If you expect products sold as dopamine supplements to actually contain dopamine, the naturally occurring chemical produced in the brain that improves mood, you may be disappointed. These supplements are touted for their ability to ease depression and elevate mood, but if you look at the label, you’ll see dopamine supplements actually contain ingredients – such as vitamins and minerals, food extracts and herbal powders – that may cause your body to increase its dopamine levels.
Experts in nutrition and brain function break down the ingredients in dopamine supplements and suggest specific whole foods and other healthy alternatives for lifting your mood.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter made within the brain through complex chemical processes and is released to the rest of your body through the bloodstream. Known as the feel-good hormone, it plays a primary role in the body’s reward system, but it plays a much larger role than that. Acting as a chemical messenger carrying information between brain cells, dopamine is involved in:
There is a growing body of research that suggests dopamine may also be involved in immune function. In a 2023 paper published in Pharmacological Reviews, scientists outline emerging evidence that indicates many types of immune cells not only express dopamine receptors, but also absorb, produce and release dopamine – supporting the notion that the hormone may regulate certain aspects of the immune system.
Other key neurotransmitters that carry signals throughout the body include serotonin and GABA. Many antidepressant drugs are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which work by affecting levels of serotonin. In addition, norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRIs), like bupropion (Wellbutrin), affect dopamine directly.
Because dopamine is affected by several nutrients, food can have a significant impact on dopamine availability in the brain, explains Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef and nutrition specialist based in Boston and the author of “This Is Your Brain on Food.”
Dopamine Supplement Ingredients
Rather than actually containing dopamine, certain supplements may have some ingredients that increase dopamine in the brain by stimulating the absorption or release of dopamine, says KC Wright, a research dietitian and consultant in private practice based in New London, New Hampshire. However, it’s important to take these supplements with a grain of salt.
“I’d be wary of supplements that are marketed specifically for dopamine,” Wright adds. “It’s a neurotransmitter, and that cannot be bottled up. The only way you can get it is through a prescription.”
Here are some of the top supplements and foods that provide the nutrients needed for the body to create and maintain dopamine levels:
Berberine, an active component found in certain plants used in traditional Chinese medicine, is known for anti-inflammatory and antidepressant effects. In a 2018 study in rats with post-traumatic stress disorder, berberine increased dopamine levels and reduced anxiety. While it has successfully been shown to affect dopamine levels in animal studies, more research on humans needs to be done.
One of the most consumed substances in the world, caffeine may raise dopamine levels, according to some studies.
“Caffeine has been associated with increased dopamine levels as it may enhance the dopamine receptors in your brain,” says Lisa Young, an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University. “However, you can develop a greater tolerance for caffeine and therefore may need to increase your consumption to have a similar effect.”
The Food and Drug Administration states that it is safe to consume up to 400 milligrams a day. Caffeine is commonly found in coffee, tea and dark chocolate. There are many variables when brewing a drink, but on average there is 100 mg of caffeine in an 8-ounce cup of coffee and 50 milligrams of caffeine in an 8-ounce cup of black tea. There are some conditions and medications that can make someone more sensitive to caffeine, so check with your doctor before altering your caffeine consumption.
Carvacrol is an antioxidant found in the spice oregano and in oregano oil-carvacrol supplements. It has been shown to increase dopamine levels in animal studies.
“It promotes dopamine production and prevents the breakdown, or deterioration, of dopamine,” Naidoo says.
One study in rats demonstrated oregano extract had a positive effect on the levels of some neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, in the body. Oregano is a plentiful spice in the Mediterranean diet and can also be found in oregano-infused oils and in supplement form.
Through the active ingredient curcumin, the spice turmeric may help the body release dopamine and confer some antidepressant effects. In a small study of patients with major depression, receiving curcumin in combination with a prescription antidepressant was safe, although similarly or only slightly more effective than taking the prescription drug alone, according to data published in the journal Phytotherapy Research.
Curcumin has been shown to effectively cross the blood-brain barrier and to help modulate the release of serotonin and dopamine, giving it an antidepressant effect. An Indian-food staple, turmeric can also spice up beverages like smoothies.
Naidoo recommends adding a pinch of black pepper to increase its bioavailability, which refers to how much a substance or drug can be absorbed by the body, to the brain and body.
Used in traditional Chinese medicine for over a thousand years, ginkgo biloba has many health benefits, such as reducing inflammation, improving circulation and combating free radicals due to its strong antioxidant properties. There have been some smaller studies done on its effects on dopamine levels, but scientists don’t yet fully understand it.
“Ginkgo biloba supplements may increase dopamine levels in animal and test-tube studies,” Young says. “However, more research is needed on humans. Some research in rats found that supplementing with ginkgo biloba increased dopamine levels, which helped to improve memory and cognitive function.”
Before adding Ginkgo biloba to your routine, check with your doctor as severe interactions with certain supplements and medications – including warfarin and haloperidol – have been reported.
Ginseng has been a mainstay in traditional Chinese medicine used to treat a variety of conditions for countless generations. Ginseng has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-aging and analgesic properties.
“Some studies done with animals and in test tubes have found a rise in dopamine levels after giving ginseng supplements,” Young says.
Ginseng may increase dopamine levels in humans, especially in people with ADHD, but more research is needed.
Fish oil provides omega-3 fatty acids, which have important anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects and have been shown to improve depression symptoms. Several different omega-3s exist, but most of the focus is on alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). In particular, DHA and EPA may play a role in increasing dopamine levels in the brain. Fatty fish like salmon and plant sources such as walnuts and chia seeds increase levels of omega-3.
L-theanine is a naturally occurring amino acid found in tea that promotes relaxation by reducing stress and anxiety levels. L-theanine has been shown to increase the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and GABA levels in animals. White, green, oolong and black tea all contain l-theanine, as do certain types of mushrooms.
Magnesium plays an important role in brain health. A magnesium deficiency has been linked to depression, as well as a decrease in dopamine levels, Naidoo says. While the mechanism for this magnesium effect is unclear, supplementing with magnesium has been shown to boost dopamine levels, as well as provide antidepressant effects in studies.
“We do know that if you supplement with magnesium, you can increase dopamine levels,” Naidoo says.
Mucuna pruriens, also known as the “velvet bean,” is a tropical and subtropical plant that contains a small amount of levodopa, the precursor of dopamine.
In a 2017 study published in Neurology, researchers enrolled 18 patients with Parkinson’s disease to evaluate the role of mucuna pruriens as an alternative source of levodopa. In the clinical trial, those who received either mucuna or synthetic levodopa – a dopamine replacement medication used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease – showed improvement in movement-related symptoms, compared with patients who received placebo. While most research on mucuna focuses on Parkinson’s disease, a few animal studies are looking at its general health and mood effects.
Growing evidence shows the involvement of microbiota-gut-brain signaling in dopamine release, synthesis and bioavailability. Disruptions to the balance of gut microbe diversity, such as with antibiotic usage, may influence dopamine transmission.
Try to find a supplement with the strain lactiplantibacillus plantarum (L. plantarum), as it has been shown to have a positive influence on dopamine and serotonin. Fermented foods rich in probiotics – such as kimchee, sauerkraut, kombucha and plain dairy yogurt or coconut yogurt – can be associated with improving dopamine levels, Naidoo says.
Saffron, a spice with anti-inflammatory effects, may also prevent reabsorption of the neurochemicals dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin, making them more available to perform their functions. In a 2021 study of 56 healthy participants, taking saffron extract supplements versus placebo appeared to improve mild depression symptoms.
An amino acid that can be both made by the body and attained by eating certain foods, tyrosine is an essential building block for producing several neurotransmitters and hormones, including dopamine. It also supports the adrenal, pituitary and thyroid glands, where hormones are made and regulated. It is rare to have a tyrosine deficiency because the body produces it, and the amino acid is also naturally found in many foods, such as dairy products, soy products, meats, fish, avocados, bananas, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and poultry.
Vitamin C helps with the formation and conversion of dopamine in the brain, making it a vital nutrient.
“A deficiency of vitamin C often will present with fatigue and mood changes,” Naidoo says.
Adequate vitamin C levels are linked to helping you feel happier. Citrus fruits, kiwifruit and red bell peppers are among foods rich in vitamin C. Many multivitamins also include vitamin C in their formulations.
The sunshine vitamin is involved in the brain’s management of neurotransmitters, including dopamine. In a small 2019 study of 86 adolescents with ADHD, researchers found that dopamine levels increased in the group that received the 2,000 international units – equivalent to 50 micrograms – of vitamin D3 daily versus the placebo group. Salmon, egg yolks and mushrooms are rich in vitamin D.
Before moving to supplements, try foods that can impact dopamine levels first, experts say. Not enough research has been done on exactly what combinations of nutrients and in what quantities are needed for the body to create dopamine or any neurotransmitters. Also, the nutrients that help the body fulfill its many functions are most bioavailable from whole foods.
“It is the synergistic effect of these nutrients in whole foods that are absorbed best and utilized most for good health,” Wright says.
Dopamine Supplement Precautions
Because the FDA does not have the authority to regulate dietary supplements, supplement products do not undergo routine testing or inspection by FDA authorities. Not only does this lack of regulation potentially lead to inconsistent quality, but there’s also no guarantee that the ingredient touted on a bottle’s label will be in the supplement at all.
Active ingredients in supplements might not be enough to help treat certain dopamine deficiencies.
Because dopamine is a neurotransmitter that interacts with the brain, any attempts to tweak dopamine levels should be carefully considered, Naidoo says.
“(The supplements) can change your mood or create mood states that are unnatural or unsafe,” she says. “I wouldn’t necessarily say to someone: ‘Just go grab something over the counter.’”
To be safe, Naidoo encourages people to talk to their doctor first to see if they have a deficiency before taking any supplements and to ask about possible side effects or interactions with current medications.