If you’ve ever experienced excitement after beating a level in a video game, getting a good grade, or eating your favorite food, you’re already familiar with dopamine. Often referred-to as the “feel-good chemical,” “reward chemical,” or “pleasure chemical,” dopamine is an important part of your brain’s circuitry.
But, dopamine isn’t only responsible for that happy, rewarding feeling. It’s also involved in a whole host of other important physical and mental health functions, such as:
This is why dopamine is considered a major culprit in several mental and phsyical health conditions – ADHD, depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, OCD, schizophrenia, restless leg syndrome, and parkinson’s, just to name a few.
Why is Dopamine Important for ADHD?
Some of the most common challenges ADHDers struggle with are intimately linked with low dopamine bioavailability. In essence, that typically means one of two things: that the body isn’t making enough dopamine, or that the dopamine is being absorbed too quickly.
In either scenario, there’s not enough dopamine available to fuel your brain’s command center, the pre-frontal cortex. Without that dopa-fuel, we ADHDers tend to struggle with executive functions like:
So, when there’s not enough dopamine floating around the brain, how do we find the motivation, focus, etc., to be able to get anything done? If you have ADHD, you may have been prescribed stimulant medication. Stimulants work by blocking much of the brain’s absorption of dopamine. When the brain isn’t absorbing so much so quickly, there’s more dopamine available for use.
But, not everyone with ADHD can take, or wants to take, stimulant medications. Plus, there are plenty of other conditions that cause, or are caused by, low dopamine levels. So, what are the alternatives?
How to Raise Dopamine Levels Naturally
In the words of Elle Woods, “exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy!” But exercise gives you dopamine (and other important brain chemicals) too. Exercise uses more nerve cells than any other human activity, including the ones involved in releasing dopamine into your system.But don’t worry – this doesn’t have to be a grueling workout. You want to aim for about 20-30 minutes of moderate activity. And that 20-30 minutes could be spread out throughout the day in smaller chunks.
I’m not the first person to suggest creating a feel-good playlist. Most people can tell a difference in mood and energy based on the type of music they play. Science shows that the emotional arousal we feel when listening to music also releases dopamine.
To get yourself going before work or other tasks, you might try pairing exercise, your morning coffee, or other getting-ready activities with some upbeat, fast-tempo music.
Protein is essential for ADHD brains. One of the major amino acids needed to create dopamine is called tyrosine, so eating protein-rich foods help ensure your body has everything it needs to create dopamine. Tyrosine is found in protein-rice foods such as:
4. Minimize sugar intake
This is a tough one for many reasons. Sugar activates the brain’s reward system, which does produce a short burst of dopamine. The problem is, once that short burst is over, dopamine levels actually fall lower than they were before the sugar.
And in the long-term, sugar can desensitize the brain to dopamine, so we need more an more in order to get the same amount of stimulation –that’s why many of us tend to over-indulge on sweets.
You probably already know about the magic of coffee (or energy drinks – I probably fund a large portion of that industry on my own). Caffeine is, of course, a stimulant, so many ADHDers tend to turn to it pretty naturally. And, in moderation, it’s not bad – just watch out for headaches, insomnia, irritability, and rapid heartbeat, which are all common with caffeine over-indulgence.
To reduce these symptoms, try to aim for at least 8oz of water three times a day: in the morning, at noon, and especially at night, to help flush your system.
Many of these activities are easier in theory than in practice. An ADHD coach can help you determine which of these might work best for you, when and how to implement them, and help you stay accountable with your new dopamine-boosting habits.