When the dopamine balance is disrupted, this can have various causes. Although the nervous system generally regulates balance, the reasons can also lie in a bad diet, drug abuse, or long-term stress.
Below you will find an overview of:
- Functions of dopamine
- Symptoms of upset levels
- Natural ways to increase it
Of course, when increasing dopamine, you should always act responsibly. Indeed, when you use medication, I do not even recommend that you follow the advice below. In case of drugs, illness, or disturbed neurotransmitter balance, always consult the attending physician before taking supplements.
Functions of dopamine
In the brain it plays an essential role in executive functions, such as motor control, motivation, arousal, and reward. Also, it plays a cofactor in bodily functions such as breastfeeding, sexual satisfaction, and nausea.
Dopamine and exercise
The part of the brain called basal ganglia regulates movement. The functioning of the basal ganglia is primarily based on the amount of available dopamine. When there is a deficiency, movements can be slow and often uncontrolled.
Dopamine for pleasure and reward
Dopamine is the chemical that causes a feeling of well-being in the brain. It is released during pleasant occasions and has a stimulating effect of looking for the pleasant things in life. This means that, for example, food, sex, and drugs are agents that cause the release in the brain, especially in the nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex.
With the preceding in mind, this also explains the addiction sensitivity to drugs, gambling, porn, etc. Cocaine and amphetamines inhibit dopamine reuptake. Cocaine is a dopamine transport blocker that inhibits absorption so that the presence remains elevated and the rewarding feeling thus persists. That is also the reason why these types of substances are so addictive.
Amphetamine increases the concentration of dopamine in the synaptic cleft but works by a different mechanism. Amphetamines are quite similar in structure. This explains how amfetamines can enter the presynaptic neuron via the dopamine transporters. By entering, amphetamines displace the dopamine molecules from their storage vesicles. By increasing the presence of dopamine, both lead to more satisfaction and thus addiction.
Healthy dopamine production in the brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, helps maintain and improve short-term memory. However, this is a delicate balance, and as dopamine rises or falls to abnormal levels, memory suffers.
Dopamine plays a very important role in concentration and attention. Vision supports a dopamine response in the brain and this, in turn, helps to keep the attention and focus on a task. Dopamine also plays a role in regulating short-term memory and what is moved to long-term memory. Decreased dopamine concentrations in the prefrontal cortex contribute to attention deficit disorder.
Dopamine in the brain’s frontal lobes regulates the flow of information from other areas of the brain. Dopamine disorders in this brain region lead to a decline in neurocognitive functions, especially memory, attention, and problem-solving skills.
The D1 receptors and D4 receptors are responsible for the cognitive-enhancing effects of dopamine. Some antipsychotic drugs used in conditions such as schizophrenia act as dopamine antagonists. They occupy the receptors, preventing dopamine from attaching to them. Older, so-called “typical” antipsychotics usually act on D2 receptors, while the “atypical” drugs also act on D1, D3, and D4 receptors.
Regulation of prolactin secretion
Dopamine also plays a role in the release of prolactin, a hormone that stimulates the mammary gland tissue and induces milk production. Reduced release of dopamine, also called prolactin inhibiting factor or PIF, inhibits prolactin release.
Conversely, estrogens trigger prolactin’s secretion, but high estrogen levels in the blood inhibit prolactin’s action.
Poor binding of dopamine to the D2 receptors is mainly found in people with a social anxiety disorder or social phobia. Some features of schizophrenia, such as social withdrawal, apathy, anhedonia, are believed to be related to dopamine deficiency in some regions of the brain.
People with panic disorders or bipolar disorder often suffer from excess dopamine, causing hypersocial or hypersexual behavior.
Disorders such as psychosis and schizophrenia are often attributed to an abnormally high dopaminergic transmission. Medicines are often used to inhibit adhesion to dopamine receptors.
Dopamine and ADHD
People with ADHD have a problem with the dopamine balance. Besides the disrupted dopamine regulation, noradrenaline also plays a role in the complaints. ADHD medications increase the amount of these neurotransmitters in the brain, reducing symptoms. The different ADHD drugs can be divided into three different groups:
- Psychostimulants: increase dopamine and/or norepinephrine levels.
- Noradrenaline level regulators: increase norepinephrine
- Tricyclic antidepressants: affect the (re) uptake of serotonin and norepinephrine
In ADHD, the brain is (slightly) less active, especially in the parts of the brain that regulate attention, planning, and control over impulses. The messenger substance dopamine is also less available in those areas so that those functions work less well. Especially tasks involving planning, attention and concentration, motivation, short-term memory work less well than in people without ADHD. Impulse control is also reduced, which means that ADHD can be particularly impulsive and unpredictable in their behavior.
Symptoms of dopamine deficiency
ADHD complaints: dopamine plays a crucial role in motivation. Many ADHD people procrastinate, and one of the causes of ADHD is an imbalance of the two neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine plays an important role in planning thought processes and goal-oriented action and in the regulation of emotion and motivation. Norepinephrine helps you take action and is closely linked to the stress response.
Fatigue: dopamine and sleep deprivation go hand in hand. On the one hand, stress can cause a dopamine deficiency. On the other hand, a lack of sleep can also cause a deficiency.
Addiction Sensitivity: Alcohol, caffeine, and sugar are known to stimulate dopamine production. Adrenaline activities and activities such as gambling, smoking, and drugs are also known symptoms of deficiency.
Constipation: A lack of dopamine makes it more difficult for the intestinal muscles to push stool through the gastrointestinal tract, leading to constipation.
Diabetes: many people with a deficiency develop diabetes symptoms due to their uncontrolled eating behavior due to the many sugary products they eat.
Slow motor skills / uncontrolled movements: dopamine plays a vital role in our motor skills, and a deficiency thus leads to slower and uncontrolled movements.
Mood swings: due to an ever-changing level, moods change along. A sufficiently high dopamine level gives a pleasant feeling. A low one brings annoying, restless feelings with it.
Depression: Long-term dopamine symptoms can lead to depression. A constant feeling of frustration that you are unable to concentrate, that what you actually want is not getting out of your hands, and procrastination can cause enormous emotional stress.
How can you increase dopamine?
You can increase the production of this neu with the following measures, among others:
- Eat more protein
- Eat less saturated fats
- Use probiotics
- Use Mucuna pruriens as a supplement
In a healthy body, dopamine levels are usually well regulated by the nervous system, but as you can see, there are also dietary measures that allow you to increase dopamine. Below you can read a number of ways to improve your dopamine levels naturally.
1. Eat a lot of protein
The proteins in our diet are made up of building blocks, amino acids. There are 23 different amino acids. The body produces some of these amino acids itself, while we must get others through our diet, the essential amino acids.
The amino acid that plays a critical role in production is tyrosine. However, this requires enzymes capable of converting tyrosine into dopamine. So, in addition to getting enough tyrosine, it is essential that the body has sufficient (digestive) enzymes.
Tyrosine can also be made from another amino acid called phenylalanine.1 Both tyrosine and phenylalanine are naturally found in high-protein foods such as turkey, beef, eggs, dairy, soy, and legumes.
Various studies have shown that a (significantly) increased consumption of food containing tyrosine and phenylalanine can increase levels in the brain. This can improve and maintain the positive properties of sufficient dopamine in the brain. 2,3,4
Conversely, this means that if you, as a result of a low-protein diet, can get a deficiency because you don’t get enough phenylalanine and tyrosine.
It is important to note that the studies only show that extremely high or extremely low intakes of these amino acids can affect dopamine levels.
2. Limit saturated fat intake
Studies in animals have shown that saturated fats, such as those found in animal fat, butter, full-fat dairy products, palm oil, and coconut oil, can disrupt signaling in the brain when consumed in large quantities.5,6,7 Although these studies were conducted exclusively in rats. The findings are interesting, to say the least, as more and more people are following a ketogenic diet for their healthy lifestyle. The question is to what extent they actually experience reduced dopamine signaling.
3. Consume probiotics
The gut and brain are closely linked. In recent years, scientists have discovered that the gut and brain are closely related. In fact, the gut is often referred to as “the second brain,” not to mention the heart brain, which also performs an essential function in our intelligence.
Our intestinal tract contains a large number of nerve cells that produce signaling molecules for many neurotransmitters, including dopamine. 8,9 Certain types of gut bacteria are also capable of producing dopamine, which can affect mood and behavior. 10,11
Consuming probiotics on a daily basis can significantly improve intestinal flora and restore the balance between healthy and unhealthy bacteria. You can do this by eating foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, or natto on a daily basis. You can also consider using a high-quality probiotic supplement.
4. Eat velvet beans
Velvet beans, also known as Mucuna pruriens, naturally contain high levels of L-dopa, the dopamine precursor molecule. Studies show that eating these beans can help increase dopamine levels naturally.
A Mucuna pruriens supplement can, in some cases, improve symptoms in people with Parkinson’s disease, a movement disorder caused by low dopamine levels. A small study with Parkinson’s patients found that consuming 250 grams of boiled velvet beans significantly increased dopamine levels and reduced symptoms for up to two hours after meals.12
Keep in mind that velvet beans – and therefore supplements – are poisonous in large quantities. So make sure that you always follow the dosage for supplementation. Indeed, in the case of illness, such as Parkinson’s, there must always be consultation with the treating physician, as there may be interaction with the medication used.
5. Plenty of exercise
Sufficient exercise is essential for a healthy balance of neurotransmitters. With physical exertion, you increase the level of endorphins, which gives you a better mood. Mood improvements are in many cases noticeable within 10 minutes of aerobic activity, but most people experience this mood improvement after 20-30 minutes. While these effects are unlikely to stem entirely from the increase in dopamine, research in animals suggests that exercise can increase dopamine in the brain.13
A study that ran over a three-month period found that participants who practiced yoga for an hour six days a week had significantly higher levels.14
In meditation, we direct the attention inward and purify the mind. We let our thoughts run wild, thus creating peace of mind. The mental relaxation that comes with it allows us to train our brains for improved psychological and physical health.15
Certainly, when you are better trained in meditation and can remain in a meditative state for more extended periods, this can be of particular added value to be happier and more productive in life.
7. Consider supplements
The body needs various vitamins and minerals as cofactors to be able to make dopamine. These include iron, niacin, folic acid, and vitamin B6.18,19,20. When there is a shortage of these nutrients, and the diet is insufficient, you can consider using a supplement.
While a supplement should, of course, never replace a healthy diet, in some cases, it can be a welcome addition to increase dopamine.21
8. Plenty of sunlight
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a condition in which people feel sad or depressed during the winter season when they are not exposed to enough sunlight.
A study of 68 healthy adults found that those who received the most exposure to sunlight in the past 30 days had the highest dopamine receptor density in the reward and exercise regions of their brains.28
While sun exposure can increase levels and improve mood, it’s important to stick to safety guidelines as too much sun can be harmful and potentially addictive.
In general, it is recommended to limit sun exposure during peak times when ultraviolet rays are strongest, usually between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and to apply sunscreen when the UV index is above 3.
9. Get plenty of sleep
This neurotransmitter causes alertness. So as soon as production takes place in the brain, we are vigilant. It is primarily in the morning, when we wake up that our brains produce large amounts. At night before going to sleep, levels drop.
A lack of sleep and a disrupted sleep rhythm can disturb this natural rhythm. Certainly, when people work night shifts or alternating shifts, the sensitivity of the receptors in the brain decreases. 29
Less of this neurotransmitter causes annoying symptoms such as reduced concentration and poor coordination, which can be an explanation for many people with irregular work patterns.
Quality sleep and maintaining a healthy sleep pattern are essential for healthy production in the brain. With healthy levels, we are more alert and concentrated during the day.30
Of course, every person is different, and everyone has their own sleep needs. On average, we can say that an adult human needs 7–9 hours of quality sleep per night for optimal health.
It is essential to keep the sleeping pattern regular, whereby people go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. Indeed, people who suffer from the aforementioned signs and symptoms of a deficiency should consider investing in their sleep patterns or quality.
Coffee and dopamine response
The drugs heroin and cocaine are known to affect dopamine levels. They do this by slowing the rate of absorption of dopamine. Caffeine works in a similar way, increasing dopamine levels by slowing down reabsorption. Of course, its effect is considerably weaker than that of heroin. Otherwise, coffee would be a drug and heroin an ‘intoxicant.’ However, the mechanism is the same. Scientists suspect that the action of specific drugs and coffee contribute to addiction.
Coffee, adenosine, and addiction
The caffeine in coffee blocks adenosine receptors, making you feel alert. Caffeine is an adenosine receptor antagonist. It promotes alertness by blocking adenosine A2A receptors (A2ARs) in the brain. In addition, it stimulates your central nervous system and boosts your energy levels by increasing the production of adrenaline. Especially in the short term, the experiences are positive: you feel pleasant, alert, and energetic.
When the adenosine receptors are occupied, the body produces more receptors, so the craving increases. This is the habituation phenomenon: the craving for caffeine increases. After all, the more receptors, the more need for caffeine.
However, when prolonged and excessive caffeine consumption, a vicious cycle of problems can occur. Once the adrenaline that was generated by the caffeine shot wears off, you face a slight relapse, fatigue, and less than pleasant feelings. Another cup of coffee drives the adrenaline back up, and the fatigue disappears again. With this, the body is constantly in a “hunting mode” to maintain the pleasant feeling, and in fact, this is an addiction.
In the longer term, the body and mind become over-stimulated. To prevent coffee – or, in fact, caffeine addiction – it is essential to be aware of this pattern.
Like other agents that promote wakefulness (stimulants and modafinil), caffeine enhances dopamine (DA) signaling in the brain, which it does primarily by antagonizing adenosine A2A receptors (A2AR). (r)
Although scientists have not measured significant increases in dopamine after coffee use, it may not be surprising that people can become addicted to the feeling of alertness, the energy they experience, the taste they associate with it, and the social context.