Calling all dopamine addicts!

Hey, we might as well just say, “calling all addicts!” Or, better yet, “calling everyone who likes to feel good!” Do we have your attention?

So what the heck is dopamine? If you’ve ever used drugs, or you just like to geek out on the brain, then you may already know. For those of you who don’t, dopamine, in short, is a neurotransmitter that helps to control the pleasure and reward centers of our brains. Like serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin, dopamine is a happy chemical.

Addictive drugs are addictive for a variety of reasons, but one of the primary reasons is that they significantly raise our dopamine levels. For occasional drug users, this may or may not be a huge problem, but for frequent users or addicts, our brains start to actually become dependent on these drugs to produce dopamine. In other words, we can literally slow or stop the brain from producing this chemical on its own after a while, and it can take a long time before the brain resets itself.

For all of you happiness addicts out there, we’ve compiled a list of seven healthy ways to boost your dopamine levels naturally:

  1. Exercise. This doesn’t mean you have to run a marathon (we salute those of you who do, by the way). Going for a long walk, a light jog, or a swim will do. Activities like yoga, volleyball, kickboxing, or cycling are also fantastic. In any event, if you find yourself wanting to pick up a drink or a drug, or fighting the temptation to engage in any myriad of addictive behaviors that you know aren’t good for you, get up and start moving your body. Physical exercise promotes the growth of new brain cell receptors, thus raising your dopamine levels naturally. It’s one of the best things you can do for your brain and for your body.
  1. Create. Those of you who are creative have probably experienced that rush that you get when you finish a painting, or a sculpture, or when you compose a piece of music. When you get into that creative flow, you’re actually being aided by your dopamine, while simultaneously activating more dopamine production. So go ahead — grab that paintbrush, or that slab of clay, and get your creativity on! Your brain will thank you.
  1. Listen to music. That’s right, party people. Throw on some of your favorite jams and sing yourself into a dopamine-induced state of sheer bliss, sans the drugs and alcohol. Or, better yet, start dancing and go for a double dopamine hit. Scientists have discovered that listening to music we enjoy has the same effect on our brains as eating our favorite foods or watching our favorite TV shows. But listening to good tunes is a much healthier alternative.
  1. Meditate. Did you know that overthinking is actually an addictive behavior? It sounds counterintuitive almost, because how many of us actually enjoy that “monkey mind” of ours latching onto our obsessive thoughts, leaving us all twisted up like a pretzel? Overthinking can easily become a compulsion that leaves us in a very unhealthy mental state if we’re not careful. This is why the practice of mindfulness and meditation can be so beneficial. If done properly, meditation can clear your mental chatter and allow you to feel centered and fulfilled, thus having a positive effect on your dopamine levels. New to meditation and not sure where to begin? Many communities offer free or donation-based meditations at local centers, and there are tons of meditation apps available online. Here are a few of our favorites: Headspace , The Mindfulness App, Smiling Mind. Om shanti, dopamine lovers.
  1. Adjust your diet. This is a big one. Throughout evolution, we’ve eaten in order to live. Due to a variety of factors, however, including the overall modernization of how we live and work, coupled with a more sedentary lifestyle, our desire to feel good can override evolution. Because of this, many of us are starting to reach for “feel good” foods which include things like refined carbohydrates and soda. These foods contain empty calories, causing our brains to want more and more. Once the instant gratification and initial dopamine spike that comes from the consumption of these foods wears off, we’re often left feeling empty and depleted of dopamine. On the other hand, higher levels of dopamine can actually reduce your impulse to eat. Eating foods that are micronutrient rich and high in L-tyrosine – the natural building block of dopamine – will slow down the temptation to overeat, causing more dopamine receptors in the brain to reactivate. Foods that are high in l-tyrosine include things like fava beans, dark chocolate, salmon, edamame, seaweed, wheat germ, oatmeal, and mustard greens. Making these foods the base of your meal every day can have the potential to not only make you happier, but they can actually help you eat less and lose weight, too. So enjoy those fava beans. And skip the nice chianti (we know some of you got the reference).
  1. Decrease your caffeine intake. Wait, what? No coffee? Okay, okay, don’t panic — no one is telling you to quit cold turkey. Maybe just chill out on that extra espresso shot, and consider forgoing that fifth trip to Starbucks today. Let’s face it, caffeine is a drug. Sure, it gives you an initial energy boost just like sugar, but it’s really only a temporary boost, and it may actually cause more harm than good. Like with any drug, after the initial caffeine kick, dopamine levels decrease. So just slow down there, turbo. Wean your way down and bit, and work toward getting that dopamine of yours back to optimum levels. But feel free to enjoy that cup or two per day if you must.
  1. Have a routine schedule and make sure you’re getting proper sleep. Another great way to optimize your dopamine levels is to get into a routine and to stick with it. Your 24-hour day should ideally include seven to eight hours of sleep combined with physical activity. The biggest reason for this is that under-sleeping or over-sleeping, coupled with an overall lack of exercise, can seriously drain your brain of dopamine. We’ve already mentioned the benefits of exercise, and a good night’s sleep will allow your brain to recharge and rebalance your neurotransmitters. Whatever else you choose to do with your day is your business, but by balancing your daily routine out with the proper amount of sleep and exercise, you’ll be setting yourself (and your brain) up for some serious positivity.

Do you have any tried-and-true dopamine-boosting techniques that you’ve effectively employed? Fire away in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!

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