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Let’s Talk About Dopamine
Most people have heard of dopamine and the concept of dopamine hits, but the reality is that there is no such thing as a dopamine hit. The way our bodies use dopamine is by maintaining a baseline level of dopamine that is constantly circulating in our brain and body. This baseline level of dopamine is important for how we generally feel, including our mood and motivation.
When we engage in activities we enjoy, such as eating chocolate or scrolling through Instagram, our dopamine levels can peak above the baseline level. However, the amount of dopamine we experience from these activities depends on our baseline level of dopamine at the time and our previous dopamine peaks. This is often overlooked when we talk about dopamine hits.
Repetitively engaging in enjoyable activities can actually increase our threshold for enjoyment over time. Understanding this process and the kinetics of dopamine can help us use dopamine-enhancing tools to optimize our motivation and drive.
Activities That Increase Dopamine
Let’s take a look at some typical activities and substances that are known to increase dopamine levels:
- Chocolate: Eating chocolate can increase dopamine levels 1.5 times above baseline.
- Sex: Both the pursuit and act of sex can increase dopamine levels two times above baseline.
- Nicotine: Smoking nicotine, such as cigarettes, can increase dopamine levels two and a half times above baseline.
- Cocaine: Cocaine can increase dopamine levels two and a half times above baseline.
- Amphetamine: Amphetamine can increase dopamine levels 10 times above baseline.
- Exercise: The impact of exercise on dopamine levels varies depending on individual enjoyment. Running and other enjoyable exercises can increase dopamine levels two times above baseline.
Engaging with something and actively thinking or talking about it can also increase dopamine release. For example, discussing a favorite pen can evoke a dopamine increase. Journaling, practicing appreciation, and focusing on enjoyable aspects of an activity can also enhance dopamine release.
The Relationship Between Dopamine and Epinephrine
Dopamine does not act alone in the brain and body. It has close relatives and friends, such as epinephrine (adrenaline). Epinephrine is the main chemical driver of energy in our brain and body. Dopamine and epinephrine are often found together, and epinephrine is actually produced from dopamine.
Dopamine enhances the subjective experience of an activity, making it more pleasurable and desirable. On the other hand, epinephrine is responsible for energy levels. The level of dopamine in our system affects our motivation and drive. If dopamine is too low, we won’t feel motivated, and if it’s too high, we’ll feel motivated. The baseline level of dopamine influences how we feel, depending on whether our dopamine levels were higher or lower in the past.
Increasing Dopamine Sustainably
Recent trends have shown an increase in cold exposure practices, popularized by individuals like Vim Hoff. Cold showers, ice baths, and exposure to cold water can increase dopamine levels, as well as the neuromodulator norepinephrine. The level of cold water tolerance varies based on an individual’s adaptation to cold and familiarity with the experience.
It’s important to note that after experiencing something highly pleasurable or desirable, our baseline level of dopamine actually drops. These dopamine peaks influence the overall level of dopamine circulating in our system, and a big peak does not necessarily result in feeling even better afterward. Dopamine works in conjunction with epinephrine and other neurotransmitters to shape our experience of life, motivation, and drive.
The Role of Dopamine in Motivation
In our recent experiences, dopamine plays a significant role in determining our level of motivation, excitement, outward-facing behavior, and willingness to pursue things. Although there are other factors involved, dopamine is the primary determinant.