When we think about depression, lack of motivation, or difficulty focusing and concentrating, the well-known brain chemical (neurotransmitter) serotonin often comes to mind. While it’s true that low serotonin is a problem for many people with depression and other mental health issues, researchers have known for years that other neurotransmitters are also involved.
A study published in JAMA Psychiatry in the year 2000 reported that people with clinical depression also have significantly lower brain levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Since then, we’ve learned a lot about dopamine’s role in mood and mental health and about what can be done to restore low dopamine levels.
Loss of pleasure, loss of motivation, and not having enough focus or concentration to get things done can all be dopamine deficiency symptoms, as can the characteristic “slowness” of many people with depression.
While most pharmaceutical drugs designed to increase dopamine are associated with significant and serious adverse effects, scientists have discovered and clinically tested a number of natural dopamine boosters that can safely increase dopamine levels within the brain and are generally without side effects. Natural and integrative physicians have been successfully using these ingredients to help patients with depression, anxiety, low motivation, and other symptoms of low dopamine.
Download this expert FREE guide, “Am I Depressed?” Treating depression symptoms, including bipolar and clinical depression, and seasonal affective disorder.
In this free guide, you’ll find depression tests to help you self-diagnose your condition before seeing a physician.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine normally gets triggered when you approach and expect a reward. With the release of dopamine in the brain comes a good feeling and a surge of energy so you can reach your reward. Dopamine motivates you to seek, alerts your attention to things that meet your needs, and motivates you to persist in your pursuit of those things that meet your needs.
Your brain rewards you with dopamine each time you take steps towards a new goal. Without enough dopamine, your motivation goes kaput and you’re unable to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable, e.g. exercise, hobbies, music, sexual activities or social interactions. In other words, dopamine deficiency causes a bad case of the “blahs.”
The four supplements presented here—L-Tyrosine, Rhodiola, Mucuna, and L-theanine—have each been found in studies to increase dopamine and/or help balance dopamine function in the brain. They can be used as natural dopamine boosters to improve mood and motivation and to treat dopamine deficiency symptoms like depression, fatigue, lack of interest in life, poor memory, and impulsive behaviors.
The conditionally essential amino acid tyrosine is a precursor of catecholamine neurotransmitters, including dopamine. It can be taken through the diet (especially from meat, eggs, and fish) or synthesized in the body. Tyrosine forms DOPA, which is then converted to dopamine, and this, in turn, forms norepinephrine, another neurotransmitter related to mood.
By supporting production of neurotransmitters like dopamine, L-tyrosine supplements can enhance mood, sleep, emotional well-being, and cognitive/mental function, especially under situations involving environmental and emotional stress or when dopamine levels require additional support (some people are genetically programmed to make too little dopamine).[2-4] Start by taking one 500 mg capsule of L-tyrosine. If you feel no benefits within 30 minutes, take a second capsule, and a third in another 30 minutes if you still feel nothing. Continue by taking one to three 500 mg capsules two or three times a day: early morning, mid-morning, and mid-afternoon. Decrease the dose if you feel agitated or your blood pressure increases.
Mucuna pruriens, commonly known as velvet bean, naturally contains up to 5 percent L-Dopa (levodopa). L-DOPA is the same biochemical that is made in humans from the amino acid L-tyrosine and is then synthesized into dopamine. When taken as a supplement, the L-DOPA from Mucuna can cross the blood-brain barrier to elevate brain dopamine levels.
Powdered mucuna seeds have long been used in Indian traditional medicine as support in the treatment of various illnesses, including Parkinson’s. Recently, studies utilizing Mucuna supplements have shown promising results not just for Parkinson’s but for other conditions related to dopamine deficiency, including depression and psychological stress.[5-7] Mucuna extract has been shown to increase not only dopamine concentrations, but also other neurotransmitters that affect mood, such as serotonin and norepinephrine. Look for an extract of Mucuna pruriens standardized to contain 15% L-DOPA. Take 300 mg twice a day.
L-theanine is an amino acid uniquely found in green tea that creates an alert state of relaxation without drowsiness. L-theanine is known to be able to cross the blood-brain barrier and increase dopamine levels in the brain. Animal studies show that L-theanine also increases brain serotonin and GABA. It has anti-depressant and anti-anxiety effects, reduces mental and physical stress, and leads to improvements in learning and memory in humans and animals.[9,10] Even just a single, small dose of L-theanine (100 mg) significantly improves the ability to pay attention and maintain focus compared to placebo. Take 200 mg of L-theanine two to three times daily.
Rhodiola rosea, or “golden root,” is a popular plant in traditional medicine in Eastern Europe and Asia, with a reputation for improving depression, enhancing work performance, eliminating fatigue and treating symptoms resulting from intense physical and psychological stress. Rhodiola exerts its benefits via multiple effects on the central nervous system, including enhancing the stability of dopamine and supporting its reuptake. This leads to notable decreases in depression, anxiety, and fatigue, as well as an increased ability to handle stress.
In human studies, rhodiola has been shown to significantly reduce depression, anxiety, and stress-related fatigue compared to placebo.[13-15] Look for a rhodiola extract derived from Rhodiola rosea root and standardized to contain 3% total rosavins and a minimum 1% salidrosides. Take 170 mg twice a day.
Don’t Forget Multivitamins
Certain minerals and B-vitamins, especially zinc, vitamin B6, and folate, are necessary for dopamine synthesis and neurotransmission. These nutrients are often depleted in individuals due to medications, inadequate diets, excessive stress, and toxic environmental exposures, compromising the ability to properly synthesize neurotransmitters like dopamine.
A high-potency, high-quality multivitamin/mineral supplement can help replenish these co-factors, enhancing neurotransmitter function and playing a complementary role in supporting emotional wellness.
Potential Side Effects, Precautions, and Drug Interactions
Of course, too much dopamine is dangerous and needs to be avoided. Do not take more than one dopamine supplement at a time without first consulting with a healthcare practitioner, preferable one trained in integrative or natural medicine.
Similarly, do not use these supplements if you are taking methyldopa, antidepressants, or antipsychotic drugs without first consulting with a physician. Tyrosine and Mucuna pruriens may also interact with some nutritional supplements, including St. John’s Wort, 5-HTP, Tryptophan, and SAMe. Therefore, you should also consult your healthcare practitioner before combining these supplements. Do not take these supplements if you are a pregnant or lactating woman.
Additional Ways to Increase Dopamine
In addition to taking dopamine supplements, there are also other ways to naturally increase dopamine. For instance, do you know which foods are natural dopamine boosters and which foods can deplete dopamine? Working towards a goal can also increase dopamine. By repeating small steps to reach a goal, you can re-wire the dopamine pathways in your brain, ultimately teaching your brain to give you a dopamine surge every time you take that small step. You can also increase dopamine by developing an active, regular, stress reduction practice.
 Inventi Impact Ethnopharm. 2013;797.
This post was originally published in 2013 and has been updated.