Dopamine is an essential chemical messenger in the brain involved in reward, memory, attention, and the regulation of body movements, among other functions. When dopamine is released, it induces feelings of reward and pleasure, which motivates the person to repeat a particular behavior.
Conversely, low levels of dopamine are associated with decreased motivation and excitement for things that would be pleasurable for other people. For those in recovery from addiction, the ability to produce dopamine is essential to improve mood and prevent a return to substance abuse as a means to experience pleasure.
Drug and alcohol abuse, over time, hijacks the brain’s reward system. As the brain adapts to the presence of the substance, it becomes less able to produce dopamine, serotonin, and other essential neurotransmitters without chemical help.
Activities That Increase Dopamine Levels Naturally
People in recovery sometimes struggle to experience pleasure, and fortunately, there are some things that can be done to naturally increase levels, including the following:
Proteins are made up of nearly two dozen different amino acids. The body can produce some, but others must be obtained by eating food. An amino acid called tyrosine plays a crucial role in the production of dopamine, as the body can convert tyrosine into this vital neurotransmitter.
Tyrosine can also be produced from another amino known as phenylalanine. Both tyrosine and phenylalanine are inherently found in foods high in protein, such as beef, eggs, turkey, chicken, dairy, soy, and legumes.
Research has shown that boosting the amount of tyrosine and phenylalanine in a person’s diet can increase the amount of dopamine in the brain, which can improve cognitive abilities and memory. On the other hand, when phenylalanine and tyrosine are excluded from the diet, dopamine levels may become depleted.
Avoid Saturated Fat
Some research on animals has found that saturated fats may disrupt dopamine signaling in the brain when consumed in excessive amounts. Such bad fats can be found in animal fat, butter, dairy, lard, and palm and coconut oil, among others.
One study revealed that rats that consumed half of their calories from saturated fat had less dopamine signaling in the reward regions of the brain, compared to those that received the same amount of calories from unsaturated fat. Why saturated fat appears to affect dopamine adversely is not entirely clear. Still, many researchers contend that eating a diet high in saturated fat may cause inflammation in the body, resulting in changes to the dopamine system.
In recent years, researchers have discovered that the brain and the gut are closely linked. In fact, the gut has oft been referred to as the “second brain,” as it contains many nerve cells that produce neurotransmitters, including dopamine.
Also, certain species of bacteria that live in the gut are capable of producing dopamine, which may influence mood and behavior. Several studies have found that when consumed in large enough amounts, specific strains of bacteria can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in both humans and animals.
Exercise is highly recommended for increasing endorphin levels and elevating mood. Improvements in mood may be noticed after just a few minutes of aerobic activity, but tend to be highest after 20 minutes or more.
Although these effects are probably not solely due to increased dopamine levels, research on rats suggests that exercise can increase the amount of dopamine in the brain. In humans, one three-month study found that performing yoga for one hour six days a week increased dopamine levels significantly.
Also, several studies have revealed that regular, intense exercise several times per week significantly improved motor control in individuals with Parkinson’s. This finding suggests that there may be a positive effect on the production of dopamine, as those with the disease have low levels of this neurochemical.
Get Plenty of Sleep
When the brain releases dopamine, this action induces feelings of wakefulness and alertness. Research on animals has shown that dopamine is released in high amounts when it’s time to wake up, and levels fall when it’s time to go to sleep.
Moreover, a lack of sleep appears to interrupt these natural rhythms. When a person must stay awake through the night, the availability of dopamine in the brain is significantly reduced by the next morning.
Of note, the National Sleep Foundation recommends getting 7–9 hours of sleep each night for optimal health for adults in addition to proper sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene can be improved by falling asleep and waking up at the same time each day, reducing noise in the environment, avoiding caffeine later in the day, and only using the bed for sleeping (e.g., not watching TV or playing video games).
Listen to Music
Listening to music can be an enjoyable way to spur dopamine release in the brain. A number of brain imaging studies have found that listening to music boosts activity in the pleasure and reward regions of the brain, which contain numerous dopamine receptors.
One small study examining the effects of music on dopamine levels found a 9% increase when people listened to instrumental music that gave them chills. In fact, all research to date on music and dopamine have used only instrumental songs to ensure that melodies alone can increase dopamine levels.
Meditation is a method of clearing the mind, focusing inward, and letting thoughts pass by without judgment, or even thinking of nothing at all, if possible. It is usually performed while sitting (although not always), and regular practice has been associated with improved mental and physical well-being.
Recent studies have found that these benefits may be related to increased dopamine in the brain. One study that included eight experienced meditation instructors revealed an average of a 64% increase in dopamine production after they had meditated for one hour, compared to just resting quietly.
It is believed that these changes may help people who meditate keep a positive mood and motivate them to stay in the meditative state for a prolonged period.
Consider Taking Supplements
The human body requires many vitamins and minerals to produce dopamine. These include folate, iron, niacin, and vitamin B6. If a person’s body is deficient in one or more of these nutrients, a person’s body may have difficulty producing enough dopamine to meet its own needs.
Blood work can determine if a person is deficient in these nutrients, and if so, supplements can be taken to increase levels. Also, in animal studies, several other supplements have been associated with increased dopamine, including magnesium, vitamin D, oregano extract, and green tea.
Getting Help for Addiction
Recovery By The Sea offers comprehensive addiction programs that are founded on the concept of holistic treatment. By using a holistic approach, clients can benefit from a variety of therapeutic services, activities, and educational classes. Studies have shown that such programs are the most effective at helping people achieve the best outcomes of long-lasting sobriety and wellness.
If you ready to begin your journey to recovery, we urge you to contact us today and discover how we can help you get started—one step at a time!