough sunlight each day to keep your dopamine level and receptor count high.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20875835
- Source: http://optometry.osu.edu/news/article.cfm?id=330
There are also many highly effective ways to increase dopamine levels artificially. Artificial increases in dopamine can be obtained from utilizing pharmaceutical drugs and/or other supplements. While artificial methods for increasing dopamine tend to be the most potent and fastest, most people build up a tolerance to the effect over time. Upon discontinuation of the artificial dopamine booster, most people end up with a dopamine deficiency worse than before they started.
The most common pharmaceutical drugs for increasing dopamine are psychostimulants (e.g. amphetamines) and eugeroics. Psychostimulants tend to pack a more potent punch than the eugeroics, but both may inhibit the reuptake of dopamine. For more information, check out a list of dopamine reuptake inhibitors (DRIs).
The most effective way to artificially increase levels of dopamine is to take a psychostimulant ADHD medication. Most of these medications act as amphetamines or increase dopamine levels via slightly different mechanisms (e.g. methylphenidate). While these can be helpful for someone dealing with low dopamine in the short-term, they are not a great long-term strategy. Chronic administration over a long-term, especially at a high dose, is more likely to deplete dopamine reserves – leading to lower dopamine upon withdrawal than prior to taking the medication.
- Adderall (Amphetamine Mixed Salts)
- Ritalin (Methylphenidate)
- Vyvanse (Lisdexamfetamine)
Certain eugeroics and antidepressants act as weak dopamine reuptake inhibitors. While these are unlikely to increase dopamine to the same extent as psychostimulants, they still are capable of boosting low levels.
- Nuvigil (Armodafinil)
- Olmifon (Adrafinil)
- Provigil (Modafinil)
- Wellbutrin (Bupropion)
Supplements that increase dopamine
Another option for artificially elevating your brain’s dopamine production would be to take a dietary supplement. Most common options include amino acid precursors like L-Tyrosine and L-Phenylalanine. These may be taken in combination with various vitamins (e.g. Vitamin B6) to prevent oxidation and increase efficacy.
- L-Tyrosine: Many people have success with supplementing 800 mg to 1500 mg daily of L-Tyrosine, which crosses the blood-brain barrier and converts to dopamine.
- L-Phenylalanine: This is an amino acid precursor to tyrosine, which gets converted into dopamine. Most people supplement between 1000 mg to 1500 mg to boost their dopamine.
- Rhodiola Rosea: This is an herbal supplement that acts on COMT to inhibit the breakdown of neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. Most people take approximately 500 mg (3% Rosavins) daily to increase dopamine levels.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Supplementation of DHA and EPA (omega-3 fatty acids) is beneficial for most people unless they are eating high quality fish twice per week. The human brain generally operates better when is receiving sufficient omega-3 fatty acids from the diet. Therefore some have recommended supplementing quality fish oil or krill oil to obtain adequate omega-3s, which may increase dopamine levels.
Keep in mind that although these are natural supplements and aren’t as potent as ingesting psychostimulants, you may build up a tolerance to them and/or have unwanted side effects. While they won’t deplete dopamine reserves in the long-term, they may lose effectiveness over time for certain individuals.
Due to the fact that dopamine is easily oxidized, you may want to consider taking complementary vitamins along with dopaminergic supplements. Generally amino acid precursors are recommended to be taken along with vitamins that enhance their conversion and ultimately their overall absorption.
- Vitamin B Complex: Some individuals find that taking a vitamin B complex with a dosing between 50 mg to 100 mg helps boost the efficacy of dopaminergic supplements.
- Vitamin B6: You could consider taking solely vitamin B6 50 mg to 150 mg to help with the conversion of L-Tyrosine to dopamine.
- Magnesium: There is some evidence suggesting that abnormally low levels of magnesium may contribute to low dopamine. If you aren’t getting sufficient dietary magnesium, you may want to consider supplementing so that you are getting your RDA (recommended daily allowance). If you want to check for a magnesium deficiency, consult a medical professional.
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT): Going through a treatment of electroshock therapy may prove to enhance dopamine functioning within the brain, possibly increasing levels. Evidence regarding ECT and dopamine appears to be mixed. A study from 2007 suggested that a mechanism of action for ECT among patients with Parkinson’s disease is via enhancement of dopaminergic functioning within a neural pathway of the basal ganglia of rodents.
Research from 2013 posited that ECT elicits an effect on both the dopamine system as well as HPA axis. Activating the dopamine system may increase the brain’s processing efficiency of dopamine. While it isn’t clearly understood how ECT precisely affects the dopamine system, its dopaminergic altering effect may prove to be beneficial for increasing dopamine levels.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24810775
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24820941
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17476366
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23986724
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10461762
Avoiding Dopamine Depletion
There are many things that are thought to deplete dopamine over the long-term. These include: illicit drugs, high stress, cortisol increases, and addictions that yield immediate gratification. Generally anything that gives you dopaminergic pleasure without any hard work or discipline is something to consider avoiding.
Addictions: It’s definitely not easy to overcome any addiction, but the benefit associated with conquering your addiction is a healthier, more stable supply of dopamine. Those that frequently use drugs (esp. psychostimulants), overeat junk food, and watch porn likely have altered their dopaminergic system for the worse. All addictions give short-term boosts of dopamine, followed by crashes – this is particularly noticeable among recreational stimulant users. (Read: Adderall crash).
Regardless of the particular addiction, most addictions give you the short-term dopamine release, followed by a long-term crash. It may take awhile for your dopamine levels to regenerate. Assuming you continuously engage in the addictive behavior or drug, you may stay stuck at an abnormally low level of dopamine. While it may be tough to avoid succumbing to addictive behaviors, it’s worth it if you care about your dopamine over the long-term.
Drugs/alcohol: Even if you aren’t addicted to certain drugs or alcohol – doing drugs or drinking gives you a short-term burst of pleasure, followed by a crash. In many cases, the crash is associated with abnormally low levels of dopamine. It may take your brain awhile to regenerate its dopamine supply. Particularly, psychostimulant drugs like amphetamines should be avoided by those looking to boost their dopamine naturally over the long-term.
Excessive caffeine: While caffeine derived from quality sources (e.g. green tea) may have beneficial effects on dopamine concentrations, excessive caffeine consumption may be suboptimal for long-term dopamine levels. Those that drink a lot of caffeine may realize that over time, they become increasingly tired and “burnt out.” This is not only due to the fact that they’ve become tolerant to high doses of caffeine, but they may have increased their stress as a result.
Pounding energy drinks and coffee all day is likely to result in a cortisol spike and heightened stress response. If you aren’t doing things to mitigate this stress response and cortisol spike with relaxation activities, your dopamine is probably plummeting. Limit your caffeine intake and try to obtain it from quality sources such as green tea (which is packed with other antioxidants that will help fight free radicals associated with stress).
Instant gratification: Any activity that provides immediate gratification without any significant effort or discipline may be associated with a dopamine spike, followed by a crash. An example would be those who smoke cigarettes – it provides a temporary increase in dopamine, likely followed by a reduction. If you want to ensure that your dopamine functioning stays at its best, avoid a hedonistic approach to life and take a more disciplined approach.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25502631
Stress: Chronic stress is known to impair functioning in the prefrontal cortex, increase cortisol, and deplete dopamine. Short-term stress may actually increase concentrations of dopamine, while prolonged stress is likely to lead to dopamine deficiency. For this reason it is recommended to either: increase your capacity to cope with stress (e.g. engage in relaxation) or avoid stressful activities.
Getting some exercise, ensuring that you’re getting enough sleep, and eating a healthy diet can go a long way towards reducing stress. Studies have shown that chronic stressors decrease concentrations of dopamine transporters and inhibit the release of dopamine in certain regions of the brain.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8986003
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19455173
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10762338
Sugar: There’s a reason that people notice they feel like crap when they stop eating refined sugar – their bodies are dependent upon the sugar like a drug. Shoveling down junk foods with high refined sugars and artificial sweeteners (e.g. aspartame) may disrupt dopamine functioning over time. Most sugary foods stimulate dopamine receptors in the brain, which cause people to keep eating the food, even though they know it’s unhealthy.
In this case, sugar is acting like a drug because it’s triggering the release of dopamine. Dopamine levels spike, until a person ends up feeling sick and they plummet. With depleted dopamine, a person seeks out more sugar to receive the same pleasure that they originally got from the unhealthy food. Limit your sugar intake and/or avoid foods with excessive sugar to prevent dietary-induced dopamine dysfunction.
Rule out medical conditions that may cause low dopamine…
Increasing dopamine is generally considered healthy when done with natural methods. Using artificial interventions such as: pharmaceutical drugs, illicit drugs, and supplements may not be a healthy long-term strategy. Many people assume that they need these potent interventions due to the fact that they cannot concentrate, have low energy, and many other symptoms associated with low dopamine.
Before you automatically assume you have low dopamine, check with your doctor to make sure that some other medical condition isn’t causing a similar set of symptoms. Get your blood checked, vitamin and hormone panels, ensure that you haven’t been exposed to toxins (e.g. mold/pesticides), and that your thyroid is normal. Additionally, you’ll want to make sure that your MTHFR gene isn’t the culprit in regards to methylation. (Read: Overmethylation vs. Undermethylation).
What methods of increasing dopamine do you prefer?
If you’ve worked to increase your dopamine levels, feel free to share what methods you found most effective in the comments section below. Keep in mind that what works for one person, may not necessarily work for another. Also realize that if you elevate your dopamine too much, you may end up dealing with problems related to high dopamine.
Like any neurotransmitter, optimal amounts result in improved performance, cognitive function, and energy. However, too much of anything can result in problematic effects. Most of the natural methods discussed will not increase dopamine levels to the “high” range. However, many of the artificial methods (e.g. pharmaceuticals) can increase dopamine to an uncomfortable extent.
This is why many people end up reporting cases of psychostimulant-induced psychosis – because they took too much of the drug. In this case a person will experience effects similar to the positive symptoms of schizophrenia. If you’ve had success with natural methods, feel free to share why you believe your dopamine levels were depleted, and how long it took to return to your homeostatic baseline.