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Dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced by the brain. It acts as like a chemical messenger service. When dopamine is released it crosses synapses and attaches to a dopamine receptor on the next nerve. If dopamine levels are low, the nerves cannot pass on the messages. (1)
Dopamine has many important roles in the body. It stimulates creativity, cognitive function, attention, mood, movement and sleep. So what happens if your dopamine levels are low? It can affect your personality and make you feel more social or reclusive. Low dopamine levels can also affect your memory, you may be more prone to forgetfulness, feel unmotivated, have trouble focusing, difficulty sleeping or feel depressed. (2)
Symptoms of Low Dopamine
There can be numerous reasons for low dopamine levels. Some of the most common factors are poor diet, nutritional deficiencies, thyroid disorders, obesity and dopamine antagonist drugs.
When dopamine levels drop, feelings of depression, sadness, inability to focus and lack of motivation can be experienced. The signs of deficiency are very common symptoms (3) and can be easily overlooked. Some of the symptoms include:
- Addictions to stimulants
- Difficulty focusing
- Excessive feelings of hopelessness or guilt
- Impulsive or destructive behaviors
- Inability to enjoy life /feel pleasure
- Lack of motivation
- Mood swings
- Parkinson’s Disease (4)
- Poor memory
- Poor sleep patterns
- Restless leg syndrome (5)
- Weight gain
Foods to Improve Dopamine Levels
There are numerous steps you can take to improve dopamine levels. The first is to look at your diet. Eating lots of processed, conventional foods is not going to offer your body the nutrients you need. Switch to organic, whole foods as your budget allows. Consider adding foods that increase your dopamine naturally (6) such as:
- Chicken (7)
- Green leafy vegetables
- Olive Oil
- Oregano (8)
- Pumpkin seeds
- Rosemary (9)
- Sesame seeds
- Turmeric (10)
Foods that Decrease Dopamine Levels
It is important to note that some foods can actually decrease your dopamine levels. Sugar and artificial sweeteners are high on the list. Sugar actually alters your brain chemistry by disrupting dopamine levels. While sugar may increase your dopamine levels in the short term, ultimately it depletes dopamine and contributes to a deficiency. (11)
Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame will decrease not only dopamine but serotonin, another transmitter related to transmitting impulses between nerve cells, feelings of well-being and movement. When aspartame is metabolized in the body it is broken down into phenylalanine (50%), aspartic acid (40%) and methanol (10%). The excess of phenylalanine blocks the body’s ability to transport important amino acids to the brain contributing to reduced levels of dopamine and serotonin. (12)
Eating foods that contain high levels of saturated fats also decrease the sensitivity of dopamine receptors. (13)
Natural Ways to Improve Dopamine Levels
You may be surprised to learn that many things you’re already doing can naturally help to increase your dopamine levels. They are all pretty basic, such as:
Eat well- Eat a healthy, balanced diet of organic whole foods. Avoid processed foods and sugar.
Exercise- Exercise leads to increased serum calcium levels, and the calcium is transported to the brain. This in turn enhances brain dopamine synthesis. (14)
Meditation-Making time for regular meditation can increase dopamine release. (15, 16)
Massage-There are numerous positive benefits to regular massage, now you can add increased dopamine levels to the list. (17)
Music-When you listen to music you enjoy the brain releases dopamine. (18)
Spend time outdoors-Getting fresh air and sun is beneficial for a number of increasing, including getting more vitamin D. Bright light has been shown to improve feelings of well-being in individuals with Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), depression and eating disorders. Light also releases dopamine in the retinas, which is also helpful for maintaining healthy vision. (19, 20)
Yoga-This study of volunteers ranging from 20-50 shares the encouraging benefits of practicing yoga for one hour daily. Significant increases in dopamine and serotonin were noted. (21)
Ten Supplements & Herbs to Increase Dopamine Levels
If you feel that you need more of a boost you may consider looking at some additional options such as supplements or herbs to boost your dopamine levels. While this is not a complete list, it’s a great starting point.
Tyrosine: Supplementing with tyrosine can help to enhance brain performance. (22, 23)
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Curcumin: This is the active ingredient in turmeric. (in one study it was found to be…)This has been found as effective as Prozac in treating depression. (24)
Ginseng-This herb has been used for over 2,000 years and has shown ability to reduce anxiety, depression and enhance cognitive processing. (25)
Folate-Found in green leafy vegetables, folate is key in producing dopamine and other neurotransmitters. If you’re low in folate that may be contributing to low dopamine levels and an increase in depression. (26)
Ginkgo Biloba: This herb raises dopamine levels and is also beneficial for anxiety, depression, headaches, fatigue and memory problem. (27, 28)
L-theanine: This is found in black, green and white teas. In addition to increasing dopamine it also helps to increase serotonin. Green tea is a wonderful source for l-theanine. (29)
Mucuna pruriens– This is a tropical legume with numerous benefits for brain health. This may become a better option of L-dopa in the long term care of individuals with Parkinson’s disease. (30)
SAM-e-Due to its ability to increase dopamine levels, Sam e is a common over the counter supplement to treat depression. (34)
Shilajit-This Ayurvedic tar like substance (which is known as a biomass) is found in the Himalayan and Tibet mountains. It is very high in fulvic acid and offer numerous benefits for brain health including increases levels of neuronal dopamine, which can help to suppress anxiety. (31)
St. John’s Wort-This herb is known for its ability to decrease depression, partially due to its dopamine increasing abilities. (32)
How to Test for Dopamine Levels
If you believe your dopamine levels may be low, you can talk to your doctor about getting a blood test. Specifically, a test for catecholamines , which measures the amount of the hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine in the blood. (33)
This test is usually done if your doctor is concerned that you might have a tumor on your adrenal gland, where catecholamines are released.
Your doctor will give you a list of foods to avoid for 2-3 days before the test and any other specifics required for this test.
There are many easy and common sense ways to increase your dopamine levels, they include:
-Increasing or improving your consumption of whole foods.
-Adding some type of self-care such as exercise, meditation or massage.
-Adding supplements or herbs if needed to give your brain and body a boost.
With a commitment to your health, low dopamine health related problems can become a thing of the past.
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Rada, P., Avena, N. M., & Hoebel, B. G. (n.d.). Daily bingeing on sugar repeatedly releases dopamine in the accumbens shell. Retrieved January 17, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15987666
Hryhorczuk, C., Florea, M., Rodaros, D., Poirier, I., Daneault, C., Rosiers, C. D., . . . Fulton, S. (2016, February). Dampened Mesolimbic Dopamine Function and Signaling by Saturated but not Monounsaturated Dietary Lipids. Retrieved January 17, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4707827/
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