Remember those long runs where you set a personal best that gave you a euphoric kick of adrenaline? The fun fall outings with friends after work that made you feel so excited and alive? The hand-holding on a long walk, both of you in cozy sweaters, that inspired such warm fuzzy feelings?
If you haven’t come across those feelings in a long time, or have found yourself feeling depressed, you may be experiencing a short supply of a specific hormone: dopamine.
Read on to find out more about what exactly dopamine is, why it’s important to the human body, and how you can boost your dopamine levels to experience those happy feelings once again.
What Is Dopamine?
Simply put, dopamine is the feel-good hormone.
Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD says that dopamine get released when we engage in pleasurable activities like eating a good meal or having sex.
“I have heard dopamine referred to as ‘the hormone of desire,’” Ertel says, “as people tend to seek out activities that release dopamine.”
More specifically, dopamine is defined as a neurotransmitter, a chemical made in the brain that allows for communication between neurons and activates the “reward center” of the brain. This process motivates us, inspiring us to return time and time again to a certain activity so we can experience this reward. Dopamine levels often impact one’s mood, attention, emotional response, and motivation. Dopamine can also impact us physically, affecting our heart rate, kidney function, and blood vessel function.
Ideally, however, you wouldn’t have to consider your personal dopamine levels unless you experience a change in your behavior or physical functioning.
What Is the Link Between Dopamine and Mental Health Conditions?
Because dopamine is an important neurotransmitter helping to motivate and regulate your emotional response to stimuli, too much or too little can bring on or worsen the symptoms of certain mental health disorders.
“Too much dopamine can lead to serious mental health conditions like mania or schizophrenia,” Ertel says. “Conversely, not enough dopamine can cause symptoms of depression. Remember, dopamine is the hormone of desire, and a common symptom of depression is the loss of desire to engage in pleasurable activities.”
There’s also a connection between dopamine levels and ADHD, although Ertel notes that more research is still being done to determine this link.
She says, “We do know that dopamine levels seem to be different in individuals who have been diagnosed with ADHD based on a few research studies — however, more research is needed in order to determine the exact impacts that this has for individuals with this diagnosis.”
What Causes Low Dopamine Levels?
While depression is certainly connected to low dopamine levels, there can be other elements linked to low dopamine levels.
“Some people may just be born with lower dopamine levels than others,” Ertel says. “Other things, like substance abuse, can deplete natural dopamine levels. Chronically misusing alcohol and drugs can trigger your brain to stop making dopamine on its own, since the substances will boost dopamine.”
How Does Dopamine Impact Mood and Behavior?
From diagnosed mental health conditions to everyday mood shifts, dopamine levels can influence how you feel on a given day. When the dopamine levels are optimal, you’re likely feeling pretty good. “Elevated dopamine levels usually aid people in a feeling of euphoria,” Ertel says. “Any sort of pleasurable activity can boost dopamine.”
Generally, dopamine is a major driver behind human behavior and accompanying brain function.
“Dopamine helps us to stay motivated,” Ertel says, and she uses the “runner’s high” phenomenon as an example.
Elaborating, she says: “This is that point in your run where you start to feel euphoric. This is also the point in your run when your brain is releasing a large amount of dopamine into your system. A person who has experienced this is more likely to run again.”
On the flipside, a large amount of released dopamine can be associated with unhealthy, addictive behaviors, such as drug and alcohol abuse and gambling addiction.
Ertel says, “Addiction, at the biological level, happens in part due to how good the dopamine release makes the person feel. All humans are more likely to engage in behaviors, healthy and unhealthy, if there is a nice reward for doing so. Dopamine is one heck of a reward!”
How to Increase Dopamine Levels
If you’ve been feeling blah and the things that used to interest you no longer hold your attention, you may be wondering how to increase dopamine levels. Luckily, there are several ways to boost dopamine, and they’re likely things you can easily integrate into your day. Below you’ll find seven suggestions for boosting dopamine levels.
“A combination of vitamins and supplements might be helpful in creating balance,” Ertel points out. “Since each body is different, it would be important to speak with a healthcare professional who can run the proper lab work to determine which vitamins and minerals you might be deficient in.”
There are some supplements that have been known to increase dopamine levels. They include ginkgo biloba, curcumin, and magnesium — just be sure to speak to your doctor first before incorporating supplements into your diet to boost your dopamine levels.
Although dopamine is a neurotransmitter, and thus might seem as if it’s only based in the brain, as it turns out, your gut also plays an important part in regulating dopamine levels, which is why probiotics can be helpful.
“Probiotics aid our gut health and are recommended often. A ton of research is currently being conducted in the area of gut health. It has been noted several times that people who have a healthy balance in gut bacteria have improved mood, whereas concerns with unbalanced gut bacteria is often associated with several mood-related symptoms. It is absolutely likely that your gut health is in some way tied to your body’s ability to produce or regulate dopamine levels,” Ertel explains.
Talk to your doctor to find out which probiotics you should be taking daily along with dosage.
There one thing that has been proven again and again to boost brain function is exercise. Unsurprisingly, regular physical exertion can also improve dopamine levels.
“Consistently getting your heart rate up can increase dopamine levels,” Ertel says. “This could include activities like running and yoga.”
You know that feeling you get when you hear an emotional swell of music during a symphony and it feels as if your heart might leap out of your chest? Well, that’s dopamine. Music can have quite an impact on our dopamine levels — just think of how emotional you get during movies as the score swells.
“Music really does make us feel things,” Ertel reflects. “I think we all have songs that remind us of experiences, like a first kiss, a fun night out with a best friend, or a breakup. Finding songs that make you feel good is a nice way to boost your mood. I personally keep a ‘positivity playlist’ on my phone for moments when I need a quick pick-me-up.”
Ertel adds that scientifically, more research is needed in this area, but the data so far is promising.
Sleep is absolutely necessary for us to feel our very best, and dopamine levels are no exception. Actually, sleep can be an effective, healing balm that keeps our dopamine levels where they should be.
“Sleep and dopamine levels are closely tied together,” Ertel says. “For the best chances of starting your day with a higher ‘dopamine reserve,’ it is recommended to get quality sleep each night.”
That means that you should practice good sleep hygiene: make sure your bedroom is dark and quiet, put away all electronic devices, and aim for at least seven hours of sleep per night. High-quality sleep can result in a better overall mood courtesy of heightened dopamine levels.
You can also wrap nutrition into your quest to increase dopamine levels. Protein can be a major building block in your diet that can give your dopamine levels as they should be. In fact, there’s even something out there called the “dopamine diet” that includes foods that are thought to increase dopamine levels. These foods can include high protein eats like cheese, unprocessed meats, eggs, fish, milk, and yogurt.
You’re likely aware that countless studies have proven the power of meditation and its effect on mental health conditions. But did you know that when you meditate, you can raise your dopamine levels?
Ertel says, “Meditation is similar to music and exercise in the production of dopamine. Prolonged meditation, where a person is truly practicing a non-judgmental stance, has been linked to increased dopamine levels.”
Wrapping It Up
Ertel has a great trick for remembering ways to boost your dopamine — it’s an acronym, so it’ll be easy to recall whenever you need it.
“The DBT skill of PLEASE is one of the best ways to naturally help your dopamine levels,” Ertel says. Here’s how she explains the skill to clients:
- PhysicaL illness: take care of yourself when you are not feeling well.
- Balanced Eating: maintain a healthy, balanced diet that meets your specific nutritional needs.
- Avoid mood altering substances: because alcohol and drugs provide an unnaturally high level of dopamine, it is important to avoid these so that your brain is able to regulate itself at a normal level. When you get accustomed to too much dopamine, a normal level can feel like it isn’t cutting it, and it can take time for your brain to re-adjust.
- Sleep: follow proper sleep hygiene guidelines to ensure that you are getting enough quality rest each day.
- Exercise: exercise regularly to get your heart rate up.
Ertel closes by saying, “If you’ve been trying all of these things each day and are still struggling to feel that sense of motivation, you can also consider, by consulting your physician, some supplements and also some medications.”
And don’t forget that whenever you’re struggling with dopamine levels or mood issues in general, you can always consider speaking with a licensed Talkspace online therapist — a convenient and inexpensive way to get the support you need.