Driftless Health: Boosting the body’s feel-good chemical

By Kate Klimesh,

Dopamine is a phenomenal chemical that interacts with many bodily functions on a daily basis to help guide what makes us “feel good” and what does not. It helps nerve cells send messages to each other and comes into contact with many portions of the brain, from the instinctive brain stem, through the frontal cortex and beyond. 

Dopamine works with other hormones and neurotransmitters and is involved in motor functions, mood regulation, executive functioning, memory/focus, sleep, response to stress, digestion and circulation. Dopamine may also be a main player in addiction.

The flood of dopamine to the brain when experiencing a pleasurable interaction or stimulus can reinforce wanting to engage with this stimulus more and can help people feel alert, focused, motivated and yes, even happy. Dopamine production and regulation is a cycle of motivation, reward and reinforcement. When associating a certain activity, food or experience with pleasure, sometimes even the mere anticipation of an interaction may be enough to raise dopamine levels.

There’s a definite link between the search for dopamine – the major reward chemical for the body – and the increasing cost to general health and wellness. From prescription drug side effects that treat increasing populations reporting depression, anxiety and ADHD/ADD to social media use and abuse and increased risk-taking activity, these effects rise from a disruption of our own dopamine production, and the increasing mental and physical wellness issues, is eye-opening. 

A number of factors may be responsible for reduced dopamine naturally in the body, including sleep deprivation, obesity, drug abuse/misuse and/or addiction, saturated fat consumption and stress. 

According to a literary review published in Cureus, Oct. 8, 2022, (PMID 36381869), “Constant exposure to devices like smartphones, personal computers and television can severely affect mental health, increase stress and anxiety, for example, and cause various sleep issues in both children as well as adults. Risk factors for obesity and cardiovascular disorders, including hypertension, poor regulation of stress, low HDL cholesterol and insulin resistance are among the physical health repercussions we see. 

“The psychological health effects comprise suicidal tendencies and symptoms of depression which are associated with digital device dependency, screen-time-induced poor sleep quality, and content-influenced negativity.

“There are many ways a person can take steps to more naturally regulate their own dopamine production to feel better and boost well-being.”

Importance of protein

Dopamine is produced in the body from amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine, which can both be obtained from protein-rich foods. Sources for protein can include meat, eggs, dairy and legumes. Ensuring adequate supplies of these building blocks can promote deep thinking and improve memory. Velvet beans contain L-dopa, another building block of dopamine.

Activity and Vitamin D

Dopamine is tied to motor functions and movement as well, so being physically active, especially outdoors in a natural environment, can provide a boost of dopamine, strengthening muscles and tendons while lowering stress and anxiety. Regular periods of exercise can not only increase dopamine production, but slow the use of it, making it available for longer periods of time. Being in nature and getting some sunshine can also boost levels of Vitamin D, which are also vital for optimal dopamine levels. It is estimated over 50 percent of the population in the U.S are Vitamin D-deficient. Sitting for long periods can lower dopamine production, so take a moment to stretch, stand up and move.

Sleep

Sleep is a way for your body to recover from stresses of the day and heal damage it has sustained. Protect your sleep patterns with a routine. Going to bed and getting up at the same time is beneficial, as is avoiding screen time two hours before bed. Learn your cut-off point for caffeine and loud noise or external stimulation so they do not interrupt your sleep. Only use your bed when you intend to sleep.

Music and meditation

The music that moves you may also stimulate dopamine production and support mood disorders. Meditation practiced to clear the mind and lower stress can increase dopamine production, while chronic stress can decrease production capacity.

Reduce fats

Highly processed foods generally have added fats. Having a high fat diet, especially saturated fats, can reduce natural dopamine production. Fried food, highly processed snacks and commercial baked goods often have high levels of saturated fats. Look for fresh fruits and vegetables and high fiber foods to best fuel your body and boost the body’s capacity for producing Dopamine.

Overall, finding a balance in life – nutritious food to fuel your active lifestyle and keeps the body moving – is the ideal option for finding your best self. Start any new effort towards better health slowly and celebrate successes, no matter how small.

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