Given that many of these newsletters are about what makes us sick, and given the nature of the times, this week I thought I would address the subject of feeling good. And what makes us feel good? Ultimately, it is the neurotransmitter dopamine. From love to learning, from coffee to heroin, the dopamine pathway is involved.
The chemical messenger, dopamine, is evolution’s reward mechanism, one that serves many functions, aside from making us feel good. Dopamine is involved in attention, memory, motivation, and even in regulating body movements (thus dopamine receptor malfunction is an attribute of Parkinson’s disease).
When the body releases large amounts of dopamine we experience feelings of pleasure and reward, this in turn motivates us to repeat a specific behavior. Originally this worked out great: we fall in love and we release dopamine, being rewarded for maintaining the species (in a healthful manner); we learn something new, make a connection in an area that we find interesting, and we get a shot of dopamine encouraging learning in the species.
However, when we figured out how to stimulate the dopamine circuit on our own, things got dicey. Most drugs from sugar and coffee to cocaine and heroin follow the dopamine circuit. Almost anything that can be addictive usually involves the dopamine circuit. Even simple computer games omnipresent on smartphones are based on the dopamine/reward system.
And it’s not just computer games that ride this circuit.
Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook, had this to say to an audience of Stanford students: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.” Palihapitiya went on to emphasize that smartphones, along with the social media platforms they support, are turning people into addicts. Platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram, “leverage the very same neural circuitry used by slot machines and cocaine to keep us using their products as much as possible”. (Source)
While high dopamine levels have us feeling on top of the world, low levels of dopamine result in lowered enthusiasm for life, and reduced motivation. Here, I would like to address the use of serotonin for depression.
Those showing symptoms of lowered enthusiasm for life and reduced motivation are what we would consider depressed. Clearly dopamine would be the answer here but, instead, drugs like Prozac - Selective Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors - are prescribed. Drugs which work to increase serotonin. Serotonin is an inhibitory neurotransmitter (unlike dopamine which is an excitatory neurotransmitter), and is more suitable for those suffering from anxiety.
The simple definition is that serotonin is a “downer” and dopamine is an “upper. Thus it is absolutely incorrect, and dangerous, to give downers to those who are depressed. (For more on this subject have a read of my older blog called “Mood Enhancers”.)
I know what you are thinking: "but Ken, I don’t want to take heroin to feel good about life." Good news: you don’t have to. There are many natural ways to gently elevate our dopamine levels, which we will look at now.
Contrary to previous beliefs about fat, we do need some saturated fats, and some cholesterol, for good health. That being said, animal research has indicated that saturated fats (found in animal fat, butter, coconut oil, full-fat dairy, and palm oil) may disrupt dopamine signaling in the brain.
However, this only occurs when these fats are consumed in large amounts, and these are rat studies, and it is possible that the traditional rat diet would not naturally be high in saturated fats.
Nonetheless, in one study, rats consuming 50% of their calories from saturated fat had reduced dopamine signaling in their brains, compared to rats receiving the same amount of calories from unsaturated fats. (Study)
As far as human studies go, some observational studies have identified a link between a diet high in saturated fats and poor cognitive functioning and memory, though it was not established if this effect was related to dopamine levels. (These observational studies also revealed that the frequent consumption of fish was associated with better cognitive function and memory.) (Study)
The most powerful source of L-dopa, the precursor to dopamine, is the velvet bean, sold in supplemental form under its latin name, Mucuna Pruriens. When concentrated into a form suitable for supplementing with, studies have shown that mucuna may be as effective as medications for boosting dopamine levels in those with Parkinson’s disease. (Study)
Another plant-derived substance shown to elevate dopamine is curcumin, from the spice turmeric. (Study) And, the ideal type of turmeric extract is the liposomal form, which delivers the curcumin directly into the cells. (Liposomal Curcumin/Resveratrol)
In a limited study of 8 experienced meditators, one hour of meditation induced a 64% increase in dopamine production, compared with the same participants simply resting quietly for an equal amount of time. (Study)
Brain imaging studies have found that listening to music increases activity in areas of the brain which are rich with dopamine receptors. (Study)
The gut is often referred to as the “second brain” due to the large number of nerve cells it contains, which produce many neurotransmitters. In fact, there is now the term “psychobiotics” which is used to describe an “emerging class of probiotics of relevance to psychiatry”.
Research in this area has made it clear that certain species of gut bacteria are also capable of producing dopamine. (Study) While there is limited research on the subject of dopamine and probiotics, there are certainly many studies which indicate that certain bacteria strains reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression (in animals and humans). (Study)
At this point I will mention an older newsletter of mine which revealed that our probiotic product, Lactospore Supreme, proved itself to be “effective in managing psychological conditions associated with disorders in the gut, opening up a new avenue of research in the field of enteric-neurobiology and brain-gut-microbiome axis”. (Reference)
Dopamine requires two amino acids in order to be produced in the body, both of which are obtained from foods high in protein. These two, phenylalanine and tyrosine, are found in beef, dairy products, eggs, legumes, soy, and turkey. (Vegetarians might consider consuming the algae spirulina, which is very high in phenylalanine.)
There are studies which show that increasing the amount of tyrosine and phenylalanine in the diet can increase dopamine levels in the brain. (Study) And, other studies show that removing phenylalanine and tyrosine from the diet will result in depleted dopamine. (Study)
For those not eating a high protein diet (which is primarily a diet including animal foods, or an awful lot of protein shakes), or for those with seriously low dopamine levels, the two amino acids in question are available in supplement form. (Single amino acids in supplement form should be taken on an empty stomach, or at least away from protein.)
As you might expect, we release dopamine in the mornings, when we need to wake up and be alert (thus coffee, which provides caffeine, and also elevates dopamine levels moderately). And of course, dopamine levels decline in the evening (as serotonin levels, ideally, rise), when it is time to relax and go to sleep.
However, lack of sleep can disrupt the natural rhythms of neurotransmitters. Studies in which subjects are forced to stay awake throughout the night, have shown that the ability to process dopamine is drastically reduced by the next morning. (Study)
Other studies have confirmed that regular, good quality sleep keeps dopamine levels ideal, and aids in one being more alert and high functioning during the day. (Study)
Most of us are aware of the condition called SAD (seasonal affective disorder), which causes some people to feel depressed during the winter. It has been established that low exposure to sunlight can lead to reduced levels of dopamine, and that exposure to more sunlight can increase dopamine levels. (Study)
In fact, even tanning salons will do the job of tricking your body into believing it is getting sunshine. In one study, those who used tanning beds at least twice a week, for one year, were found to have higher dopamine levels as a result (and a desire to repeat the behavior, indicating that even tanning can be addictive). (Study)
While most forms of exercise benefit the mood, one that is clinically effective at raising dopamine levels is yoga. One study, lasting 3 months, discovered that one hour of yoga, done 6 days of the week, could increase dopamine levels significantly. (Study)
Finally, it must be mentioned that we do require certain nutrients be present for our body to make dopamine (aside from the aforementioned amino acids), and if these are not present in adequate amounts, none of the above techniques will be able to work.
The most important nutrients for dopamine production are: iron, niacin, folate and vitamin B6, magnesium, and vitamin D.
Dopamine is a double-edged sword. Proper amounts, naturally derived, are part of a healthy, happy life. Too much, attained through unnatural means (drugs, gambling, social media tricks, being addicted to falling in love), eventually blunts or (in the case of heavy drug use) destroys the dopamine receptors. At that point the individual can no longer get high on life, and needs more and more of the drug, or lifestyle, in question just to feel anything. This is why Chamath Palihapitiya stated social media addiction is “ destroying how society works”. A nation of addicts jonesing for their next fix is hardly what we need in these perilous times.