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Dopamine and Motivation: Harnessing the Power of the Brain’s Reward System

What drives you? Is it an internal or external source? The answer is both. Something inside of you fuels your actions and your motivation to achieve external goals. One of the main components involved in this process is dopamine, a neurotransmitter and hormone that plays a major role in our ability to become and stay motivated. In this blog post, we will delve into the fascinating world of dopamine and motivation, exploring what can spike dopamine levels, whether it has a positive or negative effect, and strategies we can employ to naturally elevate our dopamine levels.

Understanding Dopamine

Dopamine is a unique entity in biology as it can act as both a neurotransmitter and a hormone. The neurotransmitter aspect is evident in areas such as the hypothalamus, while the hormonal component is visible in our adrenal glands. Dopamine is one of the molecules released during the adrenaline-fueled “fight or flight response”.

Most people associate dopamine with other endorphins such as serotonin, a feel-good chemical that we experience during pleasurable moments. However, dopamine’s role is more complex. It has a much stronger effect on the anticipation of engaging in something pleasurable. It’s the driving force that motivates you to seek out pleasurable experiences. In the early stages of human evolution, dopamine was used to motivate people to hunt, gather, and survive, with almost zero sources of “artificial” dopamine.

Dopamine in Today's Society

In today’s society, we are surrounded by factors that can spike our dopamine levels and provide instant gratification. These include highly-palatable foods, scrolling through social media, watching TV, recreational drugs, pharmaceuticals, and caffeine. Spiking your dopamine is not necessarily a bad thing; it can be used for good. However, the convenience of the source and the amount it spikes your dopamine is what matters.

For instance, chocolate may spike your dopamine baseline by roughly 50-100%, whereas something like methamphetamine can spike it upwards of 1000%. It’s important to note that dopamine has a rubber band effect: the higher it spikes above baseline, the lower it dumps below baseline. After an intense spike in dopamine, it can take a long time to return to “normal”, or baseline. This is how addiction starts. To get that dopamine back to normal, one may try to artificially spike it again before it returns to baseline. However, this only results in a gradual lowering of your baseline over time, spiraling towards depression and addiction. This is why it is essential to be aware of how much we are consuming because everything is instantly gratifying.

Healthy Ways to Spike Dopamine

While the potential for dopamine misuse is daunting, there are great ways to spike your dopamine in healthy, natural ways. One of these strategies is free and available every morning. Viewing sunlight within the first hour of waking can increase your baseline for the entire day and not dump immediately. However, you must be viewing it outside; so the drive to work when you are looking out of the window doesn’t count.

Another effective method to raise our dopamine for hours is cold exposure. This can be an ice bath or cold shower. It is important to make sure that the water is cold enough that it “shocks” you and is very uncomfortable to begin with.

Drinking caffeine can lead to a small “spike” in dopamine, but it has another trick others don’t. It not only raises your dopamine, but it can actually increase the number of dopaminergic receptors you have in your brain. This has an exponential benefit on the ability to use dopamine, and is also thoughtto be the link between caffeine and its antagonistic effects on brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Exercise is another one of my favorite sources of healthy dopamine. Why does exercise have such a profound effect on dopamine? Because it is challenging. When we engage in physically demanding activities, our body releases dopamine and other chemicals to motivate us to finish and push through. If you have ever experienced a “runner’s high,” then you know exactly what I’m talking about. This is yet another reason to continuously push your capabilities.

The Power of Dopamine

Dopamine is undoubtedly one of the most influential and powerful molecules in our brain. However, its influence and power can be used for good or bad. It can be used to enhance your drive, motivation, and energy throughout the day, or for instant gratification and comfortability. The solution is not to completely avoid these instantly gratifying things. However, we must keep things in moderation and develop an awareness of when we are being sucked in. The first step anybody can take to positively leverage their baseline is by doing something uncomfortable, physically or mentally, every day.

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