There’s no shortage of dopamine supplements that claim to improve mood or energy, yet it’s unknown if they actually work. Most people are more interested in understanding how to increase dopamine naturally for better mental health.
When it comes to good health and wellbeing, dopamine is one of those unavoidable buzzwords that’s always in the mix.
Most people probably have a general understanding that this chemical messenger, primarily found in the brain and gut, is important.
However, knowing how to naturally boost dopamine levels has the potential to improve not just overall wellness, but also mood, concentration, and good habit reinforcement.
What is Dopamine?
Neurotransmitters like serotonin, endorphins, cortisol, and dopamine carry, boost, and balance signals between neurons in the brain. These neurochemical messengers can have a significant impact on our mood and behaviors.
For instance, cortisol is considered the “stress hormone” because it is present in high levels when people are, to state the obvious, totally stressed out or in “fight or flight” mode.
Dopamine, on the other hand, is often considered the “pleasure chemical” because of its involvement in the brain’s reward centers. It is also a factor in functions like mood, the ability to concentrate, memory, and physical coordination.
Despite it’s moniker for being a “feel good” chemical, research suggests that finding ways to increase dopamine has less to do with making us feel actual pleasure and more to do with reinforcing or motivating us to engage in activities that light up the brain’s reward centers.
This is an important distinction.
Why is it Important to Increase Dopamine Naturally?
The fact that dopamine reinforces the desire to do things that create the sensation of pleasure can be both a positive and a negative.
Addictive substances, from caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol to more serious drugs like prescription painkillers or even illicit drugs are known to cause a surge or boost of dopamine. This is problematic for a number reasons.
First, the dopamine release likely has some role in reinforcing habitual substance abuse. This can quickly backfire, though, because habitually misusing drugs or alcohol alters the brain’s chemistry.
In response to too much dopamine, the brain slows production of the neurotransmitter. This creates a tolerance, meaning a person will feel less of the effects from alcohol and drugs unless they do more of them.
With substance abuse, the presence of a tolerance is a step toward full-blown addiction.
Second, when dopamine pathways are continually overwhelmed, the brain will eventually reduce the number of receptors, creating even less of the neurotransmitter than normal.
This can make it harder for people to experience normal, everyday pleasures and have a negative impact on mood and mental health.
It’s critical to point out, though, that the total opposite is also true. Naturally boosting dopamine with healthy activities can lead to the reinforcement of, and motivation to maintain a cleaner, healthier, more productive lifestyle.
6 Ways to Increase Dopamine Naturally
There are quite a few natural ways to increase dopamine, but the six outlined here are probably the easiest and most beneficial that anyone can do on a regular basis.
1. Exercise Regularly to Increase Dopamine Naturally
Yes, we know, exercise is always on the list. That’s because regular exercise boosts endorphins, a neurotransmitter that does, in fact, make us feel good. That pleasurable habit is then reinforced with dopamine, causing an incredibly healthy feedback loop.
The intensity of exercise will, obviously, vary from person to person, but even one hour of yoga, done six days a week can increase dopamine levels, according to a 2014 study.
2. Maintain a Healthy Diet
Of course, eating healthy always makes the list too and that’s because there is a growing body of evidence about the brain-stomach connection.
Research has shown that certain gut bacteria can aid in the production of dopamine.
Eating lean meats and fish is an excellent source for amino acids that boost dopamine. Fresh vegetables, fruits, and nuts will also supply energy the body needs to continue a healthy lifestyle.
Additionally, natural probiotics like sauerkraut, fermented foods, or even probiotic supplements can aid with the production of healthy gut bacteria.
3. Avoid Junk Food, as Well as Drugs and Alcohol
Foods that are high in sugar or saturated fat can create a surge of dopamine, but like with alcohol and drugs, this can lead to cravings for unhealthy boosts that are not sustainable and will ultimately lead to a dopamine reduction.
Giving up or severely limiting addictive substances, including too much sugar, will help balance dopamine levels without spikes or crashes. This can lead to better mood, increased focus, motivation and overall energy.
4. Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
Good sleep hygiene means getting 7 to 9 hours of restful sleep each and every night. Of course this is easier said than done, but by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, we can train our bodies and minds to get the rest they desperately need.
There is scientific evidence that getting regular, restful sleep boosts dopamine levels, and helps people feel more focused and alert the following day.
5. Soak Up Some Sunshine
It’s well established that diminishing amounts of sunlight can lead to poorer mental health, mood, and even a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
On the other hand, a 2010 study found that participants with the most sunlight exposure had more dopamine receptors than those who got a lower amount of sunlight.
As little as 20 minutes of sunlight on the skin can have a profound effect, as well as indirect daylight on a sunny day that enters through the eyes.
It is important to get sunlight safely, preferably in the morning or late afternoon, and to wear appropriate protection to avoid over exposure.
6. Take Time to Mediate
Meditation can come off as a bit fringe to some people, but there is plenty of scientific evidence to show that this simple, quiet endeavor has a number of healthy benefits, including boosting dopamine levels.
One study suggests that people highly experienced with meditation may even have the ability to maintain a positive mood for longer periods of time.
Even if it’s only for 10 minutes a day, take the time to quiet and clear the mind, focusing on the breath, and allowing for thoughts to simply pass by without judging them or following them up.
In recent years, we’ve become a society that looks for a quick mental health fix from alcohol, drugs, and prescription medications. While prescriptions are sometimes necessary for treating depression and anxiety, they can also cause an unhealthy reliance or dependence.
Because there are so many ways to increase dopamine naturally, it’s wise to make them part of a regular health routine. These same techniques also work for other chemical messengers in the brain and body to improve mood and the way we feel.