How to Increase Dopamine Naturally (comprehensive guide)

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Last updated August 2, 2021.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.

Low dopamine levels can lead to a lack of motivation, fatigue, addictive behavior, mood swings, and memory loss. Learn how to increase dopamine naturally.

Dopamine is a major neurotransmitter that’s a key factor in motivation, productivity, and focus.

Dopamine helps give you your zest for life.

However, lifestyle habits, diet, and illness can deplete dopamine levels, leaving you lethargic and apathetic.

If this sounds like you, a low dopamine level may be the reason.

Consider these healthy, proven ways to increase dopamine naturally.

What Is Dopamine?

There are roughly 86 billion neurons in the average 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 is widespread in the animal kingdom, but the high levels in humans may be a part of what makes us unique.

It contributes to our high level of intelligence and allows us to form complex social interaction, use language, plan, and set goals. 

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, particularly the hippocampus (the brain’s “memory center”) and the amygdala (the “fear center”). 

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.

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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. 

Structurally, it is considered a monoamine, putting it in the same category as serotonin, another important mood-boosting neurotransmitter.

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 our “motivation molecule.”

It boosts drive, focus, and concentration.

It enables us to plan ahead and resist impulses so that we can achieve our goals.

It gives you that “I did it!” lift when you accomplish what you set out to do.

It gets 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 our pleasure-reward system.

It allows us to experience feelings of enjoyment, bliss, and even euphoria.

Too little dopamine can leave us unfocused, unmotivated, lethargic, and even depressed.

Dopamine is so critical to motivation that dopamine-deficient lab mice lack the motivation to eat.

Without dopamine, they will choose to starve even when food is readily available. 

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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:

  • apathy
  • engaging in self-destructive behaviors, especially addictions
  • fatigue
  • hopelessness
  • 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
  • procrastination
  • sleep problems

Dopamine deficiency is linked to numerous psychiatric disorders, including depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and addictions of all kinds. 

Causes of Low Dopamine

There are many underlying causes of dopamine deficiency.

Poor Nutrition

Too little protein in your diet can leave you with insufficient l-tyrosine, an amino acid that is the precursor to dopamine.

You may also be low in one or more of the cofactors needed to turn l-tyrosine into dopamine, such as vitamin B6, vitamin B9, copper, zinc, or iron

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Dopamine Depleting Supplements

Some natural supplements deplete dopamine and should be avoided when increasing dopamine is your goal: 

Underlying Health Conditions

A wide variety of health conditions are linked to low dopamine including: 

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 of dopamine antagonists:

  • tricyclic antidepressants
  • drugs for nausea and vomiting
  • antipsychotics

Recreational drugs — including alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy, amphetamines, and LSD — affect dopamine processing pathways, leading to a dopamine roller coaster ride, up then down. 

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Dopamine Downregulation

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

" 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.

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 may even totally shut down.

Chronic Adversity

Long-term exposure to extreme adversity can lower dopamine production. 

Examples of extreme adversity include poverty, grief, domestic violence, or social discrimination.

Low dopamine production can even be a lingering effect of a traumatic childhood, such as suffering abuse or living with an addict.

Electromagnetic Radiation

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, a dual-purpose stress hormone / neurotransmitter that helps you respond to stressful situations. 

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 that 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.

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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, PhD, is a former Wall Street trader and renowned authority on risk taking.

He reveals in his book The Hour Between Dog and Wolf that these natural activities can raise dopamine by 50-100% over baseline levels, but that drugs increase dopamine much, much more.

Nicotine increases dopamine 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 that can wreak havoc on your life.

11 Healthy Ways to Increase Dopamine Naturally

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

Not a lot of research has been done to find foods that contain dopamine, but those that do include apples, avocados, bananas, beans, eggplants, oranges, peas, plantains, spinach, and tomatoes. 

However, the dopamine consumed in food isn’t necessarily helpful since it 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.

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Here’s a list of foods and spices known to contain l-tyrosine or that increase dopamine via other mechanisms: 

  • animal products (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy)
  • apples
  • avocados
  • bananas
  • beans (legumes)
  • beets
  • chocolate
  • green leafy vegetables
  • nuts
  • oats
  • olive oil
  • oregano
  • peanuts
  • rosemary
  • sea vegetables
  • sesame and pumpkin seeds
  • soy products
  • turmeric
  • watermelon
  • wheat

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. 

Unlike dopamine, l-dopa can cross the protective blood-brain barrier, which is why it is the current standard treatment for Parkinson’s disease.

Foods high in natural probiotics such as yogurt, kefir, and raw sauerkraut may increase natural dopamine production.

Surprisingly, 50% of your dopamine is found in the intestines where it is synthesized by gut microbes. 

So far, there’s evidence that dopamine can be synthesized by gut microbes of the Bacillus, Escherichia, and Serratia genera and by the species Lactobacillus plantarum. 

The health of our intestinal flora impacts the production of dopamine.

An overabundance of bad bacteria leaves toxic byproducts called lipopolysaccharides which can destroy cells that make dopamine. 

Dopamine-Boosting Beverages

Billions of people around the world start their day with coffee, tea, or another caffeinated beverage.

Caffeine makes us feel more awake and alert, in part, by stimulating the release of dopamine and increasing the availability of dopamine receptors

But caffeine isn’t the only compound that increases dopamine.

L-theanine is an amino acid found uniquely in teas of all kinds, including black, white, oolong, and green tea. 

Unlike caffeine, l-theanine induces a state of relaxation.

It readily crosses the blood-brain barrier to increase brain levels of dopamine, serotonin, and GABA, the neurotransmitter of relaxation. 

If you don’t drink tea, you can take l-theanine 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

Sugar consumption has been found to boost dopamine, but this is a temporary, unhealthy effect that is more drug-like than food-like, and it ultimately contributes to deficiency. 

And don’t reach for artificial sweeteners instead.

Aspartame decreases brain levels of both dopamine and serotonin. 

Eating less food in general is helpful since food restriction increases the number of dopamine receptors. 

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

L-tyrosine is the first dopamine supplement to consider.

This amino acid is the precursor to dopamine.

Tyrosine is actively transported across the blood-brain barrier where it can ultimately be converted into dopamine

Here’s a simple diagram of the chain of events from start to finish:

diagram showing tyrosine to dopamine-norepinephrine pathway
How tyrosine is converted by the body into several key neurotransmitters. (Image courtesy of SaulMarcusND.com)

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

Mucuna Pruriens

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. 

This herb has been found to work even better than levodopa medications for Parkinson’s disease, which is characterized by low dopamine levels. 

Note: If you have Parkinson’s disease, talk to your doctor before taking a mucuna supplement.

Curcumin

Curcumin is the main active ingredient in the spice turmeric.

It readily crosses the blood-brain barrier to raise brain levels of dopamine

Curcumin has been found to be as effective for treating depression as the popular antidepressant Prozac. 

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%. 

Ginkgo Biloba

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. 

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. 

Essential Nutrients

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:

4. Boost Dopamine With Exercise

Physical exercise is one of the best things you can do for your brain.

Exercise boosts production of new brain cells, slows down brain cell aging, and improves the flow of nutrients to the brain.

It can also increase levels of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. 

John Ratey, MD, 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 receptors. 

In combination with natural painkilling endorphins, dopamine is responsible for “runner’s high.” 

But you don’t need to exercise strenuously to boost your brain in this way.

In fact, doing so may be counterproductive.

Related on Be Brain Fit —
How to Increase Endorphins Naturally

Researchers found that 30 minutes of running on a treadmill did not result in an increase in dopamine, but one of hour of yoga did. 

Taking walks, or doing gentle, no-impact exercises like yoga, tai chi, or qi gong all provide powerful mind-body benefits.

Simply standing up frequently during the day can counteract the dopamine-draining effects of prolonged sitting

If you can do your exercise outdoors, that’s even better.

Sunlight increases the number of dopamine receptors and creates vitamin D which activates the genes that release dopamine. 

5. Increase Dopamine With Meditation

The benefits of meditation have been confirmed in over 1,000 studies. 

Meditation builds a healthier, more resilient brain via various processes

  • balances brain chemicals, including dopamine

One study found that a regular meditation practice can increase dopamine levels by as much as 65%.

6. Enjoy Music to Get Dopamine Flowing

Enjoying music can stimulate the release of dopamine.

Brain scans show that the brain’s pleasure center lights up when listening to, creating, or playing music. 

Related on Be Brain Fit —
How Music Affects the Brain

You don’t even have to hear music to get this neurotransmitter flowing.

Simply the anticipation of listening to music can do that. 

Have you ever heard a piece of music that gives you chills?

That sensation is linked to a significant dopamine boost. 

7. Boost Dopamine With Touch and Social Connections

All kinds of pleasurable touch increase dopamine.

A therapeutic massage increases both dopamine and serotonin by 31% and 28%, respectively, while simultaneously reducing the stress hormone cortisol by 31%. 

Hugging initiates a cascade of beneficial brain chemicals, including dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin (the “love hormone”). 

Petting your dog can give both you and your pet a boost of dopamine and a slew of other feel-good brain chemicals. 

There’s evidence that tickling or having sex increases dopamine in lab animals, but this has yet to be proven in humans

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. 

8. The Role of Dopamine and Sleep

Getting adequate sleep is one of the most important things you can do for brain health and performance.

Research has found that dopamine plays a bigger role in sleep regulation than previously believed.

It controls the production of the sleep hormone melatonin

Lack of sleep may reduce the number of dopamine receptors

Even one night of sleep deprivation results in the downregulation of dopamine receptors. 

9. The Dopamine-Weight Loss Connection

There’s a strong link between obesity and dopamine dysfunction

People who are obese have fewer dopamine receptors than average. 

In fact, their brains’ relationship with food is much like that of a drug addict. 

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.

Besides helping you lose weight, this timed approach to eating can help maintain the health of dopamine receptors

10. Stimulate 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%. 

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 being 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 struggle just to survive.

They got a dopamine surge every time they spotted a new patch of berries or a better fishing spot because this meant survival.

While you can still forage and hunt for food, there are endless other healthy ways you can enjoy the quest while living a modern lifestyle.

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 quest-oriented hobbies like geocaching, genealogy, bird watching, treasure hunting, 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 dopamine surge.

And if you’re looking for a large dopamine boost, set a big audacious goal. 

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, do your own version of the victory dance!

How to Increase Dopamine Naturally: Take the Next Step

Dopamine is the “motivation molecule” that’s also in charge of our pleasure-reward system.

Adequate dopamine helps assure that we feel more alive, focused, productive, and motivated.

There are both healthy and unhealthy ways to increase dopamine.

Unhealthy ways can lead to self-destructive behaviors 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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