The thrill of achieving a goal, the 'runner's high' after a workout – that's dopamine at work, a key neurotransmitter behind drive, focus, and productivity.

Dopamine functions as a survival mechanism by releasing energy to pursue an opportunity presented to us. With each discovery of a tree loaded with fruit or animals suitable for providing meat, our forebears experienced a dopamine surge because this meant they’d be alive for at least a few more days. While our existence is less precarious today, the excitement of the quest still activates our reward circuits in other ways: through our careers, sporting activities, studies, and personal interests. A lack of zest for life is a signature indicator of low dopamine levels. Symptoms - fatigue, apathy, lethargy, lack of motivation, memory loss, mood swings, and low libido - can mimic those of depression. So critical is dopamine to motivation that dopamine-deficient lab mice refuse to eat, to the point that they choose to starve even when food is readily available.
To obtain a dopamine boost, some people abuse caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and drugs, or indulge self-destructive addictions to sex or gambling. Fortunately, there are far safer ways to raise levels.

1. Food The amino acid tyrosine is a precursor for dopamine, so eat tyrosine-rich foods: animal products, almonds, apples, avocado, bananas, beetroot, broad beans, chocolate, coffee, green leafy vegetables, green tea (through its l-theanine content), lima beans, oatmeal, sea vegetables, seeds (sesame, pumpkin), turmeric, watermelon, and wheat germ. Sugar also boosts dopamine, but the effect is only temporary. Our intestinal flora impact neurotransmitter production. Foods high in natural probiotics (yogurt, kefir, raw sauerkraut) increase dopamine levels, while an excess of bad bacteria leaves toxic by-products called lipopolysaccharides, which reduce levels. The supplements acetyl-l-tyrosine, curcumin, ginkgo biloba, and phosphatidylserine raise dopamine levels. Consult a qualified naturopath or nutritionist.

2. Physical exercise Exercise increases dopamine by boosting growth of new brain-cell receptors.

3. Meditation This has the ability to increase dopamine, as do crafts like knitting, quilting, sewing, drawing, photography, and woodworking, as they focus the brain in a similar way to meditation.

4. Music Listening to music – or even thinking about listening to it – can trigger dopamine release.

5. Goals Because dopamine is released when we achieve a goal, it’s important to have both short-term and long-term goals. When you take on a new challenge, perhaps learning a new language or studying, break this long-term goal into smaller short-term goals to provide regular dopamine boosts along the way. Have separate short-term goals too: they can be as simple as catching up on emails or learning how to make the most of the features in the latest software update.

Teresa Mitchell-Paterson BHSc(CompSci) MHSc(HumNut) AdvDipNat is a member of the Australian Traditional Medicine Society.