Neurobiology Dopamine 10 December 2021 • 13 mins reading time

Dopamine is something I’m sure everyone has heard of. It frequently comes up in discussions around addiction and in particular, social media addiction. Dopamine is responsible for our levels of drive, motivation and movement. As such, it’s often viewed as one of the pieces of the puzzle when it comes to our happiness and pleasure.

As someone who’s experienced ongoing mental health issues without any clear trigger, I wanted to understand more about how our Dopaminergic systems work and what I could do to get back my previous level of drive and motivation.

My initial exploration into Dopamine and the wider world of Neurobiology all started when I listened to a podcast by Andrew Huberman. Andrew Huberman is a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford. His podcast “Huberman Lab” is an excellent source of information on human biology. I highly recommend checking it out.

A basic introduction to neurobiology

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (others in include serotonin, epinephrine etc.). A neurotransmitter is a chemical that is emitted by a neuron across a synapse in the brain. Neurotransmitters are crucial to how our brains work and modulate how we feel across all areas from motivation to anxiety.

Dopamine is also a neuromodulator. A neuromodulator is different to a neurotransmitter in the sense that it changes the effectiveness of neurotransmission. As such, they therefore act at a wider scope than just a synapse, but rather they effect the neurotransmission across large groups of neurons.

Peaks and baselines

Dopamine is always circulating and being released in our brains. The rate this is released at when we are in an unstimulating environment is called our baseline level, it’s also referred to as the tonic release. This tonic release is determined by our genetics and by our behaviours (as we’ll explore later on).

The level of dopamine being released in our brains increases when we’re engaging in a behaviour that is in some way pleasurable. Some of theses behaviours may be the use of compounds such as alcohol, nicotine, etc., and some behaviours may be activities that we undertake such as sex, exercise, food etc. The dopamine release above our baseline level is also called the phasic release.

During such behaviours, there will be a peak in the release of dopamine, i.e. a maximal rate of dopamine transmission that is higher than the tonic release prior to engaging in that behaviour. Our experience of pleasure during a behaviour is the difference between the peak from that behaviour and the level of dopamine release prior to engaging in that behaviour.

Our tonic release of Dopamine is reduced temporarily following a large peak, i.e. after something incredibly rewarding, our baseline level of motivation will be lower than prior to the reward. At a biological level, this happens because after a big spike there isn’t enough Dopamine around in the brain to maintain the previous baseline.

Putting this into context

So far we’ve been talking fairly abstractly, so let’s give a real world example to help put this into context. Imagine you are meeting some friends for drinks after work. In which scenario are you more likely to enjoy the drinks out?

  1. After a boring day of work.
  2. After a fun day of work.

Probably after the boring day of work, right? From a neurobiological level, this makes sense as the rate of dopamine release before the drinks with friends was lower during the boring day of work than during the fun day of work, therefore the delta to the dopamine peak during drinks with friends will be higher after a boring day of work — i.e. we experience more pleasure after dull prior events.

Behaviours and their impact on Dopamine

Our rate of Dopamine transmission is always changing in response to compounds we’ve ingested and activities that we’ve undertaken, but by how much?

Behaviour Increase in Dopamine level
Chocolate 1.5x
Nicotine 2.5x
Caffeine Only marginally*
Cocaine 2.5x
Amphetamine 10x (!)
Exercise 2x**
Sex 2x

*Caffeine is an interesting one. Studies have shown that regular ingestion of caffeine increases up-regulation of certain Dopamine receptors. I.e. caffeine allows us to experience more of Dopamine’s effects. Stepping back, this could explain why we enjoy meeting friends over a cup of coffee so much.

**Interestingly Dopamine release from exercise is determined by our subjective experience of the activity. The compounds such as Nicotine and Cocaine increase Dopamine regardless of subjective experience.

What’s incredible here is that exercise is almost as powerful as Cocaine in raising our levels of Dopamine.

Layering

Leading on from the table above you may wonder “What if I experience multiple of these behaviours at the same time?”. Indeed, so called Dopamine layering allows us to create tremendous rates of Dopamine transmission.

Layering is obvious to us in day to day life once we know it exists. Some examples:

  • Drinking and smoking (and possibly drugs)
  • Caffeine and exercise
  • Watching TV while we eat food
  • Listening to music and walking/exercising

The dark side of layering

The issue with constantly layering all these Dopaminergic behaviours all day, every day is that we deprive ourselves of being able to derive any benefit from them as individual activities.

Let’s consider the previous examples in the context of a layer of deprivation, and we’ll see it’s immediately clear the issue.

If you’re used to… Then you’ll find it hard to…
Smoking when going for a drink Enjoy a drink without having a smoke
Workout after having a coffee/pre-workout Workout without stimulants
Watching TV while eating Eating a meal in silence
Walking everywhere while listening to music Walk anywhere without music

However, what’s interesting (and slightly sad) is that we all probably once enjoyed everything in the right-hand column in the past.

Addiction

Addiction has a close relationship with Dopamine. Wikipedia defines addiction as “a compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli despite adverse consequences”. Having already covered explored some of the various behaviours that stimulate us, we can hopefully immediately recognise how excessive engagement with these behaviours can quickly spiral to addiction.

The pleasure/pain balance

In Dr. Anna Lembke’s book “Dopamine Nation”, she talks about an idea called the pleasure/pain balance.

Effectively, Lembke suggests that given our body’s wish to maintain homeostatic function (i.e. the default steady state of our internal chemical and physical balance), that any time we experience pleasure that the bodies response is to deliver a dose of pain to bring the body back to balance. We can think of this like a see-saw — if you put something on one side, then you need something to balance it out.

When we talk about comedowns (from any behaviour, not just drugs/alcohol), what we really are experiencing is the rebalancing of our Dopamine systems (as well as other internal systems).

Unfortunately for us however, Lembke suggests that the pain mechanism has a competitive advantage over the pleasure side, i.e. the dose of pain is larger than the dose of pleasure and after we receive that dose of pain, the balance is left favouring pain briefly. Referring back to the section on Peaks and Baselines, we can recognise this as the dopamine transmission in the body returning to a lower baseline level for a period.

Pressing on the pain side

When we think of this pleasure/pain balance, one of the first questions that comes to mind is “What if I put something on the pain side?”. Indeed, this is an excellent question.

Based on what we’ve learnt above, we should expect a dose of pleasure — and we do in fact receive such a dose! While this sounds remarkable, it’s in fact quite obvious once we think about it.

People often talk about Type-2 Fun which describes things which are not fun in the moment but that we enjoy afterwards. An example of Type-2 Fun would be running for some people - they suffer through it and then get a form of runner’s high either during or after.

With Type-2 fun, I suspect one main element of this is the pleasure dose we get afterwards with another main element being the sense of pleasure we get from doing something hard. It should now be obvious that “Type 1 fun” (enjoying the thing itself) is when we just press on the pleasure side first!

Addiction forming

With the concept of the pleasure/pain balance, we can now begin to see how addictions arise.

We indulge in a pleasureful behaviour, our body tries to restore homeostasis and we develop a craving to experience that pleasure again. We then indulge in that behaviour again, only this time we need a bigger stimulus as our body develops a tolerance to the pleasure we derive from this behaviour if we’ve just indulged in it. For bigger stimuli, we’re going to receive a bigger dose of pain to restore balance.

This cycle continues until the pain doses are simply too much for us to derive any satisfaction from anything — we develop a state of anhedonia that only indulgence in our addiction can get us out of.

The cruel reality is, the longer we indulge in our addiction, the more pain we’ll feel after indulging. This is what makes addiction such a vicious cycle and why people feel so miserable whilst trying to break long-standing addictions.

Breaking an addiction

Breaking addictions and bad habits are hard — every January we each learn this when attempting to maintain our resolutions. Luckily for us, with enough focus and perspective, we can indeed break our addictions and reset our pleasure/pain balance to a healthy status.

Lembke indicates that generally addictions take on average around a month to break from her clinical experience. Unfortunately, breaking these addictions require abstaining from the behaviour completely for a month. During the first fortnight it’s expected that you’ll feel worse. This is because your body’s Dopamine levels will initially be depleted and your main source of Dopamine will have been taken away.

Slowly though, you’ll rediscover the joy in other activities and this is when you know you’re on the right path. After a month, your Dopamine balance will have hopefully been reset to a healthy baseline. You’ll then be in a position to reintroduce the behaviour into your life in a sustainable way or to decide to continue to abstain.

Developing a healthy relationship with Dopamine

Now we understand what an unhealthy relationship with Dopamine looks like, we can begin to explore how to make Dopamine work for us in a sustainable way.

It’s all about balance

As with everything in life, the answer is always balance. When learning to develop a healthy relationship with Dopamine, this could not be more true.

If we consider addiction to be the extreme of pursuing dopaminergic behaviours, with us ending up feeling constantly in an anhedonic state, then what does the opposite of addiction look like?

A balanced lifestyle does not mean avoiding dopaminergic activities, but rather, it means experiencing each activity in a way that doesn’t promote a large decrease in our tonic levels. In practice, this has a few key components:

  • Avoiding getting all our stimulus from a single behaviour repeatedly
  • Avoiding layering of dopaminergic behaviours where possible
  • Activities that release large amounts of Dopamine should be done infrequently
  • Recognising which activities we are naturally drawn to and ensuring we can maintain a healthy relationship with them
  • Avoiding introducing rewards (before or after) for tasks we don’t enjoy as this undermines our progress towards a balanced lifestyle
  • Learning to lean into the friction of hard things and try to enjoy hard work for what it is

Cold water exposure

Cold water exposure is an incredible natural way to increase the levels of Dopamine in our bodies. In fact, cold water exposure of up to an hour has been shown to raise Dopamine levels to 250% above baseline.

What’s more impressive is that these increases are sustained for up to several hours. If we look back at the table of different behaviours and their effect on Dopamine transmission, cold water exposure is comparable to drugs like Cocaine, however the transmission increase persists for longer with cold water therapy!

It’s worth bearing in mind however that we develop a tolerance to cold water exposure. Therefore, in order to continue to derive large increases in Dopamine from this activity we should cycle our usage of this tool.

Exercise

We already know how good different forms of exercise can be for our bodies. It should therefore not be any surprise that it’s also one of the best things for our mind.

Many different forms of exercise stimulate large releases of dopamine — this can be any form of exercise you enjoy. The key thing is that you enjoy the activity, if you don’t enjoy the activity, you won’t derive the same benefits.

As discussed earlier, exercise can increase the Dopamine transmission in our body by double — this is truly remarkable. Therefore, we should always be looking for ways to incorporate daily exercise we enjoy into our routines.

Supplements

Disclaimer: In this section I’ll talk about some supplements that raise your dopamine levels. Because of the biology we discussed earlier, supplementation of these compounds should be cycled to avoid building any dependency on them. Please speak to your doctor or a medical professional before trying any of them.

All of the supplements we’ll cover here all affect the Dopamine synthesis pathway here:

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Mucuna Pruriens

Mucuna Pruriens is a tropical plant commonly referred to as the “velvet bean”. These beans contain naturally high levels of Levodopa (also referred to as L-Dopa). L-Dopa is an amino acid that is an immediate precursor to Dopamine. It is converted into Dopamine in the body via metabolism, as shown below.

Mucuna Pruriens can be purchased legally as a supplement here in the UK (and likely in most countries around the world).

L-Tyrosine

You may notice on the above diagram that the precursor to L-Dopa is another amino acid called L-Tyrosine.

As with Mucuna Pruriens, L-Tyrosine can be purchased legally here in the UK. From my research, L-Tyrosine seems a more popular supplement than Mucuna Pruriens - Mucuna Pruriens has a much more powerful effect but seemingly also stronger side effects.

I personally have experimented with L-Tyrosine and have found with a large enough dose I do feel “wired” and motivation to get a lot of stuff done. However, I find that it increases my anxiety so it’s not something I take when I’m already feeling stressed.

Phenethylamine (PEA)

Phenethylamine is a compound found in various food (such as chocolate). PEA has some influence over the levels of Dopamine in the body despite not being a precursor to Dopamine (see diagram above). According to examine.com, “PEA has been repeatedly shown to induce dopamine secretion and to inhibit dopamine uptake.”.

PEA doesn’t appear to be so common to buy, however you can quite easily buy the precursor to it which is the amino acid Phenylalanine (see diagram above). Some comments on reddit suggest that PEA supplements are quite intense so like with all supplements, please ensure you speak to a doctor before trying it.

Closing

Dopamine is an incredibly powerful chemical in our brains and has a huge impact on our behaviour, in particular our levels of drive and motivation. What’s good is that Dopamine is under our control. By understanding the basic biology of Dopamine and how to manage our behaviour, we can increase our levels of drive, motivation and even happiness.

If there’s any incorrect information in this article or you’d like to talk through any aspects of this, please drop me an email.