For years I have battled against various phobias. I have researched many treatments but none have proven to be successful. This is why, when I happened to stumble across a study that associated dopamine function with fear, I was suddenly interested.
I’ll tell you why. A few decades ago I had a night phobia. It was the worst of the phobias I had ever experienced. With a night phobia, you can’t escape. It might be daytime but you know the night is always coming. It was worse in the winter as the nights were longer.
Despite this, even in the summer, I would be anxious, anticipating the winter months. The worse time for me was when the clocks went back. I felt cheated losing that hour so quickly. The only way I could have some semblance of control was to see the sky gradually grow darker. Missing the daylight change from light to dark would immediately induce a panic attack.
Then one afternoon I went with friends to watch a film. When we entered the cinema it was light outside. The film we went to see was Robocop. My sort of movie. It was fantastic. I had never seen anything like it before. I was literally buzzing when we left the cinema.
I couldn’t stop talking about it. We walked outside and the night had fallen. Normally I would have felt intense fear and panic as I had not witnessed the light change to night time. However, because I was feeling such a ‘high’ from the film I felt no fear. From that night my phobia vanished. But I never knew why.
Dopamine function and fear
It has taken me 30 years to find this study about dopamine function and fear. I realised that in my case, the overpowering flood of dopamine stopped me from feeling afraid. But how and why does that affect fear?
It’s all to do with how we learn and unlearn fear. Researchers at the RIKEN Center for Brain Science discovered there’s a circuit in the brain that’s essential when it comes to unlearning fear. They determined that dopamine also plays a vital role in these circuits.
So how do we learn to fear in the first place? It’s all to do with conditioning.
It is well established that both people and animals are able to form conditioned responses. Think of Pavlov’s dogs and the ringing bell. Pavlov’s dogs would salivate whenever he entered the room as they had associated him with food.
Pavlov would then ring a bell whenever he gave the dogs’ food. They then associated the bell with food and would salivate when they heard it ring. This is conditioning.
The same is true of a conditioned response to fear. For example, imagine a person falls into a swimming pool and nearly drowns. Their conditioned response to water is to feel fear. However, after a time they begin to have many pleasant experiences in the water.
They realise that when they are in water nothing bad happens. Their fear lessens over time and they dissociate from the fearful event. This is the fear of extinction.
The problems start when fear extinction does not happen normally. This is what leads to phobias.
Fear extinction and dopamine function
Researchers at RIKEN used rats to examine fear of extinction and dopamine function.
They determined that for fear to be eliminated, the rats would have to be able to know when a likely fearful event does not happen. There are particular dopamine neurons situated in parts of the brain that are active when expected unpleasant fearful events do not occur. These dopamine neurons are located in a region of the brain known as the VTA.
Rats were conditioned to associate a sound with a negative, fearful association, such as a mild electric shock. The negative association was then successfully removed using fear extinction. The rats no longer feared the sound.
However, when the team deliberately inhibited the VTA dopamine neurons and played the sounds the rats became fearful again.
It appeared that VTA dopamine activity is vital for unlearning fear.
“Pharmacologically targeting the dopamine system will likely be an effective therapy for psychiatric conditions such as anxiety disorders,” said study lead author Joshua Johansen.
There are many ways in which you can increase your dopamine function.
Here are seven of them:
1. Increase your intake of Tyrosine
Tyrosine is an amino acid that helps produce dopamine. Therefore it is essential to have enough of this protein in our bodies. You can buy supplements but there are many foods that contain it:
- Chicken, turkey, roast beef
- Salmon, fish
- Parmesan cheese, Swiss, and Provolone cheese
- Milk, cottage cheese, yogurt
- Ripe bananas, watermelon, avocados
- Almonds and peanuts
- Pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds
- White beans, lima beans
- Soya milk, soy nuts, tofu
- Green tea
2. Decrease your sugar intake
Sugar gives a temporary boost to dopamine function but it is similar to a sugar rush. In fact, sugar cravings suggest you might have a low dopamine function.
It can be hard to cut down on sugar (I speak from experience!) But do it slowly and gradually and not only will it benefit your waistline but it will help boost your dopamine levels as well.
3. Take supplements
There isn’t a dopamine supplement, unfortunately, however, there are other supplements that help increase dopamine function.
Dopa Mucuna – These supplements convert to L-Dopa once ingested, an essential building block for dopamine.
L-theanine – This is an amino acid found in green tea that increases dopamine activity in the brain.
Ginkgo Biloba – A natural supplement thought to increase levels by keeping it in the brain for longer periods.
Rhodiola – This supplement works to maintain and increase the production of dopamine in the brain.
Curcumin – Found in turmeric and another compound that increases levels of dopamine.
4. Reduce the toxins in your gut
We have all heard about bad bacteria in our guts, but did you know it can affect our dopamine function? Apparently so. There are toxins in our gut called LPS that cause septic shock and attack our immune systems. They also deplete our dopamine function by inhibiting its production.
To combat bad bacteria simply swap it for good bacteria. You can do this by eating foods that are probiotic (contain good bacteria):
- Apple Cider Vinegar
- Dark Chocolate
5. Get out in the sun
I always feel better when it’s summer. I don’t know whether it is because the days are longer or the sun is shining. My mood just seems to be elevated. Turns out there’s a good reason. When our skin is exposed to sunlight it makes vitamin D which then activates the release of dopamine.
Not only that but it also increases the number of dopamine receptors. And if they weren’t good enough reasons to get into the sunlight, the light also activates dopamine release.
6. Get a regular massage
We all know that massaging reduces tension and stress in our muscles and minds, but did you know that it actually boosts dopamine function? In studies, following a massage, dopamine levels rose by an average of 30%.
Furthermore, the stress hormone cortisol fell by 31%. Now you have clinical evidence to visit a luxury spa!
7. Take an ice-cold shower
This is one thing I won’t do in the name of increasing dopamine function. However, for the more intrepid amongst you, here’s why it works. Studies have shown that dopamine levels rise by a whopping 250% after an ice-cold shower. Exposure to freezing cold increases our endorphins and stimulates dopamine production in the brain.
Do you have any tips or advice on increasing dopamine function? We’d love to hear them!