Dopamine is a word that’s increased in popularity every year with many people knowing it as the pleasure or feel-good hormone [1,2]. Eat a delicious chocolate bar? Dopamine hit. Scroll past a hilarious Tik Tok? Dopamine hit. Successfully toss an eaten apple core into your compost bucket fifteen feet away? Dopamine hit. Dopamine is this hormone that produces pleasure often from addictive or unhealthy behaviors, or does it? If dopamine isn’t the pleasure hormone it’s advertised to be, what is its purpose? How is it so easily abused and is there a way we can utilize our dopamine system to drive sustained positive mood and productive motivation? Well, let’s get into it!

What’s Dopamine’s Purpose

It was once thought that surges of dopamine directly caused pleasure, but scientists now think dopamine has more to do with getting us to repeat pleasurable activities rather than with producing pleasure directly [3]. How do we know that? Well, back in the 1970’s it became possible to perform lesions of dopamine pathways thus cutting off dopamine from the body. The obvious consequence was a severe reduction in movement of both rat and human experiments. Cut off the dopamine pathway and patients become lethargic. But neither rats nor humans display a fundamental inability to move because dopamine-lesioned rats will still swim in cold water, and akinetic patients may get up and run if a fire alarm sounds. On top of this, pleasure isn’t stripped from rats or humans either. If you place food in a dopamine-lesioned rat’s mouth, it will eat it and seemingly enjoy it. Rather, they will not actively choose to exert effort to obtain rewards [4]. In another study, rats were given an option in a T-maze to obtain a lower food reward with no obstacle or a higher food reward that required climbing over a barrier. But when dopamine was depleted, the rat’s response shifted away from the high reward side to the low reward side. Importantly, rats still preferred the high reward side when the barrier was removed under conditions when dopamine signaling was impaired [5]. Therefore, concluding that dopamine isn’t a hormone that solely causes pleasure. It’s a hormone that motivates us to move and pursue external objects or experiences.

And this can be seen as a good thing. For example, wouldn’t it be nice if we had the dopaminergic motivation to pursue higher effort, higher reward activities rather than lower effort, lower reward activities? Wouldn’t it be nice if you preferred to run five miles to improve your mood and health rather than sit on couch and watch the next episode of Squid Game? By the way, amazing show. It’s gotta be my Halloween costume this year. You should check it out, but only after your five-mile run. But don’t use the episode as a reward for that five-mile run because it’ll cause you to like running less. I’ll tell you about that more in a bit because I’m getting off-topic. Anyways, back to dopamine. If we could control our dopamine system effectively, we could selectively increase our mood, motivation, and movement to pursue higher reward activities.

So, I’ll get into how this reward system can be used or abused in a minute, but I wanted to touch on a few other interesting things I found in my research. Parkinson’s Disease is an age-dependent degenerative disorder caused by a severe loss of dopamine. Commonly you’ll see patients with Parkinson’s disease have tremors, slow movement, and rigidity with movements [6]. Rather than a loss of functional movement, cases of Parkinson’s Disease can be considered a motivational deficit, reflecting implicit decisions that it is not worth expending the energy required for faster movements [4]. Similarly, if you were to consume a drug called MPTP, it would cause permanent symptoms of Parkinson’s disease by destroying dopaminergic neurons in the brain [7]. Because of that I’m assuming you have no interest in taking MPTP. Well, the reason why I mention this is because there have been outbreaks in the past of MPTP contamination in street drugs that caused users permanent loss of these dopamine neurons [8]. And this wasn’t in a third world country, this happened in the United States back in the 1980’s. So, don’t do drugs kids.

How Can it Be Abused?

But let’s get into how our dopamine system can get abused. So, like I mentioned above, our brains are wired to increase the odds that we will repeat pleasurable activities like eating, socializing, and reproducing by releasing dopamine. This dopamine gives us the motivation to move and pursue pleasurable activities and this causes changes in the brain that make it easier to repeat that activity again and again without thinking about it, leading to the formation of habits [3]. Different activities, experiences, or drugs can cause varying amounts of dopamine to be released into the body and large surges of dopamine “teach” the brain to seek that dopamine producing source at the expense of other, goals and activities [3]. For example, drugs of abuse trigger large increases in dopamine which are associated with their reinforcing effects [9]. While the dopamine response varies between individual, on average you’ll see a 150% increase in dopamine from consuming food [10], a near 200% increase from consuming alcohol [11], just over a 200% increase from sex or nicotine, a 300% response from cocaine, and a 1000% increase from meth [12]. People who enjoy exercise may see an increase of around 200%, like sex or nicotine, whereas people who don’t enjoy exercise may not see an increase at all [13]. Like I mentioned, these numbers vary based on the person, but you can get an idea of how much different activities and drugs can affect our dopamine response. And I’m sure gambling, video games, pornography, and social media would prove to be extremely potent drugs too. The more potent the activity, the easier it is to become addicted [14].

The problem is that repeated drug administration, whether it be any of these drugs or activities I’ve mentioned, can enhance the brain’s reactivity to drug cues, reduce the sensitivity to non-drug rewards, weaken self-regulation, and increase our sensitivity to dysphoria or unhappiness [15]. And this is the beginning of addiction. It’s when we rely on external stimuli to provide us that dopamine rush to the point where other healthy activities become less desirable and unenjoyable. This reinforces our behavior to gamble, or drink, or play video games, until even those activities no longer become desirable and enjoyable. This is because addiction leads to a narrowing of pleasureful activities until even the addiction loses its pleasure [13].

What’s happening here is our body has a couple of ways in which it can release dopamine. First, we have this constant pulsing of dopamine, or tonic dopamine release, which provides us with our baseline level of dopamine. This dictates how motivated, excited, and willing we are to pursue goals at any given moment. Second, we have this volumetric timed pulse of dopamine, or phasic dopamine release, which provides us with bursts of dopamine from desirable activities like eating food, playing video games, and gambling. But whenever we get this phasic release of dopamine from a pleasurable event, our baseline of dopamine drops shortly afterwards to balance our dopamine levels. And this is important to remember. For each pleasurable rise in dopamine, we get an equal and opposite feeling of pain or a dopamine void. Its why mothers can feel depressed shortly after giving birth, or why you may feel lost after accomplishing a big goal like retirement or graduation. These short-term dopamine voids can cause us to seek another dopamine hit to reestablish that high [13]. But with chronic exposure to drugs or dopamine addicting activities, our baseline or tonic dopamine levels drop [16]. This is that feeling of withdrawal when your baseline level of dopamine is depleted and you feel groggy, lethargic, and not motivated to accomplish things.

So, to summarize what I’m getting at here, the more dopamine that gets released from an activity or drug, the more pleasureful it is but the more addictive it can be and the bigger the crash afterwards. And if you’re someone who constantly seeks out high dopamine activities through video games, drugs, pornography, shopping, gambling or whatever your drug of choice is, the more your baseline level of dopamine depresses. This makes healthy activities like exercise, reading, working, or healthy food less desirable. And with today’s world of pleasurable activities readily available 24/7, ready to be delivered to your door or screen at any moment, it can make all of us susceptible to some form of addiction.

How Can it Be Utilized?

So, the next question becomes, how can we utilize our dopamine system to not only avoid addiction but to increase our mood and motivation so that we want to accomplish high effort, high reward activities. How can we learn to enjoy exercise? And vegetables? And challenging work? Well, here are four ways you can manage your dopamine levels to create sustained mood, motivation, and balance:

  • 1. Avoid Frequent High Dopamine Activities: Repeated high dopamine activities not only create repeated high dopamine crashes, but they can develop tolerance. This means your baseline levels of dopamine can drop over time causing you to feel worse at baseline and requiring more of that high dopamine activity to get that same feeling of pleasure. Because of this it’s best to make high dopamine activities rare and intermittent. An example of this would be that I tend to indulge in restaurant food and dessert once every week or two. This approach of moderation is useful but as I’ve talked about before, moderation can be slippery slope, so you’ll have to keep that in mind too.
  • 2. Limit Dopamine Stacking: Exercise may be a healthy dopamine activity for most. Sure, you can become addicted to it like anything, but on average it’s extremely healthy. The problem becomes when you start stacking dopamine activities to create a high dopamine event. For example, taking pre-workout before you exercise, listening to music and socializing while you exercise, and then rewarding yourself with ice cream afterwards. In this case you’ve taken a healthy dopamine activity and put it on steroids by stacking several other high dopamine activities. This creates that same large surge of dopamine which can throw your baseline off balance. This is why I enjoy working out or walking without external stimuli on most occasions.
  • 3. Make Effort the Reward: If you want to enjoy something, don’t place a high dopamine event before or after the activity. Make the activity, and the effort involved in that activity the dopamine event. This can be demonstrated by a study in the 1970’s where they gathered young children who enjoyed drawing. They then split those children into three groups: Group 1 would knowingly get rewarded for their drawing. Group 2 would get rewarded for their drawing, but they didn’t know there was a reward. And Group 3 didn’t receive a reward at all. What they found was that Group 1, who knew there was a reward for their drawing effort, showed less interest in drawing as their focus was on the reward [17]. Thus, showing that by focusing on an external reward, you can lose enjoyment for activities. Instead of focusing on rewards, learn to enjoy the process and effort of an activity. In this way, you can create a dopamine response for effort. This is the foundation of the popular “growth mindset.”
  • 4. Abstinence from Your Drug of Choice: In many cases moderation is difficult, and your baseline level of dopamine may already be off balance. In this case, it can be quite useful to abstain from your drug of choice. Whether it be social media, drugs, shopping, video games, or whatever it is for you, Dr. Anna Lembke suggests a 30-day detox from that high dopamine activity. She states that the first 14 days of your detox may be miserable with anxiety and insomnia, but shortly after that you’ll start to see the benefits as your baseline dopamine levels regain balance. By 30 days, most addictions can be reversed [18]. Obviously, in some cases drug-induced impairments can be long lasting and require interventions to reverse [14].

But the goal here with these four steps is to create a resilient dopamine balance that’s sensitive to pleasure and pain but can easily restore homeostasis after indulgence [18]. This allows you to enjoy everyday life and activities without the worry of abuse.

Final Thoughts

Dopamine is this hormone that not only causes pleasure, but motivates us to move, acquire, and accomplish. It gets released in our body as a reinforcement for pleasurable activities. But this system is ripe for abuse with large or frequent surges of dopamine from various activities. Some activities like drugs, video games, gambling, and social media are riper than others and can lead to addiction. As a way to avoid this, we can utilize our dopamine system in the most optimal way possible to seek high effort, high reward goals like consistent exercise, healthy eating, and pursuance of long-term goals. This can be done by avoiding frequent and high dopamine surging activities. Limiting dopamine stacking. Making the effort or activity the reward. And removing our reliance on our drug of choice by utilizing abstinence. These will not only allow us to maximize our motivation and mood, but can allow us to live healthier and happier.

Want a weekly update on the 3 most important things I’ve read, watched, and listened to within the past week?

Watch a YouTube Video Summarizing the Post

Hey, I am Brandon Zerbe

Welcome to myHealthSciences! My goal has always been to increase quality-of-life with healthy habits that are sustainable, efficient, and effective. I do this by covering topics like Fitness, Nutrition, Sleep, Cognition, Finance and Minimalism. You can read more about me here.