Are We Drowning In Dopamine?
The Motivation Molecule
Dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, is often described as a ‘reward or pleasure chemical’ and whilst it certainly is the final pathway for our pleasurable, intoxicating, rewarding experiences - its purpose is more nuanced.
Before our time of sat-navs and supermarkets, our human ancestors spent much of their days hunting for food, searching for water or gathering information to keep them safe. These tasks weren’t easy and often involved some risk or cost, meaning we needed some kind of incentive. This came through the reward of pleasure. One of the roles of dopamine is to motivate us to do things that we wouldn’t do for fun, but are essential to survival and repeat it again and again.
If our palaeolithic ancestor located a fruit filled tree on the horizon, a small amount of dopamine would be released to incentivize them to go forth and gather. Dopamine production starts to increase even when you are looking at, smelling, hearing or thinking about food and this enhances your motivation to eat it.
These small hits of dopamine at each sign of progress towards the tree would keep them on track until they reached the sweet fruit, which upon tasting would give them an even bigger, more intoxicating, dose of pleasure. The body and brain would then store this information to repeat this process again. Even more impressive, dopamine also modulates the hippocampus, a crucial brain system for long-term memory. So not only would we remember that gathering fruit was pleasurable, even if the journey was long, but we would link this to a location, helping us to remember where the fruit trees are for the next time we wanted some.
Taking our time to accomplish even smaller tasks that take some amount of effort, such as cooking a delicious meal and then enjoying eating each mouthful, can feel great. The bigger the goal or the more effort needed, the more dopamine we receive. It can therefore feel incredible to work hard towards achieving something really difficult.
The dark side to dopamine
But there is a dark side to dopamine. The part of the brain that is responsible for pleasure is also responsible for pain. Because dopamine works to motivate us, it is also responsible for feelings of agitation or cravings (which are a type of ‘pain’), as well as reward. This ‘pleasure-pain’ processing works as a balance. The body is always trying to bring the body into a balance called homeostasis. Dr Anna Lembke, the medical director of addiction medicine at Stanford University and author of Dopamine Nation (1), describes this as a ‘pleasure-pain see-saw’; when you do something pleasurable such as eating a piece of chocolate, the see-saw tilts towards the side of pleasure. In order to regain homeostasis, the body therefore adapts by tipping the see-saw in an equal and opposite amount to the side of pain. We feel this as a comedown or craving, that moment of wanting a second piece of chocolate.
If we wait long enough, the body is able to restore the balance and the feeling passes. However, the more you trigger dopamine, the less impactful it will become, and the more of the food, substance or behaviour you will need to tip the see-saw and sustain the same enjoyment.
This incredible physiology was built for evolution, as well as ensuring our survival, it made us accomplish incredible feats. But it is a mismatch with our current environment.
Huge triggers for our dopamine response now come in the form of falling down a scroll-hole on social media, alcohol, excess caffeine, ultra-processed foods, that shopping high and ‘likes’ on our posts. We are exposed to dopamine-stimulators from the moment we wake up and receive our first Whatsapp message of the day to the last ‘just one more’ Netflix binge. Without the balance of needing to ‘work hard’ towards gaining this pleasure and the abundance of pleasure-giving experiences at every turn, are our bodies drowning in dopamine? The need for more and more dopamine just to bring the balance back to a set point means that we can begin to live in a dopamine deficit, where even the small things that should bring us pleasure are dulled.
The abundance of ultra-processed foods available to us adds another layer of complication to this dopamine conundrum. Not only is food more accessible than ever before, but it has been adapted to be easier to chew, quicker to digest, sweeter with less bitterness and in some cases highly addictive.
Research shows that some foods, often those that have been ultra-processed and created to reach a ‘bliss point’ of pleasure, stimulate a greater sense of reward and short-term satisfaction than others. Because we gain such a high from these foods, our bodies are hardwired to seek more, driving repetitive, automatic behaviour.
What’s the answer?
Do we hop in a time machine and go back to when life was more ‘simple?’ It’s key to remember that whilst we can look to the past with rose-tinted glasses, with those simple times also came a lot of hardship. Let’s not forget that there is much we have gained in the past 1000 years and incredible human advancements to behold. However, there have been prices to pay along the way and understanding how these convenient solutions to our hardships affect our health is key.
1) Gain awareness
The first step is to audit the substances and experiences in your life that may be tipping the balance too far with relentless dopamine hits. How often are you reaching for your phone in the day? Which app do you automatically reach for even though you didn’t mean to check it? How many coffees are you having a day? Record a food or activity diary or delve into what ‘habits’ may not be serving you.
2) Stacking your habits
Often we look at habit stacking as a positive hack, and yet when it comes to dopamine, stacking these behaviours isn’t recommended. Watching TV whilst scrolling, texting whilst on the treadmill, even the effect of multitasking, can cumulatively contribute to dopamine surges and the consequential dip below baseline. Taking a period of time when we’re not stimulating our brains and being present in one activity at a time can be helpful.
3) Dopamine fasting
One way to address the rebalance of pleasure is to ‘fast’ for a short time from the substance or behaviour that may be causing you issues. Dr Lembke recommends 4 weeks on average is how long it takes to reset the reward pathways, however it can also be as little as a few days to weeks. According to a recent study by the University of Bath, taking a break from social media for as little as a week can reduce depression and anxiety (2).
For some, a dopamine fast can simply mean placing some firm boundaries around stimuli. Set small personal rules such as not checking your phone for the first and last hour/s of the day, turning off notifications to certain apps, taking off your Smart Watch during your workout every now and again, reading a book instead of watching the TV before bed, having a matcha instead of a second coffee, or promising yourself to be fully present when you meet your friend for a catch up cuppa. These all allow some time for your brain to level out, to reset and not take on too many things at once.
4) The Hormesis Effect
There are some behaviours when done in moderation which can be a healthy way to get our dopamine indirectly. These behaviours take advantage of that ‘see-saw’ effect. Whilst those peaks in dopamine can result in lows filled with cravings, the reverse also holds true. Some ‘painful’ experiences drive an upswing in motivation and pleasure through the effect of hormesis. The main difference with the hormesis effect is that dopamine remains high for an extended period without going into a deficit state. Cold exposure (ice baths, wild swimming, cold showers) or heat such as a sauna, fasting or even meditation can have this effect.
5) Hunt for ancient dopamine hits
Another key hormetic stressor is exercise. One undeniable truth that has emerged from studies on exercise is that it boosts your mood and changes your brain, both whilst you are doing it and over time. Whilst exercise in many forms over approximately 20 minutes releases endorphins, dopamine and serotonin, meaning you feel positive and upbeat during a tough workout, you do not always need to hit the gym hard to gain your reward. Our primitive wiring is built for active exploration and this is another key stimulator of dopamine release. Simply walking, as long as you also explore your surroundings and engage in a full sensory and present awareness, works well.
Camping and enjoying some outdoor living has a similar effect, creating some hardship and friction with simple tasks of putting up shelters, using a fire to make a hot drink speaks to our natural pleasure seeking pathways.
6) Inconvenience yourself
Our modern lives are much different from our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and often convenience is needed to make our busy lives more manageable and enjoyable. When we can however, seeking to inconvenience ourselves and make ourselves work a little harder for the end goal helps to balance the dopamine pathways. Day to day this can be cooking a meal from scratch, mindfully savouring moments, and properly engaging with others by talking rather than texting. Learning something new or following a creative passion such as writing also coincides with a slow and steady dopamine uptick.
Most importantly, it's key to remember that whenever dopamine is involved, moderation is key. Used occasionally, the things that bring us pleasure and spark our dopamine can be great outlets. Tying up pleasure alongside meaningful and purposeful activities is where we can hit the sweet spot.
- Dopamine Nation by Dr A Lembke https://www.annalembke.com/dopamine-nation