The connection between dopamine and addiction is complex. On the one hand, dopamine is responsible for the pleasurable effects of drugs of abuse, which reinforces the behavior of drug use. On the other hand, repeated drug use can lead to changes in the brain's reward center, causing it to become less sensitive to dopamine. This can lead to psychological dependence on the drug as the brain can no longer enjoy the effects of dopamine without the excessive amounts provided by substance use.
The role of dopamine in addiction is further complicated by the fact that dopamine is also involved in other important functions such as movement, cognition, and mood. This means that drugs of abuse can have a wide range of effects on the brain beyond just the activation of the reward center.
Because the dopamine receptors shut down in response to chronic substance use, early sobriety typically includes intense cravings and a lot of difficulty feeling pleasure and motivation. Healthy ways of producing dopamine are critical even though their impact will be lessened early on. The first 90 days or so tend to be particularly challenging but, after this time, the brain usually starts to heal in a noticeable way. It often takes about a year for the dopamine receptors to recover as much as they can.
Dopamine and the cycle of addiction
Initial use: At this stage, the individual takes the drug for the first time, usually out of curiosity or peer pressure. The most addictive substances trigger a significant release of dopamine in the brain that goes well beyond what we typically achieve without substances. This, of course, can lead to a desire to keep using the substance.
Regular use: Dopamine is a key way in which our brains mark something as necessary for survival which is why it is released in more moderate amounts by things like food, water, exercise, and sex. With repeated use, the individual develops a tolerance to the drug, which means that they need to take more of it to achieve the same effects. This results from the brain responding to the unhealthy excess of dopamine by shutting off its dopamine receptors in an effort to achieve balance.
Problematic use: At this stage, the individual experiences negative consequences as a result of their drug use, such as relationship problems, financial difficulties, or legal issues. Despite these consequences, the individual continues to use the drug because the brain erroneously and subconsciously associates the substance with your ability to survive.
Addiction: At this stage, the individual continues to use or seek it out even when the consequences have clearly outweighed the benefit. The association of dopamine with survival is so powerful that the brain will come up with all kinds of delusions, exceptions, and excuses to convince you that the substance will make things better. Imagine what you might be willing to do for food or water if your access to them had been cut off.
Natural ways to boost dopamine
Considering dopamine’s role in marking the things that are important for survival, it’s no coincidence that most natural means of boosting it are things that help us live and thrive.
Exercise: It’s well known that exercise, especially cardio, is great for producing dopamine and giving you a “runner’s high.” Don’t worry if you don’t like running… walking, biking, hiking, cycling, skating, and using an elliptical are all great alternatives. Regular strength training can help but may not be quite as effective; HIIT strength training will boost dopamine more.
Nutrition: Our brain craves fat and sugars because they used to be very scarce but now they are available in abundance and only provide a fleeting dopamine boost. But people who enjoy things like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can also attest to how good they feel when they maintain a healthier diet because healthy foods are great for boosting dopamine over the long term.
Positive relationships: When we spend time with people and pets who we love and care about, our brain releases dopamine (as well as other feel-good neurotransmitters like oxytocin and serotonin). We can plan regular outings with friends or family, have meaningful conversations, and express gratitude towards them. Positive interactions such as laughter, hugs, and sharing experiences together release dopamine and creates a sense of happiness and fulfillment.
Nature: Spending time in nature is another effective way to boost dopamine levels. The fresh air, greenery, and peace help us relax and rejuvenate. We can go for a walk or hike in the mountains, take a swim in a lake or the ocean, or simply sit under a tree and enjoy the beauty of nature.
Hobbies: Pursuing hobbies that we enjoy can also increase dopamine levels. Hobbies provide a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, which is essential for dopamine release. We can try activities like painting, cooking, playing an instrument, dancing, making things, or gardening. It's important to choose hobbies that we genuinely enjoy.
Fun and play: Having fun and engaging in activities that make us happy is an excellent way to boost dopamine levels. Games, singing, sports, or watching funny videos are some examples of activities that release dopamine. We can also indulge in small pleasures like eating our favorite food or enjoying a relaxing bath.