By Heather Ford
If you ask most people about dopamine, they will tell you that it’s the chemical in the brain that makes you feel good when good things happen. If the person you are asking has been diagnosed with ADHD, they might tell you it’s the chemical that they need more of to focus and get stuff done. If the person is recovering from addiction, they might tell you it’s the chemical system that was negatively impacted by the drug they were using. Dopamine is a critical neuromodulator, often referred to as a neurotransmitter, that is responsible for our perception of reward and our perception of pain or apathy as well as much more. Always striving for more dopamine, as drugs and our society drive us to do, is a sure way to ultimately get less of it and feel worse! So we need to understand how dopamine levels work so we can find the dopamine balance we need to live fulfilling, emotionally rich lives.
We all have a baseline level of dopamine-and we aren’t all the same when it comes to our levels. Whenever we experience something that stimulates dopamine release, a positive interaction, food, a drug, or an exciting experience, our level of dopamine spikes in relation to that stimulus. For example, chocolate increases dopamine by 1.5X your baseline levels, cocaine 2.5X, amphetamine (a compound in Adderall) 10X! However, after that spike, our levels fall BELOW the previous baseline!!!!! And the higher the spike, the lower the crash, which also leads to lower peaks that follow in the near future. So if we are repetitively engaging in activities or substances to try to get our dopamine to peak over and over, we are actually driving our dopamine levels in our brain down, which leads to emotional distress, low motivation and cognition, and lack of pleasure. So how do we avoid the dopamine depletion spiral?
Here are four healthy dopamine habits you can start today.
1-Get your dopamine building blocks-L tyrosine! If we don’t have diets that include healthy proteins-which contain the amino acids that dopamine is made out of, then we are going to have difficulties keeping our baseline levels from falling too low and experiencing peaks in dopamine. And we need to make sure our gut is healthy enough to breakdown and absorb those amino acids!! The two primary amino acids are L-phenylalanine and L-tyrosine. Diets including meats, preferably organic and humanly raised, like beef, chicken and tuna along with avocados, almonds, yogurt, and pumpkin seeds will be high in these amino acids. If you are vegetarian, tofu, peanuts, and cottage cheese can also be good sources.
2-Revamp your caffeine routine-Yerba Mate! Primarily caffeine indirectly impacts our dopamine system by upregulating dopamine receptors, the parts of cells that interact with dopamine to produce its effects. However, not all caffeine sources are created equal. Yerba mate, a tea native to South America, not only upregulates dopamine receptors but also has a protective effect on neurons in dopamine pathways. It is a wonderful source of antioxidants that reduce free radical stress in the body. It also increases leptin (the hormone that makes you feel full) and GLP-1 (a hormone being targeting by the latest weight loss and diabetes management drugs), which can both help with weight management!
3-Kick your burnout hustle culture expectations-Embrace boredom and quiet time (no smartphones)! Our brains are not supposed to be laser focused, perfect memory machines, and in constant euphoria mode all the time. And turning them off to sleep doesn’t work like flipping a light switch or turning off your computer. Our drive to meet social media, and conventional workplace, expectations lead to dopamine burnout as we try to push our memory, focus, concentration and arousal systems beyond what is healthy then think we can ‘binge de-stress’ on the weekends or vacation-which usually involves engaging in activities and/or drugs meant to keep pushing our dopamine to the max. This will just lead to dopamine depletion! So we need to learn to find balanced, daily self care routines and use substances, both prescription and recreational, in health promoting ways.
4-Embrace Getting Out of Your Dopamine Routine-Intermittent “Fasting”! This is actually how the social media algorithms and casino owners keep you on the hook for hours, days, weeks…We actually get more pleasure out of life when we don’t have -or try to create- a predictable pattern of dopamine peaking. Uncertainty around whether we are going to experiencing a reward and around the intensity of the rewarding feeling actually increases our sense of pleasure. So the more we try to control, plan and stack up rewarding activities combined with rewarding substances, the downward spiral of dopamine depletion progresses. So take breaks from your routine and intensity you are seeking. Try some intermittent dopamine fasting.
If you are looking to balance and optimize your body and mind, our nurse practitioners and therapists are looking forward to working with you. Give us a call!