How to Get Your Dopamine On

by Dr. Thor Bergersen

In my last blog entry, I described a way of thinking about ADHD. If you consider the various brain regions as a team of players, each having its own position and function, then the prefrontal cortex (PFC) would be the coach, coordinating the team and making sure the plays were executed properly. In people with ADHD, the coach falls asleep when things are not interesting or exciting. When the situation is stimulating or critical, however, a threshold is reached and the coach wakes up, resulting in hyper-focus. For people with ADHD, focus is an all-or-nothing phenomenon over which there is limited control.

I then discussed the fact that the nerve cells in the PFC communicate with each other using dopamine, an essential neurotransmitter. Dopamine levels in the PFC tend to be low in those with ADHD, thus the sleepy coach. Is it possible to increase your dopamine level above the threshold required for focus?

The answer, fortunately, is yes. There are three primary methods of increasing dopamine that are generally within our control: 1) Sleep, 2) Exercise, and 3) Stimulation.

Adequate sleep is crucial for recharging your brain’s dopamine batteries. When you don’t get enough restful sleep on a regular basis, dopamine reserves will steadily decline, resulting in decreased concentration, low mood, elevated anxiety and of course, fatigue. This might seem obvious, but many of us don’t go to bed early enough, sacrificing sleep in favor of “down time,” which is usually wasted time in front of a screen, or desperate attempts to get more tasks done. Most adults function best with 7 or 8 hours per 24.

Exercise results in the release of endorphins, our bodies’ natural opiates. These in turn facilitate dopamine activity, effectively improving nerve communication in the PFC. Working out is a reliable way to improve your focus, mood and sleep. It also tends to alleviate anxiety.

Stimulation can come from different sources, and can result in productivity or addiction, because boosting dopamine makes us feel good. Obviously, the former is our goal. Good stimulation is interesting, motivating and engaging. This could be a charismatic teacher who inspires her students, an entrepreneurial endeavor loaded with great potential and risk, or the quest for something new and unexplained. It is a force that generates enthusiasm, purpose and ambition.

Stimulation can also be addictive. Gambling, drugs, sex, chocolate, video games and caffeine all give a shot of dopamine to our brains, and make us feel good – temporarily. When the initial rush has passed, however, there can be a crash. Self “medicating” in this way is not sustainable.