While the number of drugs to treat dopamine-dependent depression is growing, people interested in avoiding medication can try natural alternatives to increase dopamine. Dopamine is involved in arousal and motor function and is a precursor to adrenaline and a closely related molecule, noradrenaline. This key brain chemical is made from the amino acid tyrosine and can convert into norepinephrine and epinephrine.
This key brain chemical is produced in several areas of the brain, including the nucleus accumbens, the region that acts as the “reward center.” In addition, dopamine is a neurohormone released by the hypothalamus where its main function is to inhibit the release of prolactin from the anterior lobe of the pituitary.
Dopamine is central to the creation of reward systems such as food, sex, positive social interactions, even humor. Nearly all drug abuse and forms of addiction, including heroine and other opiates, alcohol, cocaine and amphetamines involve dopamine neuronal systems. As a result, elevating dopamine levels can improve mood, alertness, libido, yet too much or an imbalance can lead to a tendency towards addictive behaviors.
A dopamine imbalance is associated with schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, fibromyalgia and mood disorders, including certain types of depression.
Depression and dopamine levels
To date, depression medications have largely been developed based on a deficiency or imbalance of the brain chemicals serotonin and norepinephrine. Yet a 2005 review of the serotonin-depression studies revealed little scientific evidence to support the hypothesis that too little serotonin “causes” depression.
“This new study highlights the importance of the dopamine system, a less appreciated target in the current antidepression therapies,” says researcher Li-Huei Tsai, a professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School, for a news release on the dopamine animal study findings.
While a growing number of antidepressants that mediate dopamine activity are becoming available, people interested in avoiding the dangers and side effects of medications can increase their dopamine with natural methods.
People with major depression disorder (MDD) may have difficulty sufficiently boosting their dopamine levels with only nutrition, exercise, and supplementation. They may however be able to improve symptoms, gradually lower their antidepressant dose to eventually come off medication altogether.
Increasing dopamine levels through nutrition
Dr. Eric Braverman, author of the book, “The Edge Effect,” offers specific nutritional and supplementation plans to increase the levels of key neurotransmitters in the brain depending on a person’s deficiency. “The goal of a dopamine diet is to ensure that the body has enough raw materials for a steady supply of tyrosine and phenylalanine, two amino acids that are precursors to dopamine. These amino acids are found in many protein-rich foods.” Many protein foods such as meats and dairy products have tyrosine that converts to dopamine including:
- apples, bananas, and watermelon
- beans and legumes
- black or green tea
- cottage cheese, cheeses including ricotta
- chicken, pork
- dark chocolate
- duck, wild game
- wheat germ
Supplements to increase dopamine
There are a number of supplements that increase dopamine levels in the brain. Dr. Braverman recommends the following:
- Phenylalnine: An essential amino acid found in the brain and blood plasma that can convert in the body to tyrosine, which in turn is used to synthesize dopamine.
- Tyrosine: Another amino acid and precursor to dopamine. Tyrosine is converted from phenylalnine
- Methione: An essential amino acid protein that is provided to the body only through diet.L-Methionine is the precursor to SAMe, l-cysteine, taurine, and sulfate. SAM-e supplements can increase dopamine.
- Rhodiola: a native plant of Russia. Rhodiola balances the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis, or HPA, the body’s stress regulation center. Rhodiola balances the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.
- Pyridoxine: A form of vitamin B6 that has a beneficial effect on red blood cell production, cardiovascular health, the immune system and hormone balance. It is necessary for the production of epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin in the body.
- Mucuna pruriens: one of the popular Ayurvedic herbs, is also known as velvet bean or cowhage. This herb contains L-Dopa, a precursor to the neurotransmitter dopamine.
- Phosphatidylserine: A specialized lipid (fat) that occurs naturally in the body. It is a necessary component to regulate the function of all cells and is found in the highest concentration in the brain.
- B Complex: Cofactors in the synthesis and proper function of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine
- Ginkgo Biloba: Ginkgo extract, from the leaves of the Ginkgo biloba tree is the most commonly used herbal medicine in Europe, can increase dopamine. Ginko enhances the flow of oxygen and blood to the brain and promoting healthy transmission of nerve impulses.
- NADH an activated form of the B vitamin niacin, the amino acid L-theanine, and Omega-3 fatty acids can also elevate dopamine levels.
Dopamine levels rise after exercise
Michael Lardon, a doctor and researcher on the neuroelectric assessment of athletic peak performance explains in an online article for the Modesto Bee that everyone who exercises reaps the benefits from the “dopamine buzz.”
“Dopamine is released within just 20 minutes of moderate exercise, says Lardon, “and triggers within your brain positive feelings about yourself even after your first session of exercise, before your body has had a chance to firmly establish an association between the exercise and the great feelings. The dopamine response system is powerfully motivating.
While dopamine-dependent depression may respond well to medications, people interested in natural alternatives to antidepressants may want to consider exercise, dopamine-boosting foods and targeted supplementation.
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