Dopamine is a pleasure chemical. In a recent article on how to feel more in love, we described how dopamine is activated when you feel attracted to someone. Dopamine gives us a natural sense of high—feelings of bliss, reward, and ecstasy.
But we need to be cautious. Dopamine might feel like sunshine, rainbows, and butterflies, but pushing dopamine production for the wrong reasons can get us into lots of trouble. Cocaine, nicotine, heroin, and other addictive substances activate dopamine pathways—leading to devastating consequences.
Dopamine is not only a bliss molecule but also assists with focus, attention, and movement. Low dopamine is associated with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), restless leg syndrome (RLS), and Parkinson’s disease. On the other hand, too much dopamine has been implicated in bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Balance is the key to being able to enjoy the happiness that dopamine can deliver. Rather than boosting dopamine for mere instant gratification, a healthier approach is to support the body’s ability to produce dopamine in appropriate amounts and at appropriate times. One of the best ways to do that is through nutrition. Read on to learn how dopamine is made and how nutrition can support healthy dopamine production.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, in the nervous system. Along with norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and epinephrine (adrenaline), dopamine is in the family of neurotransmitters called catecholamines.
Dopamine is synthesized in two main areas of the body: the brain and the adrenal glands. It is made from the amino acid l-tyrosine, which is supplied by dietary protein. The pathway of dopamine production follows:
L-tyrosine → L-DOPA → Dopamine
Enzymes catalyze the steps in this process, and vitamins and minerals act as cofactors for the enzymes. The conversion of l-tyrosine to L-DOPA relies on an adequate supply of iron, and the conversion of L-DOPA to dopamine relies on the presence of vitamin B6.
Foods to Support Dopamine Production
Meats—including beef, lamb, chicken, and turkey—supply three important compounds for dopamine production: protein, iron, and vitamin B6. Protein-rich foods supply l-tyrosine, which serves as the building block from which dopamine is made. Fish, eggs, and dairy are other good sources of these nutrients.
Beans deliver many of the same nutrients as meats, including protein, iron, and B vitamins. Broad beans (also called Velvet Beans) are a specific type of bean that has been found to be high in L-DOPA and support dopamine production.
Yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and other fermented foods are rich in health-promoting bacteria called probiotics. These probiotics inhabit the human intestines, where they support healthy digestion and immune function. Some probiotics have earned the name “psychobiotics” because they release dopamine and other neurotransmitters.
4. Cod Liver Oil
Cod liver oil is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and is a source of naturally occurring vitamin D. Omega-3 fatty acids form the membranes of all nerve cells in the brain, and studies suggest that vitamin D may help to regulate catecholamine levels. One study found that people who are exposed to the most sunlight (a primary stimulus for vitamin D production in the body) have the highest density of dopamine receptors in their brains.
5. Cruciferous Vegetables
Cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, kale, cabbage, and cauliflower, are rich in nutrients that support detoxification pathways—including glutathione production in the liver. This is important for dopamine production because studies show that glutathione supports the survival of dopaminergic nerve cells in the brain.
It might be tempting to take a supplement with some of the nutrients discussed here. For example, l-tyrosine, iron, B vitamins, and vitamin D are all available as dietary supplements. But our bodies have become accustomed to receiving nutrition from foods over thousands of years. Some supplements deliver isolated nutrients in quantities that dramatically exceed the amount in foods.
Iron is a supplement to be particularly cautious about. The interplay between iron and dopamine is complex. Iron is a required cofactor for dopamine production, but excess iron can lead to oxidative damage if it reacts with dopamine metabolites. Eating iron-rich foods is often preferable to taking a supplement because there is a lower risk of unsafe iron accumulating in the body. If you are considering supplementation to support healthy dopamine production, please first consult with a qualified nutrition therapist and your healthcare provider.
Healthy Boosts of Dopamine
Lab rats who are given access to a lever that activates dopamine centers in their brain will push that lever up to 2000 times an hour for 24 hours a day. They choose that lever at the expense of starvation, dehydration, and abandoning their newborn babies. This can happen to you if you choose the wrong ways to activate dopamine pathways. Cocaine, gambling, and other addictive activities can destroy your life.
A dramatically better way to enjoy the occasional rush of dopamine is to support your physiology from the ground up. Nutrition provides the building blocks and cofactors for healthy dopamine production When the foundation of nutrition is in place, you can more readily enjoy the burst of dopamine you feel when engaging in exercise, meditation, wild adventures, and other life-giving activities. In the words of Joseph Campbell, you will be able to “follow your bliss.”
Sarah Cook, ND
Instructor, Nutrition Therapy Institute