Your Brain on Dope

Your Brain on Dope...and not the kind you think!

Low dopamine levels look a lot like this polar bear: a general loss of your "get-up-and-go" attitude.

Low dopamine levels look a lot like this polar bear: a general loss of your "get-up-and-go" attitude.

Today, we're talking Dopamine: the Mac Daddy of focus, motivation and reward.

This post is dedicated to those of you who can get lost in the endless cosmos of ideas.  Yeah, I see you.   Come down to Earth so we can introduce you to the first in a series of posts on brain health.   So, let's zoom into our bodies, feet squarely planted so we can feel a little more grounded.  (Maybe not quite as grounded as the polar bear above, but you get the drift).    Let's take a deeper dive into dopamine, one of our neurotransmitters responsible for activating cognition, movement, pleasure seeking and reward. For those of you unfamiliar with neurotransmitters, think of them as chemical messengers relaying information around your body.   And, since it's the start of a new school year, let's focus on how dopamine affects our ability to be present with our pursuits, academic or otherwise, and to be able to learn.

Dopamine is directly linked to our emotional well being.

Cognitively, dopamine is associated with the flow of information from different parts of our brains but primarily directed in the frontal lobes.  Think of this as where the seat of our conscious, thinking mind is.  This where our attention goes toward memory and problem solving.  But dopamine is also responsible for our motivation and the positive sense of reward we get from certain actions.  It's a kind of ninja mind tool, helping us to reinforce certain actions that we deem desirable, healthful or helpful.  We can see, that because it helps with focus and attention, it enables us to not only start activities but to also finish them. Every time we check the box on our To-Do lists, we get a hit of "feel good" dopamine, letting us know that our actions resulted in accomplishment. And as you can probably guess, anyone concerned about achievement clearly wants to have dopamine working on their side!  

So what happens when we don't have optimal dopamine levels?  Inadequate levels lead to a general loss of actions geared towards seeking enjoyment and pleasure.  Self motivation, focus and managing day-to-day tasks goes out the window.  This lack of efficiency in our lives starts a downward spiral that can lead to a sense of hopelessness and worthlessness.  And you can imagine, that anyone feeling that, certainly is not going to want to socialize so isolation becomes a component to low levels as well.  Ouch.  This is beginning to sound an awful to like depression, and/or ADD, culturally stimulated or otherwise.  Dopamine is directly linked to our emotional health so it serves us well to make sure we are working with it and not against it.


So how the heck do we keep our brains running harmoniously with dopamine in our crew?  There are numerous factors that can lead to low or insufficient dopamine levels so I'll only briefly mention that ones that are typically correlated to stress (since that is the primary focus of my coaching practice).  In short, balanced blood sugar, iron, magnesium, B vitamins (specifically B6) and a strong population of healthy gut microbes all contribute to robust production of dopamine in the body.  At it's backbone, dopamine requires phenylalanine in both it's D and L forms.  This is an essential amino acid-- meaning our bodies can not synthesize it; we require it in our diets and it is predominantly found in animal based foods.  That said, strict vegetarians or vegans may want to monitor themselves for symptoms of dopamine deficiency if they suspect they are not supplementing their diets adequately.  However, since stress dampens our digestive capacity and can alter our ability to metabolize protein affectively, we can also see how this would set us up for insufficiency. If you're interested in a deeper dive as to neurotransmitters and the brain, I great book to read is Datis Kharrazian's Why Isn't My Brain Working?.

Stress is the single most damaging factor to brain health.

Lastly, I want to take a brief glimpse into how dopamine affects our psychology and sense of positivity in the present.  I think this is so critical for those of us who struggle at school and are feeling like (1) they can't keep up or (2) that their peers are being more successful than they are.  I would encourage you to be mindful of your perceptions and how they might be influencing your chemistry.  I first learned about this from Shawn Achor's hilarious and information packed TED talk on positive psychology in the workplace.  If you haven't watched it yet, it's a must see;  you can watch it here.  Shawn posits that if success is associated with happiness, then we are better able to succeed when we are already happy and in a positive state. He calls this the happiness advantage.  In fact, our brains at positive "perform better than at negative, neutral, or stressed".  In short, happy people are more successful at a accomplishment.   He furthers that dopamine is directly involved because it contributes to our experience of pleasure (and happiness) and activates the learning centers in our brain.  As Shawn suggests, "this allows us to adapt to the world in a different way".  What he means is that if we can learn how to change the lens  (i.e.: our perceptions) for how we view our worlds and how we get to "success", than we can change our sense of accomplishment and how we experience happiness in our lives.

 We'll be exploring these concepts further throughout this blog but for now, know that robust levels of dopamine will serve your concentration and overall efficiency for getting your many tasks and assignments completed.   Did you like the video suggestion above?  You can find out more about Shawn Achor here.

Pro Tip: 

Dark chocolate contains PEA or D,L Phenylethylamine, a compound that helps to boost dopamine levels in the brain.  Next time you’re craving chocolate when you're doing homework, you'll know why!  (Stick to 80% or darker to avoid unnecessary sugar in your diet).

Now I'd like to hear from you!

Did you enjoy this mind-body approach towards understanding motivation and accomplishment?  Remember: mind and body exist on a continuum; a continuous feedback loop that keeps us balanced.  One influences the other.  Please share in the comments below if you've ever suffered from low motivation or concentration and how you dealt with it.  Or, if you gained any insights from this conversation!

Hygee Ho

Posted by Sarah Janette


Happy 2019 and Hygee Ho!  

Sounds like a salute of some sort but really, I'm just having fun with a word that's making it's way around the internet these days: hygee.  I love saying this word.  It's pronounced hoo-gah.  Reminds me of "hug" and it's Danish interpretation is not that far away from that; roughly translated, it implies an attitude of coziness and spiritual warmth.  Those Danes have a great sense of language I tell you. While there is no literal translation in English, I think we can all understand the sentiment of snuggling in during the cold winter months with a blanket, great book and a warm cup of tea.  At least that's what I've been doing the past few weeks.  I'm not sure what it is about the transition from the December solstice into January but I always find myself both nesting and sleeping.  A lot.  It feels like a time when I'm simultaneously clearing clutter, getting organized and gathering my resources.  And, quite frankly, there is a lot percolating beneath the surface for 2019.  But back to hygee and that cup of tea.

I read a more thorough explanation of hygee that I really appreciated.  It suggested that the Danes endure the darkness of Scandinavian winters by celebrating the simplicity of the every day ritual: lighting a scented candle, enjoying a meal with loved ones or simply sharing a pot of tea, as a way of fostering kinship, friendship, intimacy and contentedness.  Hygee sounds like it should be the general header of "Lifestyle Basics" in the book of Wellness, doesn’t it?

When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?
— Muriel Barbery

So now that we're all thinking about tea, what is my favorite tea to drink for general wellness and to of course, lower stress and anxiety?  Rooibos.  Other wise known as African Red Bush.  Sounds exotic right?  Like you should be drinking it around a campfire on safari with a native tour guide clad in vintage cargo wear.  Or perhaps just your dorm room.  That's ok too.  

The reason I usually drink Rooibos exclusively is because it's caffeine free. Yes, it's loaded with antioxidants. And yes, several Stellenbosch University studies have shown that Rooibus in robust quantities (at least 6 cups) may be an agonist to cortisol, one of our primary stress hormones. But I personally made a move away from caffeine over ten years ago and my blood sugar finally began to stabilize, lessening much of the physical anxiety I was experiencing at that time. 

Reducing caffeine is a pivotal step in reducing the symptoms of anxiety.

Reducing caffeine? As in, give up my morning quadruple shot, Venti latte, you ask?

Yep. That’s what I’m suggesting.

Few people know that the reason our morning Cup 'o Joe is so awakening is because caffeine stimulates your adrenal glands to produce adrenaline.  Adrenaline in turn, communicates to your body that blood sugar needs to rise.  Unfortunately,  it's in absence of a true emergency, (and getting to class or a meeting does not count)! But what’s the result?  A quick blast of energy that feels mobilizing, because it is.  Just not for the right reasons.  Like a vilified contestant on The Bachelor reality series, it looks and sounds great initially until the full picture comes into play: the late morning slump.  

What's happened to our “get up and go", you ask?

It went out the door when our bodies try to regulate the spike in blood sugar with insulin to bring it back down to normal levels.  Except, a spike up always precedes a spike down.  Now our blood sugar is too low and we can start to experience the common symptoms of hypoglycemia that mimic anxiety: brain fog, heart palpitations, and dizziness--sound familiar?  

So yes, my readers, I tell all my clients that caffeine needs to be highly restricted in order to get off of the roller coaster that is blood sugar dysregulation.  This is a pivotal step in managing symptoms of stress and anxiety. I can not stress this enough (pun intended)!


So on to the fun stuff and back to Rooibos…

There are some great tea companies out there and many of their products can easily be shipped or found on Amazon if your local health food store is not well stocked.  I like Rumi and Republic of Tea for their wide selection of Rooibos blends.  Teatulia is another reputable, organic brand. My favorite one currently is straight Rooibos from Rumi.  I love adding a splash of almond or coconut milk to mine to make it more luxurious and flavorful.   If you fancy green teas, you may want to try the flavor of this this unroasted rooibos.  That said, if you prefer a true punch of natural sweetness and flavor, RoT has a great blend called Good Hope Vanilla that might just be the starting point for a perfect hygee afternoon!  


Having a handful of relaxing evening rituals is a great primer to your body that the day is winding down. Sipping a warm cup of rooibos tea is one trick in my arsenal for readying my body for sleep.

Now I want to hear from you!  

What kind of tea (s) do you like?  How do you create a sense of warmth and coziness during the Winter months?  Do you share your time with friends?  Please post in the comments below!  Hygee Ho!

Stress? What's in a Name?

Stress?  What's in a Name?

Ques: I attended one of your talks recently and was wondering if there is a difference between stress and anxiety. They sound the same to me. Am I missing something?

You say tomato and I say to-mah-to

After giving a talk at a local university, I received this question and thought it warranted some face time here as I'm sure many of you may be wondering the same thing.  So, let's do a little myth busting on what differentiates simply being "stressed out" from the more burdensome experience of anxiety.  And by anxiety, I mean clinical Anxiety with a capital A.  This is multi-layered topic.  The onion of our work here.   For those of you short on time, I'll use an ice cream shop analogy here to offer up various scoops of manageable info for you.  The flavor choice is all yours.

The Kiddie cone:  Yes, there is a difference.  One begets the other.

The Small cone:  Chronic stress can play a significant role in pre-disposing someone to clinical Anxiety.  That said, stress is an everyday occurrence.  For most people, it's recognizable in light of certain situations. For example: I'm nervous about asking the cute boy out; my palms are sweating!  Or, gosh, I sure hope my jitters don't get in the way of my passing this driver's test--I need my license for my new job this summer.  Our feelings of nervousness are apropos for a given situation we are facing.  When we move into the realm of clinical Anxiety, our thoughts and concerns no longer seem to match our everyday experience; somehow they are escalated.  And further, without an obvious filter for understanding why, they can become disorienting, distracting and disabling.

The Medium cone:  OK, before we go any further, it might be important to now distinguish  common colloquialisms from scientific jargon.  When we suggest that we are "freaking out" over a situation, more often than not, we are referring to our emotional and/or mental state of being at that exact time.  We exclaim it as a way of conveying intensity to our willing audience--be they friends, mentors or family.  "Freaking out" can be good thing or undesirable right?  But what happens when our body doesn't seem to be acting the way we think it ought to be in a given situation?  For example, you find yourself studying late night for a calculus final and suddenly, without any rational reason, your heart starts racing and you feel like you can't catch your breath?  Or, you're with friends out in a noisy restaurant and out of nowhere, you suddenly feel light headed and like the walls of the bistro are closing in on you?  You run outside but you can't explain why.  This is no longer a time for common parlance.  Your body is unfairly rebelling without checking in with you first.  This of course brings you tremendous cause for concern because there is no readily identifiable root cause to your bodily symptoms.  You are experiencing a panic attack, one kind of Anxiety.  And, it's no joke.

Anxiety is a physiological and psychological wind fall.

"Freaking out" over a poor grade on a Chem. Lab is not the same thing as being in the physiologic state of HPA axis dis-regulation or in the heightened state of Sympathetic Nervous System arousal that accompanies Anxiety syndromes.  With Anxiety, there are multiple ways that the body may feel excessive nervousness, fright and extreme concern that may lead to constant rumination or other behaviors as a way to restore balance and alleviate the constant tension.  Anxiety is a physiological and psychological wind fall.  Are you beginning to see the difference?  Keep in mind that, the way we experience our world determines where we fall on the stress spectrum.  And this can either be motivating or it can be disabling.  And perhaps that is the crux of the problem:  our perceptions fuel our overall experience of stress and what becomes stressful for us.  Being human means we no longer simply operate from a purely instinctual place. Hence the importance of identifying the mind-body element when we address this topic.

Stress should be a powerful driving force, not an obstacle.
— Bill Phillips

The Large Cone:  First things first: stress is normal.  In fact, if someone were to say to me, I'm never stressed, I'd wonder what was wrong with them.  We do not live in a static world, so naturally our bodies (and minds) will have to make adjustments to the daily fluctuations we experience in order to maintain homeostasis.  Simply put, our bodies like to be in a state of balance. When it's 100 degrees and humid out, our bodies sweat to maintain consistent body temperature.  We perspire in response to our environment in order to survive the heat.  But what happens when our internal emotional thermometer is flying high because we've been scorned by our best friend?  Surely, this is not a true immediate life & death situation but this new found fr-enemy status sure *feels* like it.  We can all relate to this kind of social disruption.  And yes, from an evolutionary perspective, we are wired to seek our belonging and community so there is indeed some basis for our upset.  But here's the rub: it's our own internal perceptions about who we are and how the world is that actually dictates how stressful we find that last scenario.  Relationships change, some end; we all forge ahead and develop new ties to new people.  Staying mired in the anger and/or loss of a relationship contributes to an on-going, low grade stress response that in other animal species, likely would not exist.  And here's where we start to lay the foundation for a dys-regulation in our bodies' ability to maintain balance in our world.  Remember: the key is balance. 

Stress is an evolutionary adaption that innervates every cell in our body for survival.

The Banana Split:  Physiologically, a lack of balance in our bodies threatens our survival.  So we have a primitive part of our brain that is programmed to survey our world for anything that might serve as a cataclysmic disruption to that.  From an evolutionary perspective, this either came as an attack causing severe bodily harm or as tremendous loss of resources as in the example of a famine.  Our two options for preservation in these instances were to either: fight or flee the attacking tiger or shut down metabolically akin to going into hibernation.  See the polarity here?  Intense arousal for the fight of our life OR slowing down the whole body for a siesta. Either way, the body prioritizes survival above all else.  

And certainly we want this when we truly are in danger.  Climbing out of a burning automobile is a necessity.  Conserving energy and slowing down calorie burning when we are lost in the woods for days without food, both ensure your likelihood of living longer.  Fretting about career success due to a less than stellar grade on a Chem exam is not about survival (although it may feel that way).  But it's our fears about future responsibilities that keep us in a heightened state of stress activation.  Our capacity to conceptualize our future is both a blessing and a burden to our bodies which are still responding to a world that our modern era of technology has long superseded.  In short, our minds are living in a future moment and our bodies are responding to that future concern in the present.  Houston, we have a loss of harmony and balance.  And it is this imbalance, along with other factors (like poor nutrition, genetics, and beliefs as examples) that set the stage for clinical Anxiety to emerge in some people.  And as you can imagine, this absence of understanding why our bodies are reacting, only fuels the psychological underpinnings more so:  we fear for our lives and for our sanity.


The Peppermint Tummy Tamer:  So we know we live in the modern era of chronic, low grade stress.  True famine is unheard of in the Western world.  Cell phones and GPS systems keep us connected when we might otherwise find ourselves astray.  Medical science re-attaches limbs and blood transfusions keep us afloat long enough for triage.  We are indeed living--surviving--longer than our pre-historic genes could ever have imagined.  What's replaced out deadly foes are our fast paced worlds for which we are not biologically designed.  Technology has given way to ever expansive expectations for achievement.  Our fears are centered around social standing, beauty and perfectionism.  All psycho-social goal posts for us to hurdle and move at whim.  

But we have at our disposal another adaptation that we under utilize because of our addiction to efficiency and speed: our Parasympathetic Nervous System.  The familiar Rest & Digest system from 8th grade science class.   It doesn't have a sexy name.  In health circles it's called the Relaxation Response; like something only lazy people might adopt.  But harnessing the power of this system my friends, will be your true life line to happiness, productivity, success and longevity.  In future posts we will give it the attention it deserves.  I think of it as the Fountain of Youth.  Because youth is when we live in the present (no worries!), are open to trying new things, think that that smallest wonders are in fact the biggest excitement and have boundless amounts of energy to explore.  Doesn't sounds much like relaxation to me, but then again what's in a name?

Now I'd like to hear from you!

Was this helpful?  Do you feel like you are worrying to much about the future?  How do you handle your stress on a daily basis?  Do you have feelings of anxiety?  Please share any insights in the comments below: