Dopamine for motivation

Dopamine is one of my favourite molecules. I work a lot with mental health, energy,  motivation and mood in my naturopathic practice and dopamine a huge factor for all of them. It is also highly connected to goal setting and improving habits which are things I am always working on personally.

Dopamines Role in our Body and Brain

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter - a signalling chemical in your brain to make you feel/think/do things. Dopamine is most commonly known at the "reward system" in the brain. The extreme ends of the dopamine system include addiction (from excess stimulation of the system) and parkinson like symptoms (from severe depletion).

As with most things in the human body, the dopamine pathway has many different effects on the body outside of it's extremes. It works within our brain as a signal and also has effect on our hormones.

Dopamine levels effect:

  • Motivation to start and complete tasks
  • Procrastination
  • Enjoyment and pleasure
  • Overall mood including depression and feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness
  • Libido
  • Sleep
  • Alertness, especially upon waking
  • Ability to cope with stress
  • Anger
  • Focus and attention (including ADHD)
  • Lutenizing hormone, which effects progesterone and testosterone levels (effecting menses, muscle mass, libido, energy)

The dopamine pathway can be overstimulated by drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines (adderall, MDMA) and nicotine. Drug stimulation of dopamine can often lead to addiction and the need for increased amounts of substances. This can blow out your dopamine pathway and cause people to have dopamine deficiency symptoms unless they are using substances. Part of the withdrawal of addictions comes from comparatively low levels of dopamine when coming discontinuing the substances. Excessive use of alcohol, cannabis, and sugar, especially as rewards, may also dull the responsiveness and efficacy of your dopamine system.

In general the people I see in my clinic either have low endogenous (self made) levels of dopamine or need help to rebalance their dopamine system while changing their substance use patterns.

How to Increase and Rebalance Dopamine

The way that I see low dopamine effecting people the MOST is with motivation. So much of our health is based on our diet, lifestyle, and exercise habits and those all require energy and motivation to change. Many people in my clinic WANT to change their health and KNOW the things they need to do to change it but have a hard time doing it. This is where supporting dopamine becomes so important!

Small Goals for the Dopamine Win

The BEST (aka. most sustainable, effective, consistent and affordable) way to increase dopamine is to achieve small goals EVERY DAY. I often see this in my patients, and in myself, that the more we do, the more we do. When you accomplish a goal, no matter how big or small, you get a flush of dopamine through your system. This improves your overall mood, alertness, energy and wanting-ness to do more things! This is a huge part of the habit building process as well. For example, if your goal is to exercise every day but you are feeling really unmotivated one day, do even 10 mins of exercise. This will help up-regulate (increase) the activity of your dopamine pathway and keep improving it's function and thus your motivation for the rest of the day and days to come!

Additional lifestyle ways to increase dopamine:

  • Small tasks rewarded
    • Using a checklist or a habit tracker is a great way to get a visual confirmation (aka reward) of your daily accomplishments
  • Breaking down large projects into smaller pieces
  • Daily routine
  • Exercise consistently
  • Decrease recreational substances (including alcohol, sugar, and drugs) that "blow out" your dopamine pathway
  • Create healthy rewards for yourself (a 15 min break, cup of tea, fruit or veggie snack, doing more enjoyable tasks after more difficult ones are completed)
Nutrients for Dopamine production

Dopamine production requires multiple nutrients. Additionally for our brain to use dopamine it must be creating in the brain as it can't cross the blood brain barrier. In order for all the dopamine components to cross the blood brain barrier we need to have well balanced blood sugar.

Having well balanced levels of the following is important for dopamine:

  • Blood sugar and insulin
  • Iron
  • B6 (P5P)
  • Folate (B9)
  • Oxygen
  • Magnesium
  • Phenylalanine/tyrosine

Proper nutrition and exercise can help support all of the above, though many people need extra support and supplementation. Checking in with a health care provider and getting labs done have help asses your iron and B vitamin levels.

Herbal Medicine for Dopamine Support

L-theanine from Green Tea increases multiple neurotransmitters including dopamine.

Bacopa Monnieri (Brahmi may be neuroprotective to the dopamine system

Mucuna pruriens (velvet bean) contains L-dopa, a precursor to dopamine.

Scutellaria baicalensis (Chinese skullcap) decreases parkinson symptoms in multiple animal studies.

In Summary

A dopamine deficiency could be contributing to your health problems, especially if you are having troubles with motivation! Healthy support of your dopamine pathway can be done through good habits, achievable tasks and consistency. Multiple nutrients and dietary habits contribute to your bodies ability to make and use dopamine. See a health care practitioner for a detailed assesement of your nutrition and try to decrease sugar comsuption. Addition of specific herbs and supplements can help you get on the right track towards healthy dopamine pathways!

Congrats on making it to the end of this article! Give your self a pat on the back and I hope you continue your steps towards a better understanding of your health!

All my motivation and encouragement,

Dr. K




Why Isn't My Brain Working by Datis Kharrazian