the motivation molecule


We know that dopamine is an essential component of our goal setting behaviour but what is it and how does it help us stay motivated? In this blog we provide further information on the motivation molecule and give tips on how to regulate your dopamine levels for optimal wellbeing.

what is dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and neuromodulator that is produced by neurons in the brain and in the gut.1 It is a small molecule that is composed of a protein backbone, with a number of amino acids attached. The specific amino acids that make up dopamine can vary, but it typically contains a combination of tyrosine, phenylalanine, and other amino acids.2,3,4
At the molecular level, dopamine is a catecholamine, a compound containing a catechol and an amine group. This unique structure gives dopamine its biological activity and allows it to interact with dopamine receptors in the brain and the body.3,4
Dopamine is produced by a number of different structures in the brain, but it is primarily produced by an area called the substantia nigra. This structure is located in the midbrain, which is a part of the brain that is involved in many of the body's most important functions, such as movement, sleep, and mood. When dopamine is released from the substantia nigra, it travels to other parts of the brain through a network of neurons, or nerve cells, where it helps to regulate various functions. For example, dopamine released in the nucleus accumbens, which is a part of the brain's reward system, where it helps to reinforce behaviours that are beneficial for our survival both from an evolutionary perspective but also in modern life. For example, dopamine is released in response to pleasurable experiences like eating food or having sex, which helps to motivate us to seek out these experiences again in the future. It is also involved in the control of movement, emotional responses, and the ability to experience pleasure and pain.2,3,4
Your body has a resting dopamine baseline level, which is different for each individual, a low baseline dopamine level has been linked to being both the cause and symptom of various neurological disorders ranging from depression to Parkinson's. Your baseline dopamine level fluctuates throughout the day as your brain modulates the dopamine receptors sensitivity. Typically reducing through out the day to a low around midday before increasing again to a peak in the evening. 2,3,4,5
The dopamine release is known as a dopamine spike. The dopamine is then taken up by neurons or broken down by enzymes, which causes the level of dopamine in the brain to return to its normal, resting level. This process is known as the dopamine release cycle, and it is an important part of the way the brain regulates dopamine levels. Over time, the brain can adjust the sensitivity of neurons to dopamine, which can affect the amount of dopamine that is released in response to a given stimulus.2,3,4
The rate of this change in dopamine transmission is important in the type of behaviour that is desired, studies investigating dopamine release rates in animal studies found that fast (phasic) dopamine fluctuations are thought to support learning whereas slower (tonic) dopamine changes are involved in motivation.5
When the brain is repeatedly exposed to high levels of dopamine, it can become less sensitive to the neurotransmitter over time. This is known as dopamine resistance, and it can cause a decrease in the baseline level of dopamine. Additionally, certain drugs or medical treatments that reduce dopamine levels can also cause a decrease in the baseline level of dopamine. However, it is important to note that the brain has a complex system for regulating dopamine levels, and it is not always possible to predict the exact effects of excessive dopamine stimulation.6,7,8,9
Therefore it is important to engage in activities that can help to regulate dopamine levels in the brain. For example, regular exercise (especially in the morning), a healthy diet, and getting enough sleep can all help to support healthy dopamine function. In addition, certain medications and supplements may also be able to help regulate dopamine levels in the brain when prescribed by a health professional.6,7,8,9 In studies it has been shown that viewing light within the first two hours of waking can have a positive effect helping to set your internal circadian rhythm through increased production and circulation of various neurotransmitters such as cortisol, serotonin and dopamine. This uptick in availability after viewing light in the morning also has the added benefit of increasing motivation and improvement in mood to achieving goals. 8,9,10
Other activities can also increase the availability of dopamine such as cold water exposure, exercise, chocolate, music & dancing, caffeine and sex, (Nicotine, gambling, cocaine and alcohol use are also acknowledged as unhealthy dopamine stimulators, This Works would not condone their use to regulate your dopamine) It is important to avoid layering healthy source of stimulation too much or too frequently as they will reduce your sensitivity to dopamine and potentially lower your baseline levels. Mixing up your routine and changing your levels of induced dopamine you can help maintain a healthy baseline level of dopamine and potentially increase motivation. For example, exercise without music or skip your morning coffee to shake up your routine and increase your natural levels of motivation. 6,7,8,9,10,11
By avoiding activities and substances that can cause excessive dopamine release and engaging in activities that support healthy dopamine function, you can help to maintain a healthy balance of dopamine in your brain which is important for physical and mental wellbeing.6,7,8 Araujo IE, Ferreira JG, Tellez LA, Ren X, Yeckel CW. The gut-brain dopamine axis: a regulatory system for caloric intake. Physiol Behav. 2012 Jun 6;106(3):394-9. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2012.02.026. Epub 2012 Mar 3. PMID: 22406348; PMCID: PMC3348418.
5. Grace, A. A. (1991). Phasic versus tonic dopamine release and the modulation of dopamine system responsivity:
8. Garr, E., Bushra, B., Tu, N., & Delamater, A. R. (2020). Goal-directed control on interval schedules does not depend on the action-outcome correlation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition, 46(1).
9. Grace, A. A. (1991). Phasic versus tonic dopamine release and the modulation of dopamine system responsivity: A hypothesis for the etiology of schizophrenia. Neuroscience, 41(1).
10. Bedrosian TA, Nelson RJ. Timing of light exposure affects mood and brain circuits. Transl Psychiatry. 2017 Jan 31;7(1):e1017. doi: 10.1038/tp.2016.262.
11. Moore AR, Zhou WL, Potapenko ES, Kim EJ, Antic SD. Brief dopaminergic stimulations produce transient physiological changes in prefrontal pyramidal neurons. Brain Res. 2011 Jan 25;1370:1-15. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2010.10.111