Our ability to initiate, engage in, and complete activities is an important part of participating in life. Lack of motivation, also called adynamia, is common with injury to the frontal lobes that occurs after a traumatic brain injury (TBI). It is also one of the most debilitating parts of depression, and can last for months after the other symptoms of depression such as low mood, sleeping changes, eating changes, and apathy have improved.
Norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine are all neurotransmitters that communicate between nerves. These specific neurotransmitters help us with concentration, attention, drive, pleasure/reward, sexual functioning, interest, energy, and motivation. Deficiency or reduced levels of these neurotransmitters can contribute to challenges in ability to initiate and complete tasks.
So, if you have difficulty “getting going” and initiating activities or following through and finishing things you start… then you might be struggling with low levels of dopamine.
What is dopamine?
Dopamine has been called the “motivation molecule,” as it helps provide the drive and focus needed to “get stuff done”, helps us feel happy and alert, and also plays an important part in helping to get us up and moving in the morning (1).
Dopamine is also involved with the “pleasure system” of the brain and functions to create a feeling of enjoyment and a sense of reward in order to motivate performance. It also supports sleep, mood, attention, and learning.
People that suffer with low dopamine often experience hopelessness, feelings of worthlessness, and struggle to handle stress. (2)
How do we make dopamine?
To make dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine we need to certain proteins – specifically, the amino acids L-Tyrosine and L-Phenylalanine – as well as vitamin C and B6. Reduced levels of these amino acids or vitamins can increase the risk of experiencing a lack of motivation, low energy, poor concentration, and even depression.
Why dopamine levels may be low
There are a number of factors that can lead to lower than optimal dopamine levels, including:
- Chronic stress and adrenal exhaustion
- Low protein diets, especially with low intake of foods high in phenylalanine and tyrosine
- Low stomach acid and/or leaky gut (as this impairs the ability to absorb proteins and vitamins)
- Vitamin deficiencies including C, D, B3 and B6
- Mineral deficiencies including low magnesium, zinc, or iron
- Poor sleep
- Hypoglycemia or poor blood sugar balance
How To Boost Dopamine Levels with Diet and Lifestyle Factors
1. Eat enough protein
Increasing the amount of protein in your diet, especially tyrosine and phenylalanine, can increase dopamine levels in the brain (3,4). Research has shown that when phenylalanine and tyrosine are eliminated from the diet, dopamine levels can become depleted (5).
Both tyrosine and phenylalanine are naturally found in protein-rich foods like turkey, beef, eggs, soy and legumes.
2. Consume dopamine-boosting foods
- Raw cacao or minimally processed dark chocolate (2 pieces a day)
- Green leafy vegetables
- Nuts & seeds
- Organic coffee or organic green tea (1 cup a day)
Although all these foods can be beneficial for dopamine levels, multiple studies have shown that the L-theanine found in green tea increases dopamine production, thus causing an antidepressant effect and enhancing cognitive function (6)
3. Take a probiotic
You may have heard the gut is sometimes called the “second brain“, that is because it contains a large number of nerve cells that produce many neurotransmitter signalling molecules, including dopamine (7,8). Certain species of bacteria that live in your gut are also capable of producing dopamine, which may impact mood and behaviour. Conversely harmful bacteria in the gut have been shown to decrease dopamine production. (9,10, 11, 12)
There are so many health benefits of yoga one of them, surprisingly, is boosting dopamine and motivation. One three-month study found that performing one hour of yoga six days per week significantly increased dopamine levels (13).
5. Get a good night’s sleep
Sleep improves neurotransmitter production and receptor activity. When we sleep, our brain flushes out the neurotransmitters, repairs receptor sites and regenerates neurotransmitters to be used the next day. Getting regular, high quality sleep may help keep your dopamine levels balanced and help you feel more alert and high-functioning during the day. (14)
When people are forced, or choose, to stay awake through the night, the availability of dopamine receptors in the brain is dramatically reduced by the next morning (15)
6. Listen to instrumental music
Listening to music can help boost dopamine levels. Research has found that listening to music increases activity in the reward and pleasure areas of the brain, which are rich with dopamine receptors (16).
A small study investigating the effects of music on dopamine found a 9% increase in brain dopamine levels when people listened to instrumental songs (17). At this stage, the science points to listing to instrumental music as opposed to music with lyrics.
Research has found that meditation many of meditations benefits may be due to increased dopamine levels in the brain.
One study including eight experienced meditation teachers had a 64% increase in dopamine production after meditating for one hour, compared to when resting quietly (18). This might be a simple strategy to implement given that you just need to find a quiet place and be still. If dopamine is low, this is a nice, easy strategy to start with to help get yourself going again!
8. Get plenty of sunlight
Sun exposure may boost dopamine levels and improve mood. If we don’t get enough sunshine exposure, it can lead to reduced levels of mood-boosting neurotransmitters, including dopamine (19).
One study in 68 healthy adults found that those who received the most sunlight exposure in the previous 30 days had the highest density of dopamine receptors in the reward and movement regions of their brains (20).
Struggling to initiate and complete tasks can be quite debilitating, embarrassing, and impacts your ability to manage your day-to-day activities.
Dopamine is a key neurotransmitter to help create drive and motivation. To help boost your motivation make sure you eat enough good-quality lean protein, take a probiotic, engage in regular yoga and meditation, listen to instrumental music… and even better, get out and do some of this in the sunlight! Make sure you get a good night’s sleep and eat avocados, nuts/seeds, dark chocolate, beets, and sip on organic coffee or green tea. You may want to also invest in a B-complex supplement and a multivitamin containing magnesium, zinc, iron, vitamin C, and D.
By implementing these strategies you can help to kick-start your mojo and get going with life again. And if you need support walking through these strategies or others – we’re here to help!