Have you ever wondered why it is nearly impossible to say no when the waiter brings the dessert menu around after dinner? One word: dopamine. Often referred to as “the pleasure hormone,” this brain neurotransmitter is the leading actor in our reward system and is one of the keys to developing sustainable healthy lifestyle behaviors.
Our motivation to do pretty much anything is rooted in neuroscience, how neurotransmitters in our brain send and receive chemical messages that influence the rest of our body to act. Inside the brain reside numerous dopamine pathways, routes from which these chemical signals can travel and interact with various parts of the brain. One of the most prominent routes is the mesolimbic pathway, which regulates incentive salience, the cognitive process that makes us desire a rewarding stimulus. One of the stops along the mesolimbic pathway is the nucleus accumbens, a part of the hypothalamus that is activated to trigger feedback when it perceives a rush of dopamine due to some form of arousing or rewarding input. Without getting into too much detail, this entire system interacts with the traveling dopamine neurotransmitters to predict when something important (specifically sensory arousing) is about to happen, so that we may react accordingly when it does. Although dopamine is most associated with pleasure, it is actually a signal that spikes under times of high stress (which can be good or bad). Low levels of dopamine result in decreased motivation to act, whether that be to increase the pace to pass a competitor during a 5k or race towards the refrigerator to polish off the last few bites of the pint of Ben & Jerry’s® due to the stress of a work deadline. Researchers have even found that one of the primary differences between high achievers and those who suffer from lack of motivation is a hypersensitivity to risk, likely caused by variations in levels of dopamine in the brain.
Dopamine spikes when your brain believes something of significance is about to happen, not as a result of it happening. While our brains are hardwired to do things in a particular manner to achieve that dopamine spike, with action you can actually influence the development of new pathways so that you feel a reward for reacting positively, making those negative pathways become dormant due to lack of traffic. Our brain is plastic, which means that over time and with concerted action it has the ability to change. In this sense, as we continue to practice healthy lifestyle habits, we gain more motivation to continue them and the desire to react negatively (e.g., binge-eating or not acting at all) when we perceive a stressful event is about to occur decreases. This is one of the reasons why the key to weight management and health is a lifestyle, not crash diets and unsustainably intense workout programs. With every training session and healthy post-workout meal, you are altering the dopamine feedback loop and developing new neural pathways to continually reward yourself for healthy behaviors. There is a reason they say it takes 21 days to form a habit (actually, science says the average is about 66 days); laying the pavement for new neural pathways doesn’t happen overnight.
Numerous recent studies have examined the effects of regular consumption of sweet and fatty foods on our brains. The conclusions? By responding to the anticipation of stress or rewarding yourself through food, especially foods high in sugar, you create a neurochemical dependency on unhealthy food that is similar to that experienced by those addicted to drugs. Studies have shown that long-term overconsumption of food—again, especially foods high in sugar—actually decreases the number of dopamine receptors in your brain. Meaning, the more you consume sweet treats, the more sweets are required to get the same level of satisfaction. The most effective long-term solution to improving your eating habits is making small, sustainable changes so that you are developing those neural pathways that decrease your psychological and physiological need for unhealthy foods. With enough time and enough small changes, soon you’ll be able to drive by a Krispy Kreme® with its “hot light” on and not immediately pull into the drive-thru for a fresh dozen original glazed.
Everybody has heard of the “runner’s high”. Although the research on this topic is somewhat inconclusive and I have never personally experienced it (even as a competitive runner, the only exhilaration I experienced was that of finishing a race), those who regularly exercise can attest to the neurotransmitter-induced feeling of euphoria and invincibility that can make you keep pushing well beyond normal physiological thresholds. Is dopamine involved? Truthfully, we don’t know. It was long believed that this state was promoted by an increased level of endorphin and opioid peptide secretion as a response to rhythmic steady-state movement, but now there is some evidence (at least in animal models) to suggest that it may involve our endocannabinoid system, particularly a lipid-soluble endocannabinoid called anandamide that has the unique ability to pass through the blood-brain barrier. What we do know is that the act of exercising orchestrates all kinds of neurotransmitter activity and through the magic of neuroplasticity, helps develop those neural pathways that progressively make physical activity more enjoyable. It all starts with one step, one rep.
The human body is an amazing machine that will adapt to whatever stressor is placed upon it. If you constantly expose it to unhealthy food and inactivity, it will alter neurological mechanisms so that physiologically you are constantly craving those behaviors. Don’t be a backseat driver, take the wheel on the dopamine pathway to lifelong health and vitality with small daily improvements in your diet and exercise habits.
Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.