In the 1980s, something mysterious happened across Central Valley, California.
Many young people were admitted to the hospital for what looked like Parkinson’s Disease, yet wasn’t.
Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disease in which people lose control of their motor movements, speech, and sometimes even cognition. It’s a slow and progressive disease that generally affects the elderly, over 60 years of age.
So it intensely puzzled doctors to see young people show these symptoms.
Turns out, it had to do with a mistake that happened in a “street” laboratory that was trying to make a compound called MPPP, which is an opioid drug.
Drug addicts desperate to get their hands on some heroin went out and bought what they thought was MPPP.
Sadly, what they consumed was MPTP.
That single letter made all the difference.
While MPPP is an opioid drug, MPTP is a compound that primarily kills dopamine-producing neurons in the brain in a region called the substantia nigra.
So, by consuming MPTP, these poor drug addicts rapidly killed the dopamine-producing neurons in their brain, leading to early onset Parkinson’s and even paralysis in some.
The Rise of Dopamine
Dopamine was first described by George Barger, James Ewens, and Henry Dale in 1910 as an adrenaline-like compound.
But, it was mostly ignored by mainstream science for the next 40 years, until a few researchers demonstrated that dopamine was separate from adrenaline. Specifically, one researcher named Arvid Carlsson conducted a series of landmark experiments in which he paralyzed rabbits by blocking dopamine transmission in their brains, and then fully recovered them back with the injection of a compound called L-DOPA that produces dopamine in brains. Through this, he showed that dopamine was critical for self-initiated movement.
A similar effect was quickly reproduced by Oleg Hornykiewicz and collaborators in human Parkinsonian patients.
Within a few years, dopamine jumped from relative obscurity to being critical for life as we know it.
Today, dopamine is perhaps the most popular of all neurochemicals, with terms like dopamine hit and dopamine detox regularly spotted in headlines.
What Does Dopamine Hit Really Mean?
The term dopamine hit is thrown around for anything and everything involving immediate pleasure.
Checking Instagram? Dopamine hit.
Eating ice cream? Dopamine hit.
Opening an unexpected gift? Dopamine hit.
But, mainstream media ignores something critical while loosely using this term.
The dopamine hit you feel depends on both the baseline level of your dopamine and your previous dopamine “peaks”.
When you open Instagram for the first time tomorrow, you will experience a dopamine hit. However, once you experience that hit, something interesting will happen in your brain: your dopamine level will fall below your baseline level. This means, if your baseline level was 40 before you checked Instagram, and went up to 75 while checking it, it will drop down to 30 when you move on to the next activity (Obviously, the numbers don’t represent anything scientific). This happens because the readily releasable pool of dopamine in your brain gets depleted when you experience that peak.
When this drop happens, your brain needs some time to bring it back up to the baseline again.
Sadly, the world we live in today forces us to continue seeking dopamine hits without letting us take a break.
So we continue to seek that dopamine peak – by scrolling through social media or binge-watching a series on Netflix – without giving our brains the much-needed hiatus, thus continuing to drop our dopamine levels.
The extreme case of this leads to drug addiction, where the addict is forever in a loop, chasing that first high.
A Healthy Way to Produce Dopamine
Dopamine is the universal currency of seeking.
Food. Water. Sex. Pleasure.
Dopamine is the primary driver for us to seek things.
So we just need to find a way to healthily produce dopamine in our brains that doesn’t disrupt the baseline-peak balance. Below are some ideas:
- First, create an intermittent release of dopamine, as opposed to achieving a peak every time. Let’s say your exercise routine involves first taking a caffeine shot, plugging in your favorite music, slipping into your favorite shirt, and then beginning to exercise. By doing the pre-ritual, you’re adding more layers of pleasure to increase your dopamine levels. To make this more intermittent, you could not take the caffeine shot sometime, or not listen to music.
- Second, take a cold water shower in the morning: I know that sounds horrible, but tons of research has shown that exposing your body to cold water increases the dopamine levels in your brain slowly but surely, reaching almost 2.5 times above the baseline and slowly coming back down. Unlike the dopamine hit you feel with social media, this is a slow increase and decrease.
- Finally, engage in intermittent fasting: The longer you restrict yourself from a specific activity, the greater the dopamine experience when it’s finally released. This also applies to eating. I’ve been experimenting with intermittent fasting by skipping dinner or eating just fruits. While I thought it would be hard initially, I realize it’s not. And by telling myself that this is helpful, the effects of it go up more.
Hope that gave you some introduction to dopamine and its effects. I recommend watching this 2-hour podcast by Dr. Andrew Huberman if you’re the curious kind and want to dig in more! 🙂