Dopamine Brings Joy and Motivation, but Its Excess Can Be Harmful. Do You Need a Dopamine Detox?

Dopamine Brings Joy and Motivation, but Its Excess Can Be Harmful. Do You Need a Dopamine Detox?

What do receiving a long-awaited package, passing a difficult exam, or achieving a long-term goal have in common? It’s mainly the feeling of joy and satisfaction, largely attributed to dopamine. However, this substance also has its dark side. It’s associated, for example, with the development of addictions, not only to alcohol or drugs but also to social media. More and more people in modern society are struggling with this and attempting to address it through dopamine detox. Is the situation with dopamine really that serious, and what can happen when you have a deficiency of it?

What is dopamine?

If you use social media, you have surely experienced a similar scenario. You want to share the joy of a beautiful moment in your life with your virtual surroundings, so you post a photo from your vacation or the gym where you’re working hard on your body. With each received like and heart, a feeling of bliss increases, and you somehow feel more content. Or maybe you’ve experienced a moment where a piece of chocolate helped you chase away a bad mood? In such moments, our brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is largely responsible for those pleasant feelings. It is often referred to as the “happiness hormone” for good reason.

Dopamine is one of the signalling molecules in your brain that is derived from the amino acid tyrosin. It acts as a messenger, transmitting information from one nerve cell to another. As a result, you receive a message that something has happened or is likely to happen, and your nervous system reacts accordingly. Dopamine is involved in regulating a wide range of normal processes in the body, such as mood, emotional experience, motivation, decision-making, and movement. It has a tremendous influence on how you feel and to a significant extent, it also affects your behaviour. [1] 

Is dopamine a reward for your brain?

Dopamine plays a crucial role in the brain’s reward system. When you achieve something, like lifting your desired 100 kg in deadlift, passing a difficult exam, or getting a promotion at work, your brain rewards you by releasing dopamine, which is responsible for the well-known euphoric feeling that your mind remembers and wants to experience again, and even more intensely. The brain perceives it as a sweet reward that it wants to indulge in as often as possible, which serves as a motivation to repeat the behaviour. [2] 

What is dopamine?

What impact does dopamine have on the body?

Like other neurotransmitters (such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and others), dopamine has complex effects on the entire body. It motivates you to do things that evoke good feelings. It also contributes to the quality of movement by ensuring proper coordination of muscles and balance. Similarly, it also influences brain functions, particularly the ability to concentrate. However, these positive effects are associated only with a healthy level of dopamine.

1. It enhances cognitive functions

Dopamine is found in greater quantities in brain regions responsible for your memory, thinking, and ability to concentrate. According to studies, an optimal dopamine level is also associated with better ability to memorize and subsequently recall new information. [3] 

If you struggle with concentration, nootropics might be able to help you. You can find all the essential information about them in our article Nootropics: Substances for Improving Concentration and Memory. Which Ones Are the Best?

What are the effects of dopamine?

2. It supports motor functions

This neurotransmitter is also found in the basal ganglia, which is a part of the brain which plays a key role in motor functions. Its task is to control and regulate movement. An optimal level of dopamine is therefore necessary for proper movement coordination. [4]

3. It improves mood

Dopamine can create a symphony of contentment and positive mood in your head. This is manifested by an interest in the surroundings and a desire to socialize. [5] 

4. It increases motivation

Dopamine can be behind your internal drive or motivation to act, learn something new, or step out of our comfort zone. It fuels your desire to achieve something new or, conversely, repeat pleasant experiences from the past. [5] 

5. It regulates wakefulness

According to scientists, this substance can also influence when you feel awake and when you feel sleepy, as it is related to your circadian rhythm. When dopamine binds to its receptors, it suppresses the effects of norepinephrine, thereby reducing the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. As a result, you might feel more awake and focused during the day. [6] 

What happens when you have too much or too little dopamine?

Unfortunately, dopamine is not that simple, and its levels can easily get out of control. Genetics play a role, as do daily habits.

1. Symptoms of dopamine deficiency

Insufficient dopamine production in the body can be caused by genetic disorders, neurodegenerative diseases (such as Parkinson’s disease), or mental illnesses. However, its natural synthesis can also be disrupted by the use of alcohol or drugs. [7–8] 

What can dopamine deficiency lead to?

  • Low motivation and interest: Decreased interest in the surroundings, hobbies, and activities that used to matter to a person. Apathy, indifference, and demotivation in pursuing any goals may also occur. [8] 
  • Mood disorders or depression: Mood swings, feelings of sadness, frustration, dissatisfaction, or anxiety. [8]
  • Movement disorders: Problems with movement coordination, stiffness, or muscle tremors. [24] 
  • Cognitive function problems: Impaired memory, thinking, and concentration (brain fog). [8]
  • Other changes in behaviour and experience: Increased sugar cravings, fatigue, low libido, and sleep disorders. [24]
What can the lack of dopamine lead to?

2. Symptoms of dopamine excess

Certain diseases or congenital defects can cause your body to produce an excess of dopamine. However, risky behaviour can also be a cause. When you repeatedly engage in activities that provide a quick dopamine boost, you can easily develop an addiction to them. This can include alcohol and drug use, as well as seemingly innocent activities like scrolling through social media or watching pornography. [9]

What can the excess of dopamine lead to?

  • Mood disorders: Mood swings, irritability.
  • Reduced empathy: Decreased interest in other people, antisocial behaviour. [26]
  • Hyperactivity and impulsivity: Excessive mental and physical activity, restlessness, or nervousness. In extreme cases, it can also lead to aggression. [25]
  • Sleep disorders: Trouble falling asleep, restless sleep.
  • Difficulty concentrating: Trouble focusing on a single task or sustaining attention.
  • Psychosis: In extreme cases, it can lead to hallucinations and delusions. [25] 
What can the excess of dopamine lead to?

ADHD and dopamine

Imbalanced dopamine levels are also observed in individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Most commonly, it involves low dopamine levels or a deficiency of dopamine receptors. This can make it more challenging for people with ADHD to find satisfaction and stick with activities. However, the exact mechanism linking the dopamine system to ADHD is likely much more complex. [10–11]

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What is cheap dopamine?

Dopamine motivates you to do things that make your everyday life better. In today’s world, there are easily accessible tools that can instantly increase the levels of this substance. Quick satisfaction can be found in sugary food, social media, playing video games, impulsive online shopping, watching TikTok videos, or even pornography. By engaging in these activities, you passively acquire cheap dopamine, which is available to you in almost unlimited quantities. However, after the instant increase, you experience a rapid drop. So you immediately watch another TikTok video that the smart algorithm has prepared for you, and the dopamine roller coaster continues. [12–13] 

Can you become addicted to dopamine?

The problem is that you quickly become accustomed to it, and you need larger and larger amounts of energizing stimuli to achieve the same satisfaction. Checking social media every half hour is no longer enough for you, and you reach for your smartphone again within a few minutes. Over time, you may even reach a point where you seek cheap dopamine just to avoid feeling down. You fly on a dopamine cloud so often that it becomes your new normal, and you feel like you can’t do without these stimuli anymore. It’s probably not surprising that this neurotransmitter is closely related to the development of addiction to alcohol or drugs. [14]

Then it becomes difficult to function in the real world, where discipline, patience, and perseverance are necessary to experience the blissful feeling of self-satisfaction. Nature has cleverly designed it this way because it rewards you for mastering difficult things that motivate you to live better. However, it is more convenient to stick with quick satisfaction instead of pursuing long-term goals.

Your overstimulated brain can cope with this situation by reducing the number of dopamine receptors, which negatively affects the function of the entire dopamine system. The result is the symptoms mentioned earlier, including mood swings, depression, or concentration problems. [12–13]

Dopamine addiction

What is dopamine detox?

If you find yourself losing control over the consumption of social media or other sources of fast dopamine, a dopamine detox might benefit you. However, take this term with a grain of salt. It is not a detox in the true sense of the word, as dopamine will still be produced in your body; you just limit the activities that may harm you. The goal of this dopamine fast is to regain control over your own behaviour. [15] 

How to limit cheap dopamine?

1. Try to be offline for at least a few hours each week

Engage in activities that occupy your mind and reduce the constant need to check your smartphone. Ideal activities include exercising, going on walks, reading books, spending time with family or friends.

2. Turn off message notifications

f you don’t have any urgent matters to attend to, you don’t have to respond to every message immediately. Set specific times or intervals, such as once an hour, to address what needs to be done. If you constantly feel like you’re missing out on something when you’re not online, you might be experiencing the phenomenon called FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). You can learn more about it in the article FOMO: How to Overcome the Fear of Missing Out in Life?

3. Set a maximum time spent on social media

Most social media platforms have a feature to set a time limit, after which you will receive a notification. This allows you to have better control over how much time you spend on social media. As for the specific time to set during the dopamine detox, find your daily average and set a slightly lower value that you strive to adhere to and potentially decrease over time.

4. Monitor your diet

If you often struggle with cravings for unhealthy food, it’s possible that your diet is not well-balanced and lacks certain nutrients. Focus on consuming quality protein, complex carbohydrates, fats, fruits, and vegetables following the principles of a healthy plate. When you have an adequate variety of nutrients in your diet, it becomes easier to resist sweets or savoury treats from fast foods, which are associated with quick satisfaction.

What is dopamine detox?

5. Go on a weekend trip to nature

During your trips, try to completely disconnect from the online world. In some places, you may not even have a signal, which can be beneficial. And don’t worry, you can still share your stories and photos from the visited places on social media after your return.

If you are interested in hiking and want to learn about its effects on health, you can read the article Mental Well-Being, Weight Loss, and Better Sleep: What Are Other Benefits of Hiking?

6. Regain control over your own behaviour

Before reaching for your smartphone, sweets, or mindlessly purchasing more clothes from an online store, think about whether you really need that right now. Try to wait a few minutes; perhaps the urge will pass.

7. Choose healthier sources of dopamine

Go for a walk, jog, or try other beneficial activities that can contribute to a healthy increase in dopamine, which we will discuss further in the article.

If social media is your weakness and you want to limit it, you can find practical tips on how to do so in the article How Does Endless Scrolling on Social Networks Affect You?

Why choose slow dopamine instead?

When you are bombarded with temptations from all sides and can easily obtain cheap dopamine with a touch of your smartphone, it’s difficult to choose the more challenging path. Why read a book instead of watching an entertaining YouTube video? Why work hard towards long-term goals when the results may not be visible for months? Why go out and build new social connections when it requires much more effort? [16]

What are the benefits of slow dopamine?

  • The feeling of contentment will last much longer than receiving a like on Instagram.
  • Your dopamine levels won’t fluctuate rapidly, which means you won’t have an immediate need for another dose from cheap sources.
  • You will become more balanced and develop willpower and patience.
  • You will learn to follow through with things until successful completion.
  • You won’t engage in addictive behaviors, and your life won’t be controlled by the desire for instant gratification.
  • You will cultivate healthy habits.
How to increase dopamine?

How to increase dopamine in a healthy way?

You don’t have to wait until you successfully achieve a long-term goal to experience the positive effects of dopamine. You can also maintain optimal levels of this happiness hormone through healthy daily habits.

1. Get 7-9 hours of sleep every day

High-quality sleep is crucial not only for the regeneration of your body and hormonal health, but also for returning dopamine levels to an optimal state; meaning that it is essential for the proper functioning of the dopamine system. When you are well-rested, you are more likely to resist the temptation of scrolling through social media and other cheap dopamine sources. On the other hand, sleep deprivation can damage dopamine receptors, preventing this neurotransmitter from binding and activating its effects. [11, 14]

If you have trouble sleeping, try the tips in the article How to Fall Asleep Quickly? Try Simple Tips for Better Sleep.

2. Be active

Whether you go for a walk, visit the gym, practise yoga, or do some gardening, the reward will be improved mood and focus. Even short activities lasting 20–30 minutes can have a positive effect. [17] 

Physical activities have numerous other health benefits. You can learn more about them in the article Why Exercise and Work Out? Stronger Immunity, Heart, and 8 Other Reasons.

Dopamine and exercise

3. Spend time outdoors

Sunlight that touches your skin not only affects vitamin D synthesis, but also triggers the release of dopamine. Try to go outside for a few minutes right after waking up and soak in some morning sunlight. A healthy dose of dopamine will make your morning more enjoyable. However, avoid excessive sun exposure during the day and protect your skin with creams with an adequate level of UV protection when sunbathing. [18–19]

You can try going for a bike ride outdoors as well. Besides obtaining a bunch of healthy dopamine, cycling offers other benefits, which you can learn more about in the article Cycling Strengthens Legs, Glutes, and Aids in Weight Loss. What else can it do?

4. Listen to music

Listening to the sound of your favourite music through headphones can not only enhance your workout, but also greatly improve your day. Studies have shown that listening to music can increase dopamine levels. For the best effect, opt for relaxing music rather than hardcore metal. [17, 20]

Dopamine and music

5. Try meditation

You don’t have to become a Zen master right away. Just take a few minutes to close your eyes and focus on your breath. Slowly inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. After a while, you will feel a sense of calmness and increased focus. [13] 

If you are interested in the topic of meditation and want to learn more, you can find the most essential information in the article Meditation: A Way to Find Inner Peace, Improve Concentration, Sleep, and Reduce Stress. 

6. Monitor your protein intake

Foods rich in protein (meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, protein powders) are a source of the amino acid tyrosine, which is used to produce dopamine in the body. By consuming protein, you also take in phenylalanine, which is able to transform into tyrosine in the body. [11]

If you want to know how much protein to consume daily and what the best sources are, you can read the article Protein: Functions in the Body, Optimal Intake, Food Sources, and the Consequences of its Deficiency?

Coffee and dopamine

7. Have a cup of coffee

Caffeine found in coffee has been shown to increase dopamine levels and enhance the availability of dopamine receptors. Caffeine can be found not only in coffee, but also in tea or guarana. It can also be found in pre-workout supplements that aim to prepare the body for physical performance. However, be cautious not to exceed the maximum daily dose of 400 mg of caffeine. Similarly, avoid consuming caffeine later in the afternoon and in the evening to avoid disrupting your sleep. [19, 21]

You can learn more about the positive effects of coffee in the article Is Coffee Healthy? 7 Reasons Why You Should Give It a Chance.

8. Try supplements

Some popular dietary supplements are closely related to dopamine production and can even increase its levels. These include vitamin D, magnesium, omega3 fatty acids, turmeric or velvet bean extract (mucuna pruriens). You can also try adaptogens such as ashwagandha or Rhodiola rosea, which both contribute to neurotransmitter regulation. [11, 22, 23] 

Adaptogens help regulate mood and also reduce stress and tension. If you want to learn more about the effects of these substances, you can read the article Adaptogens: Natural Substances That Help Manage Stress.

What should you remember?

Dopamine is a good servant but a bad master. When it’s perfectly balanced, you feel content and motivated. The problem arises when you succumb to the temptations of cheap dopamine that only satisfies you momentarily, leading you to seek another dose. This can easily lead to dependence on social media, online shopping, or computer games. It is healthier to limit these activities and replace them with more beneficial sources of dopamine, such as exercise, meditation, or spending more time offline.

Do you have a friend who can’t let go of their phone? Share this article with them and help them overcome their smartphone addiction.


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