Do Dopamine Supplements Really Work?
Updated June 11, 2020
Reviewer Laura Angers
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention topics that include prescription medication, abuse of medication, and addiction. The information found in the article is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have.
Natural health products are often met with skepticism, especially when results differ from person to person. Supplements are said to boost natural levels of certain chemicals or minerals within the body which may remedy some health issues, or just make you feel good. Dopamine, like most other neurotransmitters, is created within the body and cannot be supplemented. However, certain supplements can help your body create more dopamine or improve its use.
Are Dopamine Supplements Effective?
To understand whether dopamine supplements work, we first have to define what "working" means. If it's helping you produce more dopamine, then for the most part, dopamine supplements may indeed be effective. If you are asking whether or not dopamine supplements can be effective in treating depression or other mood disorders, that topic is highly debated. There are studies that support some supplements but not others. The information below will help you further understand these differences and what information is credible.
For those dealing with a mood disorder who typically function well using their own coping mechanisms, supplements can seem to be the perfect method to maintain your home-based mental health strategy. That being said, mental illness does not always maintain the same level of severity, and you may struggle more during some episodes than with others. Always make sure you are open to outside help and other alternatives.
Let's take a closer look at dopamine supplements and their efficacy.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine affects your mood and helps you move. As a neurotransmitter, it is responsible for helping transfer messages between nerve endings within the brain and all over the body. It is one of the most important chemicals in the body for daily life and can affect many things like how much we eat and whether we're likely to experience addiction. Dopamine is produced in two different parts of the brain: the substantia nigra and the ventral tegmental area, both located within the midbrain. These two areas are small, but they produce signals that affect the entire body.
Part of the "job" of these brain areas is determining when we should expect to feel a reward. When you eat your favorite food or listen to your favorite song, the level of dopamine rises, which eventually trains your brain to want more.
Supplements Vs. Medications
As previously noted, supplements are meant to boost natural amounts of dopamine. The reason people prefer them over the (potentially) more effective medications is that they're less likely to have serious side effects. Some studies have shown that some dopamine supplements, when under clinical trials, can perform almost as well without any of the adverse side effects of medication.
The main issue with supplements is not just the regulation but the consistency as well. Because the dosage is often based on clinical lab conditions on a molecular level, the supplement itself may not perform as well within the human body under less than ideal conditions. It's important to look carefully at any research for the purity and dosage before finding supplements that are similarly pure and have the best bio-absorption rates. Additionally, you should also scan research to see if there are any conditions that need to be met when taking certain supplements. (Supplements are not necessarily suitable or recommended replacements for medication!)
Most Recommended Dopamine Supplements
This supplement boosts dopamine levels by increasing the amount of amino acid (Tyrosine) available in the body to create the neurotransmitter. It's normally synthesized within the body but the amount available can be boosted with either diet or supplementation. Tyrosine is a precursor for DOPA which is part of the process that creates norepinephrine from dopamine. It has been shown to improve mood, mental function, increase sleep, and help with emotional wellbeing or emotional stress.
The velvet bean plant naturally contains 5% of the amino acid L-dopa, which is synthesized within the body the same way as Tyrosine and used in the same dopamine production process. It is unique as a supplement because L-dopa can be used immediately within the brain to improve dopamine levels. The bean is harvested and processed to create the supplement, but in traditional Indian medicines, it was ground and used for Parkinson's. This has been heavily studied, and research has shown that a therapeutic level of L-dopa improves motor function. Studies on mucuna have shown an increase in more than just dopamine because it's able to be synthesized in the body into other neurotransmitters like serotonin.
This is generally considered to be the most effective of all supplements at raising dopamine levels.
Another popular amino acid, L-theanine is found only in green tea and can also cross the blood-brain barrier to improve brain dopamine levels. It has also been shown to increase the production of GABA, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters. Studies have shown that it only takes a small amount to produce a stress-relieving effect and lower anxiety levels. While these studies were looking for glutamic acid (a different neurotransmitter), they also measured dopamine release levels at the same time. L-theanine also works to improve blood circulation, which may oxygenate the cells used in the dopamine process and make them more efficient. While there is limited information about how much L-theanine affects dopamine levels, it has consistently been used as a supplement for depression and anxiety with success.
More commonly known as the "golden root," this is a popular herbal medicine which prescribed for improving stress, tiredness, and depression. It works on the central nervous system by improving the re-uptake rate of dopamine rather than giving the body the ability to make more.
This helps improve the symptoms of depression and studies have shown that it can be significantly more effective when used together with a supplement that improves the amount of dopamine as well. The supplement is only effective if it is made from the Rhodiola Rosea root and no other part of the plant because it has a higher level of salidroside and rosavins.
Dopamine Supplement Research
As with many mental health supplements, proving their efficiency can be difficult. Fortunately, when you're looking at specific levels of any chemical, the results are much clearer-either they do or do not raise dopamine levels. A study in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry compared nutrition and depression to understand how mental illness can be regulated through diet and supplementation.
The most important part of the study confirmed that a diet deficient in certain nutrients, especially amino acids, was likely to affect the symptoms of depression, even if the patient had never been diagnosed as a depressive. The study theorized that it might be possible to control depression and even prevent it with the right combination of nutrients and supplements rather than relying on conventional medications, which has side effects.
Another study supported the idea that supplementation may be a better choice than medications for non-compliant patients, because they were more likely to take the supplements without risk of side effects while still receiving the benefits. This study used specific information about suicidal patients, and while there is a lack of clarity about the best-recommended doses, the results show that supplementation can help if medication is unavailable or a patient is non-compliant.
Supplements and nutrition often go hand in hand. What we eat in our diets affects the need for supplementation. A diet that is naturally rich in the amino acids and vitamins necessary to keep these processes running smoothly doesn't need supplementation. Another study showed that by using caloric restriction or fasting, dopamine levels could also be improved because of the enzymes used in the digestive process. Dopamine is used in the GI tract for digestion, so it makes sense that with caloric restriction and less digestion, more is available for use as a neurotransmitter.
Other Ways to Boost Dopamine
Some patients are still unsure about taking supplements over or with medication-and that's okay. There are many other effective ways to increase dopamine without supplementation. Many studies have shown that regular exercise can create a huge spike in dopamine due to the phenomenon known as "runner's high."
The most effective strategy, for now, is still to take antidepressants. If you have been prescribed antidepressants to improve dopamine levels, it's important that you not stop taking them, unless otherwise advised by your doctor. You should also ask your doctor about any supplements you plan to take to avoid interactions. Dopamine supplements are available from many sources and they may not always be the best quality because the regulation is different than for medication. Choose wisely. If you're looking at supplementation to avoid having to get a prescription, you may want to reconsider.
Important Steps to Take Prior to Considering Supplements
Although supplements could be an option for you as a means to boost your prescription medication or help with your daily self-care regimen, research is necessary. Here are three things you should do prior to considering supplements for your mental health.
1. Come Up with a List of Viable Options
When considering supplements, it is important to drown out the noise. Some supplements may make claims unsupported by research. Come up with a list of supposed supplements before you start narrowing down your options.
2. Cross Them Off as You Learn More
Like you would with prescription medications, it's important to learn as much as you can about a supplement before you consider taking it. Are there studies backing its use? Does it have proven results? Would it be something that would work for your needs?
3. Determine the Pros and Cons
Some supplements can come with undesirable side effects. If you plan on taking any supplement, make sure you understand the possible risks.
Suffering from depression can be difficult and can affect your judgment, which is why it's important to talk to a professional about your symptoms rather than just taking a supplement and hoping for improvement. You can find a professional therapist at sites like BetterHelp. Online therapy allows you to browse professionals and find someone who specializes in working with depression. BetterHelp allows you to meet with counselors without ever having to leave your house. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors.
"Leah Finn is an excellent therapist! She is there every step of the way, and provides multiple avenues for you to safely escape negative feelings like anxiety and depression. I don't know anyone in my immediate community that has ever sought mental well-being through therapy, so I thought it to be a drastic option. The fact that I decided to give this a try is a testament to the horrible place I was in. Within a couple of months, Leah guided through various exercises to overcome several mental blocks. I am doing much better now, but when these low feelings start to come back I have skills to cope and keep them at bay. Would definitely recommend working with Leah!"
"Heidi has been a great help. I'm so very thankful. I was having a hard time getting my thoughts in order, and was at an all time low with my depression because I didn't know where to go or what to do. Heidi's guidance helped me tremendously and I am ever so grateful."
Simply put, dopamine supplements may offer a great solution if you do your research and make a wise, informed choice. As long as you talk about it with your doctor and take them as advised, you should be safe while you increase happiness with all the best tools available. Take the first step to a healthy, fulfilling life today.