Dopamine: The pathway to pleasure

Dopamine can provide an intense feeling of reward.

By , Former Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

photo of a woman sitting in her couch holding a plate of cake with one hand and taking a bite from a piece she is holding with her other hand

Dopamine is most notably involved in helping us feel pleasure as part of the brain's reward system. Sex, shopping, smelling cookies baking in the oven — all these things can trigger dopamine release, or a "dopamine rush."

This feel-good neurotransmitter is also involved in reinforcement. That's why, once we try one of those cookies, we might come back for another one (or two, or three). The darker side of dopamine is the intense feeling of reward people feel when they take drugs, such as heroin or cocaine, which can lead to addiction.

Dopamine also plays a role in these functions:

  • learning and attention
  • mood
  • movement
  • heart rate
  • kidney function
  • blood vessel function
  • sleep
  • pain processing
  • lactation.

Where is dopamine produced?

Neurons in the region at the base of the brain produce dopamine in a two-step process. First, the amino acid tyrosine is converted into another amino acid, called L-dopa. Then L-dopa undergoes another change, as enzymes turn it into dopamine.

Too little dopamine causes the stiff movements that are the hallmark of Parkinson's disease. Although depression is more often linked to a lack of serotonin, studies find that a dopamine deficiency also contributes to a down mood. In particular, people with depression often suffer from a lack of motivation and concentration.

Because dopamine is made from tyrosine, getting more of this amino acid from food could potentially boost dopamine levels in your brain. Some research suggests that a diet rich in tyrosine also may improve memory and mental performance.

Foods high in tyrosine include:

  • chicken and other types of poultry
  • dairy foods such as milk, cheese, and yogurt
  • avocadoes
  • bananas
  • pumpkin and sesame seeds
  • soy.

There is also some evidence that the brain releases more dopamine when we meditate. The change in consciousness that occurs during meditation may trigger its release.

Dopamine is just one of the four feel-good hormones. To learn more about the others and how they work, head to the beginning of this series.

Image: HD91239130/Getty Images

About the Author

photo of Stephanie Watson

Stephanie Watson, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Stephanie Watson was the Executive Editor of the Harvard Women’s Health Watch from June 2012 to August 2014. Prior to that, she worked as a writer and editor for several leading consumer health publications, including WebMD, … See Full Bio
View all posts by Stephanie Watson

About the Reviewer

photo of Howard E. LeWine, MD

Howard E. LeWine, MD, Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Dr. Howard LeWine is a practicing internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Chief Medical Editor at Harvard Health Publishing, and editor in chief of Harvard Men’s Health Watch. See Full Bio
View all posts by Howard E. LeWine, MD


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