Most people are aware that imbalanced levels of neurotransmitters can contribute to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Although the neurotransmitter serotonin gets a lot of mainstream attention and most of the hype, in recent years dopamine has been getting more attention. Dopamine is believed to play a role in cognitive function, reward, motivation, and allowing us to feel pleasure.
Each time you experience a pleasurable sensation, whether it’s from sexual intercourse, gambling, or drugs – dopamine is released. There is significant evidence to support the hypothesis that low dopamine can: impair cognition, decrease motivation, and make us feel totally apathetic. This has lead many people to experiment with dopaminergics (i.e. DRIs) as a way to cope with a potential dopamine deficiency.
Dopamine doesn’t just magically appear in the brain, our body manufactures it by breaking down the amnio acid tyrosine – which can be obtained from food sources. This has lead to an increasing interest in specific dietary modifications as a means to consume foods that have potential to increase dopamine levels in the brain.
Foods That Increase Dopamine
Understand that foods don’t contain dopamine, but they may contain amino acid ingredients that stimulate the production of dopamine in your brain (e.g. tyrosine). By eating foods rich in tyrosine, your brain will be able to synthesize the neurotransmitter dopamine. Also it is important to understand that certain foods provide a surge of short-term dopamine (e.g. a rush), but cause a dopamine crash over the long-term (this should be avoided). If you are interested in other neurotransmitters, be sure to check out the article “Foods that Increase Serotonin.”
Eating protein is a great way to elicit dopamine production in the brain. Many proteins contain the amino acids that your brain needs in order to create dopamine. For the highest quality sources, be sure to eat grass-fed meats and wild-caught fish.
- Beef: Various types of beef will provide you with enough tyrosine increase dopamine levels.
- Cheese: Eating cheese can provide you with the amino acid tyrosine, which helps you create dopamine. As an alternative to standard types of cheese, many people like to eat cottage cheese because it has lower fat.
- Chicken: An ounce of breast meat chicken is estimated to contain nearly 1500 mg of tyrosine.
- Eggs: If you eat eggs, you’re getting tyrosine. A raw, fresh egg white alone contains an estimated 1900 mg of tyrosine. Plus eggs provide the added benefit of choline, which is necessary for optimal neurotransmission.
- Fish: You may want to consider eating fatty fish (particularly wild-caught fish) as a way to boost your dopamine levels. Fish contain omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) which have been shown to elevate dopamine levels in the brain. Examples of fish to consider include: halibut, salmon, striped bass, rainbow trout, tuna, and sardines. mackerel, salmon, striped bass, rainbow trout, halibut, tuna, and sardines.
- Turkey: We’ve all heard that turkey contains tryptophan (a precursor to serotonin), but many people don’t know that it also contains sufficient tyrosine to increase dopamine.
Proteins are good stable sources of amino acids and will facilitate healthy dopamine levels in the brain. By eating some source of protein, you’ll be giving your brain some of the necessary amino acids to synthesize dopamine.
Many veggies will also help aid in the process of dopamine production as a result of their folate contents and other antioxidants. All folate-rich veggies like broccoli, spinach, and cauliflower can increase dopamine, and antioxidants within veggies have potential to decrease free radicals, which could detrimentally affect dopamine levels.
- Black beans
Many of these vegetables will provide you with folate, but one vegetable that may have other mood boosting properties is that of red beets. Red beets contain “betaine” which has been suggested to regulate levels of neurotransmitters, which may help improve mood. Beets also contain tyrosine, so they pack a double-punch in terms of raising dopamine and improving mood.
Many fruits are also high in the amino acid tyrosine, which can help increase your levels of dopamine. In addition to tyrosine contents, fruits contain antioxidants that help prevent dopaminergic damage as a result of free radicals.
- Apples: Eating apples is associated with increases in the antioxidant known as “quercitin.” This antioxidant has been associated with neuroprotective effects and generation of dopamine. In fact part of the way quercitin may protect the brain is by preventing dopamine loss.
- Bananas: If you eat ripe bananas, you may be getting more tyrosine. Some sources have suggested that the “riper” the banana, the greater the tyrosine contents. Overripe bananas may not be an ideal option simply due to the fact that they are more likely to be sweeter, thus triggering an insulin spike.
- Watermelons: Oddly enough the juice of watermelons has been thought to increase levels of dopamine. It is also packed with various vitamins including: A, B6, and C. The vitamins it contains may help reduce free radicals and ensure that dopaminergic functions are healthy.
Note: There are likely plenty of other fruits that stimulate dopamine production that weren’t mentioned here. This is by no means a fully extensive list of fruits, just some of the ones that are most talked about in relationship to increasing dopamine.
In addition to proteins, vegetables, and fruits, there are other substances associated with a healthy release of dopamine. These include things like herbal supplements, beverages, oils, and nuts.
- Chocolate: Everybody loves eating chocolate, but not everyone knows what it does to the brain. Chocolate is capable of increasing dopamine due to the fact that it contains phenylethylamine, which triggers a release of dopamine. Many chocolates also contain tyramine (similar to tyrosine) which is associated with dopamine increases.
- Coffee: Those that drink coffee are increasing levels of dopamine in the short-term as a result of the stimulatory effect of caffeine. Caffeine provides our brains with a jolt of increased cognitive function in part as a result of dopamine. Over time, we can build up a tolerance to the effect of caffeine in coffee though.
- Ginkgo Biloba: Many people believe that gingko biloba works as a cognitive enhancer. In part it may help boost cognitive function as a result of increasing levels of dopamine.
- Ginseng: There is some evidence that panax ginseng acts on the brain’s dopaminergic system. Research suggests that including ginseng in the diet may increase extracellular concentrations of dopamine.
- Green tea: If you’re not a big coffee drinker, green tea is the way to go. It contains antioxidants that promote physical and mental health. The polyphenols as well as L-theanine within green tea are associated with increasing dopamine.
- Nuts / Seeds: If you like eating nuts and/or seeds, consider having some raw almonds, sesame seeds, or pumpkin seeds – these have all been suggested to help maintain sufficient dopamine levels.
- Oregano oil: Consuming oregano oil means that you’re getting carvacrol – a component that interacts with your brain’s dopamine system to make you feel good. It may help maintain sufficient levels of dopamine in the brain.
- Spirulina: One of the richest sources of tyrosine comes from spirulina, a common dietary supplement. It is considered an aquaculture food that is safe for human consumption.
- Turmeric: The active ingredient in the spice turmeric, called “curcumin” is known to cross the blood-brain barrier and increase levels of neurotransmitters – including dopamine.
- Wheat: If you’re sensitive to the effects of gluten, you’ll probably want to steer clear from wheat products. However, wheat does contain phenylalanine – an amino acid that triggers the release of dopamine. Phenylalanine is known to get converted into tyrosine, and finally dopamine.
Foods that may reduce dopamine over the long-term…
Eating certain foods give us a temporary rush of dopamine, followed by depletion of levels. These tend to be foods that give us similar pleasure to doing drugs. A temporary “high” or delicious taste, followed by a long-term crash in performance. An extreme comparison would be cookies to stimulant drugs. They give us a temporary surge of energy and dopamine, but it quickly subsides and our performance is worse in the long-term.
- Additives: Many additives in food exist to trick your brain into thinking that they’re healthy. In reality, these additives mask the true nutritional quality of the food and exist to get you to eat more. These substances may trigger a short-term spike of dopamine, followed by a crash (lower than baseline).
- Artificial sweeteners: Various artificial sweeteners like aspartame have similar effects to sugar in that they are addictive and should be avoided. They may give you that surge of dopamine just like sugar and before you realize it, you’re hooked on the aspartame like a drug. This is why many people have such a tough time with Aspartame withdrawal.
- Junk foods: Any simple carbohydrates should be avoided if your goal is to increase dopamine over the long-term. An example of a simple carbohydrate would be various types of store bought cookies. Many of these foods have similar effects in the brain to powerful drugs like cocaine. (Read: Oreos as Addictive as Cocaine).
- Sugars: Foods that are high in sugar can provide a short-term release of dopamine and an energy “buzz.” The problem is that over the long-term, dopamine may actually get depleted from excessive sugar consumption. Although sugar provides a short-term dopamine spike, it may not be beneficial for the long-term. If you don’t think of excessive sugar as a drug, just read some symptoms associated with “Sugar withdrawal.”
Will eating certain foods really boost your dopamine levels?
In theory, eating foods highest in tyrosine should help your brain synthesize more dopamine, leading to a greater amount. The brain is more complex than simply raising levels of dopamine from your diet. There are many other factors to consider when eating foods such as: whether they can trigger inflammation, whether they make you gain weight, feel weaker, or mess with your blood sugars.
Eating certain foods may give you a short-term dopamine rush, followed by a crash (e.g. sugar) – and should be avoided. Other foods like green leafy vegetables along with grass-fed beef and a cup of green tea should help boost dopamine production in a stable way. Keep in mind that raising dopamine with your diet probably won’t fix psychiatric conditions that commonly benefit from increased dopamine like ADHD.
However, eating the right foods to help your brain synthesize dopamine could result in noticeable improvements in cognitive function and performance. A dopaminergic diet for depression or cognitive function probably won’t cure any psychiatric condition, but it can help minimize certain symptoms. Don’t expect a “dopamine diet” to solve all of your problems, but keep in mind that eating the right foods should help give you the best chance of experiencing healthy neurotransmission and brain activity.
What foods do you believe help raise dopamine?
If you’ve experimented with eating various foods and have had your neurotransmitter levels tested, feel free to share the specific dietary choices you believe increased your dopamine the most. It is pretty difficult to verify how much diet affects dopamine levels, but we do know that getting enough tyrosine will influence the amount of dopamine that our body produces. Theoretically the foods that contain the highest density of tyrosine should increase dopamine the most.