If you expect products marketed as dopamine supplements to actually contain dopamine — a naturally occurring chemical produced in the brain that improves mood — you may be disappointed. These supplements are touted for their ability to ease depression and elevate mood. But if you look at the label, you’ll see dopamine supplements actually contain ingredients such as vitamins, minerals, food extracts and herbal powders, which may cause your body to increase its dopamine levels.
Experts in nutrition and brain function break down the ingredients in dopamine supplements and suggest specific whole foods and other healthy alternatives for lifting your mood.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine acts as a chemical messenger, carrying information between brain cells. Dopamine, which interacts with the pleasure and reward center in the brain, makes you feel good. It’s also related to brain functions like cognition and attention, and motor functions like muscle movement. In some cases, dopamine deficiency has been connected to depression.
Many antidepressant drugs work by affecting levels of serotonin — another neurotransmitter related to mood — in the brain. These drugs are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. However, norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitors, or NDRIs, like bupropion (Wellbutrin) affect dopamine.
Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter, says Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef and nutrition specialist based in Boston, and the author of “This Is Your Brain on Food.” Because dopamine is affected by several nutrients, she says, food can have a significant impact on dopamine availability in the brain.
Certain medical conditions are related to low dopamine levels. Parkinson’s disease, in particular, can result when the brain is unable to produce enough dopamine. Prescription drugs contain levodopa, which is converted to dopamine in the brain, sometimes combined with carbidopa, which helps more levodopa actually make it to the brain, to stimulate dopamine production for patients with Parkinson’s.
Rather than actually containing dopamine, certain supplements “may have some ingredients that support increased dopamine in the brain — nutrients that would help to stimulate either the reuptake or release, or reduce the inhibition of dopamine,” says KC Wright, a research dietitian and consultant in private practice based in New London, New Hampshire.
However, Wright says, “I’d be wary of supplements that are marketed specifically for dopamine. It’s a neurotransmitter. You cannot bottle that. The only way you can get it is through a prescription.”
Dopamine Supplement Ingredients
These are some of the various supplements that may possibly have a role in dopamine support, reduced depression and mood improvement:
— Vitamin C.
— Fish Oil.
— Vitamin D.
— Saffron extract.
Mucuna pruriens, a tropical and subtropical plant, is also known as the “velvet bean.” Mucuna plants contain a small amount of levodopa, the precursor, or early form, of dopamine.
Among 18 patients with Parkinson’s disease, those who received either mucuna or synthetic levodopa showed improvement in movement-related symptoms, compared with patients who received a placebo, according to the small study published in the August 2017 issue of the journal Neurology. While most research on mucuna focuses on Parkinson’s disease, a few animal studies are looking at its general health and mood effects.
As a cofactor, vitamin C helps with the formation and conversion of dopamine in the brain, making it a vital nutrient, Naidoo explains. “A deficiency of vitamin C often will present with fatigue and actually also a low mood,” she says. Adequate vitamin C levels are linked to helping you feel happier.
Fish oil provides omega-3s, which have important antioxidant effects and have been shown to improve depression symptoms. In particular, the long-chain omega-3s DHA and EPA may play a role in increasing dopamine levels in the brain.
An amino acid made in the body, tyrosine is an essential building block for producing brain chemicals like dopamine.
“When magnesium is deficient, it can be linked to depression, as well as a decrease in dopamine levels,” Naidoo says. While the mechanism for this magnesium effect is unclear, she adds, “we do know that if you supplement with magnesium, you can increase dopamine levels.”
The spice turmeric, through the active ingredient curcumin, may help the body release dopamine and confer some antidepressant effects. In a small study of patients with major depression, receiving curcumin in combination with a prescription antidepressant was safe, although similarly or only slightly more effective than taking the prescription drug alone, according to the data published in July 2013 in the journal Phytotherapy Research.
An antioxidant, carvacrol is found in the spice oregano and in oregano oil-carvacrol supplements. It has been shown to increase dopamine levels in animal studies. “It promotes dopamine production and prevents the breakdown, or deterioration, of dopamine,” Naidoo says.
Green tea powder is an antioxidant that contains the amino acid L-theanine. “It actually helps to increase the regulation of neurotransmitters in the brain, which includes dopamine,” Naidoo says.
The sunshine vitamin is involved in the brain’s management of neurotransmitters, including dopamine.
Saffron, a spice with anti-inflammatory effects, may also prevent reabsorption of the neurochemicals dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin, making them more available to perform their functions. In a study of 56 healthy participants, taking saffron extract supplements (but not a placebo) appeared to improve mild depression symptoms, according to findings published in the February 2021 issue of the journal Frontiers in Nutrition.
[See: 14 Ways to Break a Bad Mood.]
Foods to Support Dopamine
Food naturally provides the complete nutrient package your body needs. Nutrients that help the body fulfill its many functions are most bioavailable (accessible for the body to use) from whole foods, Wright says. “It is the synergistic effect of these nutrients in whole foods that are absorbed best and utilized most for good health.” For example, she says, the vitamin C in dried apricots enhances the absorption of the iron in the fruit.
Food first is also the focus for Naidoo. When developing nutritional plans for patients with mood issues, she says, “I tend to try to lead with food and then find out where the gaps are.” So far, she adds, “I wouldn’t say my patients are beating down the door about dopamine supplements.”
Healthful foods containing these dopamine-supportive nutrients include:
— Citrus fruits, kiwifruit and red bell peppers are among foods rich in vitamin C.
— Cheese, dairy, soy products, meats, fish, nuts, seeds, beans and lentils all contain tyrosine.
— Fatty fish like salmon and plant sources such as oils, walnuts and chia seeds increase levels of omega-3.
— An Indian-food staple, turmeric can also spice up beverages like smoothies. “We always talk about adding a pinch of black pepper to increase its bioavailability to the brain and body,” Naidoo notes.
— Oregano is available as a dried spice, in oregano-infused oil and even oregano tea.
— Avocados, almonds, black beans and quinoa are among magnesium-rich foods.
— Sipping on green tea on a regular basis may boost dopamine levels to ease depression and help with cognition.
— Salmon, egg yolks and mushrooms are rich in vitamin D.
— Fermented foods such as kimchee, plain dairy yogurt or coconut yogurt can be associated with improving dopamine levels, Naidoo says.
— Vivid red-orange saffron, one of the more expensive spices, is used in a variety of foods like saffron rice.
Before moving to supplements, Naidoo suggests, why not try foods that can impact dopamine levels first? “When you’re eating something, it allows more gentle buildup of that nutrient,” she says.
Adopting an overall healthy eating plan, like the Mediterranean diet, is good for your mood.
“The Mediterranean diet is tried and true for so many things: (preventing) cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other chronic conditions,” Wright says. “But we also know from other research that it does help to prevent depression and promote a positive mood.”
Dopamine Supplement Precautions
Supplements are not substitutes for prescription drugs. They don’t undergo the same regulation or scrutiny. So what’s listed on the label may not actually even be contained in the supplement. Also, active ingredients in supplements might not be enough to help treat certain deficiencies, despite seemingly positive study findings.
Before resorting to dopamine-support supplements, have a discussion with your health care provider. And before taking any supplement, ask your doctor or pharmacist about possible side effects or interactions with medications you already take.
Because dopamine is a neurotransmitter that interacts with the brain, any attempts to tweak dopamine levels should be carefully considered, Naidoo says. The supplements “can change your mood or create mood states that are unnatural or unsafe,” she says. “So, I wouldn’t necessarily say to someone: Just go grab something over the counter.” Instead, she says, “talk to your doctor. Check if you have a deficiency. Ask the right questions.”
These healthy habits also promote brain chemicals related to good mood:
— Going outside. “Ten minutes of outdoor time can provide the body with the vitamin D you need,” Naidoo says. Being exposed to nature, in itself, is known to improve mood.
— Sleep. Regular, high-quality sleep can help keep your dopamine levels balanced, says Naidoo, who suggests using sleep hygiene techniques.
— Exercise. Cardio exercise makes you feel energized and might have a positive effect on the brain’s dopamine receptors, according to a March 2016 study.
— Meditation. Being in a meditative state was associated with a 65% increase in dopamine levels in a brain study by researchers in Denmark. Yoga practice may have similar effects.
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Update 12/22/21: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.