"How to increase dopamine?"
I've heard that statement many times now, with good reason. No neurotransmitter - i.e. brain signaling substance - has been studied as much as dopamine.
You may think that I'd suggest a couple of dopamine pills or supplements and that you're golden.
But it's not that easy...
This almost 20,000-word blog post not only teaches you how to increase dopamine but also why. The "why" question is perhaps even more important than the "how" question.
So why would you increase your dopamine levels? Simple: you'll achieve more, have better abstract and outside the box thinking skills, become more visionary, motivated, and strategic, and will handle pressure better.
These qualities help massively in modern life.
Many people either have low dopamine levels, or a disregulated dopamine system in the brain (due to addiction, for example).
Some individuals have very high dopamine and can achieve a lot if they want to. So boosting dopamine sounds great, right?
Many great thinkers of the past actually had high dopamine levels.
Isaac Newton, Aristotle, Bill Gates, Nikola Tesla, Elon Musk, and Albert Einstein come to mind. Of course, no medical studies exist definitively linking their behavior to high dopamine levels.
But their behavior is "hyperdopaminergic" - i..e characteristic of having high dopamine levels.
You can move your level of thinking and motivation into that direction too. Dopamine does not necessarily lead to "happily ever after" though. The neurotransmitter has a dark side.
Excessive dopamine levels decrease empathy while increasing aggression. If you push dopamine even higher, hallucinations, an exaggerated perception of being able to control events, religious experiences, and delusions of grandeur can result.
Pushing dopamine levels too high can thus have side-effects. So instead of suggesting you pop a few pills, the reality is far more complex.
"What laws govern the universe and how can I use these laws to my advantage"
- a dopamine-driven question.
So let's consider the reason why you're reading this blog post in the first place:
This full blog post contains 12 lifestyle strategies to increase your dopamine levels naturally. I've also included the 10 most important nutrients, 20 supplements, and 8 prescription drugs for the same purpose.
That's a whopping 50 strategies in total. I'll consider 5 important strategies here:
View the table of contents below for 45+ other strategies. Again, I'll also explain previously treated strategies such as that of sunlight or coffee in far more detail.
Want to know a secret?
Dopamine is truly essential to what makes human beings human. You've got far higher dopamine levels than your primate ancestors that lived in the jungle.
The short version of the story of human evolution invovles that your human ancestors had:
I'll tell the exhilarating story of how humans became more dopaminergic in evolution in the full blog post...
If you don't like that explanation, skip to section 3 below, where I talk about the benefits of dopamine. Later sections tell you how to boost your levels with nutrients, lifestyle changes, supplements, and medication.
1. Introduction: Dopamine Effects And Function In The Human Body And Brain
2. Dopamine Development In (Human) Evolution And The Emergence Of The Human Mind
3. Benefits Of High Dopamine Levels - Motivation, Achievement, Cognition, And Creativity
HOW TO NATURALLY INCREASE YOUR DOPAMINE LEVELS:
4. How To Naturally Increase Your Dopamine Levels: Twelve Strategies.
5. The Ten Best Dopamine Foods And Nutrients
6. The Twenty Best Natural Dopamine Supplements
7. Dopamine Medication And Why You Should Generally Avoid It
THE 30,000-FOOT VIEW:
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*Post can contain affiliate links. Read my affiliate, medical, and privacy disclosure for more information.
Author: Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy (B), Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MS - Cum Laude), and Clinical Health Science (MS).
You're hearing those sayings everywhere: "boost your dopamine levels".
"High dopamine helps you think outside the box"
"Don't understand me? Your dopamine levels must be low"
"Get sunlight to boost dopamine. You'll feel great and crazy motivated"
And you know what?
There's truth to these statements...
Dopamine does affect your thinking. Dopamine does affect your mood. Dopamine does affect motivation...
In fact, dopamine is of fundamental importance in determining whether your brain works well or not.
But before I'll tell you how to increase your dopamine levels, I'll first want to explain why dopamine matters.
If you don't understand why you're raising your dopamine levels it becomes much harder to get good results.
So if you're simply taking dopamine-enhancing supplements you're making a big mistake - there's no way to correctly interpret outcomes. Why? You don't know what to expect and don't have an understanding of what's happening in your body.
You'll want to use natural dopamine boosters because they make your life better, not because you've read somewhere that taking a supplement is good.
An analogy to demonstrate why understanding is important?
Say you're saving $500 per month to buy a house. You're moving 500 bucks from your paycheck to your savings account every single month. Just save and wait until you can buy a house, right?
That's all - no second thoughts.
Nothing more to it...
You could almost certainly use that $500 much more efficiently if you'd knew about real estate prices in different geographical areas, how the national housing market is trending, and what other investment options bring you.
Maybe the stock market will give you 5% yearly returns on your investment compared to a mere 1% for a savings account. Renting until house prices come down, moreover, might save you 30% on the total price.
Having contextual information around the goal you're trying to accomplish thus helps.
Analogously, let's say you take pills to increase dopamine. But maybe you've already got high levels. In that case, you've just made your life, motivation, and thining ability worse.
So this blog post not only teaches you how to increase your dopamine levels naturally but also gives you the context to understand the process.
In this section as well as well as two subsequent ones I'll therefore consider:
So let's start with the obvious:
Dopamine is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter.[419-421] Hormones and neurotransmitters are signaling compounds that aim to affect cells into action (or inaction).
The hormone "testosterone" is circulating through the bloodstream and helps develop primary sex characteristics in men. Testicles are an example.
The neurotransmitter "GABA" makes you calm and relaxed. Adrenaline wakes you up.
And dopamine is essential for proper brain and bodily functioning. Without dopamine, you'll literally become mentally disabled.
But what's that neurotransmitter specifically good for?
Dopamine is extremely central to what makes humans "human".
In fact, what makes us typically human, such as having the ability for abstract thought and to plan for the future are typically dopaminergic qualities.[404; 405]
When I discussed dopamine before, I typically write that it helps motivation, assertiveness, and well-being.
That description is only part of the story though. Executive function may be even more important in relation to dopamine. Executive function is one effect that I've not highlighted in detail before:
Executive functions are higher-level thinking abilities. Executive functions include planning, focusing, and entertaining abstract ideas.[7; 8] Dopamine plays a major role in establishing these functions.[9; 10]
Executive function is a strongly human-specific trait.
You probably know that the human brain is truly special in terms of its ability.
And that's true.
So you may assume that grammar, art, symbol usage in mathematics, the written word, and ascribing intentions to others are typically human endeavors.
But in that case, you'd be wrong.
Well, bird songs exhibit grammar and primates can paint and do (simple) math.
In a sense, the human brain is thus less special than you'd think. None of the aforementioned qualities are typically human. except for using mathematical symbols.
What does make your human cognitive abilities special is that you're able to entertain abstractions of thought. Abstractions or ideas occur independently of sensory context (i.e. empirical circumstances).
Imagining the geometrical properties of a cylinder is an example of an abstraction. No bird or monkey has exhibited that quality (yet).
Only humans can run thought experiments separate from time and space in their minds. Dopamine grounds that process.
A mere 1% of brain cells are actually involved with dopamine functioning though. That 1% is very important, as it makes us quintessentially human. Small changes in brain development can thus have huge effects in your thinking ability, which the 1% demonstrates.
So let's consider how dopamine affects your brain:
Five different dopamine receptors exist: D1 - D5.[410-412] Of these 5 dopamine receptors, D1 and D2 are currently best studied.
Many of the drugs that people take for psychiatric disorders or Parkinson's disease influence these receptors. Lifestyle changes or supplements that influence dopamine utilize that same mechanism.
To understand how receptors work, imagine that when the dopamine neurotransmitter binds to a receptor, physiological effects occur.
Envision pushing a key on a keyboard. The dopamine receptor is analogous to the key. Dopamine is parallel to your hand. The end result of pushing a key is an output (a physiological effect).
Different dopamine receptors have different effects. The D1 receptor is responsible for the growth of new brain cells among others. D1 and D2 take part in motivational action and the reinforcement of behavior. D5 is more involved with emotion and memory.
No need to remember these receptors though, just remember they exist.
That dopamine is not equally distributed throughout that brain:
Depending on how you count, up to 10 dopaminergic pathways can be found in your brain. Pathways are a means by which brain areas can be affected or activated through the dopamine system.
I'll focus on three main pathways.
Two of these pathways are located around the "cortex". The cortex is located directly under your skull. The cortex has most recently developed in evolution, and built on top of older brain parts such as the midbrain.
The third pathway is located below that cortex, in about in the middle of your head.
The two main dopaminergic pathways that affect the cortex can be viewed in the picture below, and emerge from the lower blue dot. The lower blue dot has 1) a small direct connection to your cortex and; 2) a longer pathway that moves all the way through the brain areas directly under your skull.
I've stipulated these brain areas with golden lines below, and numbered them "1" and "2":
The 3rd pathway is called the "nigrostriatal dopaminergic pathway", and emerges from the second blue dot.
So what are the functions of these dopaminergic pathways? Simple:
The first two systems are part of the "meso-cortical" pathway. The word "meso" stands for "middle" in Greek, and "cortical" signifies the cortex. In plain English, the meso-cortical pathway thus connects the midbrain to the cortex.
The third pathway moves from the midbrain to the "basal ganglia". Those basal ganglia are found just below the cerebral cortex and are highly developed in many other mammals as well.
Contrary to the unique development of the (prefrontal) cortex in humans, the basal ganglia are not radically different in humans and primates.
Now that you know some basics regarding dopamine receptors and pathways, let's consider how the neurotransmitter dopamine is actually created:
Your body builds dopamine from specific amino acids called "tyrosine" and "phenylalanine".[23-25]
These amino acids are found in the highest quantities in meat - a topic I'll get back to. With depleted tyrosine or phenylalanine levels, your brain won't produce (sufficient) dopamine.
Additionally, tyrosine can be produced from phenylalanine - the latter is thus more important than the former. Without phenylalanine in the diet, dopamine is impossible to produce.[389; 390]
In that case, your thinking ability suffers.
Eating the right foods is not sufficient for getting high dopamine levels though. You'll also need high dopamine in relation to other neurotransmitters:
Serotonin and adrenaline are two neurotransmitters of great importance. Serotonin and adrenaline (i.e. epinephrine) are diametrically opposed to dopamine function.
The higher your adrenaline and serotonin levels therefore become, the less well dopamine (generally) functions. If you're chronically stressed with high adrenaline levels, your dopamine levels will thus be lower.
And while adrenaline is regularly considered a stress hormone, arguments exist that the same is true for serotonin as well.
High serotonin and adrenaline levels are not the only reason why you may have low dopamine levels though:
Dopamine is truly central to human brain performance. In a condition called "phenylketonuria", the neurotransmitter cannot be made at all. That absence leads to complete mental retardation.
Even brain damage, such as missing a prefrontal cortex or even an entire half of your brain does not create such an extreme loss in cognitive function if it happens early on in life.
You can thus miss parts of your brain but not dopamine as a neurotransmitter. That outcome demonstrates how massively important dopamine is to human life.
You may think: "great, help me create as much dopamine as possible"
In that case, you'd be mistaken...
Even though dopamine function creates wonderful benefits such as abstract thought, more is not always better:
High dopamine levels are like a kind of femme fatale - she'll eat you alive if you don't stay in control.
She's enticing but highly dangerous...
Or perhaps a dangerous macho man, if you're of the other gender...
Well, higher dopamine levels decrease empathy and increase aggression. Repetitive or compulsive movements, hyperactivity, and tics are other signs of excesses.
If you use drugs that heighten dopamine to unnatural levels, delusions of grandiosity or hallucinations result.
And if you'd equate hallucinations with dreams you'd be partially right. Hallucinations and dreams do have commonalities in that both are imaginative.
Hallucinations happen during the waking state, however, while dreams occur at night. Another difference is that the "choline" neurotransmitter is predominant in regulating dreams, while dopamine is more predominant in hallucinations.
Hallucinations, in a sense, is the maximization of abstract thought - you've completely lost touch with the world of sensory experience.
What's even more interesting is that both dreams and hallucinations are associated with religious experiences. Higher dopamine levels are correlated with spiritual belief, for example. It's mostly the imaginative dopaminergic system that's responsible there, not the logical part.
That outcome should not come as a surprise, as religious belief began roughly 80,000 years ago when human dopamine levels reached an apex.
Hallucinations caused by excess dopamine?
Excessive dopamine levels may also play a role in several conditions that are on the rise today, such as autism, ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia.[2-6] Of course, other reasons for these conditions exist as well, but dopamine is likely one of them.
The neurotransmitter additionally plays a major role in movement.[11-14] Conditions such as Parkinson's characterized by low dopamine levels are paired with movement problems, for example.[15; 16]
Excess dopamine, on the contrary, leads to restlessness and makes you more extraverted.
Excited to socialize after 3 cups of coffee? Dopamine is responsible.
All these instances show that more dopamine is not always better.
And it's not just excessive dopamine levels that are dangerous - the entire system can also get sabotaged:
Dopamine plays a huge rule in the reward system in the brain. That dopamine system of your brain can be hijacked in addiction, leading to all kinds of problematic behaviors.[413-415]
Gambling, drugs use, and eating more (junk) food than you need are examples of dopamine motivating you for actions you don't want to be motivated for. Other instances are gaming, watching too much porn, and seeking dangerous thrills.
Dopamine literally creates (irrational) "wants" when it's out of balance. You'll really want junk food, for instance, even though you hate yourself for eating the stuff.
The role of dopamine is so complex and deep that even personality is affected by the neurotransmitter:
Yes, really, dopamine levels affect your personality. A quick detour to help you understand why.
Do you know the "Big Five personality traits"? The Big Five are the gold standard for measuring personality in psychology.
And even if you're not aware of the "Big Five" you probably know the difference between "introversion" and "extraversion".
Introverted people gain energy by spending time by themselves, while extraverted people increase their energy by interacting with other people. Extraversion is one domain of the Big Five, so if you score low on extraversion then you're an introvert (like me).
Openness to experience is yet another dimension of the Big Five. That openness to experience is linked to dopamine levels.[416; 417] So let's explore that dimension.
If you're "closed to experience", you're more factually oriented on this particular world. About 75% of people on this planet are actually what is called "closed to experience". If you're closed to experience you're more prone to talk about your weekly social interactions, facts, and the new stuff you're going to buy.
In other words, you're naturally attuned with your senses and this world.
The remaining 25% have "high openness to experience". With high openness to experience, you're less focused on sensory experience and more interested in ideas. Higher openness to experience makes you more curious, creative and gives you a more active imagination.
With high openness to experience, you're more focused on concepts.
That difference in personality is a major source of miscommunication between people.
If you're closed to experience you'll likely describe your opposites as "dreamy" or "high-flown". If you're open to experience you're more likely to describe your opposites as "short-sighted" or "narrow-minded".
Fortunately, there's no right or wrong in terms of personality.
So yes, if you score high in openness to experience, you're less attuned to your senses. Now you're beginning to understand how openness of experience can be linked to dopamine.
Remember those hallucinations? High dopamine essentially means you're slightly hallucinating all the time because your brain is generating abstract thoughts out of nowhere.
Dopamine is nature's way of creating "controlled madness". The ventromedial dopaminergic pathway is particularly responsible for that effect. Remember that that pathway is intuition-based.
With high levels of dopamine in your lateral-prefrontal dopaminergic system, on the contrary, you may be more likely to be described as a "thinker" instead of a "feeler". You relate to the world through a third-person a-personal perspective, logical, while relating to feelings only secondarily.
I can relate to both.
And the story becomes even deeper...
Dopamine truly affects many parts of the human condition:
Even vision is affected by dopamine. Vision deviates to the clouds, above you, when you tend to think deeply.
That idea of dopamine being linked to the sky or heavens is exemplified in the "stargazer rat". The hyperdopaminergic stargazer rat's vision is fixated upward through extension of the neck muscles.
In humans too, are affected like that animal. I'll get back to this topic in the next section, especially in relation to symbolism. Hint: the dopaminergic vision towards the clouds is "other-worldly".
Dopamine does not just affect your brain though:
Many body parts are affected by dopamine. The neurotransmitter cannot exit the brain (due to a "blood-brain barrier") , and any dopamine found outside the brain is thus created locally.
Kidneys and heart health are affected by dopamine, for example.[385-388]
Blood pressure, salt stores, and fluid dynamics are regulated by dopamine in the kidneys for instance. In the cardiovascular system, the neurotransmitter also affects blood pressure through influencing heart function and stimulates blood flow.
Overall, dopamine thus has many purposes in the body and is first and foremost centrally important to brain function.
Now that you understand the basics of dopamine, let's consider how your ancestors wound up with very high dopamine levels compared to primates.
The main question is, in other words, how did the tons of dopamine get there, allowing your ancestors to develop abstract thought?
Stay tuned to find out why...
Dopaminergic systems are millions of years old but have developed explosively from your primate ancestors to modern humans. Chimpanzees and gorillas are examples of primates.
In this section, I'll consider that evolution and at the end of this section, I'll also trace dopamine functioning through recorded history. Understanding that past allows you to better manage your own dopamine levels because you then grasp the context of a problem.
Disclaimer: I've been extensively influenced by an extraordinary book that tackles the same subject:
While most of the argument in this and previous sections is my own, including all citation of sources, I have liberally borrowed ideas from that book. If you like reading this section, buy the work, as my (somewhat different) depiction does no justice to the depth of that academic treatment.
I also break with the author's theory at several points below, so you'll get a new viewpoint by reading that book.
So let's get started.
I'll begin the story of our human past with our primate ancestors and their transition into humans:
For millions of years, your primate ancestors had lived in the jungle. In that jungle, these ancestors mostly ate plant foods such as fruits and leaves. Chimpanzees and gorillas still do so today.
Around 4+ million years ago, some of these ancestors left that jungle. These ancestors slowly began evolving away from the primate model.
Where exactly the precursors to modern humans went isn't definitively known yet - coastlines and Savannah plains are major hypotheses. Those novel environments brought access to new foods, such as higher quantities of meat and shellfish.[17-22]
Initially, meat leftovers were scavenged from other predators.[27; 28] Over time, however, humans learned to hunt large animals themselves as well.
Woolly mammoths are an example of animals that were hunted by humans.[29; 30] In fact, mammoths eventually went extinct due to a combination of human overhunting and climate change.
These mammoths contained lots of fat and were therefore prime targets.
Recall that animal foods are important because they contain higher levels of specific amino acids. The "tyrosine" and "phenylalanine" amino acids specifically help build dopamine.
Plant foods alone are not perfect for building high dopamine levels.
Tubers may also have been consumed in small quantities, but probably mostly functioned as a "fallback food". Fallback foods are secondary or tertiary options when highly prized foods are unavailable.
Some modern-day hunter-gatherer societies still conceive of tubers that way today, while others focus more on plant foods. Fruits are also widely eaten by modern hunter-gatherers, when available, so I'm not implying an exclusive reliance on animal foods by any means.
One development a couple of million years ago is certain: animal foods began to be consumed in greater quantities.
Dietary animal foods were thus humanity's first move towards more dopamine development. Those moves didn't end there though...
Transitioning outside the jungle also exposed humans to more sunlight. Sunlight exposure is the second dopamine-increasing change.
Why does that matter?
Sunlight emits ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet light is the type of light that can give you sunburns. The skin is one main mechanisms by which sunlight exposure boosts dopamine.
The human skin contains (or can produce) lots of melanin. Melanin is a compound in your skin that protects you from excessive ultraviolet light exposure from the sun. Melanin is also dependent on the availability of dopamine.[422; 423]
Melanin captures ultraviolet light, and your blood does the same. The ultraviolet light thus penetrates your skin, entering your body. Through that mechanism, sunlight has many physiological effects such as increasing your energy levels.
Light exposure through the eye also has dopamine-boosting effects. Why does that statement matter?
Light penetration in the jungle is minute compared to that of plains or beaches. Trees and other plants block much of the sunlight from reaching your eyes and skin. Your human ancestors thus got exposed to exponentially more sunlight when leaving the trees.
A good place to get sunlight? Not so quick...
Sunglasses didn't exist back then - your eyes were thus necessarily exposed to much more ultraviolet light.
Your ancestors also lost their hair over time, further increasing their exposure to sunlight. Hair blocks sunlight from reaching your skin--the loss of hair thus has the opposite effect.
Early humans additionally began walking on two legs - called "bipedalism". Bipedalism frees up your hands, increasing your ability to use tools. If you walk on four legs such as a gorilla, tool use becomes very complicated.
Don't get me wrong though: today's primates use tools, so tool use by itself is not a purely human characteristic.[32-34] Complex tool use, however, is typically human.
What exactly caused bipedalism to occur in the first place is not known yet - explanations include better movement efficiency on plains, improved capacity to carry objects (such as killed animals), and lower heat losses (because the sun is perpendicular to the human body at the equator).[35; 36]
Other explanations exist as well.
The dietary changes and sunlight exposure set in a process that was not immediately finished. The choice to exit the jungle steered human evolution for millions of years.
Modern Homo sapiens, the species you're a part of, only emerged 200,000 years ago. Homo sapien's unique brain development finished soon after that.
So let's explore these humans:
Humans are unique because of their spectacular intelligence. Human intelligence has several characteristics:
Most of these brain development resulting in the most abstract modes of thinking only emerged ~100,000 years ago. The written word, as opposed to simpler symbol use, is uniquely human. Mathematics also emerged about 80,000 years ago.
Humans were thus not always as smart as they were today.
Several other human species, such as the Homo habilis and Homo erectus did not have the ability to use complex symbols or abstract thought. The former species lived up until 1,400,000 years ago, while the latter perished 700,000 years ago.
For almost millions of years after leaving the jungle, thinking ability of your ancestors was thus less complex than it is today.
From a human perspective, those 4 million years sounds like a long time. From an evolutionary perspective, however, 4 million years is a blink of an eye.
To place that number into context, life began a whopping 3.7 billion years ago. Humans have thus existed for 0.1% that life is present on earth.
How was that capacity for abstract thought achieved? increased dopamine levels, specifically through sunlight and animal food consumption.. The specialization of brain areas also did:
Hemispheres are "brain parts".
Every human has a left and a right hemisphere. Language, logical thinking, precise calculation, planning, and abstract thinking are typical left brain functions. The right brain focuses more on emotions and the concrete world, such as immediate visual and auditory stimuli.
The left hemisphere may be more predominated by dopamine as a neurotransmitter[41-43] Serotonin, on the contrary, is more active in the right part.
The left and right hemispheres are thus specialized. And although that specialization process had already started in primates, it has continued and culminated in humans.
Dopamine is uniquely predominant in the left brain hemisphere. And that left hemisphere is intrinsically related to uniquely human traits such as abstract thought.
That specialization of brain parts is called "brain lateralization". In the left hemisphere, that brain lateralization allowed dopamine to be pushed even higher.
Human brain development is specifically skewed towards the left prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex that's precisely the endpoint of the dopaminergic system, is much bigger in human beings compared to chimpanzees or gorillas.
The prefrontal cortex is the brain area involved with planning and abstract thought.
That outcome is no coincidence, as the left brain is also more dopaminergic. The fact that the number of brain cells (neurons) specifically those found in the prefrontal cortex are highly predictive of intelligence is supportive of that claim.
A loss of lateralization or predominance of the prefrontal cortex would thus be devastating to your human thinking ability.
So if you don't understand something and someone tells you that you're "low dopamine", they mean to tell you that a lack of dopamine has caused an impairment in your thinking ability. You're unable to see opportunities or the bigger picture.
Gorillas: specialized in muscular strength instead of brain development
Even more differences exist between humans and primates though:
A brain area called the "striatum", that's integral to dopamine function, is also different between humans and apes.[51; 52; 56] Humans simply have higher dopamine production in that brain area compared to chimpanzees and gorillas.
That brain region is responsible for aiding in decision making, motivation, and complex movement.
(For nerds: enzymes such as "DOPA (3,4-dihydroxyphenylalanine) decarboxylase" and "tyrosine hydroxylase" are responsible for that difference.)
Macaques, interestingly enough, also have that capacity, but great apes lost it. Humans later regained that dopamine boost over chimpanzees and gorillas.
Other neurotransmitters such as choline may have paradoxically less predominant in human brains. Human neurotransmitter evolution over millions of years is thus mostly dopaminergic.
And sure, human brain size grew enormously over that period as well. But brain size alone cannot explain the difference between primates and humans.
Humans have greater brain cell density compared to primates, a higher brain to body weight ratio (especially when corrected for body fat), and the aforementioned increase in lateralization.
Differences abound, even though human and primate brains look somewhat similar on first sight.
More brain cells in the same space equal an upgrade of your brain's "hardware". Your ancestors got that upgrade.
Brain size alone does not even predict intelligence in modern humans. Why? 40-50% size differences exist between equally intelligent humans.
Human brain size today is also smaller than it was 35,000 years ago. Around that time your ancestors reached their peak brain size. Size declined from there. One may still claim that intelligence went up over time, especially around the early 20th century, so brain size by itself is a dangerous metric.
Recall that Homo sapiens achieved their pinnacle of intelligence in Africa about 80,000 - 100,000 years ago. Only then was complex technology used, did religious rituals emerge, and art first appear. Mathematics was discovered around the same time.
By that time, language had already been part of the equation for 100,000 years.[57; 58]
That period of the emergence of complex culture is often called the "Big Bang". That Big Bang forever set apart our human species from all previous humans such as the Homo habilis and Homo erectus.
One theory is that shellfish consumption in South Africa drove the final expansion in human brain power.[424-426] One enclave of the Homo sapiens species went south from Ethiopia and returned north later on. After returning to their home of Ethiopia they started populating the rest of the world.
With the Ice Age ending 30,000 years ago, and big game such as giant deer or Mammoths neared extinction. Our fellow living human ancestors, Neanderthals, relied on such foods and may have eaten less fish as well.
Neanderthal survival came under pressure.
Homo sapiens were still able to hunt bigger and fatter animals due to their enormous brain development. That brain development allowed your ancestors to pick out the fattest of deer instead of going for a random kill.
Such kills would have an enormous advantage of providing calorie-rich foods. Predators normally hunt the weakest animal in a group as opposed to the healthiest, because the former is easier to kill.
Eventually, despite some interbreeding with modern humans, Neanderthals went extinct. Homo sapiens were the sole survivor - the world was ours.
All in all, several reasons can thus be found for higher dopamine levels developing in your Homo sapien ancestors:
You may now think the story is over, but nothing could be further from the truth. The story is just getting started...
With civilization, written history continues the story of dopamine's development in human brains:
Civilization did not end the upsurge in dopamine levels, but may paradoxically have increased its predominance, especially during the last few centuries.
Simple: even modern-day hunter-gatherer societies don't pursue distant rewards the way modern society does.
Distant rewards, such as an academic degree or building a company, are associated with (you guessed it) high dopamine levels.
How do I know?
Plenty of US billionaires get up at 5 AM in the morning to increase their status, sense of achievement, and yes: even money.
People living in hunter-gatherer societies don't have that mindset.
Primitive people rarely hoard anything in large quantities, whether it's food or materials possessions. So if you're fed well you'll relax, play, have sex, and wait for the next day to come. In general, hunter-gatherer societies are also more egalitarian than developed countries.
The skillsets in demand in hunter-gatherer societies and today's world are also different. Having good physical fitness, being able to communicate, and tool use are paradigmatic skill sets for hunter-gatherers.
Sure, modern hunter-gatherers have higher dopamine levels than primates, but they don't touch type A personalities living in modern cities.
Getting by in modern societies is becoming highly dependent on dopaminergic qualities, such as logic, outside the box thinking, imagination, strategy, and assertiveness.
Low paying jobs are low dopamine jobs today. Tool use is now a characteristic of the lower paying jobs, contrary to their place in hunter-gatherer societies.
Abstract thinking rules modern societies. You can get fabulously rich if you can predict the future with your dopaminergic brain. Just ask yourself, what unknown stocks will still rank high in 2 or 5 years time? If you're ballsy enough to have the answer and win, you can retire.
Such activities have little to do with the "here and now". Dopamine is thus strongly future oriented.
Even religion has gotten more dopaminergic influences over time.
The multitude of gods that were immanent (such as the God of the earth) in hunter-gatherer societies was replaced by one Transcendent God.
That God resides above us, visually - another dopaminergic gesture.
Religion became hierarchical and otherworldy in civilization as well. Remember that you lose touch of reality with dopaminergic hallucinations.
And only with civilization did the 1% came into existence. Don't get me wrong, I'm in favor of capitalism and against equality of outcome.
Wealth distributions in the modern world, however, are far greater than in hunger-gatherer societies. The developed world has socialism for the rich instead of free markets.
People are very driven for more status, money, and material possessions.
Genetics cannot explain why dopamine became so predominant as a neurotransmitter today. Genetics do not radically change over a few generations, and thus these changes need to be explained through environmental influences.
The gain in dominance of dopamine started with the first civilizations 9,000 BC. Over time, dopamine began to regulate the structure of society with the emergence of written laws, basic property rights, and inheritance.
All these instances emphasize continuous striving.
In the third century AD, statues of Roman Emperors no longer looked below onto their admirers, but started staring at the heavens instead. That change in art coincided with the transition from emperors being "the first among equals" (primus inter pares) to "God and Master" (deus et dominus).
That dopaminergic drive even affects the priorities of societies. Even though wars had also played a role in hunter-gatherer societies, the newly emerging empire's prime purpose became waging war and expanding territory.
So dopamine levels entered a period of self-reinforcement with the advent of civilization, whereby higher and higher levels were needed to get by.
That trend culminates in 21st-century society. Today, fewer and fewer people are living in the present moment than ever the case. Everyone is thinking of their next accomplishment, and people who are content with a basic existence are somewhat looked down upon.
I'm part of that movement as well, sometimes to my own detriment. So dopamine does have a dark side that needs to be controlled.
However, the neurotransmitter has an upside as well. If you can manage your dopamine levels appropriately you can accomplish a lot in this world.
The next step is thus to consider the benefits of having optimal dopamine levels. Dopamine is not all gloom and doom...
In this section, I'll consider all the benefits you'll receive when pushing your dopamine levels up.
I demonstrate why dopamine is so great for personal development and taking charge of your life.
Dopamine literally takes your thinking ability and health to the next level.
The next step in the human dopaminergic explorative drive?
Keep in mind that I've treated side-effects of a dopamine excess in a previous section. All of the described benefits can also be side-effects in certain circumstances.
The end result of boosting your dopamine?
High dopamine in action
You'll become more confident, a calculated risk taker, and improve your thinking ability. Who doesn't benefit from these qualities in modern society?
Want my top-10 laws for managing dopamine - including strategies not listed in this blog post? Sign up below:
In this section, I'll give you several means to increase your dopamine levels naturally. I hope you're already implementing most of these strategies.
For the best results, implementing more of the strategies listed below is better. Keep in mind that many of these strategies overlap with having a healthy lifestyle. So if you're pursuing a healthy lifestyle you're likely to have higher dopamine levels as well.
Without further ado:
By exiting the jungle, your human ancestors dramatically increased their daily sunlight exposure. The loss of hair on their skin exacerbated that process.
Sunlight, in part, drove that dopaminergic development of human beings.
Sure: higher levels of sunlight exposure are associated with greater dopamine D2 and D3 receptor availability. Increased receptor availability entails that dopamine pathways can be more easily recruited in your brain.
In animal studies, light exposure also increases "TH brain cells". These cells are responsible for increasing dopamine levels in the striatum. Recall that the striatum is located below the cerebral cortex, and responsible for goal-directed behavior and motivation.
How does sunlight achieve that effect?
Easy: ultraviolet light.
Let me explain:
You may know that ultraviolet light is one of the sunlight types that reach the earth's surface. Ultraviolet light gives you sunburns if you stay in the sun or under a tanning bed for too long.
Through skin exposure that ultraviolet light exposure releases several feel-good chemicals, but also affects dopamine levels.
In fact, dopamine is the mechanism by which some people get addicted to sunlight in the first place. Nature has thus programmed your body to get addicted that way, as long as you'll sensibly use the sun to feel good.[65; 66]
That specific dopaminergic mechanism also makes people flock outside once the sun is out in the spring and summertime.
Even disease risk, specifically disorders with excessive dopamine levels, are linked to sunlight exposure. Higher levels of mania occur in the summertime--as opposed to the depressive phase of the winter months.[452; 453]
Vitamin D also protects dopamine in the brain - and you traditionally needed sunlight for creating higher quantities of vitamin D in the past.[455-457] High-quality animal foods are reasonable vitamin D options too.
Avoid wearing sunglasses or sunscreen when exposing yourself, but also avoid getting sunburned also. Cover up once you've had enough sun. And read my blog on sunlight exposure for the full perspective.
Red light therapy is a great supplement if you haven't got enough sunlight in your life. Red light therapy is proven to increase dopamine levels in the brain.
Beware that nothing replaces the sun though. Red light therapy thus remains a "sunlight supplement" - never a replacement. It's always best to restructure your life over time so that you can get sunlight, as it's that important for health.
Let's now meet the second strategy:
The circadian rhythm is the ~24-hour day and night cycle found in all human beings. The light in your environment is key to regulating that rhythm.
Animal studies suggest that an inability to expose yourself to sufficient light in your environment lowers overall dopamine levels. Insufficient light exposure also throws off the circadian rhythm.
Break your rhythm and you'll break dopamine formation as well.
Dopamine itself, on the contrary, also influences that rhythm.[69; 73] The "central clock" in your body, the suprachiasmatic nucleus, is directly affected by dopamine. Boost your dopamine during the day and you'll thus tell your body it's daytime.
Light exposure through the eye is also central to programming that clock. The light signal entering your eye eventually affects the suprachiasmatic nucleus, telling your body it's daytime. Light exposure - specifically ultraviolet light - builds dopamine in the eye. If you don't build that dopamine with bright light, your circadian rhythm will be off.[69; 70]
Lenses and eyeglasses can give problems in that regard, so ditch them if you're standing in the morning sun.
Let's now consider the other part of the equation:
For the circadian rhythm to work properly, you additionally need darkness at night.
At nighttime, your melatonin levels need to be high. You need melatonin to sleep quickly, deeply, and to stay asleep. Melatonin is normally only produced after several hours of darkness. If you're exposed to artificial light at night, you're lowering your melatonin levels and cannot get the best quality sleep.
For the full perspective, read my guide on artificial light at night the blue-blocking glasses solution.
Melatonin levels also affect dopamine in animal studies.[63; 64]
The more your circadian is disrupted, the harder emotional regulation becomes.[68; 72] Several diseases are also associated with emotional dysregulation, including Parkinson's, also show problems in the dopamine system of the brain.
Thus: mind your circadian rhythm!
Over time, sleep deprivation lowers the receptor availability of dopamine in the brain - although some conflicting evidence exists.[77-79] The end result, in plain English, is lowered dopamine function.
Different receptors are influenced in different ways. Fortunately, short-term sleep deprivation is not yet detrimental. And even if you're consistently kept from the dream stage of sleep for four nights in a row, receptor function does not go down yet either.
In the long-run, however, that pattern is almost certainly reversed. Animal studies confirm that picture.[85; 86] The longer the sleep deprivation persists, the greater the risk to the dopamine system becomes.
The worse your sleep quality, the higher the risk for getting dopaminergic disorders also get. Sleep and dopamine function are thus related.
Activation of several dopamine receptors actually decreases both deep sleep and REM sleep (the period in which you're dreaming).[82; 83] Dopamine and sleepiness are thus inversely related. If you thus engage in high-dopamine activities such as thrill before bedtime, your sleep quality becomes poorer.
The flipside is that long term sleep deprivation at night destroys dopamine function during the day.
Want help improving your sleep? Read my 50 most remarkable sleep quality tips to take charge of your sleep quality tonight.
When your ancestors started living in the plains and around water instead of the jungle, they had to travel long distances. Remember that dopamine is not associated with nearby vision, but focuses on what lies further ahead instead.
Animals for hunting or scavenging could perhaps only be spotted 1,000 yards away. Looking for fruit in the tree next to you requires a different focus and visual pattern than hunting animals.
Modern goal achievement may be analogous to that process of seeking out "distant" prey. Dopamine does, in fact, regulate that function. "Reward" is the key phrase for understanding dopamine, or better yet: the "pursuit of reward".
Quick detour to explain that concept:
Three different brain processes are central to the act of achievement in the brain: "liking", "wanting", and "learning".[89; 90] Liking signifies the pleasure you gain from after completing a goal. Wanting is your drive to pursue a goal. Learning is the process by which you're more likely to pursue that goal again.
Dopamine is central to both wanting and learning.[92-97]
Of course, that learning process can become erratic. You can become addicted to junk food, for example, or drugs. In such cases, the wanting and learning processes have gone haywire.
By taking addictive substances you're basically learning your brain to release dopamine to want them in the future.
The wanting and learning process, however, can also be conditioned towards productive ends. Learning to love sunlight and healthy food are examples. Through a concept called "neuroplasticity", brain cells can be created or updated to reflect your new behavior.[98-101]
Achieve goals - the right goals - and your dopamine levels will increase. I'll thus get a dopamine hit when I click "publish" on this blog post, which makes me want to do it again in the future...
Risk-taking improves dopamine levels.
When you get older, you'll generally take fewer risks. Decreasing dopamine explains that change in risky behavior.
Thrill-seeking such as gambling has the opposite effect.[176; 177] For the best results, take calculated risks that are sustainable.
Start a business. Approach the man or woman you like. Invest money wisely.
You may think: "but goal achievement comes with stress"
You need to manage stress:
Stress is prone to decrease dopamine levels, especially early in life.[108; 109; 111; 113; 114]
With childhood trauma, for example, your dopaminergic system often takes a hit. The subcortical parts (below the cerebral cortex) - the places in which dopamine is created - are hit hardest.
The best way to build dopamine is to reach for goals that are challenging but not impossible. Expand your comfort zone.
Temporary stress even increases dopamine levels.[110; 112] It's extremely likely that only short-term stress has that effect, its disease-causing "cousin" called "chronic stress" has the opposite effect.[400; 401]
Higher testosterone levels are associated (and probably causative) of higher dopamine levels, and vise versa.[104-107] In fact, the two are scarily close related.
Unfortunately, most of the effect of testosterone on dopamine is currently only proven in animal studies.
Surprisingly, however, human studies do not see a decline in testosterone when dopamine is lowered. Higher testosterone is associated with increased dopaminergic behavior though.[117; 118]
A huge overlap between strategies that increase dopamine and strategies increasing testosterone exist as well. Sleeping better, getting some sunlight, achieving goals, all raise both testosterone and dopamine levels.
Additional science-backed strategies to increase testosterone are avoiding non-native electromagnetic fields (e.g. WiFi or "smart" meters) and consuming organic food. The latter instances have not been investigated in relation to dopamine yet.
And let's move to a strategy almost everyone likes:
Did you know male and female sexual behavior are associated with different neurotransmitters (brain signaling substances)?
The anticipation of getting a partner and the thrusting movement of males is associated with dopamine.[120; 121]
A rat study demonstrated that testosterone levels affect dopamine's stimulation of sexual behavior in males.
Interestingly enough, dopamine is more important in sexual function and desire than the eventual reward. Erectile dysfunction in men may be a result of having an inadequate dopamine response, for example.
Skip the (internet) porn.
During the last few years, more and more evidence has emerged that watching internet porn may be addictive.[122; 123] Critics who deny that porn is harmful, on the contrary, claim that porn use simply overlaps with sex addiction.
Animal studies demonstrate that traditional female receptivity, on the other hand, is guided by "epinephrine" - that behavior is actually decreased by higher dopamine levels. This strategy may thus be less applicable to females.
Solutions for both sexes exist though:
Massages, secondly, have similar effects.
Getting a massage increases both dopamine and serotonin while lowering stress hormones.
Keep in mind that physical contact, in general, has very positive effects on health. Only get physical contact with people you like of course...
Let's consider yet another exciting strategy:
This strategy is absolutely free too.
Meditation is most exciting for me, in part because it can both increase dopamine as well as helping you deal with curbing negative hyperdopaminergic consequences.
"Hyperdopaminergic consequences" - or "effects of high dopamine levels" include always thinking about your next achievement while never being present in the moment.
Mindfulness meditation specifically trains the skill of being present, mainly through conditioning the lateral prefrontal cortex (the more logical function). That brain area is trained in its capacity to focus on the here and now.
The "insula" is another affected brain area, active in self-awareness and the "story" you and me tell ourselves all day long. Phrased differently, the insula is responsible for self-talk, regardless whether that self-talk is positive or negative.
Through mindfulness meditation, you can (temporarily) learn to deactivate that self-talk, so that you'll be present.
Of course, many of the stories you and I tell ourselves such as "getting closer to achievement X" or "make sure I do Y" are dopaminergic in nature. Stopping that story for a second helps you detach from excessive dopaminergic thinking.
Meditation doesn't necessarily lower dopamine though. Yoga Nidra meditation, which is related to mindfulness as a technique, improves dopamine levels in the brain.[125; 126]
Other studies confirm that finding for mindfulness, while also showing an increase in prefrontal cortex activity.[128; 129] Of course, you already know that the prefrontal cortex activation and dopamine levels are interrelated.
Mindfulness may actually indirectly increase dopamine levels by enhancing sleep quality. The strategy works even if you're diseased or got sleep problems.[131-135]
Mindfulness thus allows your brain to re-charge so that it later performs better - it's thus a break from hyperdopaminergic thinking that boosts dopamine function in the long run. The biggest benefit is that you'll increase your conscious control of how dopamine influences your mindset.
The overall health benefits of mindfulness upon your brain are considerable. Mindfulness can help with many areas of cognition, such as maintaining white matter which help connect brain cells. Aging of your brain may also be slowed down.
Check my guide on mindfulness meditation if you'd like to learn more. Free and no sign up required.
Another meditation form, Transcendental Meditation, does not show an increase in dopaminergic levels. I teach roughly that same mediation style--which is aimed at achieving extremely deep levels of relaxation--in my Health Foundations Program.
Animals: mindful by their very nature, because their brains don't have the dopaminergic development to project into the future or ruminate about the past
Music is a highly pleasurable human experience. You're probably aware of the strong emotions music can evoke, and dopamine is central to that effect. The lower parts of your brain, not the cerebral cortex, are most responsible for that outcome.
Interestingly enough, music also stimulates the same brain areas as those involved with motor control. The link between music and movement (dance) is thus not coincidental.
Another brain signaling substance called serotonin increases in availability while listening to music. Serotonin tells your brain that "all is well", allowing you to zone out and relax. Even though serotonin generally counters dopamine function, in this case it does not.
Blood flow to the brain increases with music exposure. For that reason, music becomes a highly favorable tool for increasing (cognitive) performance. Many of these brain areas affected by music are intertwined with the dopaminergic system.
For the best results, you'll probably have to listen to music that you find pleasurable. Indications also exist that rhythmic music allows you to "let go" and follow the flow. That zoning-out effect is, again, mediated by dopaminergic brain centers.
The stimulation of cravings, however, can be a side effect there. You may relate to that effect: with good music in the background, you're more prone to grab a good glass of wine to enjoy the moment.
Let's now move to a more daring subject:
Cold exposure is one of the more creative dopamine boosting methods.
Cold baths increase dopamine levels by a whopping 250%. To be rewarded with that benefit you need to stay in 15 degree Celsius water (~60F) water for an hour though. With colder temperatures, the effect will occur sooner.
Cold exposure is one of my favorite ways to boost dopamine. In fact, I've written guides on cold thermogenesis and cold water immersion before. You'll learn how to use cold both effectively and safely in these guides.
Always start light with cold exposure. Cold showers are a great beginning - never commence with ice baths.
The downside of cold exposure is that epinephrine (adrenaline) levels also shoot up by more than 500%. Make sure not to overdo cold: chronic stress reduces dopaminergic activity.
The right intensity of cold exposure will keep building your energy levels and dopamine over time...
Bottom line: stress should be sporadic, never chronic.
What's also interesting is that directly increasing dopamine in animal studies decreases cold tolerance. The reason is that dopamine is generally associated with lower body temperatures. In other studies, dopamine function is correlated with cold tolerance again.
Time will teach the truth I guess...
(Most) dogs: not as afraid of cold water as humans are
Let's look at another reason why many people have sub-optimal dopamine levels today:
Gut health has a strong effect on your body's dopamine levels. Recall that dopamine is not just found in the brain, but also throughout the human body.
If you're taking antibiotics, for example, dopamine creation in the gut can suffer. Your immune system may take a hit as well.
And it's not just what goes through your mouth that affects gut function. The light in your environment - such as sunlight - is enormously important too.[147; 148] That link between circadian rhythms and gut health has only been established in the last few years.
Shocker: Improving gut health can improve dopamine functioning in turn.[149-151]
Probiotic supplements have been proven to increase dopamine levels, but in general, I'm not a fan of such supplements. Supplementing with probiotics should be one of your later resorts. Many positive effects of probiotic supplements have been established in animal studies though.[152; 153]
Nonetheless, it's better to start with minding your day and night cycles as a precursor for good gut health.
If you're staying up until 2 or 4 AM at night, your gut function will always be impaired. It's thus no coincidence that so many people have gut problems today.
The next step should be fixing your diet. If you're eating at Burger King three times a week, then there's no need to buy probiotics. Fix the low hanging fruits first.
Many compounds in food can alter gut function. Butyrate, for example, improves dopamine levels.[157-159] Butyrate is found in grass-fed butter. However, your gut should also be producing butyrate naturally when your body digests fiber.
Other foods contain other compounds that influence your gut.
Once again, diet trumps supplements. The relationship between diet and gut function is highly personal though -I cannot prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach.
Are you a couch potato? If so, you'll tank your dopamine levels. Standing or moving once in a while achieves the opposite effect, although the study to draw that conclusion has poor quality.
Exercise is studied in more detail, fortunately.
A very specific benefit of exercise is that it increases "neuroplasticity". Neuroplasticity signifies the brains' ability to adapt to change. Contrary to scientific belief before the 2000s, your brain is continually restructured even well into old age.
The dopamine system, which is traditionally tied to movement as well as abstract thinking potential, is indirectly trained through exercise. Part of the fatigue you experience after a training session may be caused by dopamine depletion.[161; 164; 165]
Fortunately, dopamine receptor function is upgraded over time through exercise. Receptor function enhancement means that you'll become more susceptible to dopamine increases.
Don't spend 5 days a week, 2 hours a day in the gym though--a couple of quick weekly workouts are more than sufficient.
The wanting and learning processes I've discussed before are also activated with exercise - through dopamine. In plain language, that means that engaging in exercise fuels dopamine function in the long run, and dopamine function increases your propensity to exercise in turn.
A virtuous circle is born...
The close tie between dopamine levels and exercise is no coincidence. Parkinson's disease, which is characterized by deterioration of the dopamine system, also results in enormous problems with intentional movement (reflexes are not inhibited).
Animal studies further demonstrate that engaging in movement anyway improves your health if you've got Parkinson's.[166-168] Animal studies also show that increased exercise capacity allows your brain to better use neuroplasticity to affect the dopamine system.[169-171]
In humans, exercise can reverse some of the damage to the dopamine system in the brain occur as a result of drug use. Lots of circumstantial evidence thus exists that exercise supports dopamine function - that result is also logical from an evolutionary standpoint.
Want even higher dopamine levels? Consider this strategy:
Evidence exists that if the second trimester or pregnancy occurs during the summertime so that you'll be born during fall, your dopamine levels may be permanently higher.
Epigenetic changes - the process of how your environment activates or deactivates certain genes - is responsible for that dynamic. What environmental factor? Simple: long light cycles and more sunlight exposure during the second trimester.
During evolution, most babies were probably born in spring, due to peaking human fertility in late summer. Remember that pregnancy lasts 9 months on average.
Today women are no longer getting pregnant on the basis of seasons but do so year-round. Circumstantial evidence exists that light exposure to the eye of the mother affects dopamine levels of her offspring.
Other influences around pregnancy can also affect dopamine (negatively) levels later in life, such as drug use, a troublesome birth in with low oxygen levels on the mother's part, and (heavy) immune responses in general.
With women entering the workforce since the 1970s and entering more high-dopamine jobs that require abstract and strategic thinking, offspring's dopamine levels may also have been influenced.
Specifically: high dopamine mothers may pass on that trait to their children.
Women holding more jobs that require the development of dopaminergic pathways have cemented that trait.
Overeating has been linked with lower dopamine functionality. If you're frequently eating junk food or fast food, your brain adapts and experiences less reward from that same food.
Read my blog post about food addiction which claims that junk food is a drug to understand why. Most junk and fast foods combine fat, sugar, protein, and artificial flavors to make them really rewarding to the human brain, driving addiction in the process.
How addictive food is depends on you as an individual.
Food restriction increases dopamine levels in the short term, which is a nice bonus.[176; 177] I do think that effect can be attributed to stress once again.
Also, make sure not to choose a crash diet with very few calories. My guide on resting metabolic rate helps there.
The vagal nerve, or nervus vagus, moves from your brain to your heart, lungs, and digestive system.
With relaxed breathing, your body can enter a more calm state. That process is mediated by the vagus nerve. Vagal tone can affect dopamine levels in turn, at least in animal studies.
Learn more about proper breathing in my Health Foundations Program.
Additional (unmentioned) strategies may exist as well.
Electroconvulsive therapy is one example that is controversial - which entails exposing yourself to electroshocks. The therapy is used to counter depression when other options have been exhausted, for example.
The therapy may increase dopamine levels, although I don't think the risk outweighs the benefits for most people.[397-399]
So now that I've considered all lifestyle strategies, let's move on to managing your nutrient intake to control your dopamine levels even further:
In this section, I'll consider natural dopamine foods--while in the next sections looks at the relationship between supplements, medication, and dopamine.
The list of compounds in foods listed below should give you a good indication of what foods are supportive of high dopamine function. You'll notice below that including foods that have high micro-nutrient (vitamin and mineral) content is most important.
So without further delay:
Many sources on the internet tell you to "cut out sugar" to increase dopamine levels. The opposite effect is true, in fact.
High sugar consumption is highly dopaminergic.[332-335] And sure, if you cut all sugar from your diet you may actually have withdrawal symptoms.
Contrary to popular opinion (once again), withdrawals are not always bad. If you stop getting good sunlight you'll also experience withdrawal symptoms for example. That presence of withdrawal symptoms is not a sign that sunlight is bad for you.
The same is true for cutting out most of your protein.
Please keep in mind that I'm not advocating for limitless white sugar consumption. I consider white sugar a terrible food that's unhealthy almost independent of context. The same is true for soda.
The reason for my opposition is the absence of vitamins and minerals in processed sugar.
(Organic) fruits, however, contain high levels of vitamins and minerals and are the preferred choice if you're going to consume sugar. Honey is a great source too and contains many beneficial compounds for health as well.
(I'll remain agnostic whether carbohydrates are a superior fuel source to fat, or not. Even if you're following a seasonal diet, you have to consume fruits late summer and early fall)
Iodine is a mineral that's essential for the functioning of your thyroid, a gland in front of your neck. Thyroid hormone, in turn, is essential for dopamine levels.
Remember the amino acid called "tyrosine"? With insufficient thyroid hormone, that amino acid cannot be converted into L-dopa. Tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) is the enzyme responsible for that conversion.
Food sources such as shellfish or sea vegetables are best for getting your iodine needs met. Supplementation with iodine is also an option but quickly leads to overdoses. I'm not convinced that very high doses of iodine are benign. Such high doses are often advocated on the internet.
Dopamine levels do become lower with an iodine deficiency, and the body attempts to compensate by upregulating the number of dopamine receptors.[336; 337] Unfortunately most of these conclusions are based on animal studies.
The few human studies confirm that pattern though.
When it's summer thyroid are generally the highest, which is reflected in increased dopaminergic functioning. Dopamine also has a negative feedback loop with high thyroid hormone levels.[339-342] That feedback loop entails that you cannot stimulate dopamine without limit by boosting thyroid hormone levels.
Thyroid levels are also higher in human beings than chimpanzees. That observation is interesting because humans have higher metabolisms. That higher metabolism is probably driven by higher thyroid hormones, which enhance dopamine levels in turn.
Higher thyroid hormones are like a furnace for fat burning and boosting dopamine. Iodine is co-responsible for that process.
Zinc frequently returns on this blog, and its role is somewhat underappreciated as a mineral.
In animal studies, optimal zinc status increases the excitability of dopaminergic brain cells. Several brain areas are affected. The end result is cognitive improvement such as enhanced memory function. Zinc also works as an antidepressant.
Moreover, zinc additionally counteracts drugs that negatively influence dopamine functioning.
A zinc deficiency forces more dopamine to be converted into adrenaline, which increases (perception of) stress. Sufficient zinc levels have the opposite effect.
Oysters are the best zinc-rich foods. Other kinds of seafood, organ meats, beef, lamb, eggs, and dairy come in second place.
Learn more about zinc in my free guide on the topic.
I've often talked about managing your iron status. The difficulty with iron is that it's stored in your body. Both storing too much iron (an iron overload) and too little iron (an iron deficiency anemia) are dangerous to your overall health.
And it's not just food that affects how much iron you store--sunlight exposure affects your iron status as well.
Shellfish and red meats are foods richest in iron. Plant foods contain a form of iron that's less well absorbed by the human body called "non-heme iron".
With iron deficiency, the receptor sites for dopamine function less well.
What's interesting is that iron is located in many dopaminergic regions, leading to the hypothesis that iron may have been (partially) necessary for the development of increased dopamine levels in Homo sapiens.
Primates don't have much highly absorbable iron in their diets. Meat and shellfish consumption can explain that increase in available iron for humans.
With an iron deficiency, the body even compensates to increase iron stores in the brain while other parts of the body are depleted.[348; 349] Low iron levels may literally be responsible for the degeneration of dopamine-associated brain cells.[350; 351]
Well, iron is required in the process of producing dopamine.[352; 353; 357] Without sufficient iron, both your behavior and emotional regulation will be impaired.[355; 356] Recall that your brain or movement cannot function without dopamine, so low iron levels are very dangerous.
Keep in mind that too much iron is just as dangerous as low iron status though. Read my guide about iron if you'd like to learn more about the mineral.
Caveat: Unfortunately, most (but not all) of the effects described above are only demonstrated in animal studies.
Selenium increases dopamine function.[358; 359] Selenium also protects brain areas associated with dopamine function - specifically the sub-cortical regions.
Excessive selenium intake is dangerous and causes an excess in dopamine if the mother was exposed during pregnancy. Only the right dosage has positive effects.
(These conclusions are based on animal studies, once again.)
How to get selenium?
Brazil nuts (depending on the variety) are also a great selenium source. Mushrooms, (organ) meat, cheese, and eggs are other great sources.
Shellfish are even better...
I hope you're beginning to see a pattern here: all four previous minerals can be found in high quantities in shellfish and crustaceans (e.g. lobster, crab):
Shellfish are extremely good iodine, zinc, iron, and selenium sources.
Remember I talked about shellfish in relation to human development in an earlier section? Now you know why.
Let's consider even more minerals:
As many as 80% of people in modern societies are slightly magnesium deficient, while 40-60% have a severe deficiency.
That statistic is tragic because magnesium is required for almost 1,000 processes in the human body. The cure is also cheap, adding insult to injury.
Brain cells related to dopamine function, moreover, are sensitized by magnesium. Existing dopamine will thus do a better job with adequate magnesium status.
Magnesium also counteracts losses of dopamine functioning if you've got Parkinson's - a condition associated with dopamine dysfunction.
Most people shouldn't rely on getting their magnesium through food though. Farming soils are depleted of magnesium so that many people are magnesium deficient if they're not supplementing. Read my guide on magnesium to learn more.
Same story. Calcium is a hard prerequisite for dopamine formation and its release.[366; 367] All dopamine signaling is, in fact, dependent on calcium.
Dopamine stored in the synapses can thus not even be used without the mineral. Synapses are the connections between nervous system cells.
How to get calcium then?
While milk is the best calcium source in existence, bone meal is a useful second if you're lactose intolerant. Calculate your calcium intake to make sure you're getting enough. Bones from fish are also great.
While counter-intuitive, bone broth is not a great calcium source.
Both plant and animal foods contain proteins. Proteins are built up with "amino acids". Only animal products contain high quantities of specific amino acids such as "tyrosine" and "phenylalanine", however.
Phenylalanine not only increases the amount of dopamine that's created but also allows that dopamine to stay active for longer (for nerds: by preventing re-uptake)
Studies show that without sufficient levels of these aforementioned amino acids the light in your environment (such as sunlight) cannot adequately increase your dopamine levels. The energy of the sun may thus not be usable by your body without the right foods.
Animal foods such as fish, meats, eggs, and cheese are great phenylalanine sources. Soy and seeds are plant phenylalanine sources. I do not recommend eating soy though.
Soy, beans, and seeds (such as pumpkin) are also great tyrosine sources, even though animal foods are superior in general.
And while some plant foods such as beans and seeds contain higher levels of tyrosine, their numbers are still 5-fold lower than the best animal foods such as beef.
Higher stress levels can increase tyrosine demand. Stress and low dopamine can thus enter a vicious cycle: more stress requires more tyrosine, but when unavailable dopamine is lowered, which makes you less able to cope with stress.
The end result is even more stress...
Note: tyrosine can be made from phenylalanine, but not the other way around. Phenylalanine is thus more essential to get from dietary sources.
Taurine is yet another amino acid found in animal foods, and directly increases dopamine function.[369; 370] Animal foods are (once again) the best taurine source.
Want an even greater boost?
Glycine, yet another amino acid, is only found in great quantities in bone broth, gelatin, and collagen. These foods are made from the connective tissue of animals - eating muscle meats won't confer their unique benefits upon you.
Make sure to include at least 1 tablespoon of collagen or gelatin in your diet every day, or a few cups of bone broth. Also, read my guide on that specific topic.
Bottom line: include animal foods in your diet. Without animal foods, you won't get the right amino acids for dopamine creation.
Three B vitamins...
Let's start with vitamin B6, or "pyridoxal phosphate".
Even during pregnancy, vitamin B6 is necessary for normal brain development, and specifically the dopamine system. The more dopamine you have, the higher your vitamin B6 requirements become.
High vitamin B6 are preconditional for creating dopamine. Why? Well, the L-dopa compound is converted into dopamine through vitamin B6.[392; 393]
Food processing depletes vitamin B6. The more you heat foods, the more vitamin B6 is lost. A combination of plant and animal foods is your best bet to get this vitamin.
Vitamin B9 - also known as "folate"
Most people know that vitamin B9 is necessary for proper nervous system development. You may not know that several neurotransmitters are directly dependent on the vitamin for their creation.[373; 375]
An amino acid called "homocysteine", has negative health consequences when it floats around in your bloodstream. Homocysteine is a byproduct of dietary protein breakdown.
Homocysteine also damages brain cells associated with dopamine. You'll thus want to keep homocysteine levels low.
Vitamin B9 recycles homocysteine in a less damaging amino acid called "methionine".
Green vegetables, beans, seeds, nuts, orange, and papaya are great vitamin B9 sources.
Organ meats are a great option too. If you're on a carnivore diet, you need to consume organ meats once in a while.
Lastly, there's vitamin B12.
Contrary to the previous B vitamins, B12 is only found in animal food sources. A vitamin B12 deficiency leads to lower dopamine levels in animal studies.
In childhood, B12 deficiency also leads to an inhibition of "myelination". Myelin is a sheet around nerves that allow for faster conductivity. Myelination is also a process that's highly evolved in human beings.
That loss of myelination negatively affects dopamine function in turn.
A deficiency in all of the aforementioned vitamins increases Parkinson's disease risk. The link between B vitamins and dopamine function is thus not coincidental.
Choline is often considered yet another B-vitamin - B8 to be exact. That choline is also responsible for the "acetylcholine" system in your brain which I've mentioned before. Acetylcholine is related to the "choline" neurotransmitter.
Very high choline levels actually inhibit dopamine synthesis, but optimal levels achieve the opposite effect.
Highly absorbable choline increases dopamine levels in the striatum, for example, an area found below the cortex.[379; 380]
Liver and eggs are the best choline sources in existence. So be inspired by one of nature's own multivitamins and multi-minerals:
In general, I don't recommend supplementing with choline, as it's easy to get the nutrient from food.
If you're not eating eggs or weekly liver, then high-quality choline supplements such as citicoline and alpha GPC can boost your intake. Huperzine A is another choline supplement proven to have the same effect.
Most people consume too few omega-3 fatty acids. The reason for that limited consumption is that most modern junk and fast foods contain lots of omega 6.
Seed and vegetable oils contain exceptionally high levels of omega 6. Those oils are often added to processed foods. Through that mechanism processed foods end up with a 1:10 to 1:20 ratio of omega 3 : omega 6.
Your ancestors consumed fats in a 1:2 to 1:4 ratio.
An unsaturated fatty acid called "DHA" - found in fish - almost certainly supports dopamine function as well.[459-462] Again, the result is only supported by animal studies, although very consistent.
Excess saturated fat intake is associated with lower dopamine levels, on the contrary. That conclusion is (indirectly) countered by other studies.[383; 384]
Takeaway? Cut vegetable oils and junk food from your diet, eat whole healthy foods, and the ratio between omega 3 and 6 should automatically correct itself.
Result of this section: animal proteins, especially shellfish and organ meats are important to consume for dopamine function. Healthy fats and a wide array of plants further that outcome.
In this section I'll consider natural dopamine supplements--while in the next section I'll look at the relationship between medication and dopamine.
I only recommend using supplements to push your dopamine levels higher once you've exhausted most of the lifestyle and food strategies described in previous sections.
Why? In general, if your dopamine system doesn't work properly, there's usually a lifestyle choice causing that defect. Unfortunately, you cannot out supplement poor lifestyle choices.
Note: some of my descriptions below have also been oversimplified.
In animal studies, for example, dopamine-enhancing effects are often measured in different brain areas, such as the hypothalamus, basal ganglia, or the cortex. I've not distinguished between such brain areas in my explanations below.
So without further delay:
Coffee is the ultimate dopamine shortcut but also one of the most dangerous ones. One specific compound in coffee, caffeine, is best studied for its dopaminergic effects.
Caffeine specifically increases dopamine levels, but at a cost of also increasing your cortisol and adrenaline as well. Recall that cortisol and adrenaline are stress hormones.
Consuming calories with your coffee decrease the number of stress hormones released and often leads to much better results.
Dopamine receptors, where the neurotransmitter can bind, also become more available through caffeine.[179; 182] The available dopamine works better that way.
By consuming caffeine, moreover, you'll lower the uptake of "adenosine" in your brain.[179; 181] Adenosine is a compound that makes you tired, and preventing its reuptake thus increases your energy levels.
Adenosine nonetheless also counters dopamine function. Dopamine may thus affect wakefulness through its (negative) interaction with adenosine.
(As a side note, quercetin, a compound found in onions, can also counter adenosine levels, and therefore boost dopamine.).[393; 394]
Coffee is not a free lunch that only gives benefits though. Blood flow in the brain may be reduced with caffeine consumption. Some people also experience poor sleep with coffee.
The simple rule is that coffee is not for everyone. Some people do fantastic on coffee, even later in the day, because they metabolize the substance quickly. In that case, the drink won't affect your sleep.
Lots of people are addicted to coffee though - and the stuff is addictive. Merely expecting your next cup of coffee already induces a dopamine surge.
Additionally, I do think the quality of coffee matters a lot. While studies are less clear about the subject (unlike what Bulletproof proponents claim), low quality coffee dramatically lowers my brain's performance.
I do thus think that Bulletproof has a point in their advocacy for high-quality coffee.
Many people need to cycle their caffeine, and some need to avoid caffeine for the best health results. I fall in the latter category, although coffee remains a guilty pleasure sometimes.
The only way to know for sure how you react to coffee is to test. Skip the coffee for 6 weeks and observe how you feel and sleep. Cycle back and forth a couple of 6-week periods to know for sure.
Time-consuming? Yes. Life changing? Possibly! Alternatively, get your genes tested and you'll know how you react to coffee.
Get some high-quality Bulletproof coffee here. I don't like all Bulletproof's health recommendations, but their coffee is great.
Irresistible? I hope not...
Believe it or not: curcumin has antidepressant effects and positively affects both dopamine and serotonin.[183; 184]
In conditions in which the dopamine system is dysregulated in the brain, such as Parkinson's, curcumin is also protective.[184; 185]
Curcumin may be especially useful with aging, as increased iron stores in the brain can wreak havoc on dopamine function. Curcumin may prevent that storage. Unfortunately, that effect has only been demonstrated in animal studies (once again).
You can either include curcumin in your diet or buy a curcumin extract. I take curcumin through a spice shot in the morning, which includes a tablespoon of turmeric powder and black pepper (for enhanced absorption). I buy turmeric powder in bulk.
Finally, the king. Mucuna pruriens is also called "velvet bean".
Mucuna may be the ultimate dopamine booster. The reason is that mucuna contains the dopamine precursor L-dopa. Normally amino acids such as tyrosine and phenylalanine need to be converted before L-dopa is formed, but mucuna contains the compound naturally.
Through that mechanism, the plant has antidepressive properties. Unsurprisingly, the compound also improves male fertility and increases lust - you should know why by now.
Additionally, mucuna is useful in Parkinson's.[188-190] Even more interesting is that mucuna restores the body's own dopamine creation--although only proven in rats.
Mucuna also counters serotonin, and can thus be dangerous if you're naturally hyperdopaminergic. I still need to test this compound, but I'm pretty sure I'll get anxious, unfocused, and restless from it.
Supplements containing some mucuna, such as Qualia, have that effect on me (even without the caffeine).
If you're naturally carefree and laid back, mucuna can be great to get yourself into action though.
Excessively boosting your dopamine levels can also bring on the side effects I've discussed earlier.
Tea is a very complex and interesting compound.
First of all, tea contains far less caffeine than coffee. Additionally, that caffeine is buffered by a compound called "theanine". I'll focus on theanine in this subsection.
Theanine increases levels of a brain signaling substance called "GABA", which improves relaxation.
GABA thus counters the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline which can be increased through coffee consumption. What's even more interesting is that theanine counteracts the decrease in brain blood flow that results because of caffeine.
All by itself, theanine also increases dopamine levels in the brain.[193; 194; 196; 197] Dopamine receptors may also be influenced, although that effect is only demonstrated in mice.
Theanine is an amazing compound because its beneficial effects are not caused by increasing but by inhibiting stress. Cold exposure, for example, increases dopamine levels through stress, while theanine has the opposite effect.
Tip: lemon and ginger make your tea more potent
Another compound that starts with "thea"?
Surprise, surprise: theacrine is tea-related.
Theacrine is structurally very similar to caffeine. Animal studies show theacrine counteracts adenosine, just as caffeine does - increasing your wakefulness.
Contrary to caffeine, theacrine has little if any addictive potential. Dopamine levels are also positively affected by theacrine.
Try theacrine, especially if caffeine overstimulates you.
One of my favorite plants.
Dirt cheap and highly effective.
In animal studies, Rhodiola Rosea increases dopamine levels. Low dosages seem to work better. Unfortunately, very few studies have been carried out on the compound right now.
My perception of Rhodiola is very good though. I get really relaxed while taking an extract of this plant, perhaps in part because it also increases serotonin.
Evidence, once again, runs thin in these instances.
Sage, or Salvia sclarea, may increase dopamine levels as established in animal studies. Oregano, or Origanum vulgare, is similar.[203-205] Rosemary, or Rosmarinus officinalis, likewise.[206-208]
Just add some herbs to your food. Herbs and spices are not just for taste, as they contain more concentrated nutrient levels than vegetables.
You 'll even make your meals taste better.
Shilajit is truly unique. This black compound is found in the Himalayan mountains, and helpful to combat fatigue, improve your immune system, aiding heart health, decreasing inflammation, and...
Boosting dopamine levels--but proven in just one animal study.
Shilajit contains a compound called "fulvic acid", which is responsible for most of its claimed health benefits. Shijalit capsules are your easiest option.
I've not tried this compound, but many people are raving about it.
Finally, a compound that's very well studied: "acetyl-l-carnitine". The downside is that mostly animal studies exist (once again).
"Carnitine" sounds like "carnivore", and that similarity is no coincidence. Unsurprisingly, meat contains the highest carnitine levels.
To make a long story short: acetyl-l-carnitine helps protect dopaminergic brain cells, and also increases the neurotransmitter's levels.[215-225]
Due to the neuroprotective effects, the compound may be especially useful in aging. Alzheimer's disease (a degenerative disease of the brain) and depression may also be countered by acetyl-l-carnitine.
Unfortunately, adrenaline and serotonin levels may also be increased with carnitine consumption. If boosting dopamine is your goal, testing carnitine and observing how you react is your best bet.
If you eat meat, especially raw, you don't need carnitine. Beware: raw meat is not recommended for everyone - do your research first.
Yet another herb...
Hypericum perforatum, or St. John's Wort.
You'd almost assume that you're reading Harry Potter, and in part, you'd be correct: you need high dopamine levels for such a strong imagination.
But instead of just affecting dopamine, serotonin and epinephrine (adrenaline) levels may also be increased the brain through this compound.[226-231] St. John's Wort thus non-selectively increases all neurotransmitter levels.
Long term treatment gives the best results.
I don't recommend using St. John's Wort before trying many of the other options in this section.
Sam-e, or more complexly written "S-adenosyl-L-methionine", is a natural compound that is found and used in the liver.
The compound is also available as a supplement or prescription drug (Europe). Sam-e works as an antidepressant, especially in males.[232-234]
Sam-e boosts dopamine levels, but should not be your first choice.
The following two "supplements" are actually steroid hormones - pregnenolone and DHEA. DHEA is even placed on most doping lists. Always consult your physician before trying them.
Pregnenolone is a precursor hormone that is used to form other hormones. Pregnenolone is created out of cholesterol and can be turned into cortisol or testosterone for example.
The compound is extremely exciting and very well studied since the Second World War. Pregnenolone lowers stress, enhances brain function, and boosts well being,[235-240]
Of course, the compound also boosts dopamine, otherwise, it would not be included in this list.[241-243] That effect has only been demonstrated in animal studies. Pregnenolone supplementation is most applicable if you're getting older.
Moving on to the second hormone:
DHEA is a precursor to many neurotransmitters, just as the aforementioned pregnenolone. Your body thus produces hormones such as testosterone and cortisol from DHEA.
DHEA is an abbreviation for "dehydro-epi-androsterone". Unsurprisingly, DHEA increases dopamine levels.[245; 246]
DHEA levels generally go down once you age, and maybe one explanatory reason why dopamine levels also drop over time as well.
I do not recommend supplementing with DHEA unless you've done a lot of research. The upside of DHEA is that it's a great supplement for if you're getting older, helping you return your youthful vibe.
Moving on to less risky adventures:
Uridine is produced by the human body - you thus technically don't need to supplement with it.
The compound is found in most plant foods, such as broccoli, tomatoes, and nuts.[248; 249] Organ meats also contain uridine, as well as beer.
Uridine increases synapse formation. Synapses are connections between brain cells. Uridine can be bought as a supplement, and also increases dopamine.[250; 251] The substance also works as an antidepressant.
Uridine should not be your first option when trying to increase dopamine. Evidence does exist that taking supplements works better than getting uridine through food.
Many people are aware of the existence of Ginko Biloba nowadays - I've even heard commercials about it.
Ginko Biloba is a tree that has hundreds of millions of years old history. Ginko is dopaminergic and has many associated effects of dopamine, such as increased erectile function.[252-256]
(I do feel sorry for the researchers who had to study erections in rats.)
Prefrontal cortex function also increases through Ginko. Well-being and cognitive performance are also boosted.[257; 258]
Forskolin is often used for enhancing brain function nowadays. The substance can be found in many brain supplements - called "nootropics" - for example.
The dopamine receptors are specifically sensitized through forskolin consumption.[259-261] More dopamine is also created because the aforementioned "tyrosine" amino acid is increasingly used so that you'll end up with higher levels of the neurotransmitter.
If you want a forskolin-based supplement, try CILTEP - which has been geared towards cognitive performance. The CILTEP formulation contains compounds that make more efficient use of forskolin.
Tri-methylglicine is commonly found in beetroot, and abbreviated by "TMG". TMG is a form of "betaine", a compound in beetroot that's used for performance enhancement nowadays.
The benefit of TMG is mainly the protection of brain cells. When a medicine called L-dopa is administered, for example, TMG is neuroprotective. TMG also works as an antidepressant, which is unsurprising if it affects dopamine function.
You can also eat beetroot to ingest TMG.
While I'm not going to discuss whether drinking alcohol for health is favorable or not, small amounts of alcohol do boost dopamine function.
Nobody should be advocating for continuous or large-dose alcohol consumption, as those behaviors will end up in negative health effects.
The dopaminergic mechanism is largely responsible for the addictive properties of the drug.[266; 267] The boost in dopamine does not become smaller but bigger with each subsequent use.[265; 269; 270]
Routine binge drinking thus quickly improves your dopamine levels--but only in the short run. With chronic alcohol consumption, dopamine levels in the prefrontal cortex go down over time.[268; 270]
Remember that the prefrontal cortex is the brain part that deals with abstraction and imagination, but also impulse inhibition. Alcoholism thus inhibits high-level thinking and self-regulation.
The best way to drink?
Booze in the sun during the day.
That way your body has plenty of time to recover. Avoid drinking at night which inhibits sleep quality. Yes, society has it completely wrong once again.
Let's now consider an underappreciated substance:
Almost done. Let's end with some of the best options - creatine - which is also somewhat underestimated.
The effectiveness of creatine has only been demonstrated in animal studies. Creatine specifically protects the brain cells that are responsible for dopamine production.
Creatine is normally found in large quantities in raw meat and raw fatty fish. If you cook fish or meat, the creatine content dramatically declines.
So if you're not eating raw animal foods regularly, I'd highly recommend increasing your creatine intake.
Unfortunately, dopamine supplementation alone has not demonstrated to prevent dopaminergic disorders such as Parkinson's disease. Creatine is protective of nerve cells associated with the dopaminergic system, nonetheless.[272; 274-277]
Creatine also has antidepressant effects. The compound is thus not only great for physical performance, but also brain function.
Another upside? Creatine is dirt-cheap.
Ginseng is yet another adaptogen, a compound that normalizes stress levels.
The aforementioned Rhodiola is similar. But contrary to Rhodiola, however, ginseng lowers excessively high dopamine levels.[211-215]
Ginseng contains compounds called "saponins", which are responsible for the effect. Ginseng also protects nerve cells associated with dopamine. Dopamine is additionally conserved so that you won't get a "down" that you may get after drinking too much coffee.
If you're experiencing withdrawal symptoms from cocaine or amphetamine, ginseng can help. Cocaine and amphetamine are dopaminergic drugs I'll get to in a second. And if you're "high" on excessive dopamine, lastly, ginseng may be an easy solution:
You can buy high-quality ginseng inexpensively in bulk
Hordenine is a compound found in beer but also prevents dopamine re-uptake. In plain English, that means that dopamine sticks around longer, allowing nerve signaling to be influenced.[394; 395]
The isolated compound can be used as a "nootropic", also known as a cognitive performance enhancer.
Hordenine should not be your first choice when trying to affect your dopamine levels though.
And... that's it for this section.
Section summary: at least 20 different natural dopamine agonists exists. If you're using most of my lifestyle suggestions and still want to boost dopamine, pick 2-6 supplements listed above and cycle them.
Supplements do not and will never replace making the lifestyle changes. Let's now take a peek at medication:
In this section I'll consider eight different dopamine medications. Never use these medications without consulting your physician.
These medications are more likely to have adverse side effects than the plant compounds in the previous section.
Without further ado:
According to the research, cyproheptadine or "cypro" is by far your safest bet in this category.
Many of the substances in the medication category are often unhealthy long-term, such as modafinil or Adderall - I'll consider these in a sec.
Cyproheptadine is a different ballpark though. The reason is that cyproheptadine lowers your overall stress levels, contrary to modafinil or Adderall or even coffee, which often increase it.[281-283]
The drug is tested in human participants, and may be used as an antidepressant, for example. Animal studies confirm that effect.[279; 280]
I consider the pro-dopaminergic cyproheptadine a superior choice compared to many other antidepressants that are commonly prescribed. Due to boosting serotonin antidepressants such as SSRIs can make you complacent and unmotivated.
Of course, context is key there.
Cyproheptadine lowers serotonin levels. Through inhibiting serotonin - commonly misunderstood as the "happiness" brain signaling substance - dopamine levels are raised.
If you're already a hard-pushing individual, higher dopamine levels may be detrimental though. Cypro is not for everyone, but may be a great replacement if coffee overstimulates you...
L-dopa is commonly used as medication for diseases such as Parkinson's. That condition the brain no longer produces adequate amounts of dopamine, leading to movement disorders and depression, among others.
The full name of L-dopa is " L-3,4-dihydroxyphenylalanine" - a name you can immediately forget.
As expected, L-dopa administration increases your dopamine levels, in part because the compound is a precursor to the neurotransmitter.[288-291] Serotonin levels are prone to come down though.
I would not recommend using L-dopa without a condition being present. Why? Well, if you take L-dopa as a healthy person, your own body's dopamine production can come down.[285; 286]
L-dopa may also have other long-term side effects:
Nerve cells associated with the production of both dopamine and serotonin may be damaged, for instance.
L-dopa is thus only a last resort, and should never be considered without consulting your physician.
Two even more dangerous substances, that are used mostly as a (party) drug (or to improve performance).
Cocaine prevents re-uptake of dopamine, which means that the neurotransmitter keeps affecting synapses. In other words, dopamine stays in your system longer and therefore has more of an effect.
Working 16 hour days in the confinement of an office? If you take some cocaine you'll be able to go on forever.
Cocaine also gives you the typical dopaminergic "internal locus of control". You'll feel you can accomplish everything, even if in reality such events are outside your control.
A resounding "no"...
In fact, chronically using cocaine lowers your brain's ability to make dopamine.[292-297] Tolerance also builds up, meaning you need more and more cocaine to get the job done. That tolerance remains high even if you've abstained for a long period of time.
One problem with cocaine is also that it's taken up very quickly by the brain, meaning that you get a very strong high. That high leads to upregulation of the "wanting" and "learning" processes I've talked about before. You'll thus start to crave cocaine with more frequent exposure.
Cocaine is made from the coca plant, and isolated so that a very strong stimulatory compound is created.
Amphetamines are another category of drugs affecting your dopamine levels.
Different amphetamines exist.
Methamphetamine is an example thereof - another drug you should steer clear from. Many amphetamines affect your brain's dopamine levels but have long-term negative side effects.
You'll also build tolerance with amphetamines and become addicted.
Ritalin is the brand name of what commonly is called "methylphenidate".
Ritalin is often taken orally in pill form and used as a medication against ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Lisdexamfetamine is another example of such a drug.
Taken in the right context, if you've got a condition, the effect is calming instead of stimulatory. That outcome should demonstrate how complex the dopaminergic system of the human body is - no universal prescriptions for "hacking your dopamine" exist.
I am worried about long-term side effects of such drugs, however. Transporters of dopamine in the brain may be negatively affected, as well as dopamine-associated brain cells.[298; 299]
Ritalin increases both dopamine and adrenaline levels.[300-303] Dopamine is mostly affected in the sub-cortical system - the brain areas below your cortex.
Students also use Ritalin for increasing brain performance. That approach is dangerous because the dopaminergic system can decrease in potential long-term.
"Dextroamphetamine" is sold under the name "Adderall". Adderall is essentially a legalized form of amphetamine sale. The effect of Adderall is generally perceived to be stronger than the aforementioned Ritalin.
Long term use of Adderall is still not conclusively established as safe. The biological effects of Adderall are similar to those of amphetamines.
When I was in college, some students I knew used Ritalin or Adderall to improve their cognitive performance. The choice for these drugs is a little bit crazy, to be honest, especially when you regularly rely on them.
Prescriptions for these drugs have increased many-fold in the last decades, and hence, it's relatively easy to receive some of these drugs from friends or family.
I'd be sitting in my cold tub and using sunlight for improving my cognitive performance, and other students would sit inside all day and use Adderall for the same effect.
Of course, I've used smart drugs to improve cognitive performance myself. But Adderall is a crude means to accomplish that goal.
Slowed growth in children and psychosis and heart problems in adults are possible side effects.[306; 307]
Steer clear. And try a safer alternative:
You may think: "So I'll have to smoke cigarettes?"
Not at all. In fact, never use cigarettes as a nicotine delivery method. Far safer methods are available, such as nicotine gum or drops.
Contrary to popular expectation, nicotine alone is not as harmful as expected. Medical ethical commissions regularly often allow research with nicotine to be carried out on human participants--a choice that would be impossible to justify if the compound was additive all by itself.
In fact, the many compounds that are added to cigarettes explain the addictive nature of smoking--not nicotine alone.
If you use nicotine irregularly, the compound can have amazing effects for your ability to be motivated, think outside the box, and focus.[308; 309] Using the compound more regularly will build up a tolerance and is ill-advised.[310; 311]
Nicotine is a great dopamine booster if you're intolerant to coffee. Why? Well, nicotine stays in your system for a much shorter period of time.
Don't use nicotine if you're prone to substance addictions.
Another sign of a hyperdopaminergic society?
Another dangerous compound that should only be used very strategically. Phenibut affects both the GABA (relaxation) and dopamine neurotransmitters.
Phenibut makes you really calm and relaxed, while motivated at the same time. For that reason, phenibut is often used for peak performance moments, such as an important presentation.
Just like cyproheptadine, phenibut thus lowers stress. The substance also works extremely long, having an effect up to 24 hours. Never take this substance more than once per two weeks.
Beware: overuse of phenibut is extremely dangerous, as the withdrawal symptoms are potentially lethal.
One danger is that phenibut is freely sold over the internet. While I'm not in favor of banning substances you don't like, you should be aware that unregulated drugs like phenibut can have negative consequences on your life.
Lithium is often used as a supplement to counter depression and with good reason. While some conflicting evidence exists, most of it demonstrates an increase in dopamine levels.[324; 325; 328]
Lithium also affects your propensity of depression and may lower its risk.[327; 328] Surprisingly, the compound achieves that effect by increasing serotonin function as well.
You can buy lithium orotate online. Lithium is much safer than many of the previous options I've described.
Last but not least: modafinil.
Modafinil is traditionally sold as a wakefulness-promoting drug, developed for if you have a condition called "narcolepsy". With narcolepsy, you'll fall asleep during the day.
Modafinil does not just keep you awake, but also increases dopamine levels.[314-318]
Many people use modafinil off label though, mostly for performance-enhancing effects. I've tried the substance and I don't get anything out of it--modafinil lowers my productivity because of overstimulation.
And even though the substance has less addictive potential than cocaine, that risk of abuse nevertheless exists.[314; 315]
That's it, the most common dopamine boosting medications. Moving on to lowering dopamine now:
Psychosis can be caused by excessive dopamine levels.
In fact, I think that many religious experiences are precisely created because of high dopamine activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (the imaginative part that deals with abstractions), combined with a relative inhibition of the lateral prefrontal cortex (that is more logical).
Haloperidol is a prescription medicine that counters psychotic events. In psychosis, you're having trouble distinguishing between imagination and reality (hyperdopaminergic, anyone?)
Dopamine receptors are blocked with haloperidol, and the activation of dopamine-related genes is lowered. Haloperidol is also sedative - and thus increases relaxation.
In the short term, however, this drug can increase how well dopamine is used, instead of decreasing function.[319-323]
Recall that serotonin lowers dopamine levels. Several supplements exist that increase serotonin, such as 5-HTP.
5-HTP is a building block compound for serotonin. Using 5-HTP increases serotonin availability in the brain, leading to a decrease in dopamine.[329-331] 5-HTP is best taken by bedtime when higher serotonin levels are more beneficial.
As a comparison, a category of drugs called "SSRIs" also boosts serotonin while lowering dopamine. You can buy 5 HTP online.
By the way:
Congratulations. You've read the entire blog post. You now know all you need to know about boosting dopamine, either through lifestyle changes, supplements, and medication. Let's finally consider the 30,000-foot view.
Want my top-10 laws for managing dopamine - including strategies not listed in this blog post? Sign up below:
You and I live in a hyperdopaminergic society: achievement, status, and money are praised above all.
Instead of blindly accepting such a society or rejecting it completely, a balance should be found.
Many people actually have low dopamine levels, because of which they can no longer see connections between events in their lives. Such people's thinking becomes shallow, often of no fault on their own.
If your ability to think can get a boost or if you're unmotivated, dopamine is great for you.
Other people have dopamine levels that are too high, leading to excessive ambition at all cost, and low empathy.
Both are dangerous.
Lots of people can be helped by optimizing their dopamine levels. In fact, if dopamine makes us fundamentally human - as in different from primates - then that goal is a lofty one.
And the case can be made that the human being - and it's relationship with dopamine - is still evolving. It's pretty likely that you and I learn to control our dopamine levels over time.
Even now, dopamine is not a side issue you can ignore if you want to make the most of life.
Remember that I've aptly called dopamine the "controlled madness of nature" because it's the source of a healthy imagination and abstract thought. With the right dopamine levels, your cognition and motivation go through the roof.
Want to learn more about dopamine? Then I highly recommend reading The Dopaminergic Mind in Human Evolution and History by Fred H. Previc.
Previc' argument is different than mine, albeit, has many similarities as well. And congrats with reading this entire blog post:
With dopamine, you'll become your own hero. Tread carefully.
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