Known as a happiness hormone, dopamine is the chemical messenger behind the reward system in your brain and drives your ability to motivate yourself. The best thing about it: you can influence when your body releases dopamine, so you really can make yourself happy.
What is Dopamine?
Dopamine is often categorized as a “happiness hormone,” but, strictly speaking, this messenger substance is not only a hormone, but also a neurotransmitter. That means dopamine acts through both the bloodstream and the neural pathways.
By interacting with other important hormones, norepinephrine and serotonin, dopamine also plays a role in your fine motor skills, coordination skills, and ability to concentrate.
Dopamine’s effects can be divided into two general categories. First, it supports communication between neurons in the brain. It transmits stimuli immediately through dopamine receptors and activates your motivation system: an external impulse is followed by a reaction or sensation: It’s responsible for that good feeling right after an intense HIIT session or when you’ve just passed an oral exam. (1)
Second, dopamine reaches more distant organs as a hormone. Since travel through the bloodstream is slower, you feel its effects with a corresponding time delay. Among other things, dopamine promotes blood flow in certain regions of the body, which can be essential when, for example, kidney activity is reduced after a shock.
Overall, dopamine release influences both physical and mental processes, including fine motor skills and mobility, concentration, memory, and sensations such as courage, drive, and joy.
As a happiness hormone, dopamine is primarily associated with motivation. When your levels of dopamine are balanced, it’s easier to pursue your goals. There’s a simple reason for this: once released, dopamine produces a sensation of pleasure in the brain. (2)
In combination with serotonin, another “pleasure” hormone, your desire to repeat the same behavior is encouraged. You want to stick with a project or keep going with your exercise program so you can feel that happiness again.
Because this chemical is involved in numerous functions in the body, both a deficiency and an excess of dopamine can quickly have noticeable negative effects on your physical and mental health.
What Happens When I Have a Dopamine Deficiency?
As a neurotransmitter, dopamine’s central job is to relay information between parts of the brain. If dopamine levels are too low, certain messages go unanswered in the prefrontal cortex, which can manifest itself in changes in behavior like listlessness, reduced ability to concentrate, and lack of motivation. Other possible consequences for your mental health include fatigue and memory lapses.
Since dopamine also affects many bodily functions, a deficiency can also lead to problems with motor function, including Parkinson’s disease. (3)
Affected individuals’ levels of dopamine in the brain are up to 90 percent lower than in healthy people.
Outside the brain, dopamine regulates blood flow to certain parts of the body and stimulates parts of the autonomic nervous system that put the body in a heightened state of readiness to perform. A dopamine deficiency can manifest itself through digestive problems and a drop in energy, among other symptoms.
- Severe fatigue and loss of performance
- Difficulty concentrating
- Memory lapses or reduced memory capacity
- Uncontrolled salivation
- Uncontrolled sweating
- Inhibited digestion and problems with urination
- Problems swallowing
- Movement disorders
- Blockage of dopamine receptors due to psychological stress, environmental influences, or genetic predisposition
- Deficiency of the tyrosine or phenylalanine amino acids, the precursors of dopamine
- Unbalanced diet, especially an insufficient supply of vitamins B6, B12, and C, and omega-3 fatty acids
- Relationship between dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine is out of balance
Effects of a Dopamine Surplus
The opposite scenario, an excess of dopamine, can also be unhealthy. If dopamine is elevated in the body, it has an effect on how you perceive your feelings. When it responds to external, emotional stimuli, in general, only ten percent of them are processed further in the brain.
This is why a dopamine surplus can lead to a sensory overload. People with an increased concentration of this chemical find it difficult to distinguish between relevant and unimportant feelings. As a result, psychological symptoms can come up.
How to Increase Dopamine Levels with Exercise and Nutrition
Not too much, not too little: To benefit from the positive effects of dopamine, the level of this chemical in your body should be balanced. You have two main factors at your disposal to influence your levels of dopamine without drugs: exercise and nutrition.
How to use exercise
Some people experience a runner’s high, others get into their flow state during yoga. Still others feel better than ever after a session of HIIT. What all these cases have in common: The body produces dopamine and activates the reward system. We feel fit, motivated, and encouraged to keep going.
According to studies (4), dopamine is highest after 20 minutes of exercise, after which the curve drops again. That’s a pretty good argument for doing quick sessions more often, right?Browse our free workouts
Good news for all yogis: according to one study (5), six yoga sessions per week result in a significant increase in dopamine levels.
Support with the right diet
Positively influence your low levels of dopamine by paying attention to a balanced diet in general – with a healthy balance of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, as well as all the important micronutrients and trace elements.
Some foods are particularly beneficial: omega-3 fatty acids, for example, can strengthen your brain’s structure and function and have also been shown (6) to increase levels of dopamine. These fatty acids can’t be made by your body so you have to get them from food or supplements, from fish like salmon and mackerel, or flaxseed, for example.
Foods with plenty of vitamins, especially B vitamins and vitamin C, are just as important. These vitamins are found in citrus fruits, berries, and also whole grains, root vegetables, nuts, and potatoes, among others.
Another essential part of your diet is the right amount of amino acids. Tyrosine and phenylalanine play a particularly important role because they’re precursors of the hormone dopamine. Good sources of these aminos include eggs, dairy products, legumes, and beef. So food high in protein really can be an important foundation for a happy life.
Other factors that influence release
In addition to exercise and nutrition, other factors can positively influence the dopamine system as well:
- Healthy intestinal flora: The intestine is often called the “second brain.” So it’s no wonder that the data show intestinal flora can have an influence on dopamine! Studies have also shown that certain strains of bacteria in the intestine affect our mood. (7)
- Sleep: High-quality sleep is essential for our well-being, while a lack of sleep has been shown to inhibit the release of dopamine (8).
- Music: Soothing sounds stimulate activity in our brain’s pleasure and reward center, a primary source of dopamine. (9)
- Meditation: According to data from a study (10), those who meditate regularly can increase their dopamine levels in the long term.
- Sun: Sunlight has been shown (11) to promote dopamine release in the brain, in addition to vitamin D production.
- Dopamine is also known as the happiness hormone.
- The trio of chemicals dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine is essential for our mood, health, and well-being.
- Dopamine is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter: It relays stimuli in the brain while also acting through the bloodstream in various areas of the body.
- Dopamine’s main effect on your mood is the reward effect it provides after subjectively positive events or actions.
- Dopamine has an impact on our motivation, ability to concentrate, memory, and fine motor skills.
- When you have a dopamine deficiency, you can experience disturbances in mobility and a drop in mental performance, as well as listlessness.
- The happiness hormone can be influenced through exercise, diet, and other factors such as sleep, meditation, and intestinal health.