The Dirty Details on Dopamine


We’ve all been guilty of temptation – especially when it comes to food. Weddings, parties, holidays, birthdays, you name it: temptation in the form of food WILL be present. Sometimes if you don’t look away quick enough, your craving will coax you into eating something that’s not necessarily too good for you. Usually something containing sugar, am I right?

This chemistry of temptation is found in the area of the brain called the pleasure center. High-sugar, processed carbohydrate foods; drugs, alcohol, nicotine, shopping, and sex can activate the pleasure center.

Dopamine, a chemical in the brain which sends messages from cell to cell, can get us hooked on everything from sugar to cigarettes to shopping. It’s like the peer pressure that never fails. According to Dr. Darlene Kvist, researchers have found that dopamine teaches your brain what you want and then drives you to get it, regardless of whether it’s good for you or not.

The Sly Process of Creation

This process is one that consists of a mere two steps.

Step one: you experience something that gives you pleasure – like baking Christmas cookies with your mother. Your pleasure center light blinks on, and onward marches the surge of dopamine. Some of this dopamine will travel to the area of your brain where memories are created; then forms a connection between the Christmas cookies and pleasure you felt in that moment. Your sensible self will be thinking, “If I stuff my face with these Christmas cookies, it will lead to weight gain and a headache.” Whereas your pleasure center will be shouting, “We just hit the dopamine jackpot; keep those candy cane shaped sugary treats comin’!”

Step two: reinforcement. The Christmas cookies flipped on the pleasure center and created a good memory. Now, every time you see a plate of cookies, your brain releases a surge of dopamine which will drive you to reach for one cookie after the other. This reinforces the cookie memory and the chemistry of temptation is increased. The more frequently you do something that is pleasurable to the brain, the stronger that habit becomes.

Dopamine also controls the area of the brain that helps us make decisions and creates motivation, drive, and focus. A steady flow of dopamine is beneficial, but dopamine surges can lead to addictions.

Maintaining a Steady Dopamine Level

So what’s the trick to avoiding this chemistry of temptation? It can actually be as simple as eating 2-4 ounces of animal protein several times a day. Why? Animal protein breaks down into the amino acid L-tyrosine, which converts into dopamine. The cravings of temptation only kick in when you are deficient in dopamine and you get that rush of pleasure from a dopamine surge.

Keeping the Pleasure Center at Bay

So how do you break those tempting habit that bring you pleasure in all the wrong places, like the Christmas cookie example? Well, kicking these bad habits is much more than just saying you won’t eat the cookies anymore. Saying this doesn’t change the chemistry of your brain.

To make a permanent change of behavior and lock it down – you need to recognize how to reduce stimulating your pleasure center. Say, for example, whenever you and your best friend get together; it’s an unspoken habit that you always meet up and get coffee at a bakery. Well, what’s the typical makeup of a bakery’s products? Cookies, doughnuts, muffins, crepes, scones, you name it. You’re stimulating your pleasure center and therefore may easily fall prey to one of these sweet treats. Maybe instead you meet up at a local healthy restaurant or pack a picnic to bring to the park with your coffee, thus avoiding tempting surroundings.

So as you can see, it really takes an intellectual commitment to break the cycle of stimulating the pleasure center. It’s also critical to increase your day to day dopamine level so your chemistry of temptation is decreased.