How does dopamine work?
Dopamine is what scientists call a neurotransmitter, which is essentially a chemical that travels through our brain and body and unlocks different functions by binding to specific receptors. It is produced in several parts of the brain in response to various pleasurable activities, like eating ice cream for the first time, and it’s what motivates us to seek out said activities (in our case, ice cream) in the future.
Contrary to popular belief, dopamine isn’t just a hormone that makes you happy and motivated, though, as it has many important functions throughout the body, such as controlling nausea and vomiting, as well as our perception of pain. Dopamine is also capable of regulating blood pressure and heart rate and supporting kidney function. This list goes on.
Still, the most well-recognized functions tied to dopamine is its ability to influence our cognition and mental health, as the hormone is linked to faculties ranging from focus, learning, reasoning, and planning, to motivation, enthusiasm, and interest. Both excessive and insufficient dopamine levels are bad, and the hormone is believed to play a role in such serious health conditions as addiction, ADHD, depression, Parkinson’s disease, and even psychosis.
Therefore, being mindful of the existence of this hormone and maximizing your ability to regulate dopamine with your everyday activities and choices is an important consideration. As Rashmi Mullur, an endocrinologist at UCLA Health Integrative Medicine Collaborative articulated in an interview, "We feel like our best selves when we have enough [dopamine],” and that’s just what we all want, don't we?
Listed below are 6 natural ways you can increase dopamine levels naturally for when you're feeling a bit down or emotionally drained.
1. A specific diet is key
We are what we eat, and the famous saying rings true when it comes to your mental health, too. What you eat can affect your dopamine levels, too. To keep your dopamine levels in check, consider eating more of these foods:
- Healthy fats. Low levels of omega-3 fats and polyunsaturated fatty acids (present in avocados, fish, seeds, nuts, and certain plant oil) are associated with problems with the brain's dopamine regulation. Similarly, a diet rich in saturated fats, such as present in butter, animal fat, palm oil, and coconut oil was found to disrupt dopamine signaling in the brain according to animal model studies.
- Protein. Dopamine is created from two specific kinds of amino acids called tyrosine and phenylalanine, which are present in protein-rich foods. Studies have shown that a protein-rich diet is capable of increasing dopamine levels in the brain, and conversely, a lack of the two amino acids in the diet can lead to dopamine depletion.
- Probiotics. According to recent research, the gut and the brain are closely connected, and the beneficial bacteria in the brain are known to benefit people suffering from mental issues, including depression. Moreover, there is some evidence suggesting that certain strains of gut bacteria are capable of producing dopamine on their own. Therefore, eating probiotic-rich foods, such as white yogurt, kefir, kimchi, pickles, and saeurkraut may benefit your mood and energy levels.
- Try velvet beans. These small black beans are a natural source of something called L-dopa, which is a precursor to dopamine. Research in Parkinson’s patients has shown that eating these beans can increase dopamine levels in the body and reduce the severity of Parkinson’s symptoms.
Related Article: 7 Mood-Boosting Foods
2. Listening to music
As we've mentioned previously, dopamine levels increase when we're engaged in pleasurable activities, so it makes perfect sense that listening to music is capable of stimulating the release of the neurotransmitter in the brain. This ability has been proven by several brain imaging studies.
One study even compared specific kinds of music, and it turned out that brain dopamine levels were increased by 9% in response to instrumental songs. The study also found a greater increase in songs that gave participants chills. Finally, music therapy is a popular approach for Parkinson's patients, and it has been found to improve their symptoms and even help restore some of the motor function.
3. Get a good night's sleep
Dopamine plays an important role in our sleep cycles, keeping us awake and ready for the day in the morning. Researchers have long noted that dopamine levels peak by the time we wake up in the morning, and then they gradually decrease throughout the day. When our sleep schedule is disrupted, these natural hormone cycles can likewise start working abnormally.
Research has shown, for example, that fewer dopamine receptors in the brain become available after you pull an all-nighter, which may make you feel less energized, attentive, and concentrated throughout the day. Therefore, it's crucial to get your 7-9 hours of high-quality sleep every night to ensure that your dopamine system works as it's supposed to.
4. Exercise regularly
You've likely heard that regular exercise is capable of boosting one's mood and make your body produce more endorphins. Well, researchers also believe that the mood-bosting effect is partly due to the increase in dopamine levels shortly after we finish exercising.
Although more research is needed to establish what kinds of exercises are the most beneficial for dopamine regulation, it is known that engaging in exercise several times a week has clear dopamine-boosting effects and improves activity levels in depression sufferers and motor functions in Parkinson's patients. If you need more specifics, we will add that one study found that 1 hour of yoga 6 times a week has consistently increased dopamine levels.
5. Try meditation
The reason why yoga is often highlighted as the best exercise for maintaining dopamine levels is, in part, because there is a known link between meditation and dopamine secretion. In one study, for example, experienced meditation practitioners had an average 64% peak in dopamine production just after 1 hour of meditating when compared to controls who were just resting quietly.
We also know that regular meditation helps reduce anxiety and stress and improves concentration, and dopamine may be responsible for these beneficial effects, too. If you'd like to start experiencing the benefits of meditation, consider reading our article Meditation For Beginners: How to Do Body Scan Meditation.
6. Some supplements can help
Certain nutrient deficiencies have been suggested to reduce the amount of dopamine our body can produce. Some of the vitamins and minerals necessary to produce dopamine are iron, niacin, vitamin B6, and folate. Note that there is no need to take these supplements necessarily, and the best way to check if you're deficient in any of them is blood work your doctor can order.
There is also anecdotal evidence or animal studies to support that some other supplements are capable of increasing dopamine levels. These supplements include:
- Vitamin D
- Oregano extract
- Green tea
- Ginkgo Biloba.
We hope you found this article helpful and interesting. Please note that none of these suggestions are gauged towards people with no major dopamine deficiencies. If you suspect or have been diagnosed with a condition associated with low dopamine levels, seek professional treatment.
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