You may have heard of dopamine, the natural ‘feel-good’ chemical produced by your body.

It’s common for people recovering from an addiction to experience lower dopamine levels, often resulting in a lack of motivation and happiness.

This condition doesn’t have to be permanent – in fact, there are many natural ways to increase your dopamine levels.

Continue reading to learn more about how to increase your dopamine levels naturally when recovering from an addiction.

Facts about dopamine

Woman eating healthily

What is dopamine and why is it important?

Dopamine is a chemical that is naturally produced by your body and is used by the nervous system to send certain messages between your cells. [1]

This makes it an important neurotransmitter which allows us to feel happiness and fulfilment.

Dopamine is essential because, without it, we would struggle to feel pleasure and joy. This helps to motivate us to work towards goals and find satisfaction in the activities and tasks that we carry out.

However, this chemical isn’t just responsible for making us feel happy. It is also essential for many bodily functions including digestion, blood flow, sleep and other important tasks.

Having the right balance of dopamine in your body is important – too little or too much and you could become seriously unwell.

How does dopamine work?

Dopamine is released when we carry out an activity that we associate with pleasure.

Your brain becomes used to getting a reward for this action, and this arrives in the form of pleasure – essentially, a dopamine hit.

Even simply anticipating this activity can increase your dopamine levels. This chemical helps to motivate you to complete the activity, rewards you for completing the activity and reminds you of the benefits of completing the activity.

Of course, dopamine production can be manipulated by various substances such as cocaine.

This drug can cause more dopamine than usual to be produced and then prevents the dopamine from dissipating, causing an intense high that can be extremely addictive.

Can a dopamine imbalance cause problems?

It is possible to have a dopamine imbalance, which is usually due to a lack of dopamine.

Having a low level of dopamine is known as a dopamine deficiency, and it can cause many physical and mental health problems.

Common symptoms of a dopamine deficiency include:

In severe cases, a dopamine deficiency may be potentially linked to Parkinson’s disease.

What causes low dopamine levels?

There are many factors that can cause low dopamine levels, with a common one being a cocaine addiction.

Over time, people who use cocaine regularly may physically damage the dopamine receptors which are located in their brain. This can lead to less dopamine being released and can eventually result in a deficiency. [2]

Other cases of low dopamine levels include brain injuries, Parkinson’s disease or problems with the nerve cell receptors.

Understanding dopamine and addiction

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What is the relationship between dopamine and addiction?

As dopamine is closely linked to the reward centre of the brain, it can help motivate us to seek out experiences that will bring us pleasure.

Sometimes these are healthy or non-harmful activities, such as eating a delicious meal or creating a beautiful painting.

However these activities can also be harmful, particularly when it comes to substance use.

It can become a vicious cycle – you are motivated to use addictive substances due to the pleasurable memory you associate with this activity. You then use them, experience pleasure and feel motivated to continue using them.

Over time, this can become a severe addiction.

When your neural pathways become overwhelmed due to too much drug use, they will attempt to release less dopamine and reduce the number of dopamine receptors. [3]

This can also cause you to build up a tolerance to addictive substances, meaning that you require a larger amount more frequently to experience the same effects.

How can I increase my dopamine levels after addiction?

The tips and advice within this article can all help to increase your dopamine levels after addiction.

These include eating a diet rich in dopamine-boosting foods, getting enough sleep, taking supplements and many more.

The most important thing to remember is that increasing and balancing your dopamine levels after addiction takes time.

You may need to be patient and continue with your new healthy habits for a while before you notice an improvement.

Attending therapy sessions can also help to rewire your brain and improve your mood over time.

How does it feel once my dopamine levels have increased?

You will notice many benefits to your physical and mental health once you increase your dopamine levels.

As dopamine promotes the motivation/reward/reinforcement cycle, you may notice that you begin to feel more interested and excited about the idea of working towards your goals.

It may be easier to complete your daily tasks and activities, and even small things like getting out of bed can seem less of a chore.

Feelings of depression and anxiety may lift, and you will likely have more energy.

In general, you should feel happier and more joyful on a regular basis once your dopamine levels have increased.

However, there may be additional reasons for a low mood or other mental and physical ailments. If increasing your dopamine levels naturally does not seem to help, we recommend speaking to your doctor.

7 natural ways to increase your dopamine levels

young woman dancing to her music outside

Get enough high-quality sleep

Did you know that your body runs on a natural rhythm based on several factors, including sunrise and sunset?

We instinctively know that we should wake up and perform tasks during the day before winding down and getting ready to sleep at night.

As a result, large amounts of dopamine are released in the morning with the levels gradually falling throughout the day until we go to bed.

If you do not follow this natural pattern and instead stay up late throughout the night, studies have shown that your levels of dopamine will decrease by the next morning.

Ensuring that you go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time each day, limiting your caffeine intake and creating a quiet and relaxing environment to sleep in will help to increase and regulate your dopamine levels over time.

Eat a healthy and varied diet

It’s possible to naturally increase your dopamine levels simply by focusing on your diet and the types of food that you consume.

It is recommended that you increase your intake of protein to boost your dopamine levels, as it contains an amino acid known as tyrosine which can be turned into dopamine by your body.

Eating probiotic-rich foods such as miso, sauerkraut and kimchi is also thought to potentially increase your dopamine levels, as they are beneficial to your gut which plays a large role in your emotions and mood.

You can find more information about the relationship between diet and dopamine levels further in this article.

Exercise regularly

You may have experienced the mood-boosting effects of exercise before – ever heard of a ‘runner’s high’?

Some studies show a correlation between exercise and an increase in dopamine levels, which may cause you to feel happier after a fitness session.

The dopamine levels of rats were measured before and after running on a treadmill, and this small amount of exercise was shown to release more dopamine as well as increase their number of dopamine receptors.

It is recommended that you exercise for at least 20 minutes per day to experience the benefits of this dopamine increase but check with your doctor first before beginning a new fitness regime.

Reduce stress

Being under constant stress can increase the amount of cortisol released by your body, which has a number of damaging effects.

In addition to this, stress can also deplete your dopamine levels and leave you feeling exhausted and miserable.

Not all stress is avoidable, but you may be surprised at what you can control.

If your job is placing too much pressure on you, consider finding a new role or delegating some of your work to another colleague. If the commute is stressing you out, it may be possible to move closer to your workplace or find another means of transport.

You can also try out some relaxing activities that are aimed at reducing stress, such as regular massages or yoga classes.

Practice mindfulness and meditation

Similarly to the above point about reducing stress, practising mindfulness and meditation on a regular basis can help to increase your dopamine levels naturally.

Some studies have found a link between meditation and boosted dopamine levels, while mindfulness has also been shown to improve your mood and make you feel happier.

If you are having trouble relaxing and believe that you may benefit from professional help, you may wish to speak with a therapist.

They can help you to uncover the issues that may be leaving you stuck in stressful memories or situations, allowing you to move forward in a healthy way.

Listen to music

Most people enjoy listening to music, and this relaxing activity can also help to boost your dopamine levels naturally.

When we listen to music that we enjoy, the reward and pleasure centres in our brains are activated. This causes an increase in dopamine production, with one study reporting a 9% increase in dopamine levels simply from listening to beautiful music.

It’s a fun and easy way to increase your dopamine levels naturally, and you can combine listening to music with other items on this list such as exercising and meditation.

Get enough sunlight

Exposing your skin to the sun can increase dopamine levels, which is why many people experience low mood and depression during the darker winter months.

If you live in a colder climate or a location with reduced sunlight, you may want to look into purchasing or renting a SAD sun lamp.

SAD stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder and refers to a condition that affects people who do not get enough sunlight. It is thought that using a SAD lamp can provide similar benefits to the sun, but you should check with your doctor before using one.

Keep in mind that too much sunlight can cause other problems, such as an increased risk of skin cancer. Ensure that you protect your skin from the sun, particularly between 10am and 2pm, and avoid using tanning beds to limit these potential issues.

The relationship between diet and dopamine levels

steak and vegetables

How can my diet increase my dopamine levels?

You will have likely experienced a rush of pleasure and joy when eating certain types of food – particularly foods high in salt, sugar and fat.

This is due to the release of dopamine, which occurs when we eat foods that we enjoy.

However, it is also possible to increase your dopamine levels on a long-term basis simply by changing your diet.

By reducing your consumption of processed sugars, eating foods rich in probiotics and consuming certain foods on a regular basis, you can raise your dopamine levels naturally.

As well as the food you may also wish to consider taking supplements, including herbal supplements, to boost your dopamine levels.

Some common supplements for dopamine include:

  • L-tyrosine
  • L-theanine
  • SAM-e
  • Mucana pruriens
  • Ginkgo
  • Arctic root
  • Bacopa
  • Ginger
  • Asian ginseng

We have included a list of dopamine-rich foods below, many of which are relatively inexpensive and easy to find.

Which foods can increase my dopamine levels?

You don’t need to look far to find a quick and tasty dopamine boost – a simple trip to the supermarket can have you feeling better in no time.

Try adding some of the below foods to your daily diet and reap the benefits of your increased dopamine levels:

  • Protein-rich foods such as turkey, chicken and soy
  • Nuts and seeds including almonds, peanuts and sesame seeds
  • High quality milk, cheese and yoghurts
  • Probiotic-rich foods such as miso, sauerkraut and kimchi
  • Leafy green vegetables and eggs which are all high in B vitamins
  • Legumes and beans, particularly if you are vegetarian or vegan
  • Fruits, particularly strawberries
  • Fish rich in omega-3s such as mackerel and salmon
  • Chocolate (when eaten in moderation!)