How to Hijack Your Dopamine System
7 ways to enhance your mood and productivity, backed by neuroscience.
Dopamine is a profoundly powerful molecule. On the one hand, an increase in dopamine will make you feel amazing and ready to take on the world, on the other, a decrease will lead to feelings of utter depression and nihilism. When you get an increase in dopamine you begin to feel alert, awake, positive and eager to engage in activities, especially those activities that gave you the increase in the first place. However, chasing this amazing feeling can come at a considerable cost; you may end up dropping your dopamine baseline, being in dopamine debt or developing a higher threshold requirement to even get that increase in the first place. With all that being said, how do we increase our dopamine, without the hangover?
The small print
A few important points before we begin. Most activities we engage in won’t lead to radical increases or drops in dopamine. However there is a cumulative effect of what you chose to engage in which can end up shaping our lives and view of the world. It’s like the straw that broke the camel’s back; you may not notice these little changes in dopamine…until you do. It may not be helpful to view it as a ‘Dopamine hit’. The term neglects the fact that it’s relative to your baseline, which will alter based on the intensity of experience you had just prior to the spike. Finally, your level of dopamine is different depending on the individual, some people are just naturally more excitable or energized, and others not so.
A tiny bit of science
Dopamine does not act alone, it is closely connected to adrenaline (epinephrine) and combined they tend to wake up circuits in the brain, getting us amped up and prepared, but also excited and aroused. In this way adrenaline and dopamine often go hand in hand. LDOPA is converted into dopamine, and dopamine is converted into adrenaline (epinephrine), in this sense the chemicals are related to one another. However, they are distinct. DOPA makes things more ‘colourful’, whilst adrenaline is about energy and readiness. Evolutionarily, we are hardwired to seek out these feelings, it’s like a reward for chasing down that animal for dinner, mating, or surviving a battle to the death. It’s a short term reward that leads to extending our species in the long term. Of course it is necessary for dopamine levels to return to baseline, otherwise we would not be motivated to repeat that behaviour. But why does the baseline drop? After all, it’s this drop that can lead to feelings of depressions, sadness and nihilism, which does not make evolutionary sense. The answer lies in the speed at which you can replenish dopamine. The body produces pools of dopamine, synthesised and ready to release by synaptic bubbles/vesicles. When it’s out of stock you have to wait until your body replenishes that pool and fills up these synaptic bubbles. Hence a massive release will deplete your vesicles, meaning there is no more to be released, regardless of what you are doing. Therefore your baseline cannot be maintained as there has been a massive drop in overall dopamine in your system.
What activities increase dopamine?
With this in mind, it makes sense that what you engage in, and how often you engage in them over the previous weeks and months will dictate your current dopamine baseline. Dr Huberman from the Huberman Lab suggests that chocolate increases your dopamine by 1.5 times, lasting several seconds to several minutes. Sex, and the pursuit of sex doubles the amount of baseline dopamine. Nicotine increases the amount of dopamine by 2.5 times, as does cocaine. Epinephrine will increase dopamine 10 times above baseline (hence the power of addiction when you combine a drug or activity which induces adrenaline and dopamine). Exercise is likely to be enjoyment dependent, but it can be about 2 times above baseline, but less or none if you don’t enjoy it. Caffeine will increase dopamine a little bit, but it’s modest. However, regular ingestion of caffeine increases up regulation of dopamine receptors (increasing density of g protein coupled receptors). As such, caffeine will allow you to feel more of the dopamine effects. By the far the most cost effective, convenient and long lasting activity to engage in is cold water therapy, which is discussed in the final section: So what can we do?
A cautionary tale of stacking the deck
It may be highly tempting to prolong or increase this feel good feeling by piling on the things that release dopamine one after the other. Stacking the deck in this way will lead to a serious peak, and then a significant plummet. As we know, not only will your baseline drop, you may in fact be depleting your dopamine resources.
Take pre workout as an example; people will try to get their dopamine as high as they can with a cocktail of some description, and then workout. But layering like this is not optimal, as it can create severe motivational issues directly after or a few days after. If you do this too often your capacity to release dopamine will take a serious hit. Imagine an Olympic athlete who just won gold, or a rock star who is being adored by a sold-out arena of fans. Vast quantities of dopamine are being released producing a massive high that feels like it will last forever, but the extent it will fall below baseline is proportional to the peak. In short, the higher you climb the harder you fall. Some people will feel that drop more quickly than others but regardless of who you are, if we continue to engage in these behaviors that produce high levels of dopamine over and over, we will stop getting the same effect. Further, not only will our dopamine levels drop, we may struggle to find motivation to continue to pursue other things in life that are important. As you might imagine, this explains the over consumption of and diminishing returns of porn, drugs, computer games and gambling. When there is nothing left to produce, our mood can drop, and we can find it difficult to find the motivation to do other things within our life, such as attending work/school, socializing and housework.
Another concern is when we reward a desired behaviour, accidently undermining the dopamine release for that activity. If you provide yourself a reward for a completing a task, it may lead to reinforcing extrinsic rewards instead of intrinsic reward of doing the task. You will enjoy less pleasure with the activity itself, because you are doing it for the reward.
Overall, it’s important to remember that Dopamine activities, even if they are varied in frequency and intensity, are using the same currency. If you ‘work hard play hard’ you will begin to feel burnt out by spiking dopamine continuously with activities, all the while your baseline levels slowly drops. Eventually you will begin to feel that nothing can provide you with pleasure anymore as you bottom out and deplete your dopamine.
So what can we do?
Obviously, we can’t stop doing things we enjoy, nor would we want to. Peaks drive us to be better, more productive and motivate us. The trick is to better understand the relationship between peaks andbaseline, that is to say how to maintain baseline, or raise it, whilst still having peaks. These are seven suggestions by Stanford professor and Neuroscientist Dr Huberman:
1) Fasting to reset your baseline. Can you do a complete fast of the activities that spike your dopamine? The first 14 days will be really hard, but you will begin to replenish your levels slowly over time.
2) Don’t saturate the dopamine system. Can you limit the huge peaks in dopamine and stop stacking the deck? Instead of increasing the conditions required to enjoy that experience again, consider sometimes, at random, to go to the gym without music or caffeine. Other times have caffeine and listen to music, and so on.
3) Cold showers. Cold water therapy slowly increases your dopamine levels by 250%. This is the same amount increase as consuming cocaine, but with no sudden rise and crash. It’s a sustained rise that depending on the amount of time you are immersed in the water, can provide you with almost three hours of dopamine increase. Cortisol will go up as well, but this will be transient and can be managed by reducing stress such as slow breathing, relaxation exercises or mindfulness. It should be noted that although you can become cold water tolerant the benefits outweigh the cost. Cold water showers are easy to do, have zero cost, and do not require you to ingest pharmacology.
4) Focus your schedule to be based on intermittent release of dopamine. This means instead of chasing the highs, or stacking the deck, you actually randomize when you will get the dopamine increase, in effect creating an intermittent reward schedule. It’s the same principles as why gambling, social media or elusive partners are so addictive. For example, don’t have coffee every day, randomize the time you have it and amount, same with cold water showers. Try to avoid allowing your body to become resistant to cold showers or caffeine by randomizing the process. At some point dopamine will arrive, but sometimes it will be low, sometimes it will be high.
5) Gratitude activity. It’s always remarkable when you reflect that what you think about can alter your brain chemistry. It will come as no surprise to learn that focusing and talking about something you are passionate about has been repeatedly found to increases dopamine. Appreciation tasks, involving speaking or writing down what gets you excited or motivated could be a way to manage dopamine release.
6) Growth mindset. Striving toward a growth mindset whereby the journey and effort is the reward, not the end product. Focusing on enjoying the experiencing, and continuously be challenging yourself to grow excitedly within that challenge and journey, instead of focusing on hitting that end goal.
7) Meaningful relationships. The release of Oxytocin via socializing, playing with your children or dogs, directly stimulate the dopamine pathway. Therefore, socializing and bonding with people/pets lead to a dopamine response. Focus on cultivating and maintaining those relationships with partners, family members and mates.
Dopamine can have a significant effect on your mood, dictating whether you feel focused and energised, or depressed and unmotivated. With discipline, trial and error and a little bit of creativity, its possible to wrestle back control of your dopamine system to work for you, rather then against you. By following the simple suggests outlined in this article you can begin to create a structured lifestyle that allows you to ride the wave of dopamine, and limit the crashes.
This article is based on the excellent YouTube video by Dr Andrew Huberman ‘Controlling Your Dopamine For Motivation, Focus & Satisfaction | Huberman Lab Podcast #39’