Understanding dopamine may provide insights on balancing mood, motivation, and productivity in everyday life. Dopamine is a brain signaling hormone (neurotransmitter) derived from the amino acid tyrosine (abundant in foods such as dairy, soy, meat, fish, dairy, and beans). The enzyme (tyrosine hydroxylase) converts tyrosine to L-Dopa, which is also a drug used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Another enzyme (Dopa decarboxylase) converts L-Dopa into dopamine (DA). Dopamine is further converted into noradrenaline.
Dopamine works in different brain networks modulating reward-driven behaviors, addiction, motivation, movement, and mood. Examples of dopaminergic systems in the brain:
Reward-driven behavior & motivational system (Mesolimbic system)
- Creating memory cues of rewards and punishments
- Reinforcing behaviors to approach or avoid things
- Guiding addictions
- Areas: Nucleus accumbens, hypothalamus, amygdala, hippocampus, striatum, & prefrontal cortex
Working memory and executive functioning system (Mesocortical system)
- Planning and making strategies
- Solving problems
- Maintaining ideas in the working memory
- Areas: Ventral tegmental area, motor, and premotor cortex, & prefrontal cortex
Movement system (Nigrostriatal system)
- Selectin, initiation, and terminating motor movements
- Areas: Substantia nigra, putamen, & caudate nucleus
Dopamine and motivation
Brain cells release dopamine during moments of pleasure, rewards, and when motivated action is needed. Dopamine helps the brain to take notes of the source of pleasures and rewards and later on affects to reward-driven behavior. For example, eating, drinking, socializing, and sex can all increase dopamine in the brain and this mechanism encourages you to repeat these behaviors in the future. This is why dopamine also has a significant role in addictions.
Dopamine and movement
Dopamine is also fundamentally important for initiating and terminating motor movements. Parkinson’s disease is linked to the degeneration of dopamine-producing neurons in the substantia nigra and reduced levels of dopamine. Parkinson’s is treated with drugs that increase the activity of dopaminergic neurons such as levodopa (L-Dopa). Another treatment of Parkinson’s is deep brain stimulation to the subthalamic nucleus which can possibly increase dopamine release in the dopaminergic system.
Dopamine and productivity
Dopamine has an important role in motivating work behavior. The levels of dopamine can fuel or deplete motivation and thus, productivity. Studies show that motivated “go-getters” who work harder, have a higher release of dopamine in the nigrostriatal pathway. Those, who lack motivation have higher levels of dopamine in areas associated with risk-perception. Dopamine can also aid working memory functions that facilitates strategy execution, planning, and goal-directed actions.
Naturally increasing dopamine
1. Dietary phenylalanine and tyrosine
Amino acid tyrosine, which is found in protein-rich foods, is the building block of dopamine. Phenylalanine is the building block of tyrosine. Having sufficient levels of dietary phenylalanine and tyrosine is important for dopamine production. In the case of dietary of phenylalanine and tyrosine depletion, dopamine levels can decrease.
Phenylalanine and tyrosine are found in protein-rich foods
- Chicken and beef
- Tofu, tempeh
- Legumes and beans
2. Meditation and Yoga Nidra
Some meditative practices are linked to increased dopamine release. For example, Focused Attention Meditation, which involves monitoring one’s attention, has shown to increase dopamine levels in circuits associated with rewards and motivated behavior, as well as sustained attention. As such, Focused Attention Meditation (FAM) practice might be beneficial in improving motivation when integrated in the working day.
One study found a 65 % increase in dopamine release after a yoga Nidra meditation. Yoga Nidra is a practice, in which the practitioner lies on the floor and relaxes one body part at a time to achieve a half-awake/half-asleep state. Typically, the practice lasts from 15 to 20 minutes.
- YouTube: A 20-minute yoga nidra pracrise
3. Velvet bean (Mucuna Puriens)
Velvet bean (Mucuna puriens) is a type of legume originated from China and eastern India. Currently, it is one of the most popular green crops in tropical and subtropical regions and is cultivated in Asia, America, Africa, and the Pacific Islands. It is a good source of dietary proteins (protein concentration of 23-35 %) and also has a high concentration of L-Dopa (4-7%). L-Dopa, a precursor of dopamine, is thought to be responsible for the plant’s anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, and antioxidant properties.
Hox. It should be noted that Mucuna Puriens in high amounts (over 1000 mg / day) can be toxic and also contains compounds that decrease its health-promoting effects (polyphenols, trypsin inhibitors, phytate, cyanogenic glycosides, oligosaccharides, saponins, lectins, and alkaloids). For example, polyphenols (or tannins) bind to proteins and lower their digestibility.
Listening to music is associated with increased dopamine in the mesolimbic brain system (reward pathway). Especially music which causes ‘chills’ releases dopamine. Dopamine is also released in the moments in which musical piece returns to the tonic or contains a rhyme (a “resolution of a sequence”). Merely anticipating a chord or a rhyme releases dopamine. This might explain why musical concerts appeal to humans and why we tend to be naturally attracted to musical experiences. This can also explain why some people naturally feel more motivated and energized after when listening to music (try listening to music for example at the gym, when running, or at work and observe the effects).
5. Aerobic exercise
Aerobic exercise has been shown to increase dopamine in the striatum, hypothalamus, midbrain, and brainstem in several animal studies. It also seems that exhaustion in exercise is linked to drop in dopamine levels. Aerobic exercise includes running, swimming, cycling, hiking, and brisk walking.,
Seasonal Affective Disorder, a “winter blues”, has shown to cause lack of motivation and lowered mood – symptoms typical for low dopamine signaling. It’s also been noticed that sunlight exposure correlates with the number of dopamine receptors in the areas related to motivation, However, it might also be that those who have more dopamine signaling, spend more time in the sun.
A recent review concluded that across studies, massage therapy has been shown to reduce stress hormones, increase relaxation, and increase the levels of serotonin and dopamine. Both neurotransmitters are believed to be involved in the stress-reducing and mood-enhancing effects of massage therapy.
8. Improving gut microbiome
The bacterial strain in the gut affects the synthesis of dopamine in the brain. Unbalanced gut microbiome can also alter the condition of the blood-brain barrier and the transfer of nutrients to the brain. The gut microbiome can be improved in the following ways:
- Reducing dietary sugars and processed foods
- Intermittent fasting
- Eating natural, organic, seasonal, and whole foods
- Eating probiotic supplements
- Eating resistance starch (e.g. cold potatoes or rice)
- Eating fermented foods (miso, tempeh, sour cabbage, kombucha)
- Eating foods rich in probiotics and prebiotics
9. Supplements, nutrients, and foods
Some supplements can improve dopamine synthesis in the brain, However, in some cases, only animal studies are available so it is recommended to do your research in each supplement and consult your physician before trying them
- Mucuna puriens
- Oregano oil
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin D
Dopamine is essential in modulating the natural circadian rhythm and inducing morning alertness and wakefulness. Sleep deprivation is linked to the downregulation of brain dopamine in receptors linked to wakefulness. Conversely, those who suffer from dopamine depletion, experience daytime sleepiness. However, studies also suggest that rather than depleting dopamine, sleep deprivation also disrupts the dopaminergic balance in areas linked to risk assessment and reward signaling. Increased dopamine signaling in some areas can also lead to non-optimal decision making and risk-taking. This can also increase motivation for maladaptive pleasures such as overeating (with a preference to high instead of low-calorie foods).
Thus, sleep is essential for dopaminergic balance in general.