What is Dopamine?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced by the brain, which acts as a chemical messenger between brain cells. Although it is produced by just a handful of cells, dopamine has a powerful effect on many physical and cognitive functions, including movement, motivation and memory. It’s also responsible for the feelings of reward and pleasure, which is why it’s also called “the pleasure neurotransmitter”.

On the down side, dopamine is also responsible for addictive behaviours, like addiction to drugs, food, shopping, sex, gambling, and various other addictions.

(The reason that drugs like cocaine, amphetamines and heroin are so addictive is that they increase the release of dopamine and then act as dopamine re-uptake inhibitors – meaning that dopamine is active in the brain for extended periods.)

Dopamine improves many aspects of cognitive performance, including motivation, memory and focus. Studies in lab animals have shown that dopamine is crucial for the formation of memories, and it appears to be particularly important for motivation-based learning and goal-directed behaviour.

It is important to note, however, that the relationship between dopamine levels and performance follows an inverted  U-shaped curve . That is, both excess and deficiency can impair mental performance. For that reason, the trick to optimal performance is not to increase dopamine as much as you can, but to find a balance in the middle of that U-shaped curve.

Some signs of low dopamine levels are:

  • Depression
  • Inability to handle stress
  • Fatigue
  • Mood swings
  • Inability to concentrate
  • ADHD
  • Forgetfulness
  • Failure to finish tasks
  • Low sex drive
  • Gastrointestinal disturbances

While none of these symptoms are caused exclusively by low dopamine,balancing your dopamine levels can improve both physical and cognitive symptoms.  This is especially important considering that dopamine depletion can be caused by a wide variety of dietary and lifestyle factors, including overtraining, frequent alcohol use, excessive sugar, caffeine, stress, lack of sleep and drug use. 

What is the dopamine diet?

Billed as the weight loss regime that boosts mood too, this diet is all about increasing levels of dopamine in the brain at the same time as shedding weight. There are several different versions of the diet, but all are based around foods that are thought to boost dopamine.

These can include:

  • Dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yogurt
  • Unprocessed meats such as beef, chicken and turkey
  • Omega-3 rich fish such as salmon and mackerel
  • Eggs
  • Fruit and vegetables, in particular bananas
  • Nuts such as almonds and walnuts
  • Dark chocolate

For inspiration using these dopamine-boosting ingredients, try the dopamine diet recipe collection.

Most versions of the diet recommend avoiding alcohol, caffeine and processed sugar, while some also recommend cutting out or severely restricting starchy carbohydrates.

For more information click here.

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