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October 22, 2023 | Max Jenkinson

The Impact of Dopamine Is WAY Larger Than You Think

Testosterone has decreased in the population at least since the 70s.

There is a general idea that what is behind the rise in obesity is lowered physical activity and increased calorie consumption. This is false.

Calorie consumption does not seem to have increased and lack of physical activity can not explain the rise in fatness. What has happened is that our basal metabolic rate (aka energy expenditure) has significantly dropped.

People prescribed antidepressants have doubled since the 1980s. Depression has increased alongside a host of other dysfunctional states.

But what do lowered testosterone, lowered energy expenditure, and depression have in common?

One mental, one hormonal, and one metabolic problem, the common link? A molecule or rather the lack of a molecule.

If we increase, in other words, restore a functional level of this molecule we might prevent or even reverse these conditions.

Sounds too good to be true? Well, let’s dive into it.

 

The Holistic Organism

The more I study the human body the more holistic my model of health becomes. And, not in a woo-woo sense.

A biological system is a system that evolved over billions of years to sustain optimal function in many different environments.

The human body might be one of the most adaptable of them. However, we have altered our environment so much and so fast that we are facing adaptability issues.

Remember, we are the animals living in the zoo and the designers of that zoo.

The issue but also the benefit of a more holistic model of health is that it creates an almost miracle effect of fixing the largest problems. This is why both a carnivore diet and a whole-food vegan diet have profound health effects in the literature.

Both remove processed foods (foods we are not adapted to eat) and replace them with whole foods (foods we are adapted to eat). This in turn allows the system to regain clarity on what to do with that food.

It’s the same with sleep. The health effects of sleeping 8 hours a night compared to 6 hours are almost unbelievable.

On daylight saving, the day we lose an hour of sleep, there’s a 24% increase in heart attack visits to hospitals. In autumn when we instead gain an hour of sleep the heart attack visits decrease by 21%.

Good vs. Bad Times

My main argument for how we should eat is in a way that signals “good” times. I wrote about this in my first newsletter Nutrition Advice No One Gives – That Everyone Should Follow.

By signalling good times we tell the body that it can allocate energy not only to survival functions but to thriving functions.

Think of thriving functions as anything that is not directly related to survival but increases the odds of survival in the future. Here I usually think of things like sex drive, motivation, exploration, and fixing internal issues.

Because I was writing about diet I said that we should eat in a way that signals good times. Now we are going to move one step further. I’ll argue that we should live in a way that signals good times.

The way we will explore this is by looking at dopamine’s role as the mediator between good & bad times.

You could think of dopamine as the molecule of more or the molecule of anticipation. But, unless you are a behavioural psychologist or neuroscientist this doesn’t really say much.

I would like you to view dopamine as the molecule that signals good times.

Dopamine: The molecule that controls how your body should allocate energy.

As I’ve said, at the root of all our health problems is a lack of energy. If dopamine controls how much energy is produced and where it is used, maybe it could be the answer to all of our health issues.

 

The Pool of Energy Allocation

The one finite resource organisms all depend on is energy. This makes survival all about energy acquisition and allocation. Using energy for what matters and avoiding using it on what doesn’t.

What if one molecule controlled how our body stands in relation to energy allocation?

In the study Putting desire on a budget: dopamine and energy expenditure, reconciling reward and resourcesthe authors posit that dopamine modulates energy expenditure.

By using information about both the internal and external world dopamine modulates energy expenditure along two axes.

  1. Conserve-expend

  2. Explore-exploit

Dopamine seems to shift the energy allocation toward expenditure and exploration, while a decrease in dopamine does the opposite.

Decreased dopamine moves us toward energy conservation and exploitation. Sounds a lot like survival mode to me. Or what an animal would do in bad times. Or like the quick-fix mindset you read about two weeks ago.

This model of viewing dopamine is similar to the one I have of good vs. bad times.

In good times we have a surplus of energy and we are in a safe, stable environment. We are then allowed to explore, procreate, and allocate energy to increasing muscle mass and fixing internal (cellular) issues.

When the environment is good our biology thinks it’s safe enough to increase energy production and allocate less to storage. It is time to fix the things we have put on the back burner.

In bad times our biology does the opposite, it lowers energy production and allocates more towards storage.

Let’s visualize this.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a great way to conceptualize what I’m talking about.

At the base of the pyramid, we have physiological needs. The higher up we go the more abstract the need becomes. At the very top, we have “self-actualization”.

The needs can be separated into three categories:

  1. Basic (Physiological and safety needs)

  2. Psychological (Belongingness, love and esteem needs)

  3. Higher-order goals (Self-fulfillment needs)

According to Maslow, we need to take care of one fundamental need to move on to the next.

We need good enough health to actually act in the world. Secondly, we strive for safety by creating a stable environment over time. Once this is established we can start to pursue the abstract such as love, self-esteem, and ultimately self-actualization.

Dopamine controls our subconscious position within Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If it is low we will not, I repeat, we will not pursue things above our basic needs.

Dopamine signals us to explore, to have the courage to move toward uncertainty and what is not safe. It literally increases the potential options we are “allowed” to spend energy on.

A decrease in dopamine creates a depressed state where the potential options are decreased to the most basal functions. The goal is to stay safe.

A low dopamine state pushes the body to minimize energy expenditure while simultaneously increasing fuel storage. Sound familiar? It’s exactly the state I wrote about in my piece on the link between hibernation and obesity.

If we can increase dopamine inside our bodies we can increase where our energy can go. We shift our body toward a state of exploration and expenditure internally and externally.

The dopaminergic state is the opposite state of disease. In the past 60 years, our health has been on a steep downhill trajectory. Everyone interested in health should at least try to figure out how to change it.

You should now have a sense of why decreased dopamine is the common link between lowered testosterone, increased obesity, and depression.

If you had to study one thing in order to be healthy, happy, and successful dopamine would be the subject. Let’s get into some simple steps you can take to increase the function of your dopamine system.

 

Becoming Dopaminergic

Ok, dopamine is what tells the body if it is in good or bad times. What we obviously want to do is to create an environment that makes our bodies think that we are in a time of abundance.

1) Physiological

Minimize digestive distress & maximize nutrient density

We need sufficient micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to run our system smoothly. We also need sufficient amounts of calories. This is easy to understand.

What most fail to understand is that we cannot put foods in our mouths and assume that the nutrients get to the cells. It’s more complex than that.

Foods need to be digested, absorbed, and assimilated. We want to eat easy-to-digest, nutrient-dense, and maybe even calorie-dense foods.

These foods include red meat, organ meats, eggs, milk products, and fruits. Of course, you can experiment here but the idea is to make your body think that it is in a time of abundance

Ancestrally, to me, this seems to be an abundance of ruminant (red) meat, and ripe fruit. If you have any other conclusions test them out on yourself.

Move more, lift heavy shit and play

If the body is in a low dopaminergic state it will allocate less energy toward movement. But, it goes both ways. If we move less we will also signal that we should move less.

Start small, and build up slowly. Go for more and longer walks outside (sunlight is key for dopamine). Do some hard weight-bearing exercises either with your own body weight or free weights. And, when you can sprint and sprint fast.

Find a physical game, any game. Play it and play it often. You are designed to play, it is not for kids, it is for everyone.

Prioritize sleep

Sleeping is the highest ROI activity we can do for health. What do you think less sleep signals in an ancestral environment? Constant threat.

If we are in an unsafe environment we have to be up longer and more often. Insufficient sleep is one of the best ways to signal that we are in unsafe (bad) times.

Sleep consistently, sleep longer, and constantly figure out new ways to improve your sleep. You sleep for 1/3 of your life, let’s make that time maximally valuable.

2) Psychological

Develop your existing relationships

You’ve got friends. You’ve got a family. Make the relationships you already have better. We are loving creatures. Increase the love you give to increase the love you get.

Set aside more time for your loved ones. Give them a call. Set up weekly dinners or game nights. Go on a “date” with your siblings.

Develop who you are

In How To Not Be Fake In A Fake World I wrote about how we have created a fake culture that values the facade more than the actual person beneath it. If we want to develop positive feelings for ourselves we actually need proof that we deserve it.

Find something you want to become good at and actually do the work required to get good. You’ll be amazed at what happens to your perception of yourself.

Start expanding your understanding of who you are. Read books, write about your ideas, your feelings, and your values.

3) Higher-order goals

This is the last and final step we get to allocate energy towards. It’s not something we can force. This is why most people are alienated when people say things like “find your passion”, or “just follow your passion”.

If your dopamine function is not allowing you to start pursuing the abstract higher-order goals you won’t even see them.

What is the meaning of my life? What is my passion? What will my legacy be?

These are questions for your future self once you have worked hard to “fix” your dopamine system.

This is one of the main reasons I suggest everyone to become healthy first. Become healthy before you try to become rich or famous or whatever dream you think you have.

Unless you have started to get to know yourself why would you assume that your higher-order goals are aligned with who you are?

And, if they are not aligned with who you are, what makes you think you will actually reach them?

Stop dreaming, start doing.

 

Bonus: Remove dopamine hijackers

Dopamine can be hijacked by things like social media, video games, streaming, gambling, and porn.

Remove yourself from constant stimulation and allow your dopamine system to attach itself to what actually moves your life forward.

 

There you have it.

It seems as if there is a part of our physiology that determines where energy can go. And, it seems to be in large part controlled by dopamine.

If the way we live today causes us to be in a low dopaminergic state there is no wonder why we are suffering so much. It shouldn’t surprise you why we are more depressed than ever, more obese than ever, and sicker than ever before.

Despite this, we tell fat people to “just eat more and move less”. Terrible advice if their dopamine system is telling them to eat more, move less, and store more fat.

We should help people fix the actual system that modulates what behaviors they are motivated to do.

Moving more would not be a problem if we were constantly excited to move. Eating less would not be a problem if our appetite was regulated to keep us lean and healthy.

Low dopamine creates a depressed biological system. Depressed means less energy literally and metaphorically.

A low-energy state is a disease state. Let’s figure out how to increase the energy state of the body. Creating a functional dopamine system seems to be one of the most fundamental ways to do this.

If you want to be motivated, excited, lean, healthy and all of the other things that come with a high-energy state, fix dopamine.

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Shatter Your Entire View Of Health

Join others getting their entire idea of what health is shattered every Sunday while reading Health Decoded.