Dopamine is Like Caffeine
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released from the pituitary gland. It acts like a hormone giving you a feeling of confidence, excitement, motivation and energy. When it is released you can feel pleasure, satisfaction and increased willpower. It is the chemical of reward and success. Dopamine depression comes with a significant amount of fatigue, apathy, inability to think clearly or feel enthusiastic about anything. For those who sleep excessively and feel a lack of self-confidence it may be due to lack of dopamine, not serotonin.
What Weakens Dopamine?
Chronic stress and a dysregulated cortisol response make it harder for the body to produce it. Low estrogen or thyroid hormone also weaken this neurotransmitter. In fact, hypothyroidism can look a lot like low dopamine. Tyrosine is the the precursor to both thyroid hormone and dopamine. This is an amino acid that I use a lot in clinic because it is safe and effective for those with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and depression.
Pleasure & Movement
Dopamine can help you access pleasure and euphoria. This means people can desire more of it leading to addiction. Levels in the brain and body are increased by thrill-seeking activities, caffeine, sugar, recreational drugs, gambling, sex, food and devices. If you require constant access to any of these you may have a dopamine deficiency. On a physical level, this neurotransmitter affects motor control and movement.
Replenish Your Dopamine
Recovering from deficiency in a natural way is possible. Here are six ways you train your self back into a state of balance. I always start with diet and lifestyle alongside any supplementation.
- Sleep, real rest & downtime: By real rest I mean time unplugged either meditating, reading or connecting with a loved one. Insomnia is a major contributor to dopamine deficiency. Your brain needs this time to restore dopamine levels.
- Tyrosine: I mentioned supplementing with tyrosine already. Start with 500mg in the morning. You can go up to 1500mg per day and split the dose into two if you experience afternoon crashes. Some people just need more and others need less. Take a day off every week.
- Foods rich in tyrosine and its precursor L-phenylalanine: turkey, chicken, wild game, walnuts, yogurt, and yes, dark chocolate! You can also supplement with l-phenylalanine if tyrosine didn’t help as much as you wanted.
- B-vitamins: especially B6 in the P5P form (pyridoxal phospate). This helps the hypothalamus and pituitary communicate effectively so that they are producing the right amount of dopamine.
- Strength training: Building muscle increases the human growth hormone and dopamine. Circuit training, resistance training and HITT (high intensity interval training) are smart ways to increase dopamine. Aim for about 40 minutes three or four times per week.
- Meditate: this simple practice whether it is 5 or 20 minutes a day cultivates well-being like nothing else. It is simple and intelligent.
Feeling Happy All Year
Chronic high stress and elevated levels of cortisol cause both dopamine and serotonin to drop. Each small step we take towards lowering stress ripples out. Notice how you feel after a short meditation or a half an hour of strength training. We can set off a cascade that allows us to feel more calm, connected and satisfied. We are less likely to shop, smoke, drink and overeat. Our physiology is able to function with more ease and we can experience more pleasure. Our thoughts don’t take over and send us into negative self-talk as easily.
The hormone testing I do now includes a dopamine assessment. This morning I was reviewing this test with a patient who has had more challenges than most beginning in childhood. Her dopamine response is excellent which didn’t surprise me. The resiliency and satisfaction that she experiences speak louder than any of her challenges. May we all experience this kind of pleasure.