Our addiction to dopamine: How to get the balance right

March 23 2017


Dopamine, aka the sex, drugs and rock and roll chemical, is running riot in our modern-day culture. We’ve taken a look at this highly addictive substance to understand how it works and what you can do to rebalance your dopamine levels naturally.

What is dopamine?

Dopamine is a chemical that transmits signals between neurons in the brain. Dubbed the ‘pleasure’ or ‘addiction’ chemical, dopamine becomes activated when something good happens. For our ancestors, that would have been triggered by survival instincts like the availability of food or having sex, but for us it could be a new Facebook Like, a text, a sugary snack or a win at the races (and having sex – some things never change.)

Modern life offers plenty of opportunity for a quick hit of dopamine, and this constant cycle of searching for and gaining a quick reward is hard to escape. Ever check your work emails late at night? Found yourself aimlessly scrolling through Facebook? Texting and driving? These are all signs your dopamine addiction is in overdrive.

Lady holding donut

Multi-tasking releases dopamine

An email reply, a new connection on LinkedIn, a retweet, these constant little achievements release dopamine and make us feel happy and productive, but Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT says our brains are ‘not wired to multitask well, when people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.’

Instead of the big rewards that come from a focused effort, we reap many small and insignificant rewards instead. Ever been so captivated in your Twitter feed that you don’t know where the last half an hour went? You have dopamine to thank for that.

Building a tolerance to dopamine

Just like drug addiction, our bodies adapt and become tolerant to foods that cause a surge in dopamine, so we need to eat more and more sugar to get the same feeling as that initial hit. This reward system is also responsible for goal setting and achieving, and explains the desire to make more money, have more clothes, have a bigger car…you get the picture.

Right on cue

A dopamine surge can even happen by simply associating a cue with a reward, like a takeaway menu, or seeing the friend that you only ever meet for cake and coffee. Even just seeing packaging can release a surge of dopamine that makes you want to eat junk food, which is why campaigners want to wrap junk food in plain paper.

One study found that by simply showing pictures of cupcakes, a surge in dopamine was caused, just like when cocaine addicts are shown a bag of the drug.

The benefits of dopamine:

So far we’ve discussed the negative impacts of a disrupted dopamine system, but healthy dopamine levels are essential to the normal functioning of the body.

mars bar

Dopamine co-ordinates movement, aids memory and attention and helps to process pain. During Parkinson’s disease, the body loses the nerve cells that produce dopamine, causing the tremor and motor-neurone symptoms associated with the condition.

Low dopamine levels can also cause similar feelings to depression including:

  1. Lack of interest in life
  2. Weight gain
  3. Fatigue
  4. Mood swings
  5. Poor memory/concentration

How to increase dopamine naturally?

So how can we get a healthy, natural balance of dopamine and avoid the spike (and subsequent low) that sugar or caffeine produces?

For your brain to get as excited about an apple as a cheeseburger, you need to reset your internal reward system.

  1. Cut down gradually

If you’re stuck in a habit like having a chocolate bar after dinner every night, or a glass of wine with your favourite show, your brain is wired to expect that. Like an addiction, going cold turkey and simply cutting out these treats is extremely difficult, instead you can rewire your brain and tastebuds slowly, by gradually cutting out snacks and habits. Try having the chocolate bar every other day at first, and gradually cutting back.

  1. Eat when hungry

Hunger is a very important way to push the brain’s pathways in the right direction.’’ Susan Roberts of the School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Rewarding your hunger with healthy food options will deliver a dopamine hit. Doing this time and time again will help to reinforce that eating healthy foods leads to a feeling of satisfaction.

vegetables

  1. Out of sight out of mind

Surges of dopamine can be caused by simply anticipating sugary food, so you have to be extremely strong willed to walk past an open pack of biscuits and not be tempted. By hiding away your sweet treats, this decision is made much easier. Hide away your snacks and biscuits, (better still don’t buy them at all) and invest in a fruit basket that is easy to pick at instead.

  1. Eat foods high in Tyrosine

Our body doesn’t just make dopamine, it is built by the amino acid Tyrosine. Foods that are high in Tyrosine include soybeans, lean beef, chicken, pork and eggs, and for vegetarians, beetroot or ripe bananas are full of this good stuff.

  1. Set exercise goals

The great news is dopamine is released during exercise, along with other helpful chemicals like endorphins and serotonin. A regular workout routine will help to curb your cravings for sugary food as you get your dopamine hit from dumbbells instead of doughnuts. And remember, dopamine is a reward based chemical, so setting and achieving a goal in the gym can also help to keep those dopamine devils at bay.