Happy vibes: healthy ways to boost your dopamine

It’s the feel-good chemical that leads to happiness and joy. But what is dopamine and why do we need it?

It can make us feel like we’ve kicked the winning goal or won the lottery.

So, why is dopamine so important and how do we find the right balance?

We talk to two experts about it and how to get the good stuff in healthy ways.

What is dopamine?

Basically, dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a feel-good chemical that’s often referred to as the reward chemical because it leads to feelings of excitement and joy.

Solutions Psychology psychologist and director Melissa Juzva says dopamine is a chemical that is released in anticipation of happiness when we are working towards achieving goals.

“We can experience the effects of dopamine when we achieve any goal in our day-to-day lives,” she says.

“For instance, when we save our money and finally get to take our dream holiday, or when we complete an assignment at work or school.”

Unfortunately, dopamine can also have a darker side – we can anticipate getting a hit through less desirable habits, such as endlessly scrolling social media or using pleasure-focused behaviours such as gambling, or using drugs, alcohol or risky sex as rewards.

What does dopamine do?

Dopamine is used in a wide variety of brain functions, and is important for memory, cognition, mood, sleep, motor control, pain regulation and our ability to pay attention and learn.

Award-winning speaker, trained medical practitioner and author Dr Jenny Brockis says dopamine is the ultimate motivator.

“(It) works to motivate you to want to repeat that activity, so you get another dopamine hit,” Dr Brockis says.

“And it’s the anticipation of the reward that’s especially stimulating.”

Jenny says dopamine is also critical to movement.

“In Parkinson’s disease, dopamine-producing cells are lost and a person begins to experience difficulty in initiating movement, walking more slowly, muscle cramps and tremors, loss of energy, low mood and depression,” she says.

Where does dopamine come from?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced in the substantia nigra, ventral tegmental and hypothalamus areas of the brain.

“From here, it is released into the nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex,” Melissa explains.

“The prefrontal cortex is located at the front of the frontal lobe of the brain and plays a large role in behaviour, planning and personality development.”

Can you have too much or too little dopamine?

You’d think that feeling good, being more motivated and staying focused would be a good thing, right? Well, not quite, Dr Brockis says.

“In excess, dopamine is linked to impulsive, risk-taking behaviour, poor sleep, anxiety, elevated stress, excess energy and heightened libido,” she says.

“It can lead to aggression, loss of empathy or co-operation.”

Melissa says if there isn’t enough dopamine in the brain, a person may feel less motivated and experience darker moods.

“Lifestyle factors which may also contribute to lower dopamine levels include a lack of sleep, obesity, drug abuse, stress and a diet high in saturated fats,” she says.

Tips for getting a healthy dopamine hit

  • Plan: Have things to look forward to for a natural dopamine boost.
  • Listen to music: This increases the number of dopamine receptors in the nucleus accumbens; the area of the brain associated with pleasure.
  • Set goals: This provides us with clarity and something to work towards – and rewards you with a dopamine hit when you get there.
  • Practise gratitude: Showing appreciation triggers the brain’s reward system and the release of dopamine.
  • Meditate: Those who meditate regularly have been shown to have a 65 per cent increase in dopamine levels that stayed at the optimal level even when participants weren’t meditating.
  • Get moving: Physical activity triggers the brain’s reward circuits helping you to anticipate pleasure.
  • Eat healthy: Consuming sufficient protein provides a number of essential amino acids including tyrosine and phenylalanine, which are the precursors to the formation of dopamine.

Written by Andrea Beattie.