If you’ve read recent headlines about why social media is so addictive, you know that one of the reasons you just can’t stop scrolling is because of how our phones mess with dopamine. This buzzy (and super-important) chemical works within our brain’s reward system, where it helps us experience pleasure. “Sex, shopping, smelling cookies baking in the oven—all these things can trigger dopamine release or a ‘dopamine rush,'” says an article on Harvard Medical School’s website.
We could all use more pleasure over business these days, but it’s important we get our fix from productive activities. Here’s a breakdown of how dopamine works and impacts our lives, plus healthy ways we can enjoy its feel-good effects.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that affects the central nervous system and is associated with reward, pleasure, and motivation. Dopamine is sometimes referred to as “the pleasure hormone.” As a chemical made from amino acids that your nervous system uses to send messages between nerve cells, dopamine acts like both a hormone and a neurochemical, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Dopamine is vital for our overall well-being because it has these essential functions:
- Helps us feel pleasure and a sense of reward
- Motivates us to achieve goals
- Reinforces behaviors so we continue doing them
- Facilitates the process of learning new information
- Helps us pay attention and concentrate
- Elevates our mood and protects against depression
- Normalizes our sleep patterns
- Dulls pain
- Gives us motivation and energy for physical movement, plus supports coordination and motor control
- Supports reproductive processes
- Facilitates maintenance of normal heart rate, blood vessel function, and kidney function
When you experience a so-called “dopamine rush,” you’ll likely feel highly motivated, excited, and energized. Think about how you feel when you’re anticipating something great that’s about to happen, or when you’ve just mastered a new skill. Dopamine is at work in both of these circumstances.
Factors That Affect Dopamine Production
A whole slew of behaviors, both productive and non-productive, can trigger your body to pump out dopamine, giving you a feeling of pleasure, which then makes you want to repeat the behaviors again in the future:
- Social media use
- Eating highly-palatable foods
- Drinking alcohol
- Using drugs
- Buying material objects
- Consuming content including TV shows, YouTube videos, and pornography
- Learning new information
On the flip side, many aspects of modern living can negatively impact our ability to produce dopamine. “Stress, poor sleep, and poor eating habits can all reduce your dopamine levels,” explains naturopath Dr. Olivia Rose, N.D.
The Dopamine Downsides
To stay healthy and happy, we want to release a certain amount of dopamine on a regular basis. Continuously releasing too much dopamine starts to dull its effects, leading us to feel less pleasure in situations that previously made us happy and excited, explains The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N. (What’s more, too much dopamine is linked to having poor impulse control, aggressive behavior, and more.)
Here’s how it works: If you eat junk food for two weeks straight, it initially tastes great and brings you joy, shares Blakely. But then, as you get accustomed to it, the junk food loses its appeal and no longer brings you a sense of pleasure. This means that you need to eat more of it to get the same dopamine boost, or you must seek out other ways to achieve that pleasurable feeling.
The same concept can be applied to habits such as social media use, alcohol, buying things like new clothes or jewelry, and so on, suggests The National Institutes of Health. In small amounts, these habits can add excitement to our lives, but when overdone, they do little to make us happier and actually start to take a toll on our mindset and outlook—and can even snowball into unhealthy addictions. “Our brain is hardwired to seek out more of that thing that brought on the pleasurable feelings,” says Blakely. Even if a behavior you engage in ultimately has a negative impact, if it triggers that dopamine release, you’re more likely to repeat it.
How to Benefit From Dopamine in a Healthy Way
In recent years, concerns around the many dopamine triggers we’re surrounded by in the modern world have led some health-conscious people and high-achievers to engage in “dopamine fasting” in order to support their mental health. The idea is that you cut out all “unhealthy” stimuli (think excessive online time, retail therapy, and the like) for a brief period of time in order to become less dominated by their appeal and thus less addicted to them.
While this concept is a little misleading (it’s not possible to completely turn off your body’s release of dopamine—and you wouldn’t want to anyway!), it’s still wise to limit dopamine-stimulating behaviors that can ultimately have negative consequences.
If you’re feeling low, though, rest assured that there are plenty of truly health-promoting ways you can bring on the feel-good effects of dopamine. Here are some of the biggest and brightest.
According to one 2019 study, meditation can cause changes to regions in the brain, including the mesolimbic system, which increases how much dopamine is released in response to learning.
Read More: How To Get Started With Meditation
Engaging in mindfulness-based practices, such as meditation and yoga, are also among the best ways to support your overall mental health. Mindfulness can help you recognize the emotions you’re feeling and how they’re impacting your decisions, plus whether your feelings are potentially contributing to addictions. Once you have a better grasp on your own emotions, you’ll be better able to respond thoughtfully to your feelings instead of reacting to them in an impulsive, destructive way, explains Psychology Today.
2. Learn New Skills
A 2021 article published in Biomedicine explains that dopamine is involved in many higher executive functions, such as concentration and learning. Therefore, you can probe your brain to release more when you get into a “flow state” and focus on a task.
Research suggests that doing something challenging, novel, and rewarding is an even more powerful way to release dopamine since our brains associate achievement and positive, new experiences with pleasure.
To help boost your dopamine release, mood, and confidence, continue to learn new skills throughout life—such as communication or public speaking skills that will further your career, household skills like building and cooking, a new language, or an instrument, Rose suggests. It doesn’t matter what you do, especially, just that you find it fun and engaging.
Exercise is a great natural way to help your brain release “feel good” chemicals and endorphins, which lift your mood, confidence, and energy, and even help to manage pain, Blakely suggests. Research even shows that exercise can help modulate dopamine activity, decrease symptoms of depression, and fight oxidative stress (which has been shown to affect how the brain makes dopamine).
Read More: 7 HIIT Workouts Trainers Love
Though it’s most important to find a type of exercise that you enjoy and can stick with, aerobic exercise—such as running, jogging, or cycling—and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) may be especially supportive of mental health.
4. Eat a Balanced Diet High In Protein And Tyrosine
Findings from a review published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research suggest that higher consumption of protein foods and specifically the amino acid l-tyrosine may help your brain make more dopamine.
Because your brain produces dopamine from amino acids (the “building blocks of protein”), especially the type called l-tyrosine, adding more l-tyrosine—and protein in general— to your meals and/or taking supplements may potentially help support healthy dopamine levels.
Foods that are naturally high in l-tyrosine include:
- Animal proteins, such as meat, chicken, and fish
- Dairy products, including milk, cheeses, and yogurt
- Soy products, such as organic tofu and soy milk
- Nuts and seeds, such as almonds and pumpkin seeds
- Beans and legumes
To find out more about how much protein you need on a daily basis, book a free one-on-one nutrition consult with a The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist.
5. Take Cold Showers or Plunges
There’s reason to believe that cold showers affect the sympathetic nervous system in a way that may cause the body to release more of certain neurotransmitters that are stimulating, including noradrenaline (which can lift energy and focus) and dopamine. This explains why many people report feeling more focused and clear-headed after a cold shower.
In one study, cold water immersion increased adults’ blood dopamine levels by 250 percent (in addition to increasing their metabolism by 350 percent). So while the thought of dousing yourself in frigid water might not sound great at first, the feel-good rush it causes might have you scheduling regular cold showers or plunges into your week.