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photo Ivana Cajina
Dopamine is a “neurotransmitter”; a technical scientific term that, despite its five show-offy syllables (FIVE!) doesn’t begin to do justice to the power dopamine has over one’s life outlook at any given moment.
What is a neurotransmitter? Think of it as a chemical spark that transmits a signal from one neuron (brain cell) to another. Dopamine is the spark whose presence in the brain makes you feel good. How does that sound? Mood disorders, up to and including depression, are complex phenomena—but to a great degree are thought to be caused by imbalances in our neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters and How They Split Their Duties
Dopamine, serotonin, and epinephrine/norepinephrine are the neurotransmission bosses of our nuanced behavioral and emotional lives, working to modulate mood and emotional engagement, but also kicking in like nitroglycerine when such the need arises. How do these neurotransmitters split the responsibility of maintaining “your daily vibe”?
- Dopamine could be called your body’s reward system, giving you feelings of pleasure and arousal while boosting mood, focus, and motivation.
- Serotonin regulates sexuality, anxiety, mood, sleep patterns, appetite and pain.
- Epinephrine and Norepinephrine — what we regular folk know as adrenaline (and noradrenaline, of course) — are responsible for the body’s so-called “fight-or-flight response” to stress.
Let see how they each contribute to the following scenario.
Dopamine, Serotonin, Epinephrine, and an Escaped Lion
A lion—named “Carl” by zoo admin some years ago—has escaped his cage at your local zoo and has you in his sights. Other zoo patrons had the sense to back slowly away at Carl’s stealthy approach, but you were too busy purchasing a churro to notice the unfolding emergency.
Here you are now, glued to the spot in mute, goggle-eyed horror and clutching a sad little zoo churro—a pleasant cinnamon accent in the meal you are about to become.
Dopamine will have enhanced your pleasure in the very fact of the warm churro you now have no earthly hope of eating.
Serotonin gave you that neurochemical “must have a churro!” desire you couldn’t refuse, and is now giving you broad, survivalist anxiety.
Epinephrine has boosted your heart rate, blood sugar, breathing, and blood flow, that you may either do battle with Carl (fight), or turn sloppily on your heel and begin panic- jogging to the zoo exit (flight).
Since Carl's top speed is around 50mph, your “flight” is as hopeless as your “fight” would have been.
Epinephrine doesn’t contribute to survivalist common sense, unfortunately -- just a keyed-up physiology.
Now that we know what your main neurotransmitters can offer in the presence of a rampaging lion named Carl, let’s look more closely at dopamine. How great would it be if we had some control or agency over the flow of our dopamine? Answer: pretty darn great.
Controlling the Dopamine Tap
It can be worrying to realize to what extent our “moods” are the result of neurological whimsy, but that’s what we’re looking at. We’re each a toweringly complex system of gears, pulleys, fuel combustion and chemical prompts — not to reduce the miracle of the body to a wet machine.
Knowing the mechanisms that drive our moods and behaviors give us some hope of controlling these impulses. But it’s about more than just feeling good. Dysfunctions of the dopamine system can play a role in Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, bipolar disease, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). So dopamine is a big deal. Here are some ways to influence its potency in your system.
How to Raise Your Dopamine Levels. Organically.
Yes, you can tweak your dopamine with shortcuts, but this isn’t what we’re talking about. Fast foods and snacks affect your dopamine by design. Chemists in the food biz go to great lengths to stimulate your snack habit, developing and testing formulations that deliver top-heavy dopamine stimulation from absolute crap food items.
a very tempting, very temporary high
Fatty and fried foods, sugary snacks, sweet sodas—the more your brain attunes itself to a regular inflow of empty, yummy, delicious snack-foods, the harder it is to achieve a lasting and natural dopamine “high” by other means. You want to gently and assuredly boost your dopamine?
Dial back your caffeine to safeguard your dopamine
Coffee is good. To suggest otherwise? Fightin’ words. BUT - caffeine’s “high” is woefully temporary, launching a dopamine spike followed by a systemic decrease in dopamine in your bod. So be reasonable in your coffee appreciation.
Magnesium and Dopamine - a dynamic duo
Magnesium deficiency is weirdly common; and also happens to be a cause of lower levels of dopamine in the system. Some researchers suggest that up to 50% of the population may be low on magnesium. Magnesium is also known by its unlikely nickname “the relaxation mineral” (seriously), and people who feel chronically under-energized, cranky, foggy and gloomy may be missing proper levels of magnesium, which are compromised by — yes — junk food. (The universe isn’t fair. Stop the presses).
If you can’t seem to shake the blahs, your doc can give you a quick and simple test (tongue-scraping: humiliating but painless) to see how your magnesium is holding up. Just bro the Twinkie crumbs off your shirt before you go to your appointment.
Tyrosine and Dopamine
Remember high school biology? Your body chemically and metabolically converts all kinds of stuff into other stuff. Yeah - this is an admittedly brutal summation of the Miracle of Life™ .
Well, phenylalanine converts to tyrosine, which is a precursor to dopamine production. Eat some phenylalanine and your tyrosine is on its way. Shortly thereafter your dopamine shows up hollering “let’s get lifted!”
Where can we find some phenylalanine to push down the pie-hole? Thanks for asking: almonds, apples, watermelons, cherries, yogurt, beans. Tyrosine is also available in certain embraceable, plant-based organic supplements.
Exercise and Dopamine
Sorry. I know the E Word inevitably shows up in these things and that can be annoying, particularly if you are part couch. But check it: a fairly small amount of movement increases blood circulation, exciting certain brain hormones and boosting your dopamine levels.
So, like, get on your feet. Walk a little. Walk a little more. Next? Walk a little more than that. Getting the blood pumping is the whole object, and these modest forays into “fitness” (eew!) Work miracles on your dopamine disco.
”Exercise”, after all, is shorthand for “move your blood around”. Where dopamine is concerned, the effect of a little exercise on your mood can be literally awesome. Try it.
Your Gut and Dopamine
Fact: about half the dopamine rushing through your neurology right now—giving you both a feeling of serene benevolence and a grin wide enough to worry the neighbors — was produced in your gut. About 90% of your serotonin comes from the same coiled wilderness underneath your tummy. Weird? Yeah.
Your gut is your wheelhouse. It controls mood, immunity, homeostasis — but you gotta keep the 100 trillion bacteria down there happy. When they’re happy, you’re happy. Literally. How is this done? They’re eating what you eat. So avoid processed foods, eat probiotic (gut-feeding) stuff like active yogurt, take in a wide range of plant-based foods, and look for pre and probiotic supplements whose names cleverly include the word “gut”.
Your Well-oiled Dopamine Machine
Dopamine is a natural chemical component of your body, and your life. Your biology, curiously enough, seems to have evolved the means to make you unreasonably happy as a reward for certain behaviors, what scientists in horn-rimmed glasses call “an intense feeling of reward”.
Exercise, compassion, meditation … yogurt; doing good for a fellow human boosts dopamine as a matter of clinical research. So does yogurt. This is that kind of nutty world. So give your neurotransmitters the stuff they need to make you feel fully human. Because we’re here to feel life. And some of it feels really, really good.