Wondering where your get-up-and-go has gone? You could be one of the millions of women suffering from a deficit in a neurotransmitter known as dopamine. While dopamine has been praised for its mood-boosting ability, the neurotransmitter is also crucial to learning, attention, movement and more. So when levels dip, as they typically do when we get older, blue moods, fatigue, brain fog and other draining symptoms can result. To the rescue: Mucuna pruriens, also known as velvet bean. Researchers reporting in the journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine call it “the magic velvet bean” for the bevy of health benefits it delivers. Case in point: velvet bean extract helped Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS, NY Times bestselling author of over 35 books and longtime First For Women expert and contributor, go from tired to terrific by lifting her dopamine levels. Read on to discover velvet bean benefits, how the extract has helped other women and how you can use it to feel your best.
Why dopamine is crucial for happiness and energy
“Dopamine is often called a ‘happy hormone,’ but it plays a key role in a wide range of body functions, including mood, movement, motivation and mental focus,” explains neuroscientist Daniel Amen, MD, author of Feel Better Fast and Make it Last. The brain releases dopamine in response to experiences that are pleasurable or rewarding. And when your brain produces it in proper amounts, you feel motivated, upbeat and energized. In fact, research published in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology suggests that as dopamine levels increase energy soars by 150%. And while Gittleman estimates dopamine deficits impact 75% of women, she says more than half go undiagnosed because doctors don’t test for it.
What causes a dopamine deficiency?
Why do so many women suffer? Turns out there are several factors that raise the risk of a dopamine deficiency. Read on for the most common ones:
1. Dopamine levels drop with age
Dopamine drops naturally as we age. In fact, according to a report in the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cell Longevity, each decade we lose up to 10% of the cells that produce and process dopamine.
2. Dopamine levels drop as estrogen levels do
Dopamine levels drop even lower after menopause, thanks to natural drops in estrogen that occur at this stage. In fact, in a Yale study, lack of estrogen led to a 30% die-off in dopamine-producing brain cells. What’s more, women react differently to dopamine than men. Indeed, a separate team of Yale researchers determined that women’s brains released 33% less of the neurotransmitter in response to dopamine-boosting drugs than men’s do.
3. Unrelenting stress depletes dopamine
Chronic stress acts on kappa opioid receptors in the brain to trigger a decrease in dopamine release, according to a report in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience. Study authors publishing in the journal eLife found that the brain’s ability to produce dopamine proved markedly lower in chronically stressed participants compared to their less-stressed counterparts. Plus, the sugary carbs we typically turn to when stress levels mount spur dopamine spikes that can add to problems. Says Dr. Amen, “They deliver what I refer to as a ‘dopamine dump’ that causes the brain to become numb to dopamine’s effects over time.”
4. Nutrient shortfalls cause dopamine to dip
Protein-poor diets can send dopamine plunging, since the body uses tyrosine and phenylalinine, two amino acids found in protein, to produce dopamine. In fact, in some scientific studies, researchers use diets lacking in these aminos to trigger dopamine decreases.
Another dopamine-depleter: a deficiency in vitamin B1 (also known as thiamine). Experts reporting in the journal Cells say up to 90% of us don’t get the amounts of B1 we need daily. That’s a problem, since Gittleman points out that the body relies on the vitamin to produce dopamine efficiently.
How to tell if your dopamine levels need lifting
Your doctor can diagnose a dopamine deficit with a DaTscan, a test that in involves injecting a radioactive tracer and tracking it to assess dopamine activity in the brain. The test is typically used if physicians suspect Parkinson’s disease, which is marked by severe dopamine depletion. But a number of symptoms can signal a lack of dopamine. If you experience the following, you could be suffering from a dopamine shortfall:
- Foggy thinking
- Lack of motivation
- Blue moods
- Memory lapses
- Sleep problems
- Muscle tremors or stiffness
- Low sex drive
How velvet bean lifts dopamine levels
The seed of a legume that’s native to Africa and Asia, velvet bean has a long healing history. For centuries, it’s been used in traditional Indian medicine to lift libido, treat arthritis and even neutralize snake venom. Plus, it was (and still is) used to treat kampavata, the ancient term for Parkinson’s disease. And hundreds of years later, research reveals why it may have helped those cases of Parkinson’s disease: Velvet bean extract has an impressive dopamine-boosting ability. “It’s high in L-dopa [levodopa], a compound that’s converted into dopamine by the body,” Dr. Amen explains.
Indeed, researchers reporting in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry note velvet bean is the highest natural source of levodopa, a naturally occurring chemical that the body uses to make dopamine. And in their study of Parkinson’s patients, velvet bean extract lifted levodopa levels 110% higher than the combination of prescription medications levodopa and carbidopa (a drug that prevents the breakdown of levodopa before it reaches the brain). What’s more, a study in the journal Fertility & Sterility found supplementing with velvet bean extract increased participants’ dopamine stores by up to 72% in three months’ time.
The best way to take velvet bean extract
To reverse a deficiency and reap the benefits, Dr. Amen recommends supplementing with 200 mg of velvet bean extract daily. One to try: Advance Physician Formulas Mucuna Pruriens 200 mg (Buy at iherb.com, $12.72 for 60 capsules).
Note: Velvet bean extract can interact with prescription medications, including antidepressants, antipsychotics, and drugs used to treat high blood pressure and diabetes. So as always, check with your doctor before supplementing.
Other easy ways to lift dopamine naturally
In addition to the dopamine-lifting velvet bean benefits, there are other ways to increase your dopamine stores. Read on for the strategies doctors recommend.
1. Trade carbs for protein
Dr. Amen advises scaling back on sugary, refined carbohydrates as much as possible to avoid the ‘dopamine dump’ they deliver. Bonus: Since sugary carbs deplete the vitamin B1 that’s needed to make dopamine, avoiding them provides a B1 boost. In fact, an International Journal for Vitamin and Nutritional research study suggests the strategy can increase B1 levels by 30% within 4 days.
Dr. Amen also recommends enjoying foods such as beef, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, almonds and walnuts daily. They’re rich sources of tyrosine, which the body uses to make dopamine. Plus, nuts and seeds supply magnesium, a mineral that helps to activate enzymes involved in dopamine production.
2. Enjoy easy activities
In an analysis published in the journal Brain Science, people who got three hours of moderate exercise weekly increased their dopamine levels by 36% in four weeks. To get the benefits, Dr. Amen advises engaging in activities you enjoy, such as walking, dancing, cycling and swimming. And in more good news, recent research out of Johns Hopkins University reveals that when dopamine levels climb, exercising feels easier.
3. Sip a double decaf
Drinking two cups of coffee increases dopamine by 226% within 15 minutes, according to a study conducted at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Plus, levels stay lifted for more than 3 hours. Previous research has credited coffee’s caffeine with dopamine-boosting effects. But in a surprising finding, the NIH investigators found that the dopamine increase occurred even in people who drank decaffeinated coffee. Experts theorize that compounds in the brew enhance brain cells’ output of dopamine while blunting the action of enzymes that speed its breakdown. (Click through to learn how coffee can help with weight loss.)
4. Get lost in music, meditation or prayer
Taking 10 to 20 minutes a day to engage in prayer or meditation boosts dopamine levels by 65%, findings in the journal Cognitive Brain Research suggest. Experts explain the quiet contemplation of prayer or meditation activates brain regions involved in dopamine release. (Click through for an easy calming meditation script and to discover the benefits of loving kindness meditation.)
And for times when quieting your mind isn’t possible, tune into your favorite tunes. Doing so also stimulates the brain to release dopamine, say researchers in the journal Nature Neuroscience. That’s why folks in their study experienced significant upticks in the neurotransmitter while listening to music they loved.
Velvet bean success story: Ann Louise Gittleman
Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS, couldn’t figure out why she was so tired. Then she discovered the surprisingly common culprit and the natural remedies that changed everything.
Ann Louise was exhausted all the time
“Shake it off. You can make it through one last session,” Ann Louise told herself, as she prepared for her next nutritional counseling client. “For years, I had been wrestling with fatigue that zapped my energy to the point of making my voice raspy and hoarse. But I pride myself on being present for my clients and giving them my best, so I used every ounce of energy I had to power though the last session,” notes Ann Louise, who shares health information and advice at AnnLouise.com.
“Four years ago, I began experiencing fatigue that initially felt like I simply didn’t get enough sleep, but gradually progressed to exhaustion that impacted the quality of my voice, and I became very hoarse. I was promoting my book, Radical Longevity, and recording 60 podcasts while maintaining my practice.
“At first, I chalked it up to my schedule, so I pushed through. I’d tell myself, ‘You’re just really busy,’ which was true, but I had been busy before and never found myself so drained of energy. Eventually, my fatigue became so intense that I had to cut back on work commitments, which was worrisome.
“But as my fatigue wore on and worsened, my concern increased because my energy wasn’t rebounding. I consulted several doctors about my tiredness and an inexplicable stiffness and rigidity I was experiencing in my left arm that forced me to limit social activities. Despite seeing chiropractors, physical therapists and massage therapists, the stiffness became unbearable and I kept thinking, Oh no…not again every time my arm forced me to excuse myself early from an otherwise happy celebration.
The surprising diagnosis that explained everything
“When I saw an integrative neurologist about my arm, he performed a test that uses a special substance and camera to create 3D images. The test revealed that I had low levels of dopamine, the brain chemical that ignites feelings of joy and bliss. I was shocked to learn I had developed this after decades of feeling terrific. How in the world can I have this? I wondered, as the doctor’s words swirled in my mind.
“Because of my training, I was familiar with tiredness and aches and pains being related to thyroid, adrenal problems or even viruses, and I knew that low dopamine levels had been linked to ADHD. But since I didn’t have brain fog or focus issues, dopamine deficiency was simply not on my radar. “The doctor talked about how dopamine testing is not something doctors order during physicals, even though it can be discovered with a blood test that checks dopamine levels. As he spoke, I understood how this could have gone unnoticed, especially since it’s so easy to explain away the common symptoms it causes, like fatigue, moodiness or anxiety and even troubles with limb stiffness we so often attribute to everyday stress and aging.
How Ann Louise regained her energy — naturally
“After that, I dove into research and learned that the body uses a form of vitamin B-1 to produce dopamine and that supplementing with it is a treatment for dopa- mine deficiency. I also learned that supplementing with mucuna, or velvet bean, one of the only sources of dopamine in nature (and thought to be most concentrated), might help me reclaim my energy and stamina.
“I was already eating very clean and healthy, so because there weren’t a lot of dietary changes to make, I started taking 2,000 mg. of vitamin B-1 — an amount I knew was safe and effective based on my training — staggered throughout the day, plus mucuna seed extract [velvet bean]. I also exercised daily on the recumbent bike because I know exercise is a proven way to restore dopamine.
“I was pleasantly surprised and relieved to see that I experienced benefits within one week. Every day, I felt my energy levels grow as I felt less and less tired. Today, I’m thrilled that my voice is once again strong and clear and I have the energy to tackle a busy day of work and social activities. I’m back to my old self, and I feel absolutely terrific and ready to take on anything that comes my way!”
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.
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