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Controlling Your Dopamine For Motivation, Focus & Satisfaction

Key Takeaways

  • Dopamine lies at the heart of all addictions

  • We can increase dopamine through behaviors, with rapid and long-lasting results

  • “Dopamine is a currency and it’s the way that you track pleasure, track success, track whether or not you are doing well or poorly.” – Dr. Andrew Huberman

  • Experience of life and motivation or drive is relative to how much dopamine you have at any given moment

  • The ability to experience motivation and pleasure next is dictated by how much motivation and pleasure you experienced in the past

  • Learn to spike dopamine from effort itself: focusing only on the reward at the end of effort can undermine the process, making the process feel more painful and time feel longer

  • Cold plunge (water temperature depends on cold adaptation) can increase dopamine levels 2.5x for longer periods of time, up to three hours post-exposure

What Is Dopamine?

  • Dopamine is the primary determinant behind how excited we are, how motivated we are, and how ready we are to push through things to get what we want

  • Dopamine is a neuromodulator (different than a neurotransmitter) – influences the communication of many neurons at once

  • Dopamine influences motivation, drive, craving, and time perception

  • Two main pathways: (1) mesocortical limbic pathway – responsible for reward, motivation, craving; (2) nigrostriatal pathway – responsible for movement

  • Dopamine release can be local or broad

  • Dopamine communicates via g-protein-coupled receptors (GPCR) so its effects take longer to kick in and actually impact gene expression

  • Neurons that release dopamine also release glutamate

  • Dopamine makes people crave and pursue things outside of themselves

  • With Parkinson’s and Lewy Body Dementia dopamine dies

  • Dopamine is not just about pleasure: it’s the universal currency of foraging and seeking things that will provide sustenance and pleasure in the short term and extend life in the long term

Tonic Versus Phasic Levels Of Dopamine Release

  • When you experience or crave something desirable, your baseline level of dopamine drops

  • Tonic: low level of dopamine that is always circulating

  • Phasic: peaks of dopamine that release

  • We want to activate different levels of dopamine at different times

  • Drugs and supplements that increase dopamine will make it harder to sustain dopamine release over time because you are stimulating local and broad dopamine release – increasing baseline and peak so it’s short-lived

  • How much dopamine you experience depends on baseline levels of dopamine when you arrive with to that moment versus dopamine peaks

  • When you repeatedly engage in something you enjoy, baseline dopamine goes up

  • All of us have different levels of baseline dopamine, with some genetic component

  • Epinephrine and adrenaline are manufactured from dopamine

Levels Of Dopamine Increase By Activity

  • When you ingest or do certain things, levels of dopamine will rise with varying levels of duration

  • Chocolate will increase dopamine 1.5x above baseline

  • Sex (pursuit and act) increase dopamine 2x above baseline

  • Nicotine (when smoked) increases dopamine 2.5x above baseline

  • Cocaine increases dopamine 2.5x above baseline

  • Amphetamine increases dopamine 10x above baseline

  • Amphetamine and cocaine can limit dopamine, learning and plasticity over long period of time

  • Exercise will be differential depending on how much you enjoy that exercise – if you enjoy, exercise will increase dopamine 2x above baseline

  • There are subjective experiences that differentially increase dopamine depending on enjoyment versus things like chocolate, sex, nicotine, etc. which universally increase dopamine

Pleasure-Pain Balance

  • There are two sides to pleasure: (1) seeking out high, euphoria – and (2) seeking experiences that dull or avoid pain

  • Pleasure and pain are co-located in the brain and work like a balance, tipping inversely

  • We all have a dopamine setpoint: if we continue to participate in dopamine stimulating activities, eventually we won’t experience the same joy from those behaviors

  • Pleasure-pain balance is based on how much dopamine is there and how much is ready to be released into the system

  • If you do something which releases huge levels of dopamine, pleasure drops because there isn’t enough dopamine to release after

  • Dopamine levels can drop in imperceptible ways until it reaches a threshold of low dopamine, and we don’t get pleasure from anything anymore

Modulating Dopamine Levels

  • The Key is understanding dopamine peaks and baseline

  • The key is to not expect or chase high levels of dopamine when we participate in certain activities

  • When we expect something to happen, we are highly motivated to pursue it (e.g., gambling)

  • Intermittent schedules can keep you motivated and engaged: make sure dopamine peaks don’t occur too often and vary how much dopamine you experience with that activity

  • Whatever activities you’d like to continue over time, pay attention to how much dopamine you get and modulate accordingly –

  • Examples of how to modulate dopamine: maybe do something alone that you usually would do in a group so it’s a different experience, don’t listen to music when exercising if it’s part of why you enjoy exercise, change the colors on your phone so it’s less pleasurable, etc.

  • Avoid stimulant use every time you participate in an activity such as pre-workout, Adderall, Ritalin, energy drink

  • Caffeine is ok: dopamine release is modest with caffeine and can increase density, efficacy, and upregulation of dopamine receptors (yerba mate is the best source)

  • Cold plunge (temperature of the water will depend on cold adaptation) can boost dopamine up to 2.5x above baseline – but is sustained for up to three hours post-exposure

  • Dopamine controls the perception of time: when we engage in activity for the sole purpose of reward, time will feel longer because we are not releasing dopamine during the effort – only the reward

  • Access reward from the process and associate dopamine release from friction and challenge you are in during effort instead of only once goal is achieved – convince yourself the effort part is the good part (e.g., intermittent fasting)

Prescription And Non-Prescription Drugs To Increase Dopamine Levels

  • Wellbutrin (depression medication) increases dopamine and can increase motivation and craving

  • Mucuna pruriens contain L-dopa which is the precursor for dopamine– but the crash takes place

  • L-tyrosine is an amino acid precursor to L-dopa; leads to a increase in dopamine and can improve focus but dosing is difficult to dial in and will be followed by a crash

  • Phenethylamine (PEA) can be used similarly to L-tyrosine, intermittently to improve focus

  • Huperzine A is a newer nootropic compound found to improve neurotransmitters in the brain

  • Close social connections that release oxytocin have been found to trigger the dopamine system

  • Remember, a drop in dopamine is inevitable after a spike


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