Dopamine, our body’s happy hormone, plays a big role in helping us feel satisfied and motivated. But is there a way to naturally increase it to give us that ‘good job’ feeling all day long?
When it comes to boosting our minds, dopamine is a pretty important neurotransmitter. It’s produced by neurons in our brain that do this by a process of conversion. First, the amino acid tyrosine is converted to another amino acid (L-Dopa), which is then changed into dopamine.
Dopamine does all sorts of important stuff. It assists with passing messages between our cells and the brain, and is responsible for helping us feel all kinds of positive emotions – such as motivation, satisfaction, and pleasure. So whether you eat the most amazing burger or get incredible feedback from your boss, dopamine is produced and gives all the good feelings.
“Dopamine provides the reward and pleasure factor. Without it, you might feel deflated, sad, apathetic… your get-up-and-go has gone,” says Maria Cross, a mental health nutritionist.
Various studies have discovered that dopamine is highest first thing in the morning and lowest before bed, which helps us feel alert when we get to work, but more relaxed when we want to sleep. It also plays a role in everyday decisions, e.g. this alertness helps us figure out whether a mental task is worth the effort, and therefore increases our motivation, as proven in a study in Science in 2020. This could partly explain why those who have ADHD may struggle with this recognition, since they have a gene that makes it difficult for neurons to respond to dopamine, a study by the University of Michigan found. This is why the condition is sometimes treated with medication that increases dopamine.
But for those of us who don’t have ADHD, and just want to feel more alert, motivated, and satisfied, naturally increasing our dopamine may help. There are lots of quick and easy, science-backed ways to do this. Let’s take a look...
There’s a reason you always feel so awesome after your morning run. Any kind of exercise has been found to increase dopamine production in your brain, although we don’t yet know if some workouts are better at doing this than others.
“Exercising often, or going outside in natural sunlight for a walk in nature daily, will increase dopamine levels,” says NLP practitioner and energy leadership coach Narinder Sheena. “Physical activity benefits our brain in a positive way and actually energises us to do more in our day.” In fact, one study in Neuropsychopharmacology found that adults who walked, jogged, and did strength training three times a week, had an increase in dopamine receptor availability.
2. Get more sleep
We know dopamine is highest when we wake and lowest before bed (which is why it’s so much easier to focus on something at 10am compared to 10pm!). But when we don’t get enough sleep, our natural rhythm can be set off track, and this can impact dopamine production in general. Sleep deprivation actually decreases dopamine receptors D2 and D3, reducing our alertness.
“Dimming the lights before bed, not watching your mobile phone for at least two hours before bed, and avoiding caffeine from the afternoon onwards, are good ways to get your body prepared for a good night’s sleep, and help the circadian rhythms in the body,” adds Narinder.
3. Listening to music
Grab your speakers and get ready to dance around the kitchen, because the simple act of listening to music has been found to increase dopamine levels.
“Listening to music helps to improve your mood, which can uplift people who experience depression and ADHD,” Narinder explains. “In a study by the University of Barcelona, volunteers were asked to listen to music over a certain duration, and pleasure responses were reviewed by a skin sensor, measuring electrodermal activity (goosebumps), and questionnaires. The group listening to music had increased levodopa, a chemical building block that our body converts into dopamine in the brain.”
Mediation has long been linked to an increase in focus and attention. Specifically, one study of yoga nidra meditation in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found it increased dopamine release by a whopping 65%. “This can be guided or silent, just a few minutes a day can make a huge difference to observe thoughts, and create space. This helps to reduce anxiety, and stress and makes you feel calmer. A 2019 article reviewed 21 papers confirming that meditation had a positive effect on the brain,” adds Narinder.
5. High dopamine diet
Can you eat your way to more dopamine? The answer is yes! “Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that you make yourself, from the food that you eat,” says nutritionist Maria Cross. “Like all neurotransmitters, it is created from amino acids provided by protein. So it stands to reason that your diet affects how well you make dopamine, and how much.
“We know that there are certain foods that are great at raising those dopamine levels. Different amino acids are required to make different neurotransmitters, and in the case of dopamine, the main amino acid is tyrosine. The richest dietary sources of tyrosine are beef, pork, chicken, salmon, tofu, cheese, and legumes [beans].”
But, it’s not just about protein, as there are other diet hacks you can try to up your dopamine levels.
“Another way to increase dopamine is by eating probiotic foods. Although the evidence for this is limited, research suggests that probiotics, as in live yoghurt and other fermented foods – kefir, kombucha, and sauerkraut – can have a positive impact on dopamine production,” Maria says. “Finally, coffee lovers will already know that a good cup of coffee can raise your spirits. That’s because it stimulates dopamine production and can give you a great positive vibe – the perfect way to start the day.” Now there’s no need to feel guilty about your morning latte run!
Dopamine is a really important neurotransmitter for mental health and feeling motivated and alert. Simple diet and lifestyle changes can make a big difference to dopamine levels, so if you’re struggling with fatigue or indecisiveness, why not give our dopamine-boosting tips a try?