Updated: Mar 20
Besides the fight, flight, or freeze response there is another survival force sending us to the fridge; the need for a rewarding dopamine hit.
Dopamine triggers the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. It is released when we eat, touch, gather socially, exercise, engage in the hobbies that make us happy, do rewarding work, accomplish a goal, and even when we pray or meditate. If it is a life affirming behavior for body, soul, or spirit there is a good chance a dopamine reward is of offer. It is our "well done, do it again" cheering section. We need it to survive.
During the pandemic many are separated from or have less availability to their usual dopamine generating activities. We are missing meals out with friends, social shopping, work, and church. Online conferencing is great but likely some of the dopamine generating contact and activity of your regular environments is missing. Zoom can't hug you.
For many this leaves food to take up the slack. Eating generates dopamine. We are rewarded with a hit of happy for seeking out and finding that life giving food. As the pandemic pudge is felt around the globe adopting some of these dopamine generating ideas may help you resist the urge to eat. Low dopamine is also associated with depression and anxiety and you will recognize common anti-depressive measures here.
1. Vitamin D3. Perhaps the easiest change to make. Vitamin D3 triggers the release of dopamine It is also immune protective, supports the respiratory system, and helps prevent anxiety and depression. Millions don't get enough, especially for those of us in the north, where the sun simply isn't strong enough for much of the year, and for those who spend their days indoors. The pandemic isn't helping. The lock down with its closed parks is making it hard for folks to get out in the sun. 2,000-3,000IU a day for adults is the recommended dose depending on source. Some recommend much higher. If you decide on higher dosages, checking levels through blood work after a few weeks is recommended.
2. Chew more slowly. Another easy one! Do you find yourself eating and then eating again and maybe even again? The body needs a bit of time to get the dopamine cascade going. Eating slowly gives it time to hit and you may not reach for that second or third bowl.
3. Water The act of drinking releases dopamine. Water is so necessary to life that we get a reward hit for finding it. Another plus for staying hydrated. Being around water also releases dopamine. If you have a chance to walk near water, take it. If you don't try water images or sounds. Now I know why I just binge watched three surfing movies.
4. Foods Eating the rainbow is once again the answer here. The amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine are required for dopamine production. While animal foods are the highest source of any amino acid that does not equate to best. For example, studies suggest that saturated fat most commonly found in animal foods may actually disrupt dopamine signaling. Dairy products,especially cheese, often head the list for tyrosine. Dairy contains specific compounds that release dopamine. This is part of why cheese , a high calorie problematic food, can be mildly addictive. I always prefer plant sources. A few foods that are also high in nutrients needed during the Covid-19 pandemic like zinc , vitamin C as an anti oxidant, magnesium, and B vitamins (which get quickly depleted during times of stress) are organic non-gmo soy, dark leafy greens ( especially spinach), pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, spirulina, beans and legumes, sweet potatoes, almonds, bananas, avocados, mustard greens.
5. Hobbies- Spend time doing the things you love, that are satisfying to your soul, that give you a sense of accomplishment. Rather than going to the TV and fridge, take out your paints or garden books. If you are at home with your family and they like puzzles, then now is the time! Double your dopamine download. You get social interaction, laughter, and accomplishment. Pick a puzzle you can actually get done before discouragement sets in for the youngest. Encourage those around you to spend time in their hobbies. Consider setting up dedicated hobby space during the pandemic.
6. Exercise. In particular regular exercise. A walk will certainly help but if you are really feeling the fight or flight, a few minutes of full out activity like running or biking might be just the ticket. Even running in place may tell your brain you have managed to outrun the covid tiger and let your stress response take a break. If you are used to heavy gym workouts, try to find a way to safely replicate them from home and increase other activities on this list.
7. Regular Sleep. Noting beats restorative rest. I know the night owls are reverting across the globe but try to maintain a regular sleep schedule.
8. Pets- Do you find yourself petting the dog more right now? You are releasing dopamine.
9. Meditate, Mindfulness, Soaking prayer. Keep it simple. Keeping your attention on a color, object, texture, and let everything else fall away for even 2-3 minutes.
10. Tap. You knew I'd put it on the list. EFT is indeed a dopamine booster. What emotion did you discover standing there in front of the fridge? Be specific? Get tapping or if you want a bit of guidance go search up a tap-along video. Search " EFT for _______," and you are ready to start.
And remember, be compassionate to yourself!