How to increase dopamine levels and feel like your best self

How to increase dopamine levels and feel like your best self
Some studies indicate that pilates can boost dopamine levels.Elizabeth Fernandez/Getty Images
  • To boost dopamine, naturally, try exercise, meditation, yoga, and eating right.
  • Certain supplements, like curcumin and magnesium, may increase dopamine levels, but more research is needed to fully understand these supplements' effectiveness.
  • People with chronic conditions, such as depression and Parkinson's disease, that involve low dopamine levels may need medical intervention.
  • This article was medically reviewed by David A. Merrill, MD, PhD, psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute's Pacific Brain Health Center at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

Dopamine is often referred to as the "happy hormone" because it generates feelings of pleasure. But that's not all dopamine does. It also helps you to learn new information and motivate you.

Low levels of dopamine are tied to low motivation and depression. So, making sure you have enough — but not too much — is essential to living a happy, healthy, and functional life.

Here's what you need to know about dopamine's role in your brain and body and how to safely increase your dopamine levels.
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Dopamine benefits

When dopamine makes its way to your brain, it binds to receptors in the brain that relay the message from one cell to another. This is how dopamine helps you feel pleasure like when you eat something delicious or feel great after a hard workout.

Dopamine plays a role in a lot of functions including motivation, learning, attention, lactation, kidney function, and blood cell function, says Mullur. A prime example of how too little dopamine can directly impact a person's livelihood is from a 2020 study, which examined how dopamine helps people determine which tasks are worthwhile.

The researchers found that participants with higher levels of dopamine were more likely to focus on the rewards of a task and chose to complete tasks with the highest rewards. Those with lower dopamine levels were more focused on task difficulty.
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"Dopamine makes us more engaged, more capable," says Rashmi Mullur, MD, an endocrinologist and education director for the UCLA Health Integrative Medicine Collaborative. "We feel like our best selves when we have enough." But dopamine only helps in the right amounts.

Dopamine levels can be managed with lifestyle changes and medical intervention, if necessary. Always consult with your doctor to ensure a safe and productive method of boosting dopamine.

How to increase dopamine naturally

Get moving. Exercise can do a lot for a person's mental health. There's only limited research on how exercise affects dopamine levels in the human brain, but multiple animal studies indicate a dopamine boost following a workout.
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Moreover, those animal studies suggest that it's possible dopamine-enhancing exercises could help patients with conditions like Alzheimer's disease, dementia, or those with substance abuse disorders. One human-based study, published in 2013, showed exercising on a treadmill led to an increase of dopamine receptors among Parkinson's patients.

Further research is needed to determine whether exercise regimens can be used to regulate dopamine levels in the population at large.

Try meditation, yoga, or pilates: Meditation is another natural way to increase dopamine. Past studies have found that the practice of meditation triggers neurotransmitters that help regulate psychological disorders, like anxiety. And anxiety has been linked to lower dopamine levels. So, people who meditate may therefore be able to reduce anxiety and possibly increase dopamine levels at the same time.
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A 2002 study incorporating PET (positron emission tomography) scans showed increased dopamine release in the brain during yoga nidra meditation — a type of meditation that focuses on deep relaxation.

Researchers have also found a likely increase in dopamine levels of participants during pilates, particularly for people recovering from substance use disorders.

Past studies have shown that pilates can ward off depression, while exercise and the practice of sports generally increase brain synaptic activity, including that of serotonin and dopamine.
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Eat right: Consuming healthy fats and sufficient protein plays a large role in the regulation of dopamine levels, Mullur says. A 2018 study found that low levels of omega-3 fats and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) are a major component of brain function. And, incidentally, low levels of omega-3 fats and PUFAs are associated with the brain's dopamine regulation.

In general, Mullur recommends sticking to a plant-based diet, which includes:

  • Plenty of vegetables
  • Whole grains like quinoa, oatmeal, and barley
  • Healthy fats like avocados, olive oil, nuts, and nut butters
  • Legumes (black beans, kidney beans, lentils, and more)

How to increase dopamine with supplements

Certain nutrients that come in supplement form may increase dopamine levels. But Mullur says most supplements out there that tout a dopamine boost aren't backed by science, so you should practice caution when shopping.
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"You want to be careful when you talk about using supplements and make sure you carefully evaluate your options," Mullur says. It is important to consult a doctor before taking any of the following:

Omega 3: Omega-3 is helpful but can be consumed through healthy fats in a plant-based diet, so supplements aren't always the best option. Magnesium: There is evidence that magnesium can increase dopamine levels and improve overall brain function in animal models, Mullur says. But the overall role of magnesium on brain health is complex and it's unclear how the results of these animal studies may translate to humans.
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Ginkgo Biloba: Ginkgo biloba is helpful in cell-based studies, but has not been tested on dopamine levels in humans or even animals, she says.

Curcumin: Curcumin, a compound found in the spice turmeric, has been shown to increase dopamine levels in animal studies, but there is no evidence that it has the same effect in humans.

When to see a doctor

People with chronic conditions, such as depression and Parkinson's disease, that involve low dopamine levels may need medical intervention, Mullur says.
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Levodopa, considered one of the most effective Parkinson's disease medications, is converted to dopamine once inside the body, which helps people with Parkinson's fend off debilitating symptoms like tremors and rigidity.

Unhealthy substances and behaviors may increase dopamine

While there are several ways to safely and naturally increase dopamine levels, there are also dopamine-boosters that can have devastating effects.

Addictive substances like nicotine and alcohol can increase dopamine in your system but should be avoided in excess, Mullur says.
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Addictive behaviors like gambling, for example, may also appeal to our brain's reward systems and trigger an increase in dopamine. This can lead to dangerous and destructive habits, Mullur says.

Takeaways

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that affects basic functions within the body, as well as mood. Low levels can contribute to a lack of motivation, problems focusing, and depression.

Dopamine can be increased naturally with diet, exercise, sleep, and certain supplements or medication. Some addictive substances and behaviors like smoking or gambling may also boost dopamine but should be avoided as they can lead to unhealthy consequences that may impair the quality of life.
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If you suspect your dopamine levels are low, consult with a doctor to determine a safe path forward.

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