Low dopamine levels can lead to lack of motivation, fatigue, addictive behavior, mood swings and memory loss. Learn how to increase dopamine naturally.
What you’ll learn about increasing dopamine in this article:
- What dopamine is and why it’s so important
- The effect of dopamine on your brain and the symptoms of a dopamine deficiency
- Unhealthy ways to increase your dopamine level (though many of us do these!)
- How to increase dopamine with food, supplements and lifestyle changes
- How to harness your brain’s reward system to increase your level of dopamine
Dopamine is a major neurotransmitter that’s a key factor in motivation, productivity, and focus.
Dopamine provides your zest for life.
Unfortunately, lifestyle habits, diet, and illness can deplete dopamine levels, draining the joy out of life.
If you feel that you aren’t living your life to its fullest, a low dopamine level may be the reason.
Fortunately, there are many ways you can increase dopamine naturally.
What Is Dopamine?
There are about 86 billion neurons in the human brain.
They communicate with each other via brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.
Dopamine is one of the most extensively studied neurotransmitters because it is linked to so many aspects of human behavior including motivation, pleasure seeking, and addictions.
It plays important roles in attention, memory, mood, learning, sleep, movement, and anticipatory pleasure.
Dopamine dysfunction is the cause of a handful of diseases, most notably Parkinson’s disease which is caused by the death of dopamine-producing cells.
Relatively few neurons create dopamine and those that do are found in a just few areas of the brain.
Dopamine is also used by a few systems outside the central nervous system such as the kidneys, pancreas, and immune cells.
This dopamine is created locally since it does not freely move across the brain’s protective blood-brain barrier.
Dopamine is associated with traits that seem uniquely human, yet it is widespread in the animal kingdom and occurs in some plants.
What Does Dopamine Do?
Now let’s take a look at how dopamine impacts your daily life.
Dopamine is your “motivation molecule.”
It boosts your drive, focus, and concentration.
It enables you to plan ahead and resist impulses so you can achieve your goals.
It gives you that “I did it!” lift when you accomplish what you set out to do.
It gets your competitive juices flowing and provides the thrill of the chase in all aspects of life — business, sports, and love.
Additionally dopamine is in charge of your pleasure-reward system.
It allows you to experience feelings of enjoyment, bliss, and even euphoria.
Too little dopamine can leave you unfocused, unmotivated, lethargic, and even depressed.
Dopamine is so critical to motivation that dopamine-deficient lab mice lack motivation to eat.
Alarmingly, without dopamine, they will choose to starve even when food is readily available. (1)
Dopamine Deficiency Symptoms
If you are low in dopamine, you’ll have little joy for life.
You’ll be low on energy and motivation, and will often rely on caffeine, sugar, or other stimulants to get through the day.
Here’s a list of the most common dopamine deficiency symptoms: (2)
- lack of motivation
- inability to feel pleasure
- low libido
- inability to connect with others
- sleep problems
- mood swings
- memory loss
- inability to concentrate
- inability to complete tasks
- engaging in self-destructive behaviors, especially addictions
Causes of Low Dopamine
There are many underlying causes of dopamine deficiency.
The most common culprits include poor diet, nutritional deficiencies, addictions, obesity, thyroid disorders, and the use of dopamine antagonist drugs.
Related article —
Dopamine Deficiency, Depression and Mental Health
What “Increase Dopamine” Really Means
When we say that a food, supplement or activity increases dopamine, it sounds like more dopamine is being made.
This is often the case, but not always.
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Sometimes the amount of dopamine has not changed, but it’s being better utilized. (5)
What’s really going on could be one or more of the following:
- more dopamine is being made
- dopamine breakdown is slowing down
- more dopamine is being recirculated
- more dopamine receptors are being created
- existing dopamine receptors are working better
We will use the phrase “increase dopamine” as a convenient shortcut for this entire group of neurochemical changes.
Unhealthy Ways to Increase Dopamine
When we take an action that helps to ensure our survival — such as eating, drinking, having sex, or making money — dopamine is released.
This ensures that we’ll continue to do what’s needed to survive (unlike the dopamine-deprived lab mice).
Neuroscientist John Coates reveals in his national bestseller The Hour Between Dog and Wolf that these natural activities can raise dopamine by 50-100% over baseline levels, but drugs increase dopamine much, much more.
Nicotine increases it by 200%, cocaine 400%, and amphetamines a jaw-dropping 1,000%.
Few people realize that they are “self-medicating” to get a dopamine boost when they engage in potentially addictive and self-destructive behaviors.
The use and abuse of caffeine, alcohol, sugar, drugs, shopping, sex, video games, online porn, power, and gambling are all effective, but temporary, dopamine boosters.
Fortunately, you don’t have to resort to “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” to boost your dopamine levels.
There are many healthy, proven ways to increase dopamine naturally instead.
Related article —
How to Balance Norepinephrine Levels Naturally
Potatoes, tomatoes, avocados, broccoli, oranges, spinach, and Brussels sprouts contain some dopamine.
Bananas are a particularly rich source of dietary dopamine.
However, the dopamine consumed in food doesn’t cross the blood–brain barrier and so has no impact on your brain.
If you want to elevate your dopamine level with food, you’ll need to use a workaround.
Dopamine is made from the amino acid l-tyrosine which is commonly found in protein-rich foods.
Eating a diet high in l-tyrosine can help ensure you’ve got the basic building blocks needed for dopamine synthesis.
- all animal products
- fava beans
- green leafy vegetables
- green tea
- lima beans
- olive oil
- sea vegetables
- sesame and pumpkin seeds
- soy products
- wheat germ
Fava beans, also called broad beans, are one of the few foods that contain l-dopa, a direct precursor to dopamine that is used to treat Parkinson’s disease. (13)
Foods high in natural probiotics such as yogurt, kefir, and raw sauerkraut can also increase natural dopamine production.
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Surprisingly, the health of your intestinal flora impacts your production of neurotransmitters.
An overabundance of bad bacteria leaves toxic byproducts called lipopolysaccharides which destroy the brain cells that make dopamine. (14)
Dopamine-Depleting Foods to Avoid
If you want to increase dopamine, there are some foods you should avoid as well.
Eating a lot of saturated fat also decreases dopamine receptor sensitivity. (15)
Sugar has been found to boost dopamine, but this is a temporary, unhealthy boost that is more drug-like than food-like and ultimately contributes to deficiency. (16)
And don’t reach for artificial sweeteners instead.
Aspartame decreases brain levels of both dopamine and serotonin, another important mood-boosting neurotransmitter. (17)
Related article —
Balancing Neurotransmitters to Take Control of Your Life
It’s not always possible to raise dopamine levels with food alone.
Here’s a look at some of the best supplements that raise dopamine levels naturally.
L-tyrosine is the first dopamine supplement to consider.
This amino acid is the precursor to dopamine.
If you don’t get enough l-tyrosine in your diet, or your body doesn’t properly convert it, you won’t be able to synthesize adequate dopamine.
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Stress, exhaustion, and illness can increase your need for l-tyrosine as well.
Mucuna pruriens is a tropical legume that contains l-dopa, a dopamine precursor.
Mucuna pruriens supplements are sold to enhance mood, memory, overall brain health, anti-aging, and libido. (19)
This herb was found to work even better than levodopa medications for Parkinson’s, a disease characterized by low dopamine levels. (20)
Curcumin is the main active ingredient in the spice turmeric.
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Curcumin has been found to be as effective for treating depression as the popular antidepressant Prozac. (24)
Ginkgo biloba is traditionally used for a variety of brain-related problems such as poor concentration, memory problems, headaches, fatigue, mental confusion, depression, and anxiety. (26)
L-theanine is a unique compound found in green, black, and white teas.
It increases levels of dopamine as well as serotonin and the relaxing neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). (29)
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You can get a dopamine boost by either taking an l-theanine supplement or by drinking tea.
Green tea is a good choice if you are concerned about your caffeine intake since it contains a modest 25 mg of caffeine. (31)
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This is only a partial list.
You can learn about more dopamine supplements in the article below.
Related article —
Dopamine Supplements: Boost Your Mood (and more) Naturally
Increase Dopamine with a Healthy Lifestyle
Food and supplements aren’t the only healthy ways to increase dopamine.
There are plenty of healthy lifestyle activities that will also do the job.
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 along with both serotonin and norepinephrine, a dual-purpose stress hormone and neurotransmitter that helps you respond to stressful situations. (35)
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.
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But you don’t need to exercise strenuously to enhance your brain.
And if you can get your exercise outdoors, that’s even better.
Related article —
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Increase Dopamine with Meditation
The benefits of meditation have been proven in over 1,000 studies. (44)
Regular meditators experience an enhanced ability to learn, increased creativity, and deep relaxation.
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It’s been shown that meditation increases dopamine, improving focus and concentration. (45)
Creative hobbies of all kinds, including knitting, quilting, sewing, drawing, photography, woodworking, and home repair, bring the brain into a meditative state.
These activities increase dopamine, ward off depression, and protect against brain aging. (46)
Music Gets Dopamine Flowing
Listening to music can cause release of dopamine.
Brain scans show that the brain’s pleasure center lights up when listening to music similarly to when we eat, make love, or take drugs. (47)
Oddly, you don’t even have to hear music to get this neurotransmitter flowing.
Just the anticipation of listening can do that. (48)
Related article —
How Music Affects the Brain
Boost Dopamine with Touch
All kinds of pleasurable touch increase dopamine.
Stroking your dog can give both you and your pet a boost of dopamine and a slew of other feel-good brain chemicals. (51)
There’s evidence that having sex increases dopamine in lab rats. (52)
This has yet to be proven in humans.
The Role of Dopamine and Sleep
Research has found that dopamine plays a bigger role in sleep regulation than previously believed.
It controls the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. (53)
Research suggests that lack of sleep may reduce the number of dopamine receptors. (54)
The Dopamine-Weight Loss Connection
There’s a strong link between obesity and dopamine dysfunction. (55)
Interestingly, people who are obese have fewer dopamine receptors than average. (56)
In fact, their brains behave much like that of a drug addict. (57)
Thus, since dopamine is in charge of the brain’s pleasure center, obese people will receive less pleasure and satisfaction from eating, making them want to eat more.
If you struggle with your weight, you may be caught in a vicious cycle.
Utilizing the tips you’ve learned in this article can increase your dopamine and help you lose weight.
Blast Dopamine with a Cold Shower
If you’re game, take a cold shower or at least end your shower with a cold blast.
Taking a shower with 14C°/57F° water can increase dopamine substantially — up to 250%! (58)
Proponents of cold showers swear it boosts their mood and productivity all day, even more than drinking coffee.
Harness Your Brain’s Reward System to Increase 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 Habits Of A Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels, we are not designed to experience a non-stop dopamine buzz.
The constant hunt for your next dopamine boost can turn you into a “wolf on Wall Street,” driven by addictions, greed, and lust.
Here are some healthy ways to regulate your dopamine level that work with your brain’s built-in reward system — and improve, rather than ruin, your life.
Related article —
How to Counter the Effects of Too Much Dopamine
Enjoy the Quest
Our distant 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 spot 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 bargain travel package, 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, genealogy, bird watching, and collecting of all kinds.
These kinds of hobbies are ideal for keeping up dopamine levels since there is always something new to be discovered.
Each new discovery provides a dopamine boost.
Do the “Victory Dance” Every Day
You’ve watched football players slam the ball and do a victory dance after scoring a touchdown.
The thrill of victory feels sensational!
Why? Because it releases a flood of dopamine.
Unfortunately, those “touchdown moments” don’t happen often in everyday life.
But you can intentionally stimulate dopamine release by challenging yourself with a new goal.
Dopamine is released when you achieve a goal, large or small.
So, for example, if your big goal is to “get organized”, break it down into many small goals.
Each goal can be as simple as organizing your emails, cleaning a closet, or emptying your junk drawer.
Every time you cross one item off your to-do list, it should give you a nice spurt of dopamine.
Ideally, your goal should be hard — like quitting a bad habit or sticking with a budget to pay down your debt.
The harder your goal, the more accomplishment you’ll feel, and that translates into more dopamine.
Get a calendar, virtual or paper, and cross off each day that you’ve actively worked toward your goal.
This “don’t break the chain” concept is a proven way to rewire your brain.
Acknowledge and savor your victories every day for a daily dopamine boost.
And when you’ve met your big goal, break out the champagne.
Both champagne and dopamine will flow!
How to Increase Dopamine Naturally: The Bottom Line
Dopamine is the “motivation molecule” that’s also in charge of your pleasure-reward system.
Adequate dopamine assures you’ll feel more alive, focused, productive, and motivated.
There are both healthy 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, meditation, and using proper goal-setting techniques.