Every smoker and ex-smoker knows that nicotine is the major culprit of the smoking addiction. In addition, they may even know that cigarette manufacturers use ammonia to free-base nicotine in order to boost it's addictive hook up to 35 times. Yet, scarce is the man or woman who understands how nicotine functions like a dopamine imposter, raising levels of this "feel good" chemical in the body artificially.
Dopamine can also raise levels of awareness and general pleasure, but the problem is that as dopamine levels increase from the use of cigarettes, natural chemical reactions in the body like dopamine and serotonin decrease their natural production. When a smoker tries to quit cold turkey, they experience days, weeks, and sometimes months of depression and anxiety, mainly because their dopamine production levels cannot recover quickly enough. Ever hear of people getting very "cranky" after they quit? The central nervous system is so accustomed to being nurtured with nicotine, it's almost like a border-line diabetic's body, which barely produces insulin because it's so accustomed to a high sugar diet.
Dopamine functions in your brain to help you deal with stress, anxiety, and relaxation, and should occur naturally, instead of being chemically induced. This is what cigarette manufacturers realized 50 years ago and this is the hook which keeps smokers addicted and pulls them "back in" when they quit.
A new study in Biological Psychiatry reports that smoking-related deficits in brain dopamine, a chemical implicated in reward and addiction, return to normal three months after quitting. The normalization of dopamine systems suggests smoking-related deficits are a consequence of chronic smoking, rather than a risk factor.
Initial scans revealed a 15-20% reduction in the capacity for dopamine production in smokers compared with nonsmokers. The researchers expected this impairment to persist even after quitting, which would suggest it could be a marker of vulnerability for nicotine addiction. However, the alterations in dopamine synthesis capacity normalized through abstinence. Thus, altered dopamine function of smokers is a consequence of nicotine consumption rather than the cause.
The first three months after one stops smoking may be a particularly vulnerable time for relapse, in part, because of persisting dopamine deficits.
So what can we do to boost natural dopamine levels until they return to normal through abstinence?
To supplement the production of dopamine is the ultimate way to help a smoker quit, and quit for good. Even though the smoking habit is also a behavior addiction, the "feel good" drug aspect is stronger and is the driving force for smokers to return to the habit when something stressful comes along, unless they know how to supplement.
Dopamine production is boosted by the consumption of certain foods, especially those containing the amino acid tyrosine. Eating these special foods adds to our ability to respond optimally to our lives both physically and emotionally.
Protein are high in amino acids, which are necessary for dopamine production. Include foods such as fish, eggs, chicken, turkey and red meat to supply your body with adequate amino acids. Fermented soy products such as tempeh and miso and other legumes are considered incomplete proteins; however, form complete proteins when eaten in combination with grains, becoming excellent sources for dopamine-related amino acids.
Certain vegetables in particular are excellent sources of amino acids that stimulate dopamine production. For example, beets supply the amino acid called betaine, that aids in the regulation neurotransmitters like dopamine. Artichokes and avocados have also been found to increase dopamine levels.
Ripe bananas are a major source of tyrosine, explains MedHelp.com; and as they continue to ripen and become sweeter, their tyrosine component becomes more potent. Tyrosine helps regulate and stimulate dopamine levels, increasing memory and alertness. Apples are recommended for being high in quercetin, a potent antioxidant, according to MedHelp.com, and shown to aid in the prevention of neurodegenerative diseases by triggering the production of dopamine in the brain. Remember to eat strawberries, blueberries and prunes to round out the best fruits supplying nutrients that trigger dopamine release.
Nuts and Seeds
Raw almonds, sesame and pumpkin seeds make a great snack and help regulate dopamine levels. Almond butter or tahini, a paste made from sesame seeds, are excellent sources for the amino acids needed for dopamine production.
Wheat germ supplies the essential amino acid phenylalanine, that's converted to tyrosine, which then stimulates additional dopamine release. Do not use wheat germ if you are gluten intolerant or allergic to wheat.
Several common herbs are known for helping to regulate dopamine levels. These include nettles fenugreek, ginseng, milk thistle, red clover, and peppermint. They are best consumed as herbal teas.
Adding supplements to your diet to increase dopamine levels may be helpful if you're unable to get those nutrients from foods. Tyrosine, plus several vitamins such as B, C and E as well as iron, folic acid and niacin all help to trigger dopamine release. Check with your health care practitioner before including additional iron in your diet.
Exercise increases blood calcium, which stimulates dopamine production and uptake in your brain. Try 30 to 60 minutes of walking, swimming or jogging to jump-start your dopamine levels.
It also ups your endorphins. A genuine laugh or a stretch gets your endorphins going, which is similar to a dopamine high. Except for if you were actually on an endorphin high it'd be seriously dangerous -- it's a pain inhibitor.
Mindfulness has been described as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.” The objective is to help individuals learn, at times, to become aware of thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations rather than trying to modify them or acting on them. This suggests that mindfulness might not only decrease relapse in depression and addiction but also prevent the onset of the first episode of depression in susceptible people.
Another reason mindfulness is helpful in terms of recovery is that it yields The Now Effect, that “aha” moment of clarity where we enter into a choice point, a moment where we access possibilities and opportunities we didn’t know were there before. This is crucial when it comes to our addictive behaviors to take a step back, “think through that just one smoke” and recognize the various options that lie before us. We can learn to step into the pause, notice the sensation of the urge that’s there and as the late Alan Marlatt, PhD says, “Surf the Urge” as it peaks, crests and falls back down like a wave in the ocean.
Just because our brains have been altered by addiction, doesn’t mean we’re destined to fall into the same habits. With the right skills, community and support we can learn how to break out of routine and into a life worth living.
Get plenty of sleep
One of the best ways to feel energized and ready to tackle the day is to get plenty of sleep. Dopamine has been tied to feelings of wakefulness, so in order to get that wakeful feeling, get 7 to 8 hour of sleep a night.
Or...don't get any. If you're actually looking to up your dopamine levels as opposed to feeling good, dopamine levels skyrocket with sleep deprivation. You'll feel fatigued, groggy, and irritable, but your dopamine levels will be through the roof.
Reach a new goal
Dopamine is all about pleasure; it's one hedonistic brain chemical, that's for sure. Luckily, all you have to do is train your brain. Whether it's important to you to get to work on time or finally get that PhD, reaching a new goal will put your pleasure centers into party mode.
It doesn't have to be big. Start thinking of your little daily activities as goals. Did you make it through the morning without checking Facebook?! FANTASTIC. Reward time, because that goal has been achieved! Keep in mind that celebrations of our little goals – per week, month, 50 day increments or simply FREEDOM Train and Bonfire Parties all serve a very important purpose! We all need to find natural ways to replace natural dopamine and serotonin in our systems when we quit smoking!