You can have your neurotransmitter levels tested from a urine test, which is easy and painless, for the most accurate assessment. But, many times it's relatively obvious based upon history, symptoms, and QEEG Brain Map results that it is highly likely the cause of many of the emotional struggles such as low motivation, depression, lack of pleasure/joy, and food cravings, for example.
Quick review as to why this matters:
- Dopamine makes us feel rewarded and happy.
- Dopamine helps us motivate ourselves.
- Dopamine helps us perform with better focus and attention.
- If you are low on dopamine, you don't feel very happy, so you will seek out ways to find dopamine to feel good again, even if it is for a brief moment.
- We can experience a sudden rush of large dopamine release ("dopamine surge") from chocolate, caffeine (coffee, tea), sugar, cigarettes, alcohol, cocaine, nicotine, amphetamines, and overeating.
- Chronic "dopamine surges" will eventually cause a decrease in dopamine levels and receptors thereby making the brain less sensitive to using the dopamine to feel good requiring more and more of the substance in an effort to get that surge again.
- We are driven to seek out ways to feel pleasure, so if you try to stop smoking, you often eat more sugar (and gain more weight) to get that dopamine boost in other ways. (Have you ever been to an AA meeting? There is more candy and more smoking than you can imagine; all in an attempt to regulate dopamine and feel good again.)
- A short term reward can end up with a long term loss and an inability to feel joy, reward, happiness, and result in low energy, low motivation, depressive thought patterns and the snowball effect can be devastating.
Baby Steps to Help Your Brain Regulate Dopamine in a Healthy Way Again
Dopamine is made from the precursor amino acid tyrosine. Eating foods high in tyrosine can be very helpful. I typically recommend supplementing with L-tyrosine or N-acetyl-L-tyrosine as well especially when depression has interfered significantly with quality of life. These dietary and supplementation changes will take about 4-6 weeks to take full effect so you can really feel them, but it is worth it.
- Tyrosine: I often recommend 500-1000mg first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. It has a slight stimulant effect on the body so taking it again midday works well for some people, but I don't recommend it at night. Many of my patients need to take it 2-3 times per day. As with all supplements there are contraindications that working with a well trained health-care provider can help provide protection. For instance, if you have high blood pressure or mania, don't take tyrosine.
- Eat tyrosine rich foods:
-Dairy (I have a lot of caveats about eating dairy, as I'm not a fan for most of the neurological disorders, autoimmune conditions, gut pathologies, and food allergies I see. But it is very high in tyrosine. If you eat it, I highly recommend you invest in local, grass raised animals not raised on antibiotics and growth hormones as your source. In addition, I only recommend raw dairy products.)
-Beef, lamb, pork chops, fish, seafood, chicken, turkey, pumpkin seeds, other nuts and seeds, eggs (notice the overwhelming preponderance of animal meats on this list? This is in order of tyrosine content. Maybe this is why all those Paleo-diet folks are smiling so often?)
-white beans and lentils, wild rice, spinach
Of course, there are more on this list, but these are some of the highest tyrosine containing foods.
- Decrease how much sugar you eat. Sugar uses the same pathway that alcohol and drugs use to give you that euphoric, mellow high. Chronic use of sugar, alcohol, stimulant drugs, and cigarettes eventually decrease your levels and make it harder to achieve that high. This sets up the deep urge to get MORE and the vicious cycle of addiction. You may already be sugar addicted, and it is hard to tackle. But it is possible. Clearly, decreasing caffeine, alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes is overtly implied as well as they ALL decrease your dopamine levels. (Again, another huge factor why teenagers drinking, smoking, and experimenting with drugs can have seriously profound and dangerous results on their brain chemistry. With the current high rates of teenager depressive diagnoses, the effect of social media bullying, and suicide rates, I do not possess a laissez faire attitude around how these toxic substances are destroying our children's happiness and leading to addictive and destructive behaviors by changing brain function.)
- Omega 3 especially DHA: The brain is estimated to be 60-70% fat of which most of it is DHA. DHA helps speed up the transmission up brain signals. (Trans fats inserted into cells instead of DHA are now known to play a role in the disrupted brain signal transmission in progressive degenerative neurological disorders like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.) DHA also decreases the production of an enzyme that breaks down dopamine allowing for higher levels of dopamine to remain in the brain. A lack of DHA in the diet will result in an overproduction of this enzyme and lower dopamine levels. DHA comes primarily from fish and seafood particularly squid with the highest amount. (I've never eaten squid or squid oil, but apparently, it's good!)
- Magnesium: This may be my favorite mineral. Sadly, our foods are very deficient in magnesium. It is a calming and relaxing mineral that keeps nerves calm and muscles relaxed. Take before bed with the amount to bowel tolerance. That means you take enough before your stools are too loose or you are too gassy, because it can do that, and no one needs to be bothered by that all day! The best way is to absorb it by taking epsom salt baths every night. Buy the big bags and pour it in very generously. This is good for your kids, too. (I'd much rather magnesium become "Mother's Little Helper" than some of the other toxic substances stressed out parents are using to cope with the stress and rigors of managing so much. Can you tell I need my magnesium baths?)
- Stress management: Thinking you are constantly about to get eaten by a lion is wearing out your brain in more ways than we comprehend. You're not getting chased by a lion, but traffic in Atlanta can create the same stress response in your body if you allow it. All those stress hormones released with no where to go and no way to do what they were made to do. Physical explosive movements are the answer here; we call that "exercise" or fight-or-flight.
You're not getting attacked by a crocodile, but thinking that you will never fall in love again and be alone forever after a breakup is a type of disordered thinking that recreates trauma and pain somatically. Here, you may need to hire help to help point out how your private logic is just that: private and not at all what your therapist or best friend would call "logical." Or try an empowering self-technique like EFT at the very least.
There are many ways to reduce your perception of stress. I find the most powerful way to reduce stress levels is to truly experience the neurophysiological feeling of forgiveness. This is harder than it sounds, but remarkably effective. But try anything! Meditation is proven to reduce cortisol levels and change the performance of the brain. Psyche-K is an amazing technique. Neurofeedback is remarkable in creating the physiology of forgiveness as well. That seem like a far stretch? Check out Dave Asprey, founder of Bulletproof Executive, talk about neurofeedback and forgiveness.
- Set short term goals: it's important to have a long term vision for framework, but the brain likes WINNING, so let it WIN!
When you win, you get some dopamine. You can align your brain by giving it the reward of dopamine when you reach your goals. You need to write them down, and you need to place them where you can see them. The goals should be measurable and realistic. Get help with this if you tend to over schedule and/or write down way too many things on your To-Do List every day. Reaching a goal can release dopamine, which feels good; so failing to reach goals will decrease dopamine and make you feel badly. Creating unobtainable goals or constantly overloading your TO-DO list everyday is a big red flag that you need coaching on creating these short term goals. The goal should be 3 months maximum, but I prefer people start with weekly goals, and in many cases we need to create daily ones. (Can you understand now why video games with their constant and immediate reward systems are eventually addictive via the dopamine pathways? Candy Crush anyone?)