Notes from the Huberman Lab podcast on dopamine and its role in motivation, focus, and satisfaction
For the longest time, I have been struggling with motivation. There are several things I want to do, but for some reason, I cannot bring myself to focus for prolonged periods of time. I am not referring to hours and hours or working through the night, but even focusing for a few hours.
Another challenge I am facing is getting going in the morning. It takes me easily between two to three hours or more to reach any form of productivity. Even getting out of bed can take a while. I have also been struggling somewhat with general stiffness. This is even though I have a regular exercise routine and am probably in the best shape I have been in, in a long time.
Many things have changed for me over the last year, but none of the main themes should contribute to this. Well, that holds true if you exclude my medication. Somewhere in the last year, I started taking a drug called Dopaquel, also known as Seroquel. It contains the active ingredient Quetiapine. While it is most commonly used for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, it is also used in combination with antidepressants in cases of severe depression or anxiety. The latter is the reason I was prescribed this combination.
With the goals I have set for myself for 2023, these struggles with motivation, focus, and getting going in the morning are a source of immense stress for me. Honestly, though, I experience this stress differently than one would normally think. It is more of an underlying concern just under the threshold where I would act on it immediately. Over time it has built up enough that I decided enough is enough.
I have watched some short-form videos on dopamine and its role in the human body, but I have never taken the time to dig deep into this. The reason I bring up dopamine is that it is central to our levels of motivation, energy, and drive. How I feel has made me think that the impact the Dopaqual has on my dopamine levels is at the root of all of what I mentioned before.
Today I sat down and watched the entire two-hour podcast of the Huberman lab, where Dr. Huberman discusses dopamine as it relates to the areas of my life I struggle with. What follows are my notes and takeaways from the podcast. With that said, I would highly recommend that you listen to the entire podcast, as there is just so much to absorb if this is something you are interested in.
What is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a neuromodulator (although you may see it incorrectly referred to as a neurotransmitter). A neuromodulator, unlike a neurotransmitter, is responsible for orchestrating an array of neurotransmitters. Dopamine impacts how we feel, our level of motivation, level of desire, our willingness to push through effort, and perception of time, and it plays a role in physical movement.
Suppose you have ever encountered someone that seems to have endless drive and energy. They most likely have healthy levels of dopamine. Suppose you have ever encountered or have felt like you had no drive and wanted to give up. This will most likely correlate with low levels of dopamine.
In motivation, dopamine is modulated through the mesocortical and mesolimbic pathways and can be disrupted through addiction to substances like methamphetamine, but addiction, in general, can have a negative impact on this pathway. Disruption of this pathway can directly lead to depression. Movement is modulated through the substantia nigra, which connects to the dorsal striatum. Regarding movement, it has been seen that people suffering from Parkinson’s disease show low levels of dopamine and a disruption of this neural pathway.
Dopamine is released in our bodies in a couple of ways. The first is local, also known as synaptic release. This is when it excites or activates closely related neurons to communicate. The other is what is known as volumetric release, which impacts a large number of neurons. There is also tonic release, which is how dopamine levels in the body are kept at a constant baseline. The other side of this is phasic release, when dopamine levels are pushed above the normal baseline.
Dopamine works through the slower but more powerful G protein-coupled receptors. This means its effects take longer to occur but can be much longer lasting and have a greater impact all the way down to gene expression. Dopamine does not work alone. The same neurons that release dopamine also release glutamate. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that stimulates neurons to be electrically active. Dopamine is, therefore stimulating, making us more driven and excitable.
Also, we cannot do anything without epinephrine or adrenaline, the main energy drivers. In fact, epinephrine and adrenaline are manufactured from dopamine. Another interesting fact is that epinephrine by itself causes fear, mental paralysis, and the sense of being frozen by the fear. When dopamine is added to the mix, it broadly transforms this into excitement and drive. This clearly demonstrates why we often confuse excitement with anxiety or fear. They are extremely closely related on a neural level.
Addiction and dopamine
We all have a baseline dopamine level, but we also have peaks when we accomplish something or experience something that brings us great enjoyment. After this, though, dopamine will drop below the baseline and take a while (sometimes 2 days) to ratchet back up to our baseline. This, then, is what people often refer to as postpartum depression. This is not only experienced by women after giving birth. Runners also experience this after a marathon win, for example. Also, how high your peak was, determines how low dopamine will drop below your baseline.
Normally people do not pursue these enormous increases in dopamine that leads to big drops in dopamine. Some people do, and that is what is known as addiction. After the high, you experience the immense low that mistakenly leads people to go after the high again. Doing this repeatedly causes the difference between the peaks and baselines to narrow. This is why, over time, you hear people struggling with addiction saying they need the drug to feel normal again. When we are in this low state, there literally is not enough dopamine available in the system for it to be released. You can say that our body and brain have run out of dopamine stock, and this can lead to deep depression and even suicide.
To quote Dr. Huberman, “Addiction is a progressive narrowing of the things that bring you pleasure.” Let’s take gaming addiction as an example. The person starts loving a particular game, so they play it more and more and more. Over time, the game is the only way they can experience joy. They lose interest in all other activities (progressive narrowing of pleasure). Eventually, they will also stop getting dopamine released from playing the game. This is typically when one enters a deep state of depression and cannot experience joy from anything in your life.
This is also related to feelings of burnout. The concept of work hard, play hard. Over time this constant chase after the peaks progressively lowers the dopamine baseline to the point where one no longer finds joy in anything. In fact, in these instances, unlike with addiction to drugs such as methamphetamine, the lowering of the baseline happens so gradually that it is almost imperceivable until the day comes around when, as previously stated, it feels like nothing brings you joy, or that everything is a chore.
There is some good news about lowering baseline levels due to addiction. Like so many aspects of our bodies, dopamine can replenish itself over time. One of the best ways to achieve this is to undergo a 30-day fast of the activity or substance that has led to abuse and caused lowered levels of dopamine. For some addictions, after 30 days, you might want to reconsider whether you even want to take up the substance or activity ever again.
Ways to increase dopamine
Most drugs or supplements increase dopamine levels via local and broad dopamine release. This problem can make it harder to sustain dopamine release over the long run and achieve the peaks we are all after when pursuing our goals. The reason is that if you are getting both local and broad release, the difference between your baseline and peak becomes narrower. To go one level deeper, how pleasurable or satisfying something is, is correlated to the difference between the baseline and the top of the peak. If the difference between these two is narrower, the effectiveness is lower.
The only supplements Dr. Huberman uses himself from time to time are L-Tyrosine and Phenylethylamine. It is also mentioned during the podcast that the use of melatonin should generally be avoided.
Not-so-healthy ways to increase dopamine
One way to increase dopamine levels is by eating chocolate. This can increase dopamine levels by 150% (1.5x), but it is transient, and the effects go away after a couple of minutes or even seconds. Sex, the pursuit or act, increases dopamine by 200% (2x). Nicotine, particularly when smoked, increases dopamine levels by 250% (2.5x), but this effect is very short-lived. Cocaine will increase dopamine levels by the same amount as nicotine. Methamphetamine will increase dopamine levels by a whopping 1000% (10x).
Other than sex and chocolate (if one does not overindulge), the rest are definitely not means to increase dopamine that would form part of a healthy lifestyle. So what other more healthy ways are there?
Cold exposure, such as a cold shower or cold water immersion, can cause a significant increase of up to 250% (2.5x). The effect can often be maintained for up to three or four hours after cold exposure. Cold exposure therapy is nothing new, but Wim Hof, also known as the iceman, is especially well known for this.
Exercise increases dopamine, but interestingly, how much it increases dopamine depends on how much you enjoy the exercise. One can introduce an aid to make the exercise more enjoyable, such as listening to music or podcasts or having a pre-exercise drink such as caffeine. Here are a couple of things to take note of. If you want to keep doing and finding enjoyment and benefit from the activity, you should intermittently exercise without aids. Dr. Huberman mentioned using a coin flip to determine whether you will use an aid. The reason is that over time, you will have to keep folding in more and more aids so that you do not lose complete interest in the activity. Intermittently skipping the aids will ensure that the aids will keep working and the activity be enjoyable in the long term.
Caffeine is an interesting one. While it marginally increases dopamine, it does, however, increase the density of dopamine receptors. This allows you to experience more of dopamine’s effects. The source of caffeine is important. While you can get it from an energy drink, this is suboptimal. Getting caffeine from coffee, tea, or yerba mate is much better. Especially yerba mate, as some studies, suggest that yerba mate has some dopamine neuroprotective properties.
Just as one should not focus on the stimuli introduced before the effort and layering in more and more forms of help, just the same should your entire focus not be focused on the reward at the end. When dopamine becomes truly powerful, we associate effort, hard work, and pushing through discomfort as the reward itself. This is not easy, but we have the neurocircuitry in our bodies to make this happen.
Intermittent fasting is another natural way to improve dopamine. Still, dopamine release should not come primarily from the moment you can eat again but from the fasting process itself. There are things you can use to help here. This largely focuses on understanding the physical and neurological benefits you are gaining from fasting. Again, the process becomes the reward itself. By doing this, you will find that you enjoy the process more and more, and while the reward will still be enjoyable, it will become less of a focus.
Healthy social interactions that lead to the release of oxytocin directly stimulate the dopamine release chemistry. It is, therefore, key to ensure that we invest time and energy in nurturing these healthy social connections and interactions.
Update: In an Ask me anything (AMA) by Dr. Huberman, he answered a question from a listener about managing our motivation levels. He provided an excellent answer that I wanted to make sure nobody missed.
Dopamine plays a critical role in our lives. It is also clear that my dopamine levels are not where I need them. I am also concerned about the long-term effects of suppressing dopamine, as there seems to be a clear connection between low dopamine levels and Parkinson’s disease.
I am not going to stop taking my medication. Still, I will talk to the psychiatrist about lowering the dose to see whether the anxiety symptoms remain controlled. I will also introduce some ways to increase and stabilize dopamine in my routine safely. I sincerely hope this will solve my current feelings of overwhelm, frustration, burnout, and lack of motivation.
I hope you benefitted from this article and would love to hear whether any of these methods have positively impacted your life.