Low dopamine levels can lead to a lack of motivation, fatigue, addictive behavior, mood swings, and memory loss. Learn how to increase dopamine naturally.
Table of Contents
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.
Happily, there are many ways you can increase dopamine naturally.
What Is Dopamine?
There are about 86 billion neurons in the human brain. (1)
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 is widespread in the animal kingdom, but our high levels may be responsible for what makes humans unique.
It contributes to our high level of intelligence and allows us to form complex social interaction, use language, to plan, and to set goals. (2)
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 just a few areas of the brain, including the hippocampus (the brain’s “memory center”) and the amygdala (the “fear center”). (3)
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 and does not freely move across the brain’s protective blood-brain barrier.
Dopamine Function and Structure
Neurotransmitters are often categorized by their function, either excitatory or inhibitory.
Inhibitory neurotransmitters decrease the likelihood that a nerve impulse will fire, whereas excitatory neurotransmitters increase the chances.
Dopamine is unusual in that it can be either excitatory or inhibitory depending on the type of receptors available. (4)
Structurally, it is considered a monoamine, putting it in the same category as serotonin, norepinephrine, and epinephrine — other major neurotransmitters.
What Does Dopamine Do?
Now that we’ve covered the background science, let’s take a look at how dopamine impacts daily life.
Dopamine is your “motivation molecule.”
It boosts your drive, focus, and concentration.
It enables you to plan ahead and resist impulses so that 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 the motivation to eat.
Alarmingly, without dopamine, they will choose to starve even when food is readily available. (5)
Dopamine Deficiency Symptoms
If you are low in dopamine, you’ll have little enthusiasm 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 common dopamine deficiency symptoms:
- engaging in self-destructive behaviors, especially addictions
- inability to complete tasks
- inability to concentrate
- inability to connect with others
- inability to feel pleasure
- lack of motivation
- low libido
- memory loss
- mood swings
- sleep problems
Causes of Low Dopamine
There are many underlying causes of dopamine deficiency.
Too little protein in your diet can leave you with an insufficient amount of l-tyrosine — an amino acid that is the precursor to dopamine.
The Wrong Supplements
- licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
- magnolia bark (Magnolia officinalis)
- noni fruit (Morinda citrifolia)
- white mulberry (Morus alba)
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Underlying Health Conditions
- bipolar disorder
- chronic inflammation
- excess copper
- genetic disorders
- hormone imbalance
- manganese toxicity
- mercury toxicity
- Parkinson’s disease
- substance abuse
- thyroid disorders
Prescription and Recreational Drugs
There’s an entire category of prescription drugs called dopamine antagonists that work by binding to dopamine receptors, thereby blocking dopamine activity.
Three main types of drugs fall into this category: tricyclic antidepressants, drugs for nausea and vomiting, and some antipsychotics. (20)
Recreational drugs — including alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy, amphetamines, and LSD — affect dopamine processing pathways, leading to a dopamine roller coaster ride, up and down. (21, 22, 23)
All potentially addictive substances and behaviors — including caffeine, sugar, recreational drugs, shopping, video games, cell phone use, online porn, gambling, pursuit of power, and thrill-seeking — flood the brain with unnaturally high levels of dopamine. (24, 25)
But dopamine receptors are relatively fragile and this bombardment can damage them or even stimulate them to death.
So to protect your dopamine receptors, a process known as downregulation occurs.
Dopamine receptors thus become less responsive or even totally shut down.
Long-term exposure to extreme adversity can dial down dopamine production. (26)
Examples of extreme adversity include having faced poverty, grief, domestic violence, or social discrimination.
Low dopamine production can even be a lingering effect of having endured a traumatic childhood, such as suffering abuse or living with an addict.
One of the most unexpected dopamine drains might be your phone.
There’s evidence that the electromagnetic radiation emitted from cell phones disrupts levels of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. (27)
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.
Sometimes the amount of dopamine hasn’t changed, but rather it is being better utilized.
Increased dopamine is the result of 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 use the phrase “increase dopamine” throughout this article as a convenient shortcut for this entire group of neurochemical changes.
Unhealthy Ways to Increase Dopamine
When you take an action that helps ensure your survival — such as eating, drinking, having sex, or making money — dopamine is released.
This ensures that you’ll continue to do what’s needed to survive (unlike the dopamine-deprived lab mice mentioned above).
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, nicotine, drugs, shopping, sex, video games, online porn, power, and gambling are all effective (but temporary) dopamine boosters.
11 Healthy Ways to Increase Dopamine Naturally
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.
1. Eat Dopamine-Boosting Foods
Little research has been done to find foods that contain dopamine, but those that do include apples, avocados, bananas, beans, eggplants, oranges, peas, plantains, and spinach. (28)
However, the dopamine consumed in food doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier.
If you want to elevate your dopamine level with food, you’ll need to take advantage of 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 that you’ve got the basic building blocks needed for dopamine synthesis.
- animal products (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy)
- beans (legumes)
- green leafy vegetables
- olive oil
- sea vegetables
- sesame and pumpkin seeds
- soy products
Fava beans, also called broad beans, are one of the few foods that contain l-dopa, an amino acid that’s a direct precursor to dopamine. (35)
Unlike dopamine, l-dopa can cross the protective blood-brain barrier, making it the current gold standard treatment for Parkinson’s disease.
Foods high in natural probiotics such as yogurt, kefir, and raw sauerkraut may increase natural dopamine production.
The health of your intestinal flora impacts your production of dopamine.
An overabundance of bad bacteria leaves toxic byproducts called lipopolysaccharides which can destroy cells that make dopamine. (42)
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Billions of people around the world start their day with coffee, tea, or another caffeinated beverage.
But caffeine isn’t the only compound that enhances dopamine.
Unlike caffeine, l-theanine induces a state of relaxation.
L-theanine is also available as a supplement.
2. Avoid Dopamine-Depleting Foods
To increase dopamine, there are some foods you should avoid.
Consuming large amounts of saturated fat, the kind found in animal fat and palm oil, decreases dopamine receptor sensitivity. (49)
And don’t reach for artificial sweeteners instead.
Aspartame decreases brain levels of both dopamine and serotonin, another important mood-boosting neurotransmitter. (52)
And eating less is helpful as food restriction increases the number of dopamine receptors. (53)
3. Take Dopamine-Enhancing Supplements
You can’t buy a dopamine pill per se, however, there are a number of natural supplements that work by various mechanisms to increase dopamine levels in the brain.
Some increase the actual amount of dopamine available, while others keep dopamine from being broken down too quickly.
Other supplements increase the number of dopamine receptors or help existing receptors work better.
Here’s a look at some of the best supplements for raising dopamine levels naturally:
L-tyrosine is the first dopamine supplement to consider.
This amino acid is the precursor to dopamine.
Here’s a simple diagram of the chain of events from start to finish:
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 amounts of dopamine.
Stress, exhaustion, and illness can increase your need for l-tyrosine.
An additional benefit of tyrosine is that it excels at increasing resilience to extreme stress. (56)
Mucuna pruriens is a tropical legume that contains l-dopa, the dopamine precursor.
Mucuna supplements are sold to enhance mood, memory, overall brain health, anti-aging, and libido. (57)
This herb has been found to work even better than levodopa medications for Parkinson’s disease, which is characterized by low dopamine levels. (58)
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Curcumin is the main active ingredient in the spice turmeric.
Curcumin has been found to be as effective for treating depression as the popular antidepressant Prozac. (61)
Curcumin is not readily absorbed on its own, so look for a curcumin supplement that contains piperine, a compound found in black pepper that increases curcumin absorption by an impressive 2,000%. (62)
Ginkgo biloba has been used for over 1,000 years to treat circulatory problems, asthma, vertigo, fatigue, tinnitus, and a variety of brain-related problems such as poor concentration, memory problems, headaches, mental confusion, depression, and anxiety. (63)
One of the ways ginkgo provides many of these benefits is by improving dopamine transmission in the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain responsible for language, thinking, decision making, and planning. (64, 65)
There are numerous other supplements that increase dopamine naturally, including SAM-e, bacopa, Arctic root, ginseng, kava, citicoline, phosphatidylserine, and resveratrol.
You can learn more about these and other dopamine supplements in the article directly above.
Finally, there are several core nutrients, i.e., vitamins, minerals, and essential fats, that are required for the synthesis of dopamine.
Make sure you are getting adequate amounts of these either from your diet or in the form of supplements:
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4. 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, serotonin, and norepinephrine, a dual-purpose stress hormone/neurotransmitter that helps you respond to stressful situations. (71)
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.
In combination with natural painkilling endorphins, dopamine is responsible for “runner’s high.” (72)
But you don’t need to exercise strenuously to boost your brain in this way.
In fact, doing so may be counterproductive.
Simply standing up frequently during the day can counteract the dopamine-reducing effects of prolonged sitting. (79)
If you can do your exercise outdoors, that’s even better.
5. Increase Dopamine with Meditation
The benefits of meditation have been proven in over 1,000 studies. (82)
- balances brain chemicals, including dopamine
- builds stronger neural connections
- calms brain inflammation
- enhances brain plasticity
- increases blood flow to the brain
- reduces stress hormones
One study found that a regular meditation practice can increase dopamine levels by as much as 65%! (88)
6. Enjoy Music to Get Dopamine Flowing
Listening to music can cause the release of dopamine.
Oddly, you don’t even have to hear music to get this neurotransmitter flowing.
Just the anticipation of listening to music can do that. (91)
Have you ever heard a piece of music that gives you the chills?
That sensation is linked to a significant dopamine boost. (92)
7. Boost Dopamine with Touch and Social Connections
All kinds of pleasurable touch increase dopamine.
A therapeutic massage increases dopamine by 31% while reducing the stress hormone cortisol by an equivalent amount. (93)
Hugging initiates a cascade of beneficial brain chemicals including dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. (94)
Stroking your dog can give both you and your pet a boost of dopamine and a slew of other feel-good brain chemicals. (95)
It’s not always possible to get a massage or appropriate to give a hug, but simply having positive social interactions with others increases dopamine — no physical contact required. (98)
8. The Role of Dopamine and Sleep
Getting adequate sleep is one of the most important things you can do for your brain health and fitness.
Research has found that dopamine plays a bigger role in sleep regulation than previously believed.
It controls the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. (99)
Lack of sleep may reduce the number of dopamine receptors. (100)
Even one night of sleep deprivation results in the downregulation of dopamine receptors. (101)
9. The Dopamine-Weight Loss Connection
There’s a strong link between obesity and dopamine dysfunction. (102)
Interestingly, people who are obese have fewer dopamine receptors than average. (103)
In fact, their brains’ relationship with food is much like that of a drug addict. (104)
Since dopamine is in charge of the brain’s pleasure center, obese people receive less pleasure and satisfaction from eating, compelling them to eat more.
If you struggle with your weight, consider intermittent fasting, a timed approach to eating.
10. Blast Out Dopamine with a Cold Shower
Take a cold shower.
If you’re not up for that, at least end your shower with a cold blast.
Taking a shower with 14°C/57°F water can increase dopamine substantially — up to 250%! (107)
Proponents of cold showers swear it boosts their mood and productivity all day, even more than drinking coffee.
11. Harness Your Brain’s Reward System
Dopamine functions as a survival mechanism by releasing energy when a great opportunity presents itself to you.
Dopamine rewards us when our needs are met.
We love dopamine surges because of the way they make us feel.
But 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 two healthy ways to regulate your dopamine level that work with your brain’s built-in reward system to improve, rather than ruin, your life.
Enjoy the quest
Our distant ancestors were engaged in 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 see another day.
While you can still pick berries and fish, there are endless other healthy ways you can enjoy the quest of living a 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 new goals.
Some dopamine is released whenever 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 little surge of dopamine.
Ideally, your goal should be hard because the more challenging your goal, the more accomplishment you’ll feel, and that translates into more dopamine.
Acknowledge and savor your victories every day for a daily dopamine boost.
And when you’ve met a really big goal, celebrate!
How to Increase Dopamine Naturally: Take the Next Step
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 can be gateways to self-destruction and addictions.
Healthy ways of increasing dopamine include eating the right foods, physical exercise, meditation, and using proper goal-setting techniques.
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