Motivation: the willingness to do something; a goal driven behavior and effort to achieve things of great importance. Sounds awesome and inspiring doesn’t it? So what happens when finding the willingness becomes the most distressing experience and causes you to suddenly fall off the wagon? If you’re anything like me, you’re human, and being human means sometimes struggling with finding and keeping motivation. Why? Well, life happens. Things come up, we have setbacks, and we experience life events that may or may not have been expected . . . we encounter “bumps in the road.” Now what if the answer to holding on and feeding our motivation during these times wasn’t one of those “you either got it or don’t” factors, but instead an internal and responsive part of our body and mind that can be trained to continually feed us with stimulating, rousing, and rewarding feedback?

Scientific links have been found between motivation, or the lack thereof, and one of the body’s “happy” hormones: dopamine (DA). Responsible for both positive and negative effects, DA can be trained from inside the brain by stimulus-reward association to continually seek and act on trigger behaviors. Dopamine is one of four “happy” hormones categorized as neurotransmitters, acting as messengers between brain cells. DA is responsible for signaling to the brain that whatever it is experiencing is worth experiencing again. When something triggers those feelings, DA pings the brain’s reward pathway and pleasure centers. This is where we develop motivation and similar behaviours are initiated.

Dopaminergic Vibes

Science has taught us that goal-directed motivation is learned, stemming from present experience back to rewards experienced in the past and to the cues that mark the way back to these. Once a habit, good or bad, has been established, it remains until the conditioned significance of the motivational stimuli has been “extinguished.” (This occurs when we experience repeated unrewarding experiences related to the stimuli.) Simply put, dopamine is driven by what feels good to the mind and body, and when we act on what feels good we are rewarded with the release of more dopamine.

Connecting The Dopamine + Motivation Relationship

BEHAVIOR: eating
STIMULI: energy rich foods sugars + fatty foods foods that taste really good
RELEASE OF: dopamine (DA)
CREATING: feelings of happiness & satisfaction
LEADING TO: depletion of circulating DA in the body over a period of time
MOTIVATION: the brain then seeks more DA through the most recent way it was found

As you can see, eating habits can become extremely beneficial or extremely detrimental to our mind, body, and overall health. By choosing what we put into our bodies, we are laying the foundation for the relationship between our choices and food, and what motivates them to work together.

Understanding Changes & Connections

Dopamine, as you now know, is very important in developing habits that trigger positive reward and ignite the pleasure centers of the brain. Higher levels of DA play an equally important role in movement, arousal, mood, behavior and cognition, sleep habits, and attention. Conversely, lower levels of DA can produce adverse changes in the brain and may lead to an increased risk or worsening of depression, addictive behaviors, impulsiveness and compulsive perseverance, isolation, self-destructive habits, and feelings of worthlessness.

The connections between dopamine levels, mood, and the reward pathway and its relation to other areas of the brain are essential to understanding how to start and stop behavior cycles, including those that are related to motivation. Despite its ability to positively reinforce behaviors that are beneficial to us, the reward pathway can also be a source of trickery! In order to make sure we repeat behaviors, choices, and actions (good or bad), the reward pathway is connected to a part of the brain that controls memory and behavior. The more we re-engage in behaviors that ping the release of DA, the stronger the connection becomes allowing and seeking for these behaviors to reoccur.

Train Your Brain Using Goals

I recently read an awesome post on the blog of called “Your Brain on Dopamine: The Science of Motivation” that discussed how we can hack DA to boost self-productivity. According to the post, “The brain can be trained to feed off of bursts of dopamine sparked by rewarding experiences. You create the dopamine environment, and the brain does the rest.” This put the entire concept of the DA + motivation relationship into perspective. The better we feed our mind with positive and rewarding experiences, the more adapt our brain will become to responding. When we create positive feedback, a biological connection is created to our motivation to achieve.

So how do we harness and practice our own DA reward system? First, I encourage everyone, both longtime health and wellness advocates and those who are just beginning, to start by creating incremental goals.

Incremental Goals 101

  • smaller, more frequent goals
  • keeps the individual motivated & inspired
  • provides a visual of progression
  • based off positive reinforcement
  • structured mini deadlines

The task causing the release of DA occurs before the reward, which encourages us to act in order to achieve. When we set incremental goals, dopamine will flow as a result of the brain’s positive reinforcement everytime we complete something such as a  mini deadline. This spike in our DA levels flood the reward center of the brain and cues for more attention and learning, giving both the motivation to start and the satisfaction to finish!

So, get some goals into place — CHECK ✔

The Dos of a Dopamine-Rich Diet

It never ceases to amaze me how the body adapts to changes in dietary needs and habits. Above, I briefly touched on the negative effects low dopamine levels can have on the body, but what about some insight on the number of health issues that can stem from deficiencies, most of which are related to other hormones and diet? These include:

    • adrenal fatigue
    • B6 deficiency
    • low stomach acid
    • leaky gut syndrome
    • hypoglycemia
    • blood sugar instability
    • insulin resistance

The importance of this list is to illustrate that deficiencies of any kind, related and unrelated to diet, can affect our health, which can then affect our ability to create and sustain motivation. Ever wonder why when you fall off track, it is so difficult to get back to where you left off? See the connections here?

Poor Diet = Deficiencies = Poor Health = Lower DA Levels = Lesser Ability to Activate & Sustain DA Reward Pathways = Loss of Motivation & Inability to Create Motivation

So, how can you boost dopamine levels through diet? First, it is important to supply your body with proper (and safe) amounts of iron, copper, zinc, B6, and magnesium. These nutrient minerals are essential to producing adequate numbers of neurotransmitters (such as DA). You can also support higher dopamine levels by maintaining healthy digestion and digestive GI functions. Implementing different foods that are known to support healthy dopamine levels will also benefit your mind and body. Next time you are grocery shopping, check out these different options to add into your meals for a DA boost:

    • organic coffee
    • raw cocoa
    • organic green tea
    • avocado
    • green, leafy veggies
    • nuts
    • seeds
    • beets

And there you have it, the answer to the almighty question, “how do I find motivation and keep it?”. Through knowledge, understanding and practice, we can tap into our dopamine levels and trigger our reward pathways. This combined with various habits and key choices allow anyone to create and maintain motivation in all areas of their life.