Dopamine: How what we eat impacts our brain chemistry
Did you know that through diet you can improve your brain function, ability to concentrate and get more stuff done? How what you put on your plate can add a little extra spring to your step and lift your mood? Seems unlikely? Enter the dopamine diet.
Brain on dopamine
Until now you may have associated dopamine with the huge adrenaline rush that accompanies addictive behaviours like gambling and extreme sports. That euphoric feeling, the supercharged dose of excitement and carefree happiness that gets people hooked and well, in trouble. Surely, we shouldn’t be trying to increase dopamine production, right?
Actually, quite the opposite!
In an everyday scenario, dopamine is involved to keep us motivated, focused and productive. It's been dubbed the feel-good chemical and for a good reason, it’s responsible for the one feeling we all long for - happiness.
Alongside serotonin and acetylcholine, dopamine is one of the key neurotransmitters - brain chemicals responsible for signalling between neurons (brain cells) and various cells throughout our bodies. It directly impacts a variety of physiological functions i.e. movement and motor reactions as well as psychological functions like mood, pleasure and joy.
So, what happens when we are a little low on dopamine?
To put it simply, your zest for life might be a little lacking.
Low levels of dopamine impact our enthusiasm and drive and lead to feelings of apathy, fatigue, procrastination, low libido, memory issues and inability to concentrate and complete tasks.
In more severe cases, dopamine deficiency can cause muscle cramps and spasms, tremors, stiffness and depression.
The most common causes of dopamine deficiency include underlying health conditions (Parkinson’s), certain drugs and supplements, receptor downregulation and yes, poor nutrition.
It’s also important to note that in contrast, extremely high levels of dopamine can be related to anxiety, difficulty sleeping and stress so modification of your diet should always be done with the support of your GP or nutrition professional.
What foods increase dopamine in the brain?
Most people link certain vitamins and minerals with the health of our brain and the nervous system like magnesium, B vitamins and omega 3s. It’s hugely important to realise that what we eat can also impact our ability to create neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.
In short, what we put in our mouth has a direct effect on our mood, happiness and life satisfaction. That’s kind of cool right?
So, what could you be doing to give your dopamine levels a boost?
1. Eat more dopamine-boosting foods
Interestingly, dopamine consumed in foods will not cross the blood-brain barrier and will have zero effect on dopamine levels in the brain.
What you really want to do is consume foods high in L-Tyrosine, the precursor to dopamine.
Tyrosine is an amino acid. Main sources include:
- lean animal protein - chicken, beef, lamb, fish, pork…
- dairy, cheese in particular
- whole grain
- broad beans (high in l-dopa, the direct precursor to dopamine, can cross the blood-brain barrier!)
Tyrosine is not the only nutrient our body needs to create dopamine, it takes plenty of other minerals and vitamins, including B vitamins, vitamin D, niacin, zinc, selenium and iron, amongst others. Therefore, a balanced, nutrient-rich diet is key! Think whole foods (lots of vegetables and fruit, green leafy vegetables, oily fish) as a daily staple.
Additionally, research shows that over 50% of dopamine is produced in the gut, so looking after your gut microbiome is key.
Probiotic-rich foods like kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha come with a whole array of health benefits, so make sure you include them in your daily menu.
2. Limit the consumption of dopamine depleting foods
Although it initially provides a dopamine boost (hence its addictive nature), regular consumption leads to decreased dopamine levels amongst other negative health consequences. One more reason to consider a sugar detox - your brain will thank you for it!
Foods high in saturated fat (like palm oil and animal fat) can cause desensitization of dopamine receptors and are linked to lower reward response, leading to a lack of motivation and drive.
Caffeine and alcohol
In excess both can contribute to unusually high dopamine concentrations, leading to the downregulation of dopamine receptors. Moderation is key!
3. Lifestyle factors
Whilst food has, without a doubt, a huge impact on the level of dopamine and other neurotransmitters, it’s only one of the healthy lifestyle habits necessary for a boost in mood levels.
Regular exercise, adequate sleep levels, sunlight exposure, and relaxation techniques including listening to music and meditation all play a huge role in the makings of a healthy brain.
Does dopamine help you lose weight?
The dopamine diet has recently been a big hit in the mainstream media thanks to celebrity chef Tom Kerridge’s book of the same title. Whilst it’s definitely a good thing to bring awareness to the subject, the downside is that it focuses almost exclusively on weight loss as the main goal. The diet limits carbohydrate consumption to 90g per day and promotes the intake of lean protein from unprocessed meats, eggs and dairy, healthy fats and tyrosine-rich foods.
That version of the dopamine diet is essentially a low carb, high protein eating protocol, that might lead to short-term weight loss. As a downside, it cuts out important product groups which can make it difficult to create a balanced, nutritionally rich diet and sustainable, healthy reduction in weight. Additionally, due to high protein content, it might not be suitable for certain medical conditions.
The good news is, there is a lot we can do to impact how we feel and improve our brain function. Eating whole foods, a nutritious diet and implementing positive lifestyle habits will positively impact the production of neurotransmitters and can give us a boost we all need, especially right now.
However, more significant changes in eating patterns like increasing or cutting out certain food groups should always be run past your doctor and ideally implemented with advice from a nutrition specialist. At the end of the day, making sure your daily menu is balanced and your nutrient needs are met are some of the healthiest ways to encourage a happy brain.
- Kühn, S., Düzel, S., Colzato, L. et al. Food for thought: association between dietary tyrosine and cognitive performance in younger and older adults. Psychological Research 83, 1097–1106 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-017-0957-4
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