Once you get to really know dopamine, seeking balance and support becomes almost a…passion.
That's actually the correct word to express the root effect of dopamine.
Passion. The definition:
Strong and barely controllable emotion.
We'll touch base on what dopamine really is (not the "pleasure" you've been promised) below but more importantly…
Dopamine is under assault these days. Actually…it's exhausted.
We'll look at the primary insults, how much they spike dopamine, and what this means for your general feeling of…zest! Loving life and what you're doing.
After all, that's what's at stake here.
More importantly, we'll cover new research on tools that naturally support dopamine…some of them are behaviors and others as supplements you can take.
One caveat…no tolerance. No addiction. Naturally, support our baseline dopamine.
Here are the topics we'll cover:
- A quick intro to your passion pathway, dopamine
- Tool #1 - Abstinence makes dopamine grow fonder
- Tool #2 - Cold exposure
- Tool #2 - CBD isolate
- Tool #3 - Serotonin - the upstream driver and push-back
- Tool #4 - Yerba Mate (yes, that!!)
- Tool #5 - Myricitin - the GLP1 agonist pathway
- Tool #6 - Avoid the spikes - the pleasure/pain balance
- Tool #7 - reframe hardship - the smart monkey path
- Tool #8 - Vitamin D and steroids
- Tool #9 - Magnesium glycinate - your mineral dopa support
- Tool #10 - Meditation and Excercise - the BDNF pathway
- The Dopamine Grab-bag
- A final message - un-burden dopamine from the past
We'll wrap with the grab-bag list and a quick but very important send off note regarding early trauma, infection, and stress - must read if you really want to rescue dopamine (and every other messenger in the brain!!).
Let's get started!
A quick intro to your passion pathway, dopamine
We've all heard of dopamine as the "reward circuit" (true) and also tied to pleasure (less true).
Let's clarify a bit.
At its top level function, dopamine is an anciently conserved (worms have it) driver of behavior or action that increases survival odds.
So…wrapped up in this "mission statement" are a host of different effects:
- Dopamine boosts cravings for food, sex, water, and that new promotion (in today's world)
- Dopamine drives novelty seeking…the same source will slowly lose effects
- Dopamine is the "do that again" player (seems to be at odds with #2 above)
- Dopamine drives action! Physical (literally) and thought motivation
What is the net effect of this?? Not really pleasure but more….satisfaction.
Just like serotonin isn't the "feel good" transmitter so much as "feel right in your own skin" player.
They're intimately linked by the way as we'll see below.
That just scratches the surface though!
Dopamine is a very dynamic system with two different components:
- Tonic levels - think of the ocean level
- Phasic levels - think of waves or peaks in that ocean level
Tonic is our baseline level and it can differ across people depending on genetics, past trauma, diet, sleep, etc.
The level of tonic dopamine speaks to your general level of motivation or desire to "seek".
The difference between the two speaks to how "beneficial" that last behavior (could be sex…could be cocaine) was perceived as.
Now…we can quickly get lost in the weeds but here's the key…
Dopamine exhausts when it spikes.
There's always a "hangover" effect when something is really rewarding. The more the reward, the more the following drop.
In fact, the spike goes away and the "pool" of dopamine (tonic) also drops temporarily.
Goodness…pleasure now is bought on credit!
You'll have to pay it back with interest (pain or discomfort).
So we have to be careful. We want tools that do not just jack up dopamine in one direction.
Or you pay for it later!
With that in mind, let's get started. Our dopamine system is overrun these days!
- Social media
- Cell phones
- Drugs of choice
- Omega 6 fats (all processed foods - see Fats guide)
- Video games
- Layering of dopamine sources
Goodness…no wonder we're not feeling very…passionate.
Let's get started with a general tip that's so powerful.
Tool #1 - Distance makes the dopamine grow fonder
If we're constantly spiking dopamine (the phasic or spike piece), we'll slowly deplete our natural pool of dopamine for the future.
Doom-scroll your phone for about an hour and see how you feel after. Or how about the morning after a fun night of drinking (alcohol boosts dopamine levels)?
Interestingly…what does the removal of dopamine feel like?
Emotional and cognitive PAIN!
Or malaise…a general inability to move, function, and feel motivated.
Dr. Huberman gives a master class on dopamine here. He descibed a temporary block of dopamine from a medication as the feeling of...abject misery!
So..how can we use this to our advantage?
Essentially, like with any kind of tolerance (and this may be THE primary form of tolerance), we need time away.
Let that pool fill back up! Dopamine is also a reward prediction machine. A type of learning in the brain.
There's an intermittent aspect to it. That's why gambling is so compelling. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Totally random.
Dopamine LOVES this! It's like a puzzle it's trying to figure out for survival (money = food, sex, water, etc in our world).
So…if you always smoke out (dopamine) before eating (dopamine) and you're trying to dis-entangle this…flip a coin.
Heads you do, tails you don't. Check out our review for Tapering THC and Cannabis for more tools as an example.
Block out cell phone checks for periods of time.
The future is going to belong to those that can self-moderate the endless sources of dopamine firehoses we encounter now.
I feel blessed to have been born in the 70s before all this enticement!
In the meantime, take the things you're most craving and take breaks. Find balance.
If this sounds impossible, the tools below will help the transition.
Let's get started!
Tool #2 - Cold exposure
Stay with us...I know...it sounds crazy and impossible to get in cold water but just read the next bit.
Very interesting research on cold exposure and dopamine.
We're switching the direction:
From pain to pleasure!
You're buying future satisfaction with current pain (reversing the pleasure seeking pain avoiding path).
Researchers have known this for quite some time:
Cold exposure produces a large increase in rat brown adipose tissue (BAT) dopamine (DA) content. This increase is rapid (30 min of cold are sufficient to produce a maximal effect), and can be detected at different ages (from birth to adulthood).
Here's the fascinating piece…
Cold exposure increases tonic (the ocean level) dopamine and the effects are long lasting!
Cocaine spikes dopamine but it drops very fast and very sharply followed by a reduction in tonic (ocean level) dopamine.
Cold exposure is boosting the general "function" of our dopamine system!
What on earth is going on here?
Two things pop out.
First, cold exposure appears to reduce dopamine activity…essentially giving it a break. Think of tolerance in reverse!
Compared to controls, cold exposed rats displayed 64% fewer spontaneously active DA neurons.
We see this effect all over the body (glutamate receptors and pain; insulin receptors and sugar, etc).
Too much for too long causes burn-out at neurons. Give them a break and they come back online better than ever!
The other is more of a neurotransmitter hack!
Adrenaline (norepinephrine) is made from…dopamine! It's how dopamine get's us up and running.
Not only fight or flight but just being able to get out of bed (lower levels of adrenaline gets us moving AND focused).
Cold exposure tricks the body into thinking it's in immediate peril! It needs adrenaline to respond and that kickstarts the middle person…dopamine.
Really exciting tool to rescue dopamine longer term. Also, good luck feeling depressed or anxious after cold exposure!
So…check out Wim Hoff's book or content on cold exposure. Great first guide.
Go slow. Breath. Understand that you're buying future pleasure/satisfaction with the initial pain. You're paying off your passion credit balance!
Even 5-10 minutes at 60 degrees (a cold bath) can trigger many of the benefits.
Work with your health status and and doctor/naturopath. Again, Huberman's review is impressive and actionable.
Let's turn to a different kind of tool.
Tool #2 - CBD isolate and dopamine
Our original interest in CBD isolate and dopamine specifically came from studies on schizophrenia and psychosis of all things.
This brutal disease is characterized by too much dopamine in one area (striatum - the so-called "positive" symptoms) and too little in another area (pre-frontal cortex - the so-call "negative" symptoms).
Imbalance in different brain areas.
The anti-psychotics basically pound dopamine to at least lessen the paranoia, hallucinations, etc from the striatum hyperactive dopamine function.
CBD showed impressive results for this area while not depressing the pre-frontal cortex!
Together with clinical evidence showing that CBD may normalize affective and cognitive deficits associated with schizophrenia, CBD may represent a promising treatment for schizophrenia, acting through novel molecular and neuronal mesolimbic substrates.
Hmmm…mesolimbic substrates. Dopamine's territory!
Different responses depend on the state of the system (or even separate brain areas!!)
The cannabinoid system manages deviation from balance in the dopamine system!
THC pushes activity too hard and too long at the CB1 receptor so it can actually cause tolerance (long term dopamine dysfunction) and to a lesser extent, addiction (about 9% of users).
CBD shows no signs of addiction, tolerance, or withdrawals.
More importantly for our discussion, half of the dopamine rescue is calming the craving aspects of harmful behaviors we have now.
Let's look at the worst of the worst…opioid addiction and craving:
Acute CBD administration, in contrast to placebo, significantly reduced cue-induced craving, and long-lasting beneficial effects on craving were also reported
This is dopamine misdirected people! And CBD appears to bring this system back in line.
This effect may actually be due to its powerful big brother in the brain. Serotonin.
Tool #3 - Serotonin - the upstream driver
You can't rescue dopamine without addressing serotonin first. There's an intricate dance between the two!
Serotonin is the master regulator of ALL human behavior:
And on and on.
It gets incredibly complex teasing out the interaction between serotonin and dopamine but the simple sketch is this:
- Dopamine drives our more basic impulses from the older "reptilian" brain
- Serotonin is the new addition - a constraint on those more animal instincts
Generally, dopamine wants more more more.
Serotonin provides a negative assessment of these "impulses".
"Okay…sure, cocaine SOUNDS great but I may blow out my heart or end up trading can goods for sexual favors".
High serotonin levels will increase inhibition and feelings of satiation, modulating dopamine’s effects on reward reinforcement
Goodness…the prefrontal cortex (seat of serotonin) is offline during puberty remodeling. Impulse control issues much!?!?
Also, dementia shows intense atrophy in that brain area as well. Same issues.
So…we need healthy serotonin to keep dopamine in check or we'll be spiking it into oblivion.
Check out our review on serotonin or serotonin and self-esteem (fascinating) or more importantly…our serotonin rescue page coming soon.
One big clue…with longer-term SSRI use (pump up serotonin till tolerance sends it the other way), we see drops in dopamine (and libido, joy, etc):
Sustained administration of escitalopram robustly decreased the firing rate and burst activity of DA neurons.
Libido is square in the wheelhouse of dopamine (sex, the act and craving of it directly boosts dopamine…or should anyway!).
Our SSRI rescue kit looks at how to naturally support serotonin.
Next up…a curious addition.
Tool #4 - Yerba Mate (yes, that!!)
Most "drugs" adversely affect dopamine longer term. They spike it and our baseline levels drop accordingly.
Caffeine is a bit different. It may actually increase the density of dopamine neurons in the brain!
Our findings indicate that in the human brain, caffeine, at doses typically consumed, increases the availability of DA D2/D3 receptors, which indicates that caffeine does not increase DA in the striatum for this would have decreased D2/D3 receptor availability.
This is important. If there was dopamine tolerance (a longer term reduction in function), we would see fewer receptors over time.
Yerba Mate adds a whole other element!
We found that yerba mate extract induces a strong neuroprotective effect on dopaminergic neurons as well as a dramatic increase in their dendritic development
Okay…this is the direct opposite of dopamine dysfunction. The neurons tied to dopamine function are literally growing connections.
If you can, look for low sugar options and early in the morning since caffeine opposes adenosine which manages your sleep/wake cycle.
Anything that protects dopamine neurons and function is a go!
Now, a new and fascinating addition.
Tool #5 - Myricetin - the GLP1 agonist pathway
We have a big review on myricetin.
It's a GLP1 agonist like the new blockbuster obesity drug, Ozempic but without the nasty side-effect profile.
GLP1 is a gut signaller to the brain that nutrients are satisfactory…turn off appetite.
Here's the fascinating piece…the brain likes to multi-task and the root driver of GLP1 activity is partially driven by…dopamine!
As a result, researchers are seeing a reduction in cravings across multiple drugs from GLP1 activity:
Our current review demonstrates that GLP-1 not only decreases palatable food intake, but it can also decrease cocaine, amphetamine, alcohol, and nicotine use in animal models (Supplementary Tables 1, 2).
Of course…dopamine is always in play with addiction so..
Moreover, GLP-1 receptor agonists prevent the ability of other addictive drugs to activate the mesolimbic dopamine system.
Part of rescuing our dopamine system is "editing" out old habits and addictions. Otherwise, they're spiking our phasic dopamine and slowly eroding our baseline.
Myricetin is an option available now to mirror pathway effects of the $30K/year drug being prescribed in boatloads (with a pretty significant side-effect profile).
Let's turn to the bizarro world of dopamine in terms of feel-good behaviors.
Tool #6 - Avoid the spikes - the pleasure/pain balance
Here's the simple equation that will change your life.
The more a behavior or substance spikes dopamine, the more your baseline dopamine will drop after.
For a period of time.
Let's look at some common triggers to see how much they spike dopamine above baseline:
- Chocolate - 50%
- Food - 100%
- Sex - 150%
- Cold exposure - 250%
- Methamphetamine - 1000%
Goodness…meth is absolutely destroying dopamine function and guaranteeing that it's THE focus of the brain.
The drop afterwards is going to be brutal!
That's the key point…think of dopamine as a credit card. When you spend now (that chocolate croissant), you'll have to pay back later (feel down).
The "account" always wants to get back to zero but it will swing.
The absence of dopamine is just absolute emptiness and misery. Huberman recounts a time when his dopamine was blocked medically (podcast above).
A few key notes…
- Don't layer dopamine events
- Don't always indulge (flip a coin to see if you'll play music while working, etc)
- Don't reward yourself before or after something hard
- Do give your dopamine system breaks (i.e. blocks of time off the phone, no vids on certain days)
The more random the better. Not only does this increase your baseline but it will make the things you like…MORE enjoyable.
This sounds great but if it were that easy…
Let's go there now. Time to Jedi mind-trick your dopamine system.
Tool #7 - reframe hardship - the smart monkey path
Remember…dopamine runs the roost for our older brain areas (the "reptilian" brain) which hasn't changed much since…well reptiles!
Impulse. More. Now. Novelty. Damn the repercussions!
It's easy to think…we'll I can't fight those urges…they operate outside my conscious control.
Here's the interesting piece.
We've added new hardware onto that old-world brain which got us through a few million years.
The prefrontal-cortex. The part behind your forehead that makes humans…human!
Our thinking brain not only directly pushes back on the old world dominion (serotonin from above!!) but can also twist cravings to suit our needs.
I absolutely hate cold water. I blame it on my southern French heritage (mom's side) but genetically, I just don't have the cold exposure hardware. Hate it. With a passion.
That being said…I "know" just how powerful dopamine is to…well…everything!
Everything I want to do in this life. This completely colors how I view cold exposure now.
Every time I get in that cold water, I'm buying future happiness and satisfaction. It's the reverse credit card.
Literally, the stuff that makes life worth living is imbued in that cold water. I crave it now! I look forward to it. Seriously. Because…I KNOW.
That's the power of the prefrontal cortex. We can rationalize almost anything. We can create cravings for work, hardship, pain, and discomfort.
If we know that this will directly increase our sense of well-being, wonder, and drive.
Remember…the pain and pleasure centers are the same in the brain (check out Dr. Lembke's work on this - Dopamine Nation is the book).
It appears from our study that dopamine acts as an interface between stress, pain, and emotions, or between physical and emotional events and that it’s activated with both positive and negative stimuli,”
Embrace hardship. Discomfort. And watch how good you feel in the other 23 hours of the day.
The cold exposure above is a perfect example!
Let's turn to another immediate tool for proper dopamine function.
Tool #8 - Vitamin D and steroids
We have massive reviews on the following:
First, T and estrogen both drive serotonin and we saw above how it helps manage dopamine function (especially to the top end).
In general, T and estrogen are pro-growth, repair, and replenishment.
Just look what happens when gonads are removed:
Gonadectomy in adult male rats is known to impair performance on dopamine (DA)-dependent prefrontal cortical tasks and selectively dysregulate end points in the mesoprefrontal DA system including axon density.
Goodness. Axon density…literally a reduction of neurons that carry dopamine's signal.
A loss of permanent dopamine function.
Just for reproduction, right??
And progesterone, the opposing force to estrogen?
Progesterone can affect dopamine levels via numerous mechanisms including affecting the release, turnover, receptors and transporters. Progesterone has been found to stimulate dopamine release
It drops by 50% at age 40 for most women. Just saying…
We learned the hard way with a brutal perimenopause.
Then there's Vitamin D, a steroid we used to get from the sun for which many people are deficient.
I don't know where to start…over 1000 chemical transactions use D including many with dopamine function.
Evidence show that vitamin D may be involved in neurodevelopment and may have a neuroprotective effect on dopaminergic pathways in the adult brain.
This speaks to the protection of the dopamine system…especially from drugs and toxins that spike or destroy it.
Vitamin D affects dopamine synthesis and metabolism as well as expression of glial cell line–derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF), which is crucial for the survival of dopaminergic neurons.
Get your steroidal hormones and Vitamin D tested. Supplement as needed!
Another safe and effective tool for dopamine rescue.
Tool #9 - Magnesium glycinate - your mineral dopa support
Mag is a powerful player across the body and brain with dopamine also affected.
That's not good news in light of this:
One study shows that 68% of Americans are magnesium deficient (www.usda.gov).
Here's the fascinating piece.
Dopamine is a member of the family that drives action…matriarch actually of catecholamines! Adrenaline. Glutamate. All intimately tied.
Mag supports the calming opposing force (mainly GABA).
When mag goes down (stress is a huge factor), dopamine runs wild!:
Magnesium deficiency is accompanied by a decrease of sleep duration and by an increase of brain dopamine level (Chollet et al., 2000). These data strongly support the reduction of cerebral catecholamine release by magnesium
Too much dopamine is tied to mental health issues, insomnia, ADHD, etc. Anytime the brain is running too hot. We looked at whether daily cannabis use is tied to too much glutamate as an example.
Mag is a great mineral dampening field on excessive activity there and remember..part of rescuing dopamine is avoiding excess (or there's payback the other way).
Dopamine's funny in that…the more you use it, the less you get in the future. Balancing the extremes is critical.
Check out the big review on magnesium for mental health.
Tool #10 - Meditation and Excercise - the BDNF pathway
You only have about 400,000 neurons in the brain that generate dopamine.
Okay…this a drop in the bucket! Out of 86 billion total. 0.00000465116 Goodness.
Dopamine can't cross the blood-brain barrier although the vagus nerve may signal production from the gut where dopamine is made by gut bacteria (more on that below).
So…how do we protect and support these neurons?
First, avoid drugs and behaviors that drive tolerance. The brain will literally reduce sensitivity and numbers of neurons from such indulgences.
Next…we have to support BDNF, the fertilizer of the brain!
I can't express how important this is in light of all the insults the brain endures:
- Hyperactive immune response
- Loss of steroids
We need to protect that small band of 400,000 neurons!
Nigral neurons express Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF) and dopamine D3 receptors, both of which protect the dopamine neurons.
Parkinson's is a loss of these neurons (see Parkinson's review).
And the striatum…
BDNF determines the size of the striatum by supporting survival of the immature striatal neurons at their origin, promotes maturation of striatal neurons, and facilitates establishment of striatal connections during brain development
BDNF is literally the construction (and remodeling) crew for your dopamine system.
So…how do we support BDNF??
- Mindful meditation
- Psilocybin (when available)
- CBD isolate
- Steroidal hormones (via serotonin pathway)
- Vitamin D
Big review on all of those since BDNF is THE key to addiction (hello dopamine) and mental health.
Finally…the runner's up.
The dopamine grab-bag!
Tools that may support dopamine function, don't build tolerance, and are generally considered safe!
- Omega 3's (fish oil)
- Ginkgo Biloba
Most of these revolve around the repair side (BDNF, serotonin, etc) or the insult side (inflammation, glutamate excess, etc).
Berberine and dopamine
This is the gut connection (our gut bacteria - more on probiotics).
A look at Parkinson's:
BBR might improve the brain function by upregulating the biosynthesis of L-dopa in the gut microbiota through a vitamin-like effect.
It did this by boosting TH, the rate limiting conversion of l-dopa into dopamine.
That's a great way to support…we're not directly boosting like with l-dopa or tyrosine.
In fact, low dopamine may be a result of gut imbalance for some people.
Big review on berberine.
Curcumin and dopamine
Curcumin (turmeric) has many effects but one of them is to slow down the pathway (MAO) that brakes down key neurotransmitters.
Bhutani et al. (15) showed that curcumin reversed the depressive-like behavior induced by chronic stress on mice and enhanced the serotoninergic and dopaminergic transmission alongside an inhibition of the MAO-A.
In fact…some people have a "fast" version of MAO and therefore, just rip through their neurotransmitters. Another key cause...
It also supports BDNF!
Omega 3's (fish oil)
Check out the big fats guide. Sooo important these days.
Seed oils and processed food may be dopamine's worst enemy and it comes down to omega 6 fats outgunning (they compete) omega 3s.
Dietary supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids increases dopamine levels and D2 receptor binding, and lowers monoamine oxidase B (MAO-B) activity in the prefrontal cortex and D2 receptor binding in the striatum (Chalon et al., 1998).
Goodness…there's MAO (the dopamine removal system) and increased binding. That means function…key since we don't want to just juice up dopamine!
The big fats guide.
Ginko's biggest impact may be in decreasing oxidative stress in the brain while increasing blood flow.
The net effect:
Some studies have found that supplementing with Ginkgo biloba in the long term increased dopamine levels in rats, which helped improve cognitive function, memory and motivation
The "long term" is key for us. We don't want tolerance!
Finally…the monster player with brain healing.
Psilocybin and dopamine
A big part of psilocybin's mechanism relies on serotonin and we know it's integrally tied to dopamine…so???
psilocybin indirectly increases dopamine levels in the brain, probably through 5-HT2A receptor activation
We like indirect! Also, the research on psilocybin and other addictions is just breathtaking.
Check out the big psilocybin review but addiction is about to have a major adversary.
This brings us to the final takeaway. Maybe the most important part.
A final message - unburden dopamine from the past
Newer research is showing that psilocybin's long term effect is due to genes being turned on/off in... the immune system!
It makes sense..how could one psilocybin use cause such profound effects..for months or years!!!
Dopamine (or serotonin) quickly return to baseline (and go even lower) after a spike.
We're talking about long term structural changes.
This is the future of mental health and feeling great.
We have a big review on editing your mental health past but a quick take.
Early trauma, infection, or stress can dysregulate all these systems longer term (including dopamine) and the "markup" is made in our immune system.
A catalog of past insults. Even in utero or from prior generations.
Psil's secret weapon is an ability to "edit" these markups!
And dopamine specifically??
Wait for it….
Together, these studies indicate that ELS alters tonic and/or stimulus-induced dopamine from VTA to NAc, and that enduring alterations in NAc processing may in part be due to altered dopamine clearance.
Goodness. ELS (Early Life Stress) changes (for the worse) both tonic and phasic dopamine levels.
Your satisfaction and pleasure "set points".
This has a big impact on "risk" of addiction by the way. It's self-medicating because loss of dopamine feels like...crushing dispair.
The interaction with early trauma, stress, or infection has many effects from dopamine alterations:
- Lower general dopamine function
- Reduced plasticity (the BDNF brain rewiring system) can't "shake out of it"
- Increased risk of addiction when faced with stress
People…you have to remove this burden from your dopamine system FIRST.
Dopamine function may just be reflecting past insults.
Check out related research:
- Editing your epigenetic past
- Trauma guide
- Why the immune system is the future of mental health
- CBD and dopamine
- Serotonin guide
Okay...that's a wrap. Go get your dopamine back. Myricetin, Vitamin D, mag, and CBD isolate are great tools to make the harder work...easier.
Always work with a doctor or naturopath with any supplement!
The information provided here is not intended to treat an illness or substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from a qualified healthcare provider.