Dopamine is the compound that fuels our drive and motivation. It increases attention, improves cognitive function, and stimulates our creativity. It makes us more social and extroverted and helps us form romantic and parental bonds. However, dopamine, when too high, can also have its drawbacks.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is the brain chemical that allows us to have feelings of bliss, pleasure, euphoria, drive, motivation, focus, and concentration. But let’s start at the beginning: Your brain actually communicates with itself. That is, you have an intricately linked system of nerve cells called neurons that “communicate” with each other via specialized receptor sites.
Dopamine is a chemical (neurotransmitter) that is used by the nerves to send “messages.” When a nerve releases dopamine, it crosses a very small gap called a synapse and then attaches to a dopamine receptor on the next nerve. Therefore, when dopamine levels are depleted in the brain, the nerve impulses, or “messages,” cannot be transmitted properly and can impair brain functions: behavior, mood, cognition, attention, learning, movement, and sleep.
How Do I Know Whether I Have Dopamine Deficiency?
When there is a dopamine deficiency, emotions cannot be correctly regulated. Mental impulses that mitigate intense feelings of sadness are inhibited; therefore, the most common low dopamine symptoms are the same signs associated with clinical depression (and more specifically, major depressive disorder):
14 Dopamine Deficiency Symptoms
1 Lack of interest in life
2 Decreased motivation
4 Inability to feel pleasure
5 Altered sleep patterns
6 Restless leg syndrome
8 Mood swings
9 Excessive feelings of hopelessness or guilt
10 Poor memory
11 Inability to focus/impaired concentration
12 Impulsive or self-destructive behaviors
13 Addictions to caffeine or other stimulants
14 Weight gain
Extreme dopamine deficiency, as in the case of Parkinson’s disease, causes a permanent and degenerative diminishing of motor skills, including muscle rigidity and tremors.
7 Ways to Treat Dopamine Deficiency
With that background in mind, consider the following dopamine-boosting tactics you can take to increase dopamine.
1. Decrease your sugar intake. Sugar alters brain chemistry by disrupting dopamine levels, which is one reason why people often experience a “sugar high” shortly after eating sweets. Just as alcohol and drugs can deplete dopamine levels, sugar does the same. In fact, sugar stimulates the exact same euphoric pathway targeted by alcohol and drug use–that is, the decreased dopamine levels lead to actual sugar addictions.
Whether initiated by alcohol, cocaine, or sugar, the compulsive behavior addiction is the same—an undeniable desire for dopamine. Limiting sugar intake will help fight this addictive dopamine depletion-sugar craving cycle. If you struggle with a sweet tooth, you can take chromium picolinate supplements to help decrease your sugar cravings.[1,2]
2. Take tyrosine. When your brain cells need to “manufacture” neurotransmitters for proper mood regulation, they use amino acids as the essential raw material. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein; there are 20 different amino acids that make up the protein our body needs.
The brain uses the amino acid l-phenylalanine as the source (precursor) for the production of dopamine. Phenylalanine is one of the “essential” amino acids; that is, the body cannot make it on its own so we have to get it from the foods we eat or from supplements. Once the body receives phenylalanine, it can convert it to tyrosine, which in turn is used to synthesize dopamine. So the way to increase central nervous system neurotransmitter levels is to provide proper amounts of the amino acid precursor.
Bananas, especially ripe bananas, are an exceptional food for regulating dopamine because they have a high concentration of tyrosine. Other foods that increase dopamine through the conversion of phenylalanine to tyrosine include almonds, apples, watermelons, cherries, yogurt, beans, eggs and meats.
It is important to note that dopamine foods alone generally do not have the therapeutic amino acid levels necessary to boost dopamine levels for someone experiencing major depressive disorder. To boost your levels of dopamine, dopamine rich foods may not be adequate. Tyrosine supplementation may help.
3. Decrease caffeine intake. Even though coffee gives you the energy boost you need, just like sugar, it only offers temporary relief and may actually be doing more harm than good. After experiencing the initial kick caffeine offers, dopamine levels in the body decrease. So, go for a cup of decaf or at least minimize consumption of coffee to counter dopamine deficiency.
4. Set a routine schedule. One easy way to boost dopamine is to get in a healthy routine and stick to it. Your routine should include adequate time for work and rest. Ideally, your 24-hour day should include seven to eight hours of sleep per night in combination with periods of physical activity.
Under-sleeping and/or over-sleeping combined with lack of regular exercise can drain the brain of dopamine. Why? Proper sleep gives the brain time to recuperate from the day and recharge its stores of neurotransmitters.
5. Get consistent exercise. Regular physical activity increases blood circulation to influence the presence of many different hormones within the brain, affecting dopamine levels.
6. Decrease stress levels. High stress levels are also strongly correlated with dopamine deficiency. Stress can be caused by two sources: poor adrenal function and chronic daily life stressors. While we can’t always control our circumstances, there are “stress safeguards” you can utilize to help you deal with the day-in and day-out anxieties.
Remember, if stress is not handled properly, it can be devastating to your health. So, establish an ongoing plan that enables you to deal with stress effectively.
7. Correct a magnesium deficiency. Magnesium deficiency can cause decreased levels of dopamine, and natural health experts estimate over half of the US population to be deficient in this relaxation mineral. If you’ve been eating a diet heavy in junk foods or processed foods, you probably have a magnesium deficiency! Common symptoms include food cravings (salt or carbs), constipation, high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat or palpitations, muscle pains and spasms, fatigue, headaches, and depression symptoms such as mood swings, anxiety and irritability.
There are blood and urine tests that your doctor can perform to see if you have a magnesium deficiency. However, these tests may not always be accurate since most of the body’s magnesium stays in the cells, rather than in the bloodstream or the urine.
There is one lab test called a sublingual epithelial test that is more effective because it checks for magnesium in the cells, where most of it is present. To perform this test, your doctor will scrape under your tongue with a tongue depressor to obtain epithelial cells, which are then sent to a lab for analysis. Schedule this test with your doctor or start increasing your intake of magnesium.
Amino Acid Therapy and Trichotillomania
Amino acid therapy can be very effective at restoring proper neurotransmitter function and alleviating the insatiable urge to pull that some many people with trichotillomania experience. There are really two ways in which amino acids are used for people with trichotillomania. The first is to use n-acetyl cysteine, or NAC, which has been shown in clinical trials to reduce the urge to pull in about 56% of people that use NAC (see our post entitled N-acetylcysteine and Treatment of Trichotillomania for more information). NAC is thought to work by increasing the concentration of glutamate (an excitatory neurotransmitter) in a part of the brain that reduces compulsive behavior and hair pulling. Glutamate works in conjunction with GABA (an inhibitory neurotransmitter) to control many functions in the body. Thus, NAC provides a safe and moderately effective strategy to use amino acid therapy to decrease the urge to pull associated with trichotillomania.
However, we have found that a more effective way to implement amino acid therapy in regards to trichotillomania is to address the serotonin/dopamine system. By providing the brain the proper proportion of the necessary amino acid precursors and cofactors necessary to achieve optimal serotonin and dopamine function we have had an 86% success rate with eliminating the urge to pull, as opposed to just reducing the urge to pull.
This increased success rate is attributed to the fact that dopamine exhibits control over the release of glutamate and GABA in certain parts of the brain. Therefore, the imbalance between glutamate and GABA that leads to trichotillomania in most people is likely to be caused by an imbalance with dopamine and serotonin (as they are farther upstream). By optimizing serotonin and dopamine function, all the systems downstream, including glutamate and GABA normalize as well. When this happens, the urge to pull disappears.
Another key distinction between using NAC or this balanced amino acid approach is the ability to remain symptom free once the amino acid(s) have been discontinued. With NAC, the urge to pull often returns once the supplement is discontinued (this provides further evidence that NAC may not be addressing the root cause of the imbalance). However, with balanced amino acid therapy we have found that once optimized neurotransmitter function is established and maintained for a period of time, most people can reduce or eliminate the amino acids and remain symptom free utilizing dietary and lifestyle factors to maintain optimal neurotransmitter status. This means that it is very likely you won’t have to take these supplements forever and you can remain trichotillomania-free. This occurs because we are addressing the underlying root imbalance that seems to lead to the urge to pull for most people with trichotillomania. By correctly the underlying neurotransmitter imbalance with balanced amino acid therapy you effectively eliminate the problem, which allows you to stop pulling your hair out.