Looking Inward (to Serotonin) and Beating Dopamine Addiction

Conscious Consumption
8 min readMay 1, 2024

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There is a common misconception among the general public that dopamine is the pleasure and reward hormone. And while it is true it plays an essential role in the reward system – a group of brain processes that control motivation, desire and cravings – it is actually more complicated than that.

To be precise, dopamine is the neurotransmitter of anticipation, specifically anticipation of reward. For all intents and purposes, it can effectively be referred to, in the words of Dr. Andrew Huberman, “the molecule of more.”

“It’s rarely about complete presence and the desire of staying present, it’s usually about the desire for more,” he says.

I’ve noticed it is about anticipation and craving, looking to the future much more than enjoying the present, no matter how good the current indulgence. When caught in the throes of a dopamine fixation, I can’t be mindful of or enjoy the present because my mind is always on what’s coming next.

When trying to engage in a task, it’s impossible to focus because some stimulus you have an obsession over has its fangs in you. My level of dopamine addiction even got so bad I could be balls-deep in a breakfast taco or some fried eggs, and already be thinking about the next course, or worse, how dessert was going to be. This is indicative of a severe carb (sugar) addiction.

Mindfulness and (Spatial) Memory

When a severe case of sensory overload like this occurs, your brain doesn’t process impressions experiences/events because it’s less than 100% (in some cases much less, depending the severity) present, and it becomes much more difficult to recall those occurrences later on.

Thus, it effects spatial memory, which is your relationship to space. Spatial memory is required to navigate through an environment, and to recall the location of an object or the occurrence of an event.

The ironic thing is, generally speaking, dopamine improves memory, by activating the learning mechanism of the brain. If released when learning something, it will help you recall it at a later date. Paradoxically, however, I would like to posit that, in many instances, excessive dopamine release or addiction has the opposite effect, for a few reasons.

Indecision also can be largely responsible for this phenomenon, generally brought on by some dopamine trigger, like for example, fantasy sports. Endlessly ruminating between two choices, which may or may not even have an impact in the long run will cause you to be less than fully engaged in the present, missing occurrences of events as they unfold.

Agonizing between two alternatives also can have actual physiological implications on memory. It will almost certainly result in emotional stress, which, in itself has a negative effect on memory retrieval.

Even infatuation or indecision surrounding a stimulus not traditionally thought to be a dopamine trigger, like constant preoccupation over diet, or minute-by-minute monitoring of your stock portfolio can cause this agony, stress and memory impairment.

All of this cognitive baggage or attachment is contradictory to my personal ethos of “finesse life” — which is predominantly about being present — and can create chronic emotional stress (flight-or-flight), which often leads to physical or structural stress.

In his 1956 book, The Rape of the Mind, Dutch psychoanalyst Joost Meerloo described how technology makes it difficult to appreciate and interact with the natural world by which we are surrounded:

“Modern technology teaches man to take for granted the world he is looking at. He takes no time to retreat and reflect. Technology lures him on, dropping him into its wheels and movements. No rest, no meditation, no reflection, no conversation — the sense are continuously overloaded with stimuli.”

Joost Merloo, Rape of the Mind

Even just the simple ping of a notification on a device can easily break your engagement or engrossment. The natural world is so full of wonder that I just choose to be as fully engaged as much as possible.

Essentially, being externally focused on sensory stimulations (in this case, on technological stimuli) deprives your mind of downtime to take mental inventory, recharge, reflect and consolidate your experiences or impressions, making it more difficult for them to be recorded in your memory and retrieved at a later time.

I’ve already written on how a fixation (no matter what the object or subject) can impact your relationship to your surroundings, with respect to budgeting or cost-cutting in particular, so I’ll save my breath. Just know that there are implications beyond a mere loss of control of your thoughts… which in itself can — you guessed it — contribute to the stress response and an overactive amygdala.

An extreme example of this can be seen in individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or other various anxiety disorders.

OCD and Dopamine Fixation

People with OCD frequently perform tasks, or compulsions, to seek relief from obsession-related anxiety. A relatively vague obsession could involve a general sense of disarray or tension accompanied by a belief that life cannot proceed as normal while the imbalance remains.

Clinical Psychology Review, Multiple pathways to functional impairment in obsessive–compulsive disorder

These symptoms can lead to a chronic stress response. A sense of control or predictability can alleviate stress and its symptoms.

In addition to experiencing the anxiety and fear that typically accompany OCD, sufferers may spend hours performing such compulsions every day. In such situations, it can become difficult for the person to fulfill his or her work or family and social roles. Or simply to pay mind to other things in your periphery.

While in most cases of OCD, the obsessions and compulsions are an outlet for alleviating anxiety and tension, a fixation or infatuation with something can easily also become an addiction to a dopamine trigger.

The more time we spend on social media, clicking on different links, the more our attention is hijacked via dopamine. This keeps us from being involved in a much more satisfying activity, such as connecting with other people, which would release the more nutritious neurotransmitters and substances like our internal opiates.

Neuroscientist Nan Wise, PhD

Internal opiates ike serotonin.

Research has — not surprisingly — found low serotonin-binding in specific brain areas among people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and social anxiety disorder.

This ‘wholesome’ neurotransmitter typically causes the individual to look inward to find satisfaction, in contrast to dopemine’s externally-focused state, typically resulting from some material (external) stimulus.

Serotonin’s Role in Combating Attachment

Serotonin, on the other hand, is involved in expressing gratitude for what we already have, contributing to our immersion in the experience of the here and now in a full and complete way. It can effectively be viewed as the “happiness hormone.”

“Serotonin tends to be known for its effects on our mood,” says Dr. Wise. However, “serotonin impacts every aspect of our body from our emotions to our motor skills, digestion, modulates the sleep part of the sleep/wake cycle, impacts our metabolism, appetite, concentration, hormonal activity and body temperature.”

Contrary to dopamine, which is produced and resides in the brain, 90–95% of serotonin is housed in the gut. Thus, it is foundational in regulating digestion, metabolism and appetite.

And though dopamine does plays a role in the digestive system, it’s nowhere near the extent to which serotonin does. Dopamine stimulates hunger when levels fall too low, and regulates the release of insulin from the pancreas, while, conversely, serotonin suppresses hunger, specifically cravings for carbs.

If you’re familiar with the phrase, “the gut is the second brain,” then it should be no surprise to learn that serotonin is also pivotal in monitoring mood, focus, calmness and anxiety.

Serotonin’s calming effect can help prevent getting caught up in impulsive behavior, in contrast to dopamine’s reputation for being an energizer.

In fact, serotonin inhibits impulsive behavior, while dopamine enhances impulsivity.

In some cases, serotonin appears to inhibit dopamine production, which means that low levels of serotonin can lead to an overproduction of dopamine. This may lead to impulsive behavior, due to the role that dopamine plays in reward-seeking behavior.

Healthline.com

Both of these facts are clearly a beneficial thing in terms of carb or sugar addition, but also in the larger context of dopamine addiction or material fixation. Serotonin seems to be an effective method to decrease dopamine overstimulation.

Taking these considerations into account, here’s a few techniques you can use to decrease your reliance or tendency to focus on external stimuli (dopamine), and boost serotonin.

How to Decrease Dopamine Dependence (And The Chronic Stress It Causes) and Increase Serotonin

An excellent way to rid yourself of attachments is through – ou guessed it –meditation. Specifically, the Sajah Marg or “Heartfulness” meditation system.

While meditation in general will cause you to look inward, and bring your attention to when you are fixated, this specific system is almost designed to purge one’s disposition towards dopamine overstimulation.

One of the main focuses of this practice is to clean the mind (and spirit) of “impressions” gathered through thoughts, intentions or actions. In Indian philosophy, these “imprints” are known as samskaras, and solidify deeply in one’s mind.

These impressions typically come to fruition in the individual’s mind, taking the form of expectations, circumstances or a subconscious sense of self-worth. Samskaras then manifest outwardly as habitual tendencies, aversions and attachments.

“In ancient Indian texts, the theory of Samskara explains how and why human beings remember things, and the effect that memories have on people’s suffering, happiness and contentment.”

Heartfulness practice includes a relaxation meditation, cleaning (or rejuvenation), heart connection and prayer/affirmation. The cleaning of samskaras is unique to this method.

Other than meditation, the best way to combat a dopamine addiction to a particular stimulus, is to derive dopamine from stimuli other than the one you have become fixated on. So, rather than focusing on inhibiting dopamine from a material fixation, you are increasing it, but from other, less intense sensorily stimuli.

These sources include:

  • Exercise
  • Doing something rewarding (volunteering, checking something off a to-do list)
  • Diet: foods high in tyrosine (avocado, bananas and almonds, though I don’t recommend because of high glyphosate and oxalate content)
  • Vitamin D, especially upon waking in the morning (20,000 IU recommended, as much obtained naturally from sunlight, food as possible before supplementing)
  • Fasting, both intermittent (at least 16 hrs, ideally 20+) and periodic prolonged-period ( >36 hrs)

Additionally, you have the option to look to serotonin to supplement your well-being, and hamper dopamine overproduction, as mentioned before.

In the words of YouTube-famed Stanford psychology professor Robert Sapolsky, “whatever it is you are perseverating [obsessing] over like mad can be diminished by increasing serotonin signaling.”

Increasing Serotonin

Many of these suggestions are also recommendations for increasing dopamine, so this may seem counterintuitive. But keep in mind, the idea is not to stop dopamine signaling altogether, but rather the overproduction of the hormone. What we’re looking for is an equilibrium between these two beneficial neurotransmitters.

Try these suggestions to boost your serotonin levels:

  • Exercise (improves conversion of tryptophan to serotonin)
  • Tryptophan supplements (an amino acid which converts to serotonin, take on empty stomach so other proteins don’t compete for uptake)
  • Sun/vitamin D (also improves tryptophan’s conversion to serotonin)
  • Probiotics and fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and kefir to improve gut microbiome (the gut makes serotonin)
  • (Self) massage (increases serotonin, decreases cortisol)
  • Cortisol release is associated with dopamine receptor overstimulation, and anything that boosts cortisol will inhibit serotonin
  • Levels are highest first thing after waking, so flush cortisol by getting a few minutes of bright light exposure — ideally sunlight (vitamin D) — first thing in the morning.

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