9 Tips on How to Increase Dopamine & Feel Your Best

If not addressed quickly, dopamine deficiency can pose major health risks. Try these nine natural tips for increasing your dopamine today.

happy-woman-outside
by
Sarah Zimmer, PT, DPT
— Signos
PT, DPT
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
April 23, 2024
July 9, 2023
— Updated:

Table of Contents

In today’s fast-paced world, maintaining optimal well-being is crucial. Dopamine is a powerful neurotransmitter in our brain that plays a key role in our mood, motivation, and pleasure. While it is commonly associated with reward and pleasure, dopamine is crucial for various cognitive functions and healthy motor control. Unfortunately, some individuals suffer from dopamine deficiency, which can lead to symptoms of depression, poor sleep quality, mental health disorders, and neurologic diseases. 

This article explains the function of dopamine, the symptoms of dopamine deficiency, and strategies to increase your dopamine naturally for improved mental and physical well-being. 

What is Dopamine?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that relays information between different cells in the brain and plays a role in positive reinforcement and reward.  In addition, dopamine controls cognitive functions like attention, learning, and memory. It drives motivation, allowing us to pursue and achieve goals while focusing on individual tasks.1 Without dopamine, we would not be able to initiate any of these functions nor have excitement toward any particular idea, goal, event, or reward. 

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How Does Dopamine Function?

Dopamine acts as a messenger in the brain, transmitting signals between nerve cells. It functions within the reward pathway, reinforcing behaviors promoting survival and pleasure.1  For instance, when a pleasurable experience happens (i.e., eating a delicious meal or going for a walk in nature), dopamine is released in specific regions of the brain, causing the sensation of “reward” or “pleasure.” By creating this sensation, we are conditioned to want more of the above behavior or experience.

There is also the aspect of dopamine that enhances motivation and goal-directed behavior. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for planning, concentration, decision-making, and focus. When we need to accomplish a specific goal or task, dopamine sends signals within the prefrontal cortex to initiate our motivation and focus.2 

Lastly, dopamine is involved in motor control and coordination within the cerebellum of the brain. This is especially important for initiating voluntary movements, balance, and high-level coordination. It is the imbalance of dopamine that leads to diseases such as Parkinson’s Disease. Individuals with Parkinson’s Disease have difficulty initiating movement due to a lack of dopamine sending signals to the brain to move.3  

Understanding how dopamine functions allows us to explore strategies to naturally increase dopamine levels and optimize its effects on our mental and physical health.

What Causes Low Dopamine Levels? 

Several factors can contribute to dopamine deficiency in the brain, leading to imbalances and potential health issues. While genetics and individual variations play a role, the following factors can also contribute to dopamine deficiency:

Pre-existing health conditions

This includes diagnoses such as Parkinson’s Disease, schizophrenia, restless legs syndrome, and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD).4,5 

Unhealthy diet

A diet high in processed sugar, saturated fats, and fried foods has been shown to cause decreased levels of dopamine. There is also a link between low-protein diets and decreased dopamine levels due to a reduction in the amino acid l-tyrosine, which is important for triggering dopamine in the body.6 

Nutrient deficiencies

Inadequate intake of specific nutrients, such as iron, magnesium, vitamin D, and B vitamins, can hamper dopamine synthesis and function.7

Drug abuse

Certain drugs, such as opioids and cocaine, lead to decreased dopamine levels as they damage dopamine receptors and reduce the amount of dopamine released from the brain.8

Certain medicines

Anti-depressants and anti-psychotics bind to dopamine receptors, inhibiting the natural release and activity of dopamine in your brain.9 

Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI)

Physical damage, blunt trauma, or indirect trauma that affects the area of the brain where dopamine is released has been shown to cause dopamine deficiency.10 

Aging

Dopamine levels naturally decline as we age, which may contribute to decreased motivation and cognitive changes.11

Low Dopamine Symptoms

Low levels of dopamine can lead to a range of symptoms that can impact both physical and mental well-being. These symptoms can vary in severity and may affect individuals differently. Below is a list of common symptoms relating to low dopamine levels.12 

Lack of motivation

Having little drive to complete or start tasks, get out of bed, making decisions, being social, etc. 

Constant fatigue

Feeling too tired to get off the couch or make it up a flight of stairs. The fatigue can start immediately in the morning and last all day, sometimes making people fall asleep in the middle of the day. 

Lack of concentration

Difficulty maintaining focus on a single task, similar to attention deficit disorder. 

Moodiness or anxiety

Research shows that dopamine may play a role in anxiety modulation, especially social anxiety.25 

Feeling depressed

Reducing the levels of dopamine in your brain means you no longer need or can seek pleasure and reward. This likely leaves one feeling sad and hopeless. 

Having little sexual interest

Reduced levels of dopamine cause a decline in the ability to become aroused and feel pleasure, which is why most individuals with low dopamine levels have little interest in sexual activities. 

Trouble sleeping

Dopamine has been found to help regulate your circadian rhythm and sleep-wake cycles. Being deficient in dopamine causes symptoms of insomnia and trouble staying asleep. 

It's important to note that these symptoms may vary in severity and can be influenced by various factors. If you suspect dopamine deficiency or are experiencing persistent symptoms, it is recommended to consult with a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment options.

Examining the Health Risks of Low Dopamine

Recognizing the symptoms becomes very important for the early detection and treatment of dopamine deficiency, as living with a chronic dopamine deficiency poses potential mental and physical health risks. Here is a list of some of the health risks imposed by low dopamine levels. 

Hand tremors or other tremors at rest

One of the very early signs of Parkinson’s Disease said to be caused by low dopamine levels or damage to dopamine receptors. 

Impairment of balance or coordination

Due to the communication role that dopamine plays in the cerebellum, dopamine deficiency can lead to a reduction in balance and coordination of movement.

Muscle stiffness

Increased muscle stiffness, spasms, or cramps can develop with dopamine deficiency due to the influence of dopamine on muscle function. 

Memory problems or difficulty with problem-solving

Dopamine is heavily involved in the process of recalling old memories as well as creating new memories.13

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Dopamine's main role in ADHD is the ability to focus or concentrate on a single task or goal. The decrease in dopamine thus creates an “attention deficit” like the one seen in individuals with ADHD. 

Signs of schizophrenia

The link between schizophrenia and dopamine remain unclear, but most research studies find that an overactive or underactive dopamine receptor in the brain is responsible for schizophrenia due to the effects on the prefrontal cortex, where most of cognitive thinking occurs. Impaired cognitive thinking can lead to hallucinations, delusions, lack of motivation, etc.14

Digestive and gastrointestinal problems

Studies show dopamine's positive effects on the gut's motility and contractile abilities of the colon. Low levels of dopamine would slow down this process causing digestive problems and GI distress.15 

9 Tips on How to Increase Dopamine Naturally 

While medications can help manage dopamine-related disorders, there are natural methods you can adopt to increase dopamine levels, such as a healthy diet and regular exercise. Here are some strategies that may enhance dopamine production and function:

  1. Regular physical activity

A study done in 2016 found that participants who engaged in 60 min of physical activity three times a week for eight weeks found an improvement in dopamine levels and receptor stimulation.16 

  1. Eat more protein

Protein provides the necessary amino acids for dopamine synthesis. Including lean protein sources like poultry, fish, tofu, and legumes in meals can support dopamine production. 

  1. Cut down on saturated fats

Studies found diets high in saturated fats slowed down the release and uptake of dopamine; however, unsaturated fat consumption had a positive effect.6 Reducing the consumption of saturated fats can also help improve insulin sensitivity.

  1. Optimal gut health

Emerging research suggests that gut health influences brain function, including dopamine regulation.17  Incorporate probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi.

  1. Ensure getting proper sleep

Even just one night of sleep deprivation negatively impacts dopamine levels in the brain. Ensuring you get enough sleep (at least 7 hours) can help maintain healthy dopamine levels.18

  1. Meditate

Studies found that individuals engaging in the act of meditation for about 30 to 60 minutes increased circulating levels of dopamine in the brain by around 65%.19

  1. Get sun exposure

The development of dopamine relies heavily on having high levels of vitamin D in the body. Getting sun exposure increases levels of vitamin D while, in turn, boosting receptor availability of dopamine in the brain.20

  1. Take time to listen to music you enjoy

The pleasurable rhythms and sounds of music help to stimulate the release of dopamine, which can also help relieve feelings of depression and anxiety.21

  1. Limit alcohol consumption

Research shows that alcohol addiction is partly due to the overstimulation of dopamine in response to the “reward.”22  A recommended amount of alcohol consumption is one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. 

Food and Supplements to Boost Dopamine

Increasing dopamine levels is possible when focusing on specific dietary foods and supplements. Here is a list of examples of items that could possibly increase dopamine in the body. 

Supplements: 

L-Tyrosine

An amino acid supplement that serves as a direct precursor for dopamine production in the brain. 

L-Theanine

This is another amino acid found in tea leaves and is known for its stress-relieving, relaxation properties. It may indirectly support dopamine levels by reducing stress and anxiety.23 

Vitamins D, B5, and B6

These vitamins are crucial for converting amino acids into dopamine. You can find vitamin D in a supplement and B5 and B6 in a B-complex supplement. 

Omega-3 fatty acids

These specific fatty acids found in fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines help improve brain health and dopamine function.  

Magnesium

This mineral plays a vital role in neurotransmitter production, regulates dopamine receptors, and supports overall brain health. A magnesium deficiency has been liked to many neurologic and mental health issues.24

Foods: 

Chocolate

Dark chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA), a compound that promotes the release of dopamine and enhances mood.  

Avocado

Avocados contain natural dose of tyrosine and healthy fats to support dopamine synthesis. 

Bananas

Bananas are high in dopamine precursors, such as phenylalanine and tyrosine, as well as vitamin B6, aids dopamine conversion.

Leafy Greens

Spinach, kale, and other greens are rich in folate and magnesium, which support dopamine production.

Beets

Beets are high in natural nitrates that support blood flow to the brain and enhance overall cognitive function, dopamine production, and neurotransmission. 

Eggs

Eggs provide the body with tyrosine and other important nutrients for dopamine synthesis, including vitamins B6 and D.

As always, it's important to consult with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian before adding supplements, including magnesium, to your routine. 

Supplements should not replace a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle, which are essential for maintaining optimal dopamine levels and overall well-being.

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References

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About the author

Sarah is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, graduating from the University of Wisconsin Madison in 2017.

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