Perhaps you read our last article “All about dopamine blowout,” and you are wondering how you can maintain healthy dopamine levels. Well, then, this article is for you!
Here’s a quick review: Dopamine is a neurotransmitter often referred to as one of our “feel-good hormones.” We are living in the age of overindulgence and instant gratification in which our bodies and minds have learned to crave “dopamine hits”, or feelings of intense reward and pleasure. Issues arise when we engage in too many dopaminergic activities too frequently over time – we become less interested, oftentimes less motivated and find it harder to feel as happy doing the things we usually enjoy.
The good news?
The dopamine system can replenish itself! If we abstain or limit engagement of dopaminergic evoking behaviors and activities, our brains have the ability to actually increase dopamine receptors that are expressed in the brain and we can gain back the focus, attention, happiness, and motivation we may have lost.
What’s more? To maintain motivation over time, we must stop overlaying multiple sources of dopamine at the same time. For example, if you enjoy working out – and you always drink a pre-workout energy drink, workout with a friend, listen to music you enjoy, and text during your workout – this can for a while enhance your dopamine peaks but ultimately lead to a drop in baseline dopamine levels. It will stop working for you over time. The key to maintaining your dopamine levels is to have dopamine released on an intermittent schedule. We must not expect the highest peak of dopamine release every time we engage in a dopamine-releasing activity. Rather, we must try to not engage in experiences with too many layering sources of dopamine too frequently and/or aim to vary the amounts of dopamine released each time we do the pleasurable activity. You can create varied releases of dopamine by removing multiple sources of dopamine while engaging in activities that you used to enjoy or activities you want to continue to enjoy. Next time you are hitting the gym, try forgoing your coveted pre-workout energy drink or skip the stimulant prior to every study session.
How to maintain a healthy level of baseline dopamine:
1) Try a Dopamine Detox
- Remove the dopamine evoking activity or substance for 30 days – you may feel worse before you feel better but your mind and body will thank you!
- The first 2 weeks will be the hardest but if you make it to week 3 you will start to notice a shift, reap the benefits, and allow the body to return to homeostasis. Dopamine will start to be released for other simple pleasures and not just in response to the once habitual dopaminergic activity/substance.
- Cutting the addictive behavior entirely is easier at first and then after a month you can start to re-introduce it in moderation.
2) Try a Dopamine Taper
- If I have not convinced you to go “cold turkey” and stop doing your dopaminergic evoking activity, maybe try a dopamine taper – slowly take away the pleasurable activity or substance. For example, if you have been having a bar of chocolate every night try reducing it to ¾, then ½, then a ¼, and then nothing. Alternatively you may opt to replace the chocolate entirely with a healthier alternative such as low sugar berries (this would be the middle ground between going cold turkey and tapering).
- If you need help reducing overlapping sources of dopamine, try flipping a coin to decide if you will be having that pre-workout energy drink or that adderall prior to studying.
3) Go Back to Basics
Eat nutrient-dense foods
- Our gut is also known as our second brain and for good reason! Research has shown that irritation to the gastrointestinal tract has been linked with mood disorders and is known to trigger mood changes. This explains why up to 30-40% of patients with irritable bowel syndrome also have anxiety and depression. So be kind to your gut microbiome and eat well – remember you are feeding not only your gut but also your head.
- Eat tyrosine-rich foods such as meat, fish, eggs, nuts, and cheese. Since tyrosine is a building block of dopamine, eating more tyrosine-rich foods may help increase the body’s natural production of dopamine.
Engage in Movement
- Regular exercise and daily movement helps to boost our happy hormones and improves mood.
- Research indicates that as little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise can boost dopamine levels and lead positive changes in mood – so get moving!
- Weather permitting, try to exercise outside – this can also help to maintain healthy levels of dopamine naturally.
Socialize (while doing nothing else!)
- We are losing the value of true human connection in the age of texting while at dinner, answering work emails, and constantly looking back to see if the waiter is coming with our food. We are losing the art of real human connection and conversation.
- Next time you go out to dinner or brunch with friends, try putting your phone on silent mode and leave it in your bag/pocket. Better yet, maybe try leaving your phone at home!
- Be present with the people you are with – you will soon realize that you are more engaged in deeper conversation, form better relationships, and your food will arrive to the table before you know it!
Practice Stress Management
- Doing yoga 6 days a week for 1 hour significantly increased levels of baseline dopamine.
- A meditation practice done regularly has also shown to increase levels of dopamine in the brain, decrease stress levels, and increase stress resilience.
- Adaptogens to support adrenals: Adaptogens can help improve adrenal function and help to counteract the effects of daily stress. They are also known to improve stress resilience, support healthy energy levels, and improve mental/physical performance.
- L-tyrosine supplementation: Since L-tyrosine is a precursor to dopamine, supplementing with this amino acid may help to increase baseline levels of dopamine. Aim to take at least 500-1000mg of L-tyrosine to help increase focus and motivation.
- If you enjoy caffeine – good news for you! Drinking caffeine in the form of coffee or tea can not only increase baseline dopamine levels but also increase the availability of dopamine receptors in the brain. Just be cautious not to ingest your caffeine too late in the day as this could affect your sleep.