How to Increase Dopamine, the Motivation Molecule

How to Increase Dopamine

By Deane Alban

Contributing Writer for Wake Up World

Dopamine is a key neurotransmitter for motivation, focus and productivity. Learn the symptoms of dopamine deficiency and natural ways to increase dopamine levels …

There are about 100 billion neurons in the human brain — about as many stars as there are in the Milky Way. These cells communicate with each other via brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for providing motivation, drive, and focus. It plays a role in many mental disorders including depression, addictions, ADHD, and schizophrenia.

Let’s take a closer look at dopamine — what it does, symptoms of deficiency, and how to increase it naturally.

Dopamine: The Motivation Molecule

Dopamine has been called our “motivation molecule.” It boosts our drive, focus, and concentration. It enables us to plan ahead and resist impulses so we can achieve our goals. It gives us that “I did it!” lift when we accomplish what we set out to do. It makes us competitive and provides the thrill of the chase in all aspects of life — business, sports, and love.

Dopamine is in charge of our pleasure-reward system. (1) It allows us to have feelings of enjoyment, bliss, and even euphoria. But too little dopamine can leave you unfocused, unmotivated, lethargic, and even depressed.

Dopamine Deficiency Symptoms

People low in dopamine lack a zest for life. They exhibit low energy and motivation, and often rely on caffeine, sugar, or other stimulants to get through the day.

Many common dopamine deficiency symptoms are similar to those of depression:

  • lack of motivation
  • fatigue
  • apathy
  • procrastination
  • inability to feel pleasure
  • low libido
  • sleep problems
  • mood swings
  • hopelessness
  • memory loss
  • inability to concentrate

Dopamine-deficient lab mice become so apathetic and lethargic they lack motivation to eat and starve to death. (2) Conversely, some people who are low in dopamine compensate with self-destructive behaviors to get their dopamine boost. This can include use and abuse of caffeine, alcohol, sugar, drugs, shopping, video games, sex, power, or gambling.

How to Increase Dopamine Naturally

There are plenty of unhealthy ways to raise dopamine. But you don’t have to resort to “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” to boost your dopamine levels. Here are some healthy, proven ways to increase dopamine levels naturally.

Foods That Increase Dopamine

Dopamine is made from the amino acid tyrosine. Eating a diet high in tyrosine will ensure you’ve got the basic building blocks needed for dopamine production.

Here’s a list of tyrosine-rich foods: (3, 4, 5, 6)

  • all animal products
  • almonds
  • apples
  • avocado
  • bananas
  • beets
  • chocolate
  • coffee
  • fava beans
  • green leafy vegetables
  • green tea
  • lima beans
  • oatmeal
  • sea vegetables
  • sesame and pumpkin seeds
  • turmeric
  • watermelon
  • wheat germ

Foods high in natural probiotics such as yogurt, kefir, and raw sauerkraut can also increase natural dopamine production. Oddly, the health of your intestinal flora impacts your production of neurotransmitters.

An overabundance of bad bacteria leaves toxic byproducts called lipopolysaccharides which lower levels of dopamine. (7)

Sugar has been found to boost dopamine but this is a temporary boost, more drug-like than food-like. (8)

Dopamine Supplements

There are supplements that can raise dopamine levels naturally.

Curcumin is the active ingredient in the spice turmeric. It’s available in an isolated form as a supplement. It readily crosses the blood-brain barrier and can boost levels of dopamine. (9, 10, 11)

Curcumin has been found to help alleviate obsessive actions and improve associated memory loss by increasing dopamine. (12, 13)

Ginkgo biloba is traditionally used for a variety of brain-related problems — poor concentration, forgetfulness, headaches, fatigue, mental confusion, depression, and anxiety. (14)

One of the mechanisms by which ginkgo works is by raising dopamine. (15, 16)

L-theanine is a component found in green tea. It increases levels of dopamine along with other neurotransmitters serotonin and GABA. (17, 18) L-theanine improves recall, learning, and positive mood. (19, 20) You can get your dopamine boost by either taking theanine supplements or by drinking 3 cups of green tea per day. (21)

L-tyrosine — the precursor to dopamine — is available as a supplement.

We recommend taking acetyl-l-tyrosine — a more absorbable form that readily crosses the blood-brain barrier. (22)

Phosphatidylserine acts as your brain’s “gatekeeper,” regulating nutrients and waste in and out of your brain. It can increase dopamine levels and improve memory, concentration, learning, and ADHD. (23, 24, 25)

Boost Dopamine with Exercise

Physical exercise is one of the best things you can do for your brain. It boosts production of new brain cells, slows down brain cell aging, and improves the flow of nutrients to the brain. It can also increase your levels of dopamine and the other “feel good” neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine. (26)

Dr. John Ratey, renowned psychiatrist and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, has extensively studied the effects of physical exercise on the brain. He found that exercise raises baseline levels of dopamine by promoting the growth of new brain cell receptors.

Dopamine is responsible in part for the high serious runners experience. (27) But you don’t need to exercise strenuously to enhance your brain. Taking walks, or doing gentle, no-impact exercises like yoga, tai chi, or qi gong all provide powerful mind-body benefits. (28, 29, 30)

Increase Dopamine with Meditation

The benefits of meditation have been proven in over 1,000 studies. (31) Regular meditators experience enhanced ability to learn, increased creativity, and deep relaxation. It’s been shown that meditation increases dopamine, improving focus and concentration. (32)

Crafting hobbies of all kinds — knitting, quilting, sewing, drawing, photography, woodworking, and home repair — focus the brain similarly to meditation. These activities increase dopamine, ward off depression, and protect against brain aging. (33)

Listening to music can cause of release of dopamine. Oddly, you don’t even have to hear music to get this neurotransmitter flowing — just the anticipation of listening can do that. (34)

Using Your Brain’s Reward System to Balance Dopamine

Dopamine functions as a survival mechanism by releasing energy when a great opportunity is in front of you. Dopamine rewards us when our needs are met. We love dopamine surges because of the way they make us feel. But according to Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning, author of Meet Your Happy Chemicals: Dopamine, Endorphin, Oxytocin, Serotonin, we are not designed to experience a non-stop dopamine buzz. The constant hunt for dopamine boosts can turn you into a “Wolf on Wall Street” — driven by addictions, greed, and lust.

Here are some healthy ways to balance your dopamine by working with your brain’s built-in reward system.

Enjoy the Quest

Our ancestors were on a constant quest to survive. They got a dopamine surge every time they spotted a new patch of berries or a better fishing hole because this meant they’d live to seek another day. While you can still pick berries and fish, there are endless other healthy ways you can enjoy the quest in modern life.

You can forage for new music to download, specialty ingredients to cook with, a travel package bargain, a hard-to-find collector’s item, or that perfect gift for a loved one. You can engage in specifically quest-oriented hobbies like geocaching, bird watching, rockhounding, amateur archaeology, and collecting of all kinds.

The act of seeking and finding activates your reward circuits — with no regrets later.

Create Both Long and Short Term Goals

Dopamine is released when we achieve a goal. Having only long term goals gets frustrating, so set both short term and long term goals. Short term goals don’t have to be anything major. They can be as simple as trying a new recipe, getting caught up on emails, cleaning a closet, or finally learning how to use a new app for your phone.

Break up long term goals into small short term goals to give yourself dopamine boosts along the way.

Take on a New Challenge

Getting a promotion is a great dopamine boost, but this doesn’t happen very often! But you can create your own dopamine rewards by setting a goal, then take small steps toward it every day. This can be starting a new exercise program, learning French, or challenging yourself to drive home from work a different way every day, preferably without the use of your GPS.

According to Dr. Graziano Breuning, working on a goal without fail for 45 days will train your brain to stimulate dopamine production in a new way.

Dopamine and Mental Conditions

Dopamine plays such an important role in how we live our lives, it’s no surprise that when the dopamine system is out of balance it can contribute to many mental conditions. (35)

Here are three of the most common conditions that have a dopamine connection.

Dopamine and ADHD

The underlying cause of ADHD is still unknown. Until recently it was widely accepted that the root cause of ADHD was probably an abnormality in dopamine function. This seems logical since dopamine is critical for maintaining focus. Most ADHD medications are based on this “dopamine deficiency” theory. Prescription medications used to treat ADHD are believed to work by increasing the release of dopamine and norepinephrine while slowing down their rate of reabsorption. (36)

However, the latest research suggests that the main cause of ADHD lies in a structural difference in the grey matter in the brain and not dopamine. (37)

Dopamine and Depression

Serotonin is the brain chemical most associated with depression. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, and Lexapro are prescribed for depression and work by increasing brain levels of serotonin. But this only works in about 40% of patients who use them. (38)

What about the other 60%?

There’s a growing body of evidence that shows low dopamine and not low serotonin is the cause of depression for many. Bupropion (brand name Wellbutrin) has proven effective for patients who haven’t been helped by SSRIs by addressing dopamine deficiency. (39)

How to determine if your depression is more likely from serotonin versus dopamine deficiency? Serotonin-based depression is accompanied by anxiety and irritability, while dopamine-based depression expresses itself as lethargy and lack of enjoyment of life. (40)

Dopamine and Schizophrenia

The cause of schizophrenia is unknown, but genetics and environmental factors are believed to play a role. (41) One prevailing theory is that it’s caused by an over-active dopamine system. (42, 43) Supporting evidence for this theory is that the best drugs to treat schizophrenia symptoms resemble dopamine and block dopamine receptors. (44)

However, these medications can take days to work which is indicative that the exact mechanism is not yet understood. (45)

How to Increase Dopamine in a Nutshell

Dopamine is our “motivation molecule.” It’s also in charge of our pleasure-reward system. There are both healthy ways and unhealthy ways to increase dopamine. Unhealthy ways to increase dopamine can be gateways to self-destruction and addictions. Healthy ways include eating the right foods, taking dopamine boosting supplements, physical exercise, and meditation.

Learn how to harness your reward system for a healthy stream of dopamine. Enjoy the quest, set both long term and short term goals, and take on new challenges. You’ll feel more alive, focused, productive, and motivated.

Previous articles by Deane:

About the author:deane alban

Deane Alban holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and has taught and written on a wide variety of natural health topics for over 20 years. Her current focus is helping people overcome brain fog, “senior moments”, and other signs of mental decline now, and preventing Alzheimer’s and dementia in the future.

The human brain is designed to last a lifetime, but modern life takes a greater toll on the brain than most people realize. Deane teaches the best ways to keep your brain healthy and stay mentally sharp for life at her website BeBrainFit.com.

 


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  • Great article! Motivation boosting will help me get more things done. Thank you.

  • Jenkaywilli

    Love the article – really great for me as have been thinking I need to increase my dopamine levels so is wonderful to read through a list of ways to do so, and the links within the article. I notice that addictions was mentioned in the introduction and then not at the end with the other conditions….there has been a growing interest in a dopamine deficiency in addiction. I have just written an essay partly on this for my uni course and as a recovered/ing alcoholic and addictive person in general I can absolutely understand and predict that a dopamine deficiency could have been encouraging these impulses in me as the symptoms of deficiency and the effects of dopamine are spot on in the equation of me seeking out these effects. I wouldn’t be surprised if a very high number of addicts and alcoholics have a chronic dopamine deficiency (without the active addiction). I find this fascinating and hope that this idea can be made more mainstream than it is at the moment as it presents an exciting prospect for helping people out of something that they, and I for one, would not have realised was causing that nagging feeling of needing something to give me a boost and help with all those things mentioned here…..concentration, motivation, drive, focus and subsequent enjoyment. I really do believe that following my research for my essay that alcoholics and addicts should be given some form of dopamine boosting treatment to aid recovery and abstinence. There is actually some recent development which I read with interest about one of the ADHD medications possibly being used for cocaine addicts…………

    • RILEYe (required)

      Loved it as well

  • Dave

    Interesting to read, i had a psychosis last year (in the family of Schizofrenia) and the motivation and efficiency you have in your manic times is unbelievable. I made a painting during my psychosis, and i didn’t have to think it went just boom! What they tell me it is an inbanlance of dopamine in your brains, or you go EXTREMELY motivated, or you go EXTREMELY anxious! The months after i was depressed i think my brains were recovering from a lack of dopamine.

  • khalid

    inspiring, thanks alot

  • Scientific nonsense is asserted in this article. Physical exercise does NOT boost production of new brain cells, we cannot grow new brain cells, they are quite finite, all we can do is enhance connectivity between them. Disappointing to read such an ignorant statement about a biological fact.

  • julie

    The notion that we cant grow new brain cells is outdated
    . It has been proven that no cell is finite.

  • Mel

    All of these mental health conditions listed are often found to be connected to one which over-arches the lot– Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Complex PTSD which begins in childhood, is seemingly swept under the rug in mainstream Western society…

    I believe that we have an underlying epidemic of this condition, and it’s affecting generations of families who are suffering in a culture of silence and stigma. It prevents many from acknowledging to others and even themselves about the presence of intergenerational trauma- Emotional and verbal Abuse & Neglect appears to be so common that it is effectively the ‘norm’; so common that many people simply cannot seem to see it and/or cover it up with an unspoken societal rule of not talking about it.

    Articles such as this simply serve to dance around the real underlying problem here- There is no shame in admitting that ignorance and continuing norms in family ways of communicating with others is a possible issue present in the majority of families and wider society.
    **The effects of Neglect and Mistreatment are incredibly draining- and I would not be surprised if abuse and neglect were found to be the number one Dopamine Depletor, I myself have definitely noticed the hoover-ing effects on my energy and wellbeing, with having first-hand experience on the receiving end.

    I would like to see this comment included in the comments section here, as I strongly feel and believe that it is important that people consider this as a possible key contributor if they believe they may be affected by having a dopamine deficiency. ♡

  • Mel

    All of these mental health conditions listed are often found to be connected to one which over-arches the lot– Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Complex PTSD which begins in childhood, is seemingly swept under the rug in mainstream Western society…

    I believe that we have an underlying epidemic of this condition, and it’s affecting generations of families who are suffering in a culture of silence and stigma. It prevents many from acknowledging to others and even themselves about the presence of intergenerational trauma- Emotional and verbal Abuse & Neglect appears to be so common that it is effectively the ‘norm’; so common that many people simply cannot seem to see it and/or cover it up with an unspoken societal rule of not talking about it.

    Articles such as this simply serve to dance around the real underlying problem here- There is no shame in admitting that ignorance and continuing norms in family ways of communicating with others is a possible issue present in the majority of families and wider society.
    **The effects of Neglect and Mistreatment are incredibly draining- and I would not be surprised if abuse and neglect were found to be the number one Dopamine Depletor, I myself have definitely noticed the hoover-ing effects on my energy and wellbeing, with having first-hand experience on the receiving end.

    I would really like to see this comment included within the comments section here, as I strongly feel and believe it is important for people to consider this as a potential key Cause + Effect contributor to any lack of dopamine production in their body/mind.
    And in my view it’s worth at least looking into- for anyone who believes that they may be affected by having low dopamine levels or dopamine deficiency. ♡

  • Jag Heter Joakim

    so take of the animal products please, there is plenty of other stuff to get dopamine, i wouldent really get more happy if i know that animals that i eat suffer hardcore….plus i believe that energy rushes in the animals of death is still in there, im vegan, i swear u, i never felt better in my life

    • Indeed, I cannot see a positive correlation of emotions with eating the flesh of a traumatized being.

    • ImaMe

      You do realize life doesn’t revolve around you, right? Don’t eat animals? Ignore that part of the article. There are some of us who do enjoy a steak <3