Did you know that visualising success, jumping in a cold river and consuming illegal narcotics can trigger the release of the same pleasurable neurochemical in your brain?
I know, I know…it sounds like a late-night infomercial from the 90’s, but it’s true. It’s science. And this little feel-good chemical is called dopamine.
Dopamine is a well-known but often misunderstood neurotransmitter that plays a vital role in our experience of rewards, motivation, and cravings.
If you have any interest in psychology and personal development, you’ve probably heard of it. Unfortunately, the internet is rife with popular myths about the nature of dopamine, dopamine ‘levels’ and how this all impacts our sense of pleasure, focus and drive.
Broadly speaking there are two types of dopamine levels to be aware of: tonic and phasic.
Tonic dopamine levels are the baseline levels of dopaminergic activity that occur in our brain. If these levels are too high this can be related to impulsivity, hyperactivity and mania, among other symptoms. If they are too low, this may lead to loss of pleasure, depression symptoms and fatigue.
Phasic dopamine levels are the moment-to-moment fluctuations in dopamine that we experience in response to specific stimuli such as food, media, cigarettes and alcohol. If phasic dopamine levels are too high, particularly for a prolonged period of time, this might lead to addiction and associated risky behaviours. If they are too low, this may reduce our ability to experience pleasure.
What Factors Impact Your Dopamine Levels?
However, it’s important to note that our dopamine systems are impacted by environment, genetics and specific circumstances and their relationship to behaviour is complex. While there may be a correlation between loss of motivation or low mood and low dopamine levels, this doesn’t mean that feeling low or unmotivated is only a result of dopaminergic dysfunction.
So what does we really mean when we say we want to “reset our dopamine levels.”
Well, this would be to return our baseline (tonic) dopamine levels to a normal range. There are generally three ways you can do this and later in this post I’ll offer some specific examples:
- Reduce or eliminate the factors that cause dopamine dysregulation
- Adopt healthy habits that support dopamine (and other neurotransmitters) balance
- Increase your tolerance and capacity to experience pleasure and pain
But first, it’s necessary to consider why we may have low dopamine levels or more low motivation and mood more generally.
5 Reasons Why Your Dopamine Levels Are Low
#1. Chronic Stress
Releasing dopamine can often be a way that we deal with the stress of the present moment. It helps us disengage (go on autopilot), distract (ignore discomfort) and disconnect (numb).
When we’re stressed, our brain releases a hormone called cortisol. Unfortunately, chronic stress leads to persistently elevated cortisol levels and this can disrupt our dopamine balance and contribute to reduced motivation, pleasure and general cognitive function. Stress can also mess with your memory.
Reducing your stress levels may therefore increase your baseline levels of dopamine and increase your dopamine receptor sensitivity and in doing so, reduce the urge to reach for quick dopamine spikes.
When we talk about dopamine detoxes, most of the attention is focused on daily habits such as social media, Netflix, and overconsumption of food, caffeine, nicotine or other substances. However, we often overlook the root causes of our reaching for those things in the first place.
While part of this behaviour may be linked to societal abundance and increased access to dopamine-spiking stimuli, this whole system is partly fuelled and maintained by the very common experience of trauma.
Trauma is basically any intense physiological or psychological stressor that the nervous system cannot process in the moment and which results in a defense mechanism that limits our range of future responses to a situation.
The result of this trauma can range from simple disconnection and disengagement in life all the way to a formal diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Traumatic experiences – particularly during crucial periods of brain development – have long-lasting impacts on the brain’s neurochemistry. That’s not to mention trauma from brain injury, which can also cause issues.
While we’re still learning about the brain, it’s entirely possible (maybe even probable) that “dopamine hits” give us relief from painful emotions and therefore trauma makes us more susceptible to craving and addiction.
For example, trauma impact the functioning of dopamine-related brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, and disrupts dopamine receptors and the Hypothalic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, which helps regulate stress hormones like cortisol. Fortunately, by receiving therapy to heal our trauma we can move towards a state of nervous system regulation and control.
#3. Dopamine Abuse AKA. Pleasure Seeking
When we engage in pleasure-seeking activities such as excessive screen time or consuming unhealthy or processed foods, we are rewarded with brief surges in dopamine without any effort.
The problem with instant gratification (as opposed to delayed gratification) is that the brain was evolutionarily designed to provide good feelings in response to effort. This means that over time, our dopamine receptors become desensitised and we are dependent on more and more intense forms of pleasure-seeking.
The extreme end of this occurs in substance abuse such as amphetamines or cocaine, whereby the result is chronically low dopamine levels, depression, decreased motivation and cognitive dysfunction. However, overindulging in something like YouTube, Netflix or social media can do the same thing, just on a smaller scale.
In psychology there is something called “the opponent process theory.” This is a general heuristic that is used to describe how the brain seeks to find balance.
In the case of pleasure and pain, if we only seek pleasure, we eventually experience pain, whereas if we intentionally seek out discomfort we will be rewarded with pleasure (such as in the case of intense exercise and endorphin release).
This is known as hormesis – exposing ourselves to mild stressors to improve resilience and well-being in the long term.
#4. Sleep, Diet and Exercise
Another important reason why your dopamine levels may be low (and definitely not one to be overlooked) is because of a generally unhealthy lifestyle. Insufficient quality sleep can get in the way of the brain’s ability to reset dopamine levels, damaging your concentration, motivation and mood regulation.
Similarly, if we don’t get the essential nutrients we need, such as amino acids, vitamins and minerals, our brain is not optimised for dopamine production. Exercise is important for overall brain health as well as the effort-based dopamine release we described earlier, so a sedentary lifestyle can also contribute to low levels of dopamine.
The final factor that may relate to low dopamine levels is genetics.
There is a complex relationship between dopamine production, the enzymes involved in dopamine synthesis, dopamine receptor sensitivity and the efficiency of transporters. It’s beyond me and beyond the scope of this article. Importantly, there is currently no test that can accurately tell you if you are genetically predisposed to low tonic dopamine levels.
The most important take-away from this is that you can change how you feel, and we are about to share how!
Dopamine Fasting: Does This New Trend Really Work?
There has been a lot of talk in recent years about dopamine fasting and if it can be helpful. Because the relationship between dopamine and behaviour is still relatively misunderstood, there are conflicting opinions among researchers.
According to Dr. Anna Lembke, psychiatrist and author of Dopamine Nation, and neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, in the case of those with chronic dopamine imbalances, such as recovering addicts, a dopamine fast whereby we intentionally abstain from things that trigger our phasic dopamine levels, while our tonic dopamine levels get back towards normal, can be helpful.
For those with a history of substance abuse, this is best discussed with a psychiatrist before attempting any form of detox, which can be quite challenging and emotionally disruptive.
Why You Need To Avoid Easy Street
However, for most of us, Huberman suggests that it’s more effective to actively reduce (not completely eliminate) things that give us pleasure too easily. For example, I noticed at one point, about a year ago, that I had picked up a couple of small but noticeable immediate gratification habits throughout the extended COVID lockdowns in 2020 and 2021.
Firstly, whenever I ate a meal by myself, I would always consume content, usually an educational podcast or Youtube video. It was easy to justify this as productivity, but the reality was, it was entertainment. Secondly, when exercising I would consume caffeine beforehand and listen to music throughout.
21st Century Abstinence
Both of these activities fell under something that Huberman refers to as “dopamine stacking,” drawing from multiple sources of pleasure at once (food, digital media, caffeine, music, exercise). I took his advice and began to eat meals without any external stimuli and exercise (usually) without any caffeine or music. Initially there was resistance, but after a few weeks I noticed that I was enjoying both eating and my post-work exercise ‘high’ a lot more.
One thing to consider is that you might want to abstain from what you habitually reach for when you’re in distress (such as your phone), and learn to tolerate distress and discomfort, and if possible, go one step further and actively seek out challenges. If you don’t have chronically low dopamine levels, a complete dopamine fast probably won’t have any long-term effects, and the stress of doing so might actually counteract any subtle positive effects of the fast anyway.
The originator of the “dopamine fast” psychiatrist Dr. Cameron Sepah, actually says that his initial focus was not neurochemical (as you can’t fast from a naturally occurring chemical) but it was a cognitive-behavioural therapy method intended to help people reduce impulsive behaviour.
How to Repair Your Dopamine Receptors: 5 Mindfulness-Based Exercises
Based on the factors that cause a reduction or imbalance in our dopamine levels, it’s clear that maintaining a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, having sufficient sleep and reducing your overall stress levels are all important.
However, here are some other ways to reset your dopamine levels.
Exercise #1 – Meditation
There are several forms of meditation and the one that is most likely to improve your baseline dopamine levels (and general brain health) is ultimately the practice that a) makes you feel good b) you are motivated to do most consistently. This will be different based on your unique brain, history, temperament, and natural level of concentration.
For example, focused attention meditation is a great way to stimulate high levels of dopamine release, but many people find it difficult to concentrate for long enough to get into such a state.
Loving-Kindness meditation can be deeply healing and is great for fostering feelings of love, safety and connectedness, but some people find the visualisations that are a part of the practice challenging and struggle to feel compassion at will.
Chanting or singing meditation is an amazing way to stimulate the Vagus nerve, reduce physiological stress and release dopamine but some people may be too shy to chant out loud.
Exercise #2 – Cold Exposure
In sticking with the theme of hormesis, progressively introducing yourself to uncomfortable situations, one of the most potent ways to reset dopamine levels is through cold exposure. This is most commonly done with ice baths, swimming in cold water or cold showers.
Cold exposure stimulates the production of norepinephrine, which is a precursor to dopamine. One study found that immersion in cold water raised blood levels of dopamine by 250% and that this was still elevated for up to 72 hours after the exposure.
On top of this, there are other health benefits to consistent cold exposure, such as a reduction in stress levels, improved blood circulation, improved focus and energy, and better sleep, which may indirectly help in balancing out your dopamine levels.
Exercise #3 – Viewing Early Morning Sunlight & Avoiding Screen Time at Night
Human beings spent 99% of our history without electronic lights. As a result, our physiology is highly attuned to natural light, which is influential in regulating our dopamine production. Viewing early morning sunlight (without sunglasses) for 10-30 minutes a day can help release dopamine when done consistently. It goes without saying to make sure you don’t stare directly at the sun!
On the flip side, viewing bright artificial lights between 10pm and 4am has been shown to significantly reduce the amount of dopamine in our system. This is worrying given that a large majority of the world’s population are watching screens late into the night.
Exercise #4. – Do One Thing at a Time
By stacking several sources of dopamine at a time, we may over-spike our phasic dopamine levels which can lead to a crash and reduced motivation in the long term.
For example, if you’re going to exercise, you may be accustomed to having energy drinks, loud music, and social connections all at the same time. If you can reduce one of these (e.g. don’t always listen to music or ingest caffeine), that’s a good start.
Likewise, you may be used to having a beer while watching a thriller movie on television and eating dinner – you may want to try having dinner without the television playing.
Exercise #5. – Control Your Thoughts
It’s quite clear that when we have negative thoughts our nervous system takes this as a stressor, and it reduces our capacity for pleasure.
However, what a lot of people don’t know is that by intentionally having positive thoughts or using positive mental imagery, we can actually release dopamine. Memory palaces, which combine goal-oriented, focused attention with mental imagery can undoubtedly improve our dopamine levels.
The Truth About How To Repair Dopamine Receptors
Ultimately, it’s important to maintain not only a healthy dopamine balance, but also to ensure you get enough of the other “feel-good” neurochemicals such as endorphins, serotonin, and oxytocin. This will ensure that you feel more fulfilled and motivated in general and don’t have as many cravings to reach for dopamine hits.
Making the necessary effort to balance dopamine levels when there are so many easy sources of neurochemical reward available at our fingertips can be a tough task. Like most healthy habits, the best route to long-term success is to start with small steps.
It may be necessary to improve our diet, exercise and meditate, but within this it’s also important to choose things that we enjoy in order to keep us motivated and consistent. Find an exercise routine that you like doing, eat healthy foods that you prefer (you don’t have to eat kale if you hate it!) and experiment with meditation styles till you find a style that you enjoy. Don’t forget to include a Memory Palace exercise routine too.
If you’re concerned that you may have chronically low dopamine levels as a result of substance abuse, or you’ve experienced a prolonged period of low mood, make sure you contact a counsellor or psychotherapist in your area. If that’s something you need, Ben Fishel has been on the MMM Podcast before and I highly recommend him for global telehealth counselling, or if you’re looking for a psychotherapist in the Melbourne area.