Struggling with fatigue, having difficulty focusing, or just not feeling like your best self?
These challenges may be related to changes in dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in our mental and emotional wellness. And they can make everyday tasks feel like moving mountains, whether it’s meeting work deadlines, maintaining your home, or simply staying engaged in your daily life.
In this article we’ll take a deep dive into the science of neurological health and what could potentially be game-changing for your overall well-being: dopamine supplements. Let’s discuss how certain probiotics, vitamin B6, and specific herbs might affect the release of dopamine to support your mood and ability to handle stress.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is often referred to as the “feel good” neurotransmitter, but its functions in the body are multifaceted and complex. Dopamine is released primarily in the brain, and impacts various aspects of brain function.
Role in the Reward System
Dopamine is best known for its role in pleasure and reward. Whenever we experience something pleasurable, whether it’s enjoying a favorite meal, listening to a meaningful song, or even receiving praise, dopamine is released, reinforcing behaviors that are beneficial or rewarding. This process aids in motivation, pushing us to repeat actions that bring about positive outcomes.
Beyond pleasure and reward, a significant role of dopamine is in controlling movement. The substantia nigra, a section of the brain, produces dopamine that’s crucial for smooth and coordinated muscle movements. A deficiency in this area is a hallmark of neurodegeneration that leads to tremors, rigidity, and bradykinesia.
Dopamine is also intimately tied to mood regulation. Low levels are often associated with feelings of apathy, lack of interest in life, and low motivation.
Dopamine is involved in several aspects of cognitive function. It aids in the ability to focus, retain information in working memory, and think abstractly, making it vital for learning and problem-solving. Decreased dopamine levels interfere with attention, and a precise balance is optimal for short-term memory.
Endocrine System Regulation
The neurotransmitter also plays a role in controlling the release of certain hormones, including prolactin. Proper regulation ensures a balance in various bodily functions, from lactation in women to immune responses.
What Happens If Your Dopamine Levels Are Low?
Not everyone with low dopamine levels experiences the same symptoms, but these may be signs that your dopamine levels are on the low side:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Lack of motivation
- Moodiness or low mood
- Trouble sleeping
- Restless legs
- Not getting pleasure from what you usually enjoy
Life stressors can also mimic depleted dopamine levels. When you're experiencing a high-stress period at work or in your personal life, it might impact your mood and sleep, cascading into other symptoms. You can discuss the above-mentioned symptoms with your doctor if you think they stem from low dopamine levels. In the meantime, you might consider trying a supplement to improve your dopamine production.
What Supplements Can Boost Dopamine Levels?
Dopamine impacts mental health and supports cognitive function. There is a wide variety of dopamine supplements you can choose from in conversation with your health care provider.
Probiotics & Psychobiotics
Your gut and brain are connected, and a healthy digestive tract can impact your overall health. An unhealthy digestive tract can affect other body systems, inhibit your ability to absorb nutrients, affect your skin and hair, and even affect your ability to make neurotransmitters such as dopamine. For this reason, scientists have studied gut-health probiotics to learn more about their effects on brain health.
Psychobiotics take the gut-brain connection to a higher level. They are probiotics that more directly impact the gut-brain axis, which is the interconnection between the gut and brain mediated by nerves and neurotransmitters. Although psychobiotics may also improve gut health, they specifically address mental well-being, typically by influencing levels of neurotransmitters throughout the body.
While many psychobiotics have been shown to impact serotonin neurotransmitter levels in the brain or gut, very few psychobiotics have been demonstrated to affect the level or activity of dopamine in the brain when taken orally. L. plantarum PS128 is a notable exception. This strain has been shown to increase dopamine levels in the brain in animal studies, and supports sleep quality and mood in people.
Vitamin deficiencies can impact the body in many ways, including inhibiting the production of dopamine. A deficiency in Vitamin D, in particular, has been shown to impact the brain’s substantia nigra, which controls your movements. The substantia nigra is critical in determining how your body uses dopamine because much of the dopamine travels a pathway originating in this part of your brain. These structures have a high level of the enzyme that converts Vitamin D into its active form. Vitamin D has shown neuroprotective effects against oxidative stress in animal models.
Vitamin D helps your body produce dopamine and protects this critical part of your brain. Nearly half of all Americans have a vitamin D deficiency, so it may be worth adding a D supplement to your diet for multiple reasons.
Your body also uses the B vitamins B6, niacin, and folate to produce dopamine, and iron is also required. Find a multivitamin that provides all of these, as well as vitamin D, to be sure that you have all the essential nutrients necessary to help your body make more dopamine.
Native to Africa and parts of Asia, Mucuna pruriens, or velvet bean, is a legume used in multiple ways for wellness. It is a natural source of L-dopa, a precursor to dopamine, which your body can use to synthesize it. Studies suggest Mucuna pruriens may aid the body in releasing more dopamine after crossing the blood-brain barrier. In animals, it helped restore dopamine levels in brain cells.
This supplement is an adaptogen, a substance known for helping regulate natural processes within your body that allow you to adapt to stress. If you’re interested in trying Mucuna pruriens, look for an extract or capsule form. In its natural state, this bean tends to cause the skin to itch, and ingesting too much could be toxic, so it's best to take it as a supplement.
Amino Acid Supplements
Certain foods can impact your dopamine levels. This effect occurs because some amino acids are converted into neurotransmitters when you eat high-protein foods. Your body metabolizes these aromatic amino acids into dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and others.
Eating a balanced diet high in protein could help your body increase dopamine production, and adding amino acid supplements can help. One supplement, L-tyrosine, is commonly used by athletes to aid recovery after a workout since it aids muscle repair. This supplement can also help your body build a dopamine reserve.
L-theanine is another amino acid supplement studied for its cognitive benefits and effects on neurotransmitters in animals. Typically found in green tea, or taken as a supplement, it increases serotonin and dopamine, making you feel relaxed.
An herbal ingredient used often in Chinese medicine, ginseng has long been touted for its effects on memory. Supplements are usually made from the roots and come in capsule and powder form. A preclinical study showed that ginseng had antioxidant effects and a minor pain-relieving effect. It also increases dopamine levels. Specifically, Korean red ginseng (Panax ginseng) looks promising for helping with attentiveness and focus.
Ginseng helps regulate your brain’s D2 receptor, a dopamine receptor involved in managing pain and controlling motor functions.
Ginkgo biloba has garnered attention in recent years for its potential neuroprotective and cognitive enhancement effects.
Animal studies suggest that oral ginkgo extract can influence dopamine levels in the brain, and results in humans suggest it may help with brain function associated with dopamine. A randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trial on elderly adults with subjective memory impairment suggested that taking a Ginkgo biloba extract daily helped with task-switching. This type of cognitive flexibility has been associated with mild enhancement of dopamine levels in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain.
Another herbal supplement used for mood and memory, Bacopa monnieri is a plant native to wetlands across the globe. It may also have the name Brahmi on the label. This herb helps protect neurons from damage because of its antioxidant properties, potentially impacting how your brain absorbs dopamine.
In rat studies, Bacopa had effects on mood and immune responses. It also functions as an adaptogen, helping the body react better to stress. This supplement can help your body balance its serotonin and dopamine and reduce cortisol levels. Some people use it to relax, while others use it to boost memory.
You may see this supplement labeled “golden root.” Rhodiola rosea is an adaptogen that, when tested on animals, impacts their brain’s ability to reuptake dopamine. With this supplement, neurons don’t reabsorb as much dopamine, leaving more within the synapse where it can continue to signal.
An animal study suggests that Rhodiola rosea can make the blood-brain barrier more permeable to precursors for dopamine and serotonin biosynthesis, which allows your brain to obtain more amino acids that aid in dopamine production. Other uses include aiding in memory and boosting concentration. Because Rhodiola rosea limits the ability of neurons to reuptake dopamine, it may work well when paired with another supplement that boosts dopamine production.
Saffron, known scientifically as Crocus sativus L., has long been revered for its culinary applications and vibrant coloration. However, emerging studies are beginning to shed light on its potential benefits beyond the kitchen, especially concerning mood enhancement which animal studies suggest might be due to changes in neurotransmitter activity, including dopamine.
One recent investigation suggests the benefits of saffron can be reaped from making a simple tea from saffron strands. For postmenopausal women who drank saffron tea, there was a pronounced rise in the happiness mean score from beginning to end of the 6-week study that was found to be statistically significant. In contrast, the control group's happiness score remained largely stagnant, with no substantial variation discerned from the onset to the conclusion of the study.
When drinking coffee or tea, our body absorbs caffeine into circulation in 30 minutes. Studies show the benefits of taking caffeine, such as better memory and cognition. Caffeine can act on adenosine receptors and dopamine receptors. So, most people feel more energized from caffeine after a cup of coffee or tea. These effects are an attribute of caffeine which enhances dopamine signaling. Caffeine has also shown neuroprotection effects on neurons producing dopamine because of its antioxidant activity.
Caffeine can also help your body manage the side effects of having too much dopamine. It makes you feel more alert and enhances dopamine signals in your brain by inhibiting a receptor that normally inhibits dopamine receptors.
Finding the Right Supplement for You
If you’re looking for a supplement to help boost your dopamine, it’s important to talk to your health care provider about which supplement may be right for you. Some dopamine supplements can interfere with other things you are taking, and they may have side effects.
Supplements, including probiotics and psychobiotics, generally have a low risk of side effects. Talk to your doctor before starting a supplement if you’re currently receiving treatment for mental health or other medical conditions.
You can also find the right nutritional supplement by tracking your diet and identifying where you may be deficient in specific vitamins or essential fatty acids. With daily stressors and busy schedules, acquiring the nutrition you need through your diet alone may pose a challenge. Once you evaluate your eating habits, you may notice areas where a supplement can enhance what you already eat. Choose dietary supplements with ingredients that have been studied and follow the dosing instructions.
Potential Causes of Dopamine Deficiency
Several factors can contribute to complex changes in dopamine levels and/or activity:
Natural aging processes can result in changes in dopamine signaling. As individuals grow older, the efficiency with which dopamine binds to the dopamine transporter declines, and this correlates with a decline in cognitive flexibility. Interestingly, older healthy adults appear to synthesize more dopamine than younger people.
Prolonged stress appears to dampen dopamine responses in animals. Some evidence suggests that people who have been subjected to long-term psychosocial stress can also experience changes in their dopamine responses during a stressful situation.
Some illegal substances and meds can affect dopamine activity. Levels of dopamine receptors and transporters can be affected in different ways by different drugs, and ultimately release of dopamine within the brain can be decreased.
Lack of certain nutrients, like tyrosine, which is a precursor to dopamine, can impede dopamine production. Additionally, deficiencies in vitamins like B6, B9, and B12 can influence dopamine levels, as they are vital for the conversion of amino acids into neurotransmitters. Ensuring an adequate intake of nutrients can be crucial for optimal dopamine synthesis and function.
Alternative Approaches to Raising Dopamine
While supplements can offer a direct method of increasing dopamine levels, there are also alternative and natural strategies that may help boost this critical neurotransmitter in the brain. These approaches not only encourage the production of dopamine but also help create an environment for better overall mental well-being.
Regular exercise, especially aerobic exercises like running, cycling, and swimming, can elevate dopamine levels. This might explain the "runner's high" many athletes experience after intensive training.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Practices like meditation and deep breathing exercises have been shown to possibly influence neurotransmitter levels, including dopamine. Regular meditation might improve concentration, relaxation, and stress reduction, all of which can contribute to balanced dopamine levels.
Healthy Sleep Habits
Dopamine plays a crucial role in regulating sleep patterns. A consistent sleep routine and ensuring 7-9 hours of sleep for adults can help maintain optimum dopamine levels.
Listening to Music
Several studies have suggested that listening to music you enjoy can naturally boost dopamine levels. It might explain the "chills" or feelings of euphoria when hearing a particularly moving piece of music.
Natural sunlight exposure can increase dopamine receptor availability in the brain. Just 20-30 minutes a day, particularly during morning hours, can make a significant difference.