What does dopamine do?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which means it communicates chemical messages between the cells in your brain or between the cells in your brain and other parts of your body. Increase dopamine naturally by eating certain foods, listening to music, exercising, meditating, and going on a quest.
You've probably heard that low levels of dopamine can be related to depression and other negative emotions, but what constitutes a low level of dopamine, and can you increase your own levels without drugs?
Read on to find out everything you need to know about the role this pleasure hormone and neurotransmitter plays in your overall well-being.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which means it communicates chemical messages between the cells in your brain or between the cells in your brain and other parts of your body. It's also a hormone that's produced in a two-step process. Neurons at the base of your brain convert the amino acid tyrosine into another amino acid, L-dopa. Enzymes then change L-dopa into dopamine.
Dopamine is part of your brain's reward system. It helps you feel pleasure. Many feel-good activities such as sex, shopping, and smelling cookies can release dopamine.
The dopamine rush you get from pleasurable activities motivates you to repeat those activities. It also plays a role in drug addiction, since drugs such as cocaine or heroin release dopamine. Dopamine is involved in many of your body's functions, including:
- Attention and learning
- Kidney function
- Heart rate
- Blood vessel function
- Pain processing
Low levels of dopamine
Low dopamine levels are linked to health issues like Parkinson's disease and depression. Low dopamine levels can also put you at a higher risk of developing addictions and taking risks. You can have low dopamine levels because of a disease, an injury to the part of your brain that produces dopamine, or damage to your dopamine receptors from drug abuse.
Symptoms of dopamine deficiency can include:
- Lack of motivation
- Inability to concentrate
- Inability to feel pleasure from activities you previously enjoyed
- Depression or hopelessness
- Low sex drive
- Trouble sleeping
- Tremors or problems with coordination
- Gastrointestinal problems such as constipation
There's no specific test to check for low levels of dopamine. Dopamine is just one neurotransmitter, and understanding how neurotransmitters work together and how your body processes them is a complex subject. While low levels of dopamine are linked to some conditions, they don't directly cause medical conditions.
There are many factors that can affect how your brain uses dopamine. If you believe you have a dopamine deficiency, talk to your healthcare provider. They'll work with you to find out what's causing your condition and the best way to treat it.
How to increase dopamine through diet
There are no foods that directly contain dopamine since it's produced in your brain. However, eating a diet rich in the essential acid l-tyrosine can help ensure your body has the building blocks it needs to produce dopamine. L-tyrosine is commonly found in foods that are high in protein. The following foods have been shown to increase your levels of l-tyrosine or dopamine:
- Animal products
- Fava beans
- Green leafy tea
- Green vegetables
- Lima beans
- Pumpkin and sesame seeds
- Soy products
- Wheat germ
- Olive oil
How to increase dopamine through lifestyle
You can also increase your dopamine levels by engaging in healthy, pleasurable activities. Some lifestyle changes you can make to increase your dopamine levels include:
Listening to music
Listening to your favorite music releases dopamine and sends pleasure signals to the rest of your body as well. The more you enjoy the music, the more dopamine it will release. Brain scans have shown that people who listen to pleasurable music release more dopamine than people who listened to neutral music.
Almost any form of fun exercise will increase your dopamine levels. You don't have to engage in strenuous, tedious exercise to reap the mood-boosting benefits of dopamine. Just get moving in a way that's fun and meaningful for you.
Getting some sunshine
You'll enjoy even more of the benefits of exercise if you move outside and take in the sunshine. Sunlight can increase the number of dopamine receptors you have, and it also boosts your vitamin D, which plays a role in dopamine production.
Crossing items off your to-do list
Achieving a goal, whether small or large, releases dopamine. The effect is stronger the bigger your goal, so don't be afraid to set the bar high. Breaking big goals down into smaller goals gives you a feeling of accomplishment at each step along the way.
Meditating and doing yoga
Studies have shown yoga and meditation can trigger the release of dopamine. In addition to raising dopamine levels, meditation has also been associated with promoting deep relaxation, increasing your ability to learn, increasing your creativity, and improving concentration and focus. You can get the same benefits by engaging in any meditative hobby. Any activity that puts you in "flow" can bring on a meditative brain state.
Engaging in a quest
New discoveries boost your dopamine levels. This makes sense when you consider that for thousands of years, our survival as a species depended on finding something, whether it was food, land, or other humans. You can recreate the joy of discovery by participating in hobbies that require you to make new discoveries.
Some types of quest-oriented hobbies include:
- Birdwatching (and keeping a life list of species you've spotted)
Laughter feels good because…
Supplements to increase dopamine
If you're deficient in any of the building blocks of dopamine synthesis, you may also be able to increase your dopamine levels through supplements. Some supplements that may increase your dopamine levels include: