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10 facts about dopamine

Published Feb 11, 2021 | Updated Feb 9, 2024
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Studies have shown that dopamine is released when you derive pleasure from rewards such as food, sex, and a sense of accomplishment. Brain imaging scans that followed have also been able to highlight dopamine release in areas of the brain linked to motivation and learning[1,2]. Dopamine detox and the effects of social media on the brain may have been stealing the headlines, yet here are 10 more things you need to know about boosting dopamine.

1. What are five functions of dopamine?

Your Reward and pleasure messenger affects cognition and health. Here’s how it happens:

  1. Dopamine is involved in memory, focus and planning by responding to novelty[3,4].
  2. Dopamine is also one of the driving forces behind your sexual desires. When anticipating sexual activity, erotic stimuli trigger dopamine which encourages us to seek reward and pleasure. MRI scans revealed that whilst in a subconscious state, adults who looked at erotic images for 6 minutes had a surge of dopamine release and activity in reward-related brain areas[5].
  3. Dopamine also acts as a hormone meaning it affects certain functions once it’s released. It plays a small role in the "fight-or-flight" stress response by increasing heart rate and blood pressure[6,7,8].  
  4. Dopamine acts as a brain messenger to allow small tissues that power the brain, called neurons, to communicate with each other. This communication is key for making you move and feel motivated, as well as regulating cognition and mood, especially having attention and experiencing pleasure[9]
  5. Dopamine helps regulate the reward and pleasure centres of the brain related to learning and addictive behaviours. It reinforces behaviours needed for survival[10,3].

2. What are the benefits of using dopamine?

Dopamine keeps you alert and motivated which informs your decision-making. Dopamine is a useful chemical messenger that helps you decide as it enables you to anticipate the outcome of your action by reward processing and learning from rewarded behaviours[9]. Dopamine drives you towards positive outcomes and prevents you from following a negative outcome. Imagine you’re at an ice cream shop. Are you going to try your luck with a liquorice flavour or rather stick to your all-time favourite, chocolate? If you ever tried liquorice sweets and had to top it off with something else to mask the flavour, you’re probably picking chocolate any day. 

3. What does dopamine do to your body

Dopamine gets released as part of the fight-or-flight stress response[6,7]. The release of dopamine and other hormones prepares the body to respond to perceived threats by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, etc. As said before, dopamine acts as a brain messenger in the brain and influences motivation and attention, which are important for the fight-or-flight response[8]. Studies suggest dopamine may provide reinforcement to remember and repeat actions that help us avoid danger, rather than directly causing feelings of euphoria[8].

4. How does dopamine alter your behaviour?

It adjusts behaviour based on learned experiences. Ever retried a food and realised you like it now? When the food tastes better than what you thought it would, this is called a “positive prediction error” and it’s determined by dopamine[5]. This experience changes your behaviour as you become less likely to be hesitant in the future. When the reward outcome is worse than you expected dopamine signals a “negative prediction error” in your brain[3]. This can adjust your future behaviour as you would learn from this experience and find an alternative method to obtain the desired reward outcome. How future behaviour is adjusted is unique to each individual, depending on the value you place on any given reward[4]. For example, if you want to improve your physique and find it difficult to keep up with a workout schedule, you can focus on maintaining a healthy diet instead. 

5. What happens when dopamine is high?

Dopamine plays a role in a motivational mindset. When you anticipate an event, it has been shown that dopamine levels spike and induce motivation and alertness. For example, people competing in an Ironman triathlon are motivated to complete the race to derive a sense of accomplishment.

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6. What is one interesting fact about dopamine?

Dopamine is responsive to novelty. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience showed that novelty can evoke dopamine release which motivates you to try out more novel things[3]. Evidence in monkeys also demonstrated a faster release of dopamine for unexpected rewards compared to expected ones[4]. To paint a picture, let’s say you just started a new relationship. At first, the sex is amazing. After a couple of months, the whole experience can get a bit meh. Wondering why that is? The novelty of the new partner has worn off which makes the sex less pleasurable. Shaking up routines in the bedroom can enhance sexual satisfaction in long-term relationships[3,11]. Similarly, adding new exercises to your routine or trying out different workouts improves physical activity participation[12].

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7. How can I increase my dopamine naturally?

Dopamine needs its building block tyrosine so it can be produced. When there’s enough dopamine produced, it can be released by certain activities. Let’s take a look at this cycle. 

Which foods increase dopamine

Fish, poultry and eggs. These are the most commonly mentioned dopamine-boosting foods that are high-protein[13]. Tyrosine is also found in plant-based proteins like beans and tofu[13]. These foods are rich in the amino acid tyrosine, used to produce dopamine. While getting enough tyrosine with diet can be demanding, there’s another viable option - tyrosine supplementation.

What activities release dopamine the most?

Physical activity, pleasurable activities and achievements. Studies show that exercise triggers dopamine release in the brain, which can improve mood[14]. One study found that running boosts dopamine release[15]. The effects of the heightened dopamine release from exercise can extend even beyond the exercise period[15]. Anything that gives you pleasure, let’s say sex, shopping and cooking, triggers dopamine release by activating the brain's reward pathway[16]. This makes you desire those rewarding activities more. Research also shows that working towards and achieving goals, whether big or small, stimulates dopamine release[17]. The dopamine increases are proportional to one's motivation for the goal[17]. Higher dopamine then enhances cognitive function.

8. How do you restore dopamine?

Tyrosine is the building block of dopamine. A natural dopamine increase can be obtained with tyrosine supplementation. If your dopamine levels are low, replenishing its building block tyrosine which is found in protein-rich sources or supplemental form is key to restoring dopamine levels.

What raises dopamine levels fast?

Tyrosine supplementation was shown to raise dopamine levels quickly. Tyrosine levels peak between 1 and 2 hours post-ingestion[18]. Tyrosine supplements are also “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) by the US Food and Drug Administration[19]. brain feed has an 800 mg natural tyrosine supplement made from fermented corn. Get your dopamine boost fast, naturally.

9. What causes depletion of dopamine?

Dopamine can get low. Drug abuse, sleep deprivation and stress are the main factors in dopamine depletion. 

Drug Abuse

Initially, drugs like cocaine and amphetamines flood the brain with dopamine, leading to a "high." With repeated use, the brain adapts by making less dopamine and becoming less sensitive to it[20]. This leads to dopamine depletion over time, along with symptoms like depression, fatigue and impaired concentration[21]. One study found that people with cocaine addiction had 20-30% fewer dopamine receptors compared to non-users[22]. The good news is dopamine levels can recover with abstinence.

Sleep Deprivation

Getting too little sleep prevents the brain from replenishing dopamine to healthy levels[23]. Even short-term sleep deprivation can reduce dopamine availability[24]. Getting adequate, quality sleep allows the brain to restore dopamine levels, improving motivation and mood. Most adults need 7-9 hours per night according to the NHS[25]. 

Stress

While acute stress causes a dopamine rush, chronic stress has the opposite effect - decreasing dopamine over time[26,27]. Sustained high levels of the stress hormone cortisol damage dopamine receptors. Managing stress through relaxation techniques like yoga, meditation, or talk therapy can help normalize dopamine signalling.

10. What does lack of dopamine feel like?

Lack of dopamine or dopamine depletion can lead to tiredness, challenges with coordination and cognitive issues. Low dopamine levels can make you less motivated and excited about things[28,29]. Dopamine plays an important role in many of your body’s functions, including movement[29]. Low dopamine levels can lead to challenges in movement and coordination. Because dopamine also plays a role in memory, learning and reward, your cognition can be affected when your dopamine levels are low[29]. Dopamine depletion is also associated with ageing and oxidative damage in the brain[30].



Dopamine is a crucial brain messenger that plays a significant role in various bodily functions. Understanding its complexities can lead to a deeper appreciation of its impact on your daily lives and overall well-being.

 

References

[1] Diederen, K. M. J., & Fletcher, P. C. (2021). Dopamine, Prediction Error and Beyond. The Neuroscientist, 27(1), 30–46.

[2] Dopamine impacts your willingness to work (2012). Vanderbilt University Research News. https://news.vanderbilt.edu/2012/05/01/dopamine-impacts-your-willingness-to-work/

[3] Bassareo, V., De Luca, M. A., & Di Chiara, G. (2002). Differential Expression of Motivational Stimulus Properties by Dopamine in Nucleus Accumbens Shell versus Core and Prefrontal Cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience: The Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 22(11), 4709–4719.

[4] Grevet, E. H., Tietzmann, M. R., Shansis, F. M., Hastenpflugl, C., Santana, L. C., Forster, L., Kapczinskil, F., & Izquierdo, I. (2002). Behavioural effects of acute phenylalanine and tyrosine depletion in healthy male volunteers. Journal of Psychopharmacology (Oxford, England), 16(1), 51–55. 

[5] Morton, H., & Gorzalka, B. B. (2015). Role of Partner Novelty in Sexual Functioning: A Review. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 41(6), 593–609. 

[6] Dopamine (2022). Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22581-dopamine

[7] Wynn, G. (n.d.) Fright or Flight? The Science of How We React to Fear. Fisher Scientific.  https://www.fishersci.com/us/en/scientific-products/publications/online-exclusives/fright-flight-the-science-how-we-react-fear.html

[8] Pruessner, J. C., Champagne, F., Meaney, M. J., & Dagher, A. (2004). Dopamine Release in Response to a Psychological Stress in Humans and Its Relationship to Early Life Maternal Care: A Positron Emission Tomography Study Using [11C]Raclopride. The Journal of Neuroscience, 24(11), 2825–2831.

[9] Den Ouden, H., Kok, P., & De Lange, F. (2012). How Prediction Errors Shape Perception, Attention, and Motivation. Frontiers in Psychology, 3

[10] Schultz, W., Dayan, P., & Montague, P. R. (1997). A Neural Substrate of Prediction and Reward. Science, 275(5306), 1593–1599. 

[11] Gomillion, S. (2016). Can you revive the spark in a long-term relationship? Science reveals all. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/can-you-revive-the-spark-in-a-long-term-relationship-science-reveals-all-54602

[12] Lakicevic, N., Gentile, A., Mehrabi, S., Cassar, S., Parker, K., Roklicer, R., Bianco, A., & Drid, P. (2020). Make Fitness Fun: Could Novelty Be the Key Determinant for Physical Activity Adherence? Frontiers in Psychology, 11.

[13] Foods Highest in Tyrosine (n.d.). My Food Data. https://tools.myfooddata.com/nutrient-ranking-tool/tyrosine/all/highest/household/common/no

[14] Marques, A., Marconcin, P., Werneck, A. O., Ferrari, G., Gouveia, É. R., Kliegel, M., Peralta, M., & Ihle, A. (2021). Bidirectional Association between Physical Activity and Dopamine Across Adulthood—A Systematic Review. Brain Sciences, 11(7). 

[15] Bastioli, G., Arnold, J. C., Mancini, M., Mar, A. C., Gamallo-Lana, B., Saadipour, K., Chao, M. V., & Rice, M. E. (2022). Voluntary Exercise Boosts Striatal Dopamine Release: Evidence for the Necessary and Sufficient Role of BDNF. The Journal of Neuroscience, 42(23), 4725–4736.

[16] Julson, E. (2023). 10 Best Ways to Increase Dopamine Levels Naturally. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-to-increase-dopamine

[17] 9 Fast, Easy Ways to Boost Dopamine (the Doing/Motivation Hormone) (2023). Bethany Medical Clinic. https://www.bmcofny.com/9-fast-easy-ways-to-boost-dopamine-the-doing-motivation-hormone/

[18] Glaeser, B. S., Melamed, E., Growdon, J. H., & Wurtman, R. J. (1979). Elevation of plasma tyrosine after a single oral dose of L-tyrosine. Life Sciences, 25(3), 265–271.

[19] CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 (2023). FDA, U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/CFRSearch.cfm?fr=172.320

[20] Volkow, N. D., Wang, G.-J., Telang, F., Fowler, J. S., Alexoff, D., Logan, J., Jayne, M., Wong, C., & Tomasi, D. (2014). Decreased dopamine brain reactivity in marijuana abusers is associated with negative emotionality and addiction severity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(30), E3149-3156. 

[21] Volkow, N. D., Fowler, J. S., Wang, G. J., Hitzemann, R., Logan, J., Schlyer, D. J., Dewey, S. L., & Wolf, A. P. (1993). Decreased dopamine D2 receptor availability is associated with reduced frontal metabolism in cocaine abusers. Synapse (New York, N.Y.), 14(2), 169–177.

[22] Martinez, D., Narendran, R., Foltin, R. W., Slifstein, M., Hwang, D.-R., Broft, A., Huang, Y., Cooper, T. B., Fischman, M. W., Kleber, H. D., & Laruelle, M. (2007). Amphetamine-induced dopamine release: markedly blunted in cocaine dependence and predictive of the choice to self-administer cocaine. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 164(4), 622–629. 

[23] Volkow, N. D., Wang, G.-J., Telang, F., Fowler, J. S., Logan, J., Wong, C., Ma, J., Pradhan, K., Tomasi, D., Thanos, P. K., Ferré, S., & Jayne, M. (2008). Sleep deprivation decreases binding of [11C]raclopride to dopamine D2/D3 receptors in the human brain. The Journal of Neuroscience: The Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 28(34), 8454–8461. 

[24] Gujar, N., Yoo, S.-S., Hu, P., & Walker, M. P. (2011). Sleep deprivation amplifies reactivity of brain reward networks, biasing the appraisal of positive emotional experiences. The Journal of Neuroscience: The Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 31(12), 4466–4474. 

[25] Insomnia (2021). NHS. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/insomnia/

[26] Jongkees, B. J., Hommel, B., Kühn, S., & Colzato, L. S. (2015). Effect of tyrosine supplementation on clinical and healthy populations under stress or cognitive demands—A review. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 70, 50–57. 

[27] Pani, L., Porcella, A., & Gessa, G. L. (2000). The role of stress in the pathophysiology of the dopaminergic system. Molecular Psychiatry, 5(1), 14–21. 

[28] Dopamine Deficiency (2022). Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22588-dopamine-deficiency

[29] Sherrell, Z. (23). Dopamine deficiency: What you need to know. Medical News Today.  https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320637

[30] Juárez Olguín, H., Calderón Guzmán, D., Hernández García, E., & Barragán Mejía, G. (2016). The Role of Dopamine and Its Dysfunction as a Consequence of Oxidative Stress. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 2016, 9730467.

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