Dopamine For Motivation and Focus
Dopamine (dopa) has been called the “motivation molecule,” as it helps provide the drive and focus needed to get stuff done. Dopamine is also involved with the “pleasure system” of the brain and functions to create a feeling of enjoyment and a sense of reward in order to motivate performance.
People that suffer with low dopa often experience hopelessness, worthlessness and struggle to handle stress. These individuals will often isolate themselves from others and have self-destructive thoughts and behaviors (1).
Being easily distracted and having trouble focusing and finishing tasks can be signs of early deficiencies (2). Long-term, poor dopa signaling can result in hand tremors, slowness of movement and pre-Parkinson’s symptoms.
Dopamine’s Activity in the Brain
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that that plays a key role in the reward-motivation behavior mechanisms. Any sort of reward, such as getting food, sex, making money, earning praise, etc. increases dopamine and the feeling of pleasure. Most addictive drugs increase dopamine activity in the brain.
Dopamine is also involved heavily in the following:
- Reward and pleasure centers.
- Attention and Learning
- Sleep and Overall Mood
- Behavior and Cognition
- Movement and emotional responses.
- Enabling us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them.
- Voluntary movement, motivation and reward.
- Inhibition of prolactin production (involved in lactation).
Dopamine depletion is classically represented in Parkinson’s disease. Other issues involving low dopamine include schizophrenia, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and drug abuse. Low dopamine levels that occur when trying to get off of heroin, cocaine, cigarettes, sex and sugar addictions are why it can be so difficult (3, 4).
Individuals with these addictions display downregulation (reduced production) of dopamine receptors in the region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. This process has a genetic component, but is produced by the continual usage of the drug or stimulus. The more severe the addiction is the more blunting of dopamine receptors is present (5).
Dopamine also plays an important part in morning wakefulness as it inhibits norepinphrine’s melatonin producing effects and shuts off melatonin production in the morning when the brain needs to awaken (6).
Individuals with low dopamine also display increased levels of impulsiveness. A 2012 study using 23 adults were given a hypothetical choice between receiving a smaller amount of money immediately or a significantly larger amount at a later time. The individuals who made the impulsive choice for immediate money demonstrated less impulsivity and chose to wait for the larger sum after taking a drug that blocks a dopamine degrading enzyme (so they had more dopa) (7).
The precursor amino acids to dopamine are L-phenylalanine and L-tyrosine. These are converted to L-DOPA and eventually dopamine with tetrahydrobiopterin, oxygen, iron and the active form of B6 (pyridoxal-5-phosphate) as the cofactors (8).
Dopamine is also used itself as a precursor to make the neurotransmitters norepinephrine (Nr) and epinephrine (Epi). Dop is converted to norepinephrine by the enzyme dopamine-B hydroxylase with vitamin C as the cofactor.
Nr is converted into Epi by the enzyme phenylethanolamine N-methyltransferase with SaMe as the cofactor. If any of these amino acids or cofactors are low, it will limit the synthesis of these key neurotransmitters.
This conversion of dop to Nr and Epi is very important for a healthy response to stress. Without it, one is more likely to develop addictive behaviors as they have too much dopa interacting in their system, which can lead to burnout of the receptors.
Problems with Dopamine Metabolism
One could have issues with 4 major aspects of dopamine metabolism as discussed below.
1) Too Little Production:
It is possible to have too little or too much dopamine production. This is often due to the level of stress the individual is under. In phase I, alarm response to stress, we produce more dopamine and other catecholamines.
In phase II adrenal fatigue, stress hormones begin to plummet. In phase III, when we have adrenal exhaustion, we produce too little because the cells are burned out. Our dopamine secreting cells can be overwhelmed with stimulus to produce dopamine and begin to shut down, effectively reducing our ability to produce stress hormones on demand.
In addition, when too little precursers such as phenylalanine and tyrosine are available due to low protein diets or more commonly low stomach acid and/or leaky gut than we can have an inability to produce enough dopa. In addition, low conversion factors, such as a B6 deficiency can create an inability to produce enough dopa (8). Also, poor sleep, hypothyroidism and hypoglycemia will lead to poor dopamine repletion and symptoms of low dopamine.
Additionally, single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in some of the critical enzymes involved in dopamine synthesis can result in too little dopamine production. In particular, the ones involved include Tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) and DOPA decarboxylase (DDC) (9).
2) Increased Dopamine Breakdown:
Additionally, there are certain genetic single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that increase dopamine, Nr and Epi turnover. The most common one of these is Catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) and Monoamine oxidase (MAO-A and MAO-B) which all speed up the activity of dopamine regulating enzymes (11, 12)
3) Dopamine Transporter Problems:
The major issue here is with dopamine B-hydroxylase which converts dopamine to Nr. This can be blocked by toxic metabolites produced by C Diff bacterial overgrowth. Many individuals with addiction problems, ADHD and autism etc. have C Diff overgrowth that is compromising their ability to form a healthy Dopamine-Nr conversion (13, 14).
Another issue would be vitamin C and/or copper deficiencies since these compounds are necessary cofactors that work with Dopamine B-hydroxylase to convert dopamine to Nr.
4) Down Regulated Dopamine Receptors:
When dopamine is elevated for long periods than it can cause a down regulation in dopamine receptors. This can be due to addictions which overstimulate dopamine production and overwhelm the dopamine receptor sites.
Think of the example of loud music. If you aren’t used to hearing loud music, than you are very sensitive to the sound. However, if you are used to the loud music, than you habituate it and it no longer hear it in the same way. This happens with the cells of our body.
Cells have a sensitive threshold with stress hormones. Too much stress hormone activity will overexcite the cells to death. So when we continually flood the cell receptors with these stress hormones, they reduce their production of receptor sites so as to not overexcite the cell.
Addictions lead to down regulated dopamine receptors and this is why it can be very challenging to get over addictions. The worse the severity of the addiction, the more down regulated the dopamine receptors are (15).
Testing For Low Dopamine Levels:
The metabolite homovanillic acid (HVA) is a breakdown product of dopamine metabolism by MAO and COMT. When this is found in high amounts in the urine it is a sign of elevated dopamine turnover, which is typically due to adrenal fatigue and/or high firing MAO and COMT pathways. Additionally, this can take place with C Difficile overgrowth, where the C Diff binds to dopamine beta hydroxalase and impairs conversion from dopamine to norepinphrine as explained above.
In dopamine-secreting neurons, dopa is metabolized into HVA, which can be measured in the urine organic acid test. In neurons in the peripheral and regions of the central nervous system, and in the adrenal gland, dopamine is converted to norepinephrine by dopamine-beta-hydroxylase. Dopamine-beta-hydroxylase requires vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and copper as cofactors. In the adrenal gland, norepinephrine is further converted to epinephrine. Both epinephrine and norepinephrine may then be metabolized into vanillylmandelic acid (VMA).
When HVA levels are very low it is an underproduction of dopa, typically due to adrenal fatigue and/or a deficiency in L-phenylalanine, L-tyrosine and/or vitamin B6. When HVA is high and VMA is low, it is a sign of poor conversion from dopamine to norepinephrine and epinephrine. This could be due to low vitamin C or copper or due to C Diff overgrowth.
Best Foods For Boosting Dopamine Levels
- Organic coffee
- Raw cacao or minimally processed dark chocolate
- Organic green tea
- Green Leafy Vegetables
- Nuts & Seeds
Be careful to not overdo the coffee or dark chocolate as they can be addictive and can lead to adrenal fatigue and neurotransmitter receptor down regulation if using them too much. I would limit consumption to 1 tsp of cacao powder or 2-4 oz of a dark chocolate bar and no more than 8oz of organic coffee daily.
In addition, be sure to consume vitamin C rich foods such as citrus fruits and green veggies throughout the day or take extra vitamin C supplementation to make sure we are converting dopa to Nr.
7 Strategies to Raise Dopamine:
In order for the body to manufacture dopa, we need good stomach acid and digestive function to break down proteins into amino acids so we can absorb L-tyrosine and L-phenylalanine. In addition, we need proper amounts of iron, copper, zinc, vitamin B6 and magnesium. If we are deficient in these nutrients we will not be able to produce adequate amounts of neurotransmitters.
- Adapt to Stress Better: Follow the 25 lifestyle strategies in this article to help adapt to stress better and heal any form of adrenal fatigue you may be suffering with.
- Anti-Inflammatory Diet: Be sure to follow the an anti-inflammatory nutrition plan using real and organic foods in order to provide the right nutrients to support healthy neurotransmitter function.
- Sleep Better: It is key for you to prioritize sleep if you are going to improve your dopa levels. Sleep improves neurotransmitter production and receptor activity. When we sleep, our brain flushes out the neurotransmitters, repairs receptor sites and regenerates neurotransmitters to be used the next day. Follow the strategies in this article to help you sleep better.
- Improve the Microbiome: Consume fermented foods, anti-microbial and carminitive herbs such as garlic, onions, oregano, basil, thyme, peppermint, ginger, etc. to help improve the overall constitution of the gut microbes. Remember, C Difficile overgrowth is a major player in poor dopamine metabolism, so the better you take care of your gut microbiome the more you will reduce C Diff and improve neurotransmitter metabolism.
- Set Goals: Making healthy goals in relation to your career, relationships, spiritual and emotional growth and physical health can all improve dopamine levels. I recommend making goals that challenge you but are accomplishable. The act of challenging yourself and accomplishing the goal will do wonders for your neurotransmitter metabolism. If you are a creative individual, try creating something that interests you. This could be a painting, writing a poem or an article, building something with your hands, making a meal, etc.
- Small Tasks: One of the best ways to boost dopa if you are deficient is giving yourself very small, but important tasks to do. This may as simple as taking the trash out or making your bed. Accomplishing small, but important tasks will help to stimulate better neurotransmitter release and give you some momentum for larger tasks.
- Regular Exercise: Regular movement is good for all neurotransmitters. Individuals with adrenal fatigue and low dopamine should be doing low-intensity movement such as walking or yoga and doing lots of deep breathing. If you are in good condition, but are looking to boost up your dopa levels for high performance, than I recommend high intensity resistance training and interval sprints which will give a significant boost to dopa production and utilization.
Some of the other things that will help include listening to enjoyable music, getting out in the sunshine and laughing. Practice these things daily!
Best Dopamine Boosting Supplements:
L-Tyrosine: This amino acid is a precursor to dopamine. For boosting tyrosine, take dosages between 500-2500 mg on an empty stomach.
DL-Phenylalanine: This dosage can be between 1 – 2 grams on an empty stomach.
Vitamin B6: Best dosage is between 50-100 mg taken 2 times daily with or without meals.
Rhodiola: Best to be taken 1-2 times in a dosage of 100-200 mg each time.
Cordyceps: Best to be taken 1-2 times in a dosage of 400-800 mg each time.
Both rhodiola and cordyceps are called adaptogenic herbs. Adaptogenic herbs help to buffer the negative effects of stress and allow our body to accurately adapt to stress. They are able to help increase catecholamines (Dopamine, Nr, Epi) when they are low, but also lower them if they are shooting up too high.
This is very important because we don’t want to overshoot our catecholamine production or we risk burning out the adrenals and causing dopa receptor dysfunction. Rhodiola and cordyceps have the strongest effect on modulating dopa levels. Some other great adaptogens include ashwagandha, ginseng, holy basil and reishi mushroom among others.
These should be used in addition to amino acids (L-tyrosine and DL-phenylalanine) when working with dopamine levels.
Dr Jockers Strategy
For individuals with low dopamine, I focus on blood sugar stability, stress reduction and adaption strategies and look to improve thyroid if it is a problem. If I see elevated C Difficile on lab testing, we will use anti-microbials and probiotics to reduce the levels.
We do a low-carb diet but will use dark chocolate, organic coffee, nuts and seeds so long as they aren’t dealing with an autoimmune disease. I use both of the following supplements to help individuals with low dopa. I will also typically include Brain Calm magnesium, which crosses the blood brain barrier and improves overall receptor function and plays a huge role in modulating stress hormone production and allowing it to be used most effectively.
Adapt-Strong: This formula provides clinical dosages of vitamin B6, rhodiola and cordyceps. This formula provides useful support for both hyper and hypofunction of the adrenals. Hyperfunction is when the adrenals are overproducing hormones, such as cortisol, and hypofunction is the opposite, when the adrenals are under producing.
Normal Dosage: Take 1 cap – 2x daily
Advanced Dosage: Take 2 caps – 2x daily
Dopamine Plus: This formula contains clinical dosages of L-tyrosine, DL Phenylalanine, vitamin C and B6 and it contains 5-HTP which helps keep the dop:serotonin balance in order. This product helps improve focus, concentration and reduces cravings for sugar or other addictive behaviors.
Normal Dosage: Take 2 caps – 2x daily away from meals
Advanced Dosage: Take 4 caps – 2x daily away from meals
Can I Take the Adapt Strong with the Dopamine Plus?
A: Yes, the only overlapping nutrient is B6 and based on my experience and research this water soluble nutrients is very low in most people with lower dopa symptoms and if you were to get too much, your body would urinate it out.
What is the best dosage to begin with of these supplements?
A: Begin with the normal dosage and if you don’t notice anything or begin feeling good, you can experiment and go up to the advanced dosage. If you feel poorly on the normal dosage, take 3 days off and then take ½ of the normal dosage and see how you do.
If you want to work with a functional health coach, I recommend this article with tips on how to find a great coach. At my clinic, we offer long-distance functional health coaching programs. For further support with your health goals, just reach out and our fantastic coaches are here to support your journey.