Dear Mark: Delving Further Into Dopamine

Dear_Mark_Inline_PhotoFor today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m delving more deeply into dopamine. Readers asked some great questions and made some interest comments in the comment board of last week’s post on dopamine, and today I’m addressing three of them. First, how does caffeine related to dopamine? Second, what’s the deal with all my mention of pornography in the last post? And finally, is MDA just providing dopamine hits?

Let’s go:

David wondered:

I’ve often wondered about caffeine and its affect on the dopamine pathway. I’ve heard, but don’t know with total certainty, that it does, Does it increase dopamine production in the short term or just cell sensitivity (or some other mechanism?). And then have a resulting desensitizing result with long term use?

Yes. Caffeine affects the dopaminergic pathway. It stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain. It increases dopamine receptors in the striatum (the movement region) of the human brain. But unlike the false pleasures of getting the “likes” on Facebook or spending three hours a day having every sexual whim satisfied through virtual space, caffeine is context-dependent. Caffeine is what you make of it.

When I wake up well-rested after a good night’s sleep, a strong cup of coffee fills me with what I can only describe as productive optimism. I not only have more energy and am able to focus on the task at hand, I am excited about what the task at hand can lead to. I feel optimistic about life and that optimism increases my productivity. For that reason, I think caffeine when used appropriately as a boost to productive optimism rather than a replacement for sleep can really enhance our life and if anything improve our dopamine function. Consider where the French and American revolutions were planned: in coffee houses.

Of course, you can waste that window of dopaminergic productivity.

There’s probably some bias at play here. I love coffee and I’ve only ever found it to be a boon to my life and my health. But the preponderance of evidence supports my bias. Coffee just seems to be really really good for us, or at least not bad. Whether it’s randomized controlled trials or observational studies of a population, coffee consumption is consistently associated with protection from diseases like diabetes and dementia, reductions in oxidative stress, and improved mental performance.  It even compares favorably to most of the fancy new nootropic supplements out on the market; just recently, the creators of a nootropic supplement had to concede when an efficacy trial showed that caffeine was more effective than the product.

Ronda pointed out:

An awful lot of info about porn

You’re right. I did mention porn a lot, and I was a little trepidatious about doing so. In today’s climate anything sexual is characterized as wholly good and unimpeachable. I agree to a point—sex between people who care about, love, or at least consent to each other is great. There’s nothing wrong with that. And the evidence is quite clear that a healthy sex life leads to a healthy life in general. But something seems off about the idea of an entire generation of men and women satisfying their completely natural sexual urges not through actual sex but through watching other people doing it on the computer or their smart phones.

Some people throw out the fact that we’ve had porn forever, that you could find ancient Greek frescoes showing people in all sorts of sexual contortions. That’s true, but let’s be honest: an abstract fresco isn’t quite the same as 3-D VR porn. The porn today is a super normal stimulus in its intensity, its vividness, its realism, and its ease of access. Nobody’s sneaking their dad’s Playboys into the bathroom, looking over the shoulder, hoping not to get caught. No one’s scanning through the blocked cable channels straining to see a breast amidst the static. They’re getting anything they want, whenever they want, as often as they want. In many cases, it’s easier and arguably better than having to work for it and maybe coming up short or getting rejected. Porn is certainly more reliable than the real thing.

On the extreme end, you’ve got addiction to Internet porn, a real condition mediated by dopamine. Naltrexone, a medication that, among other things, inhibits opioid-induced augmentation of dopamine release, can successfully treat porn addiction.

But you don’t have to be clinically addicted for porn to have a negative effect on your life. You can choose it over real life.

And that’s my main objection to over-reliance on pornography, one that can affect anyone: it’s the easy way out, it lets you avoid the hard work.  Hard things are what make us humans. They shape us, teach us, make us stronger and more resilient. Ultimately, they make us happier. Porn is a poor substitute for all those things, but on a superficial level, in the immediate moment, it can seem good enough. And therein lies the danger.

Somewhat cheekily, HealthyHombre asked:

So my daily MDA fix is causing dopamine desensitization? ?

Actually, you’re not too far off. Coming to MDA every morning and getting some actionable advice, then telling yourself, “Oh, that sounds great. I’m going to do that/start that new workout/start getting more sleep/incorporate more colorful produce. And it feels damn good, and the dopamine flows, because that’s the first win.

The way any kind of lifestyle change works is that you first decide to do it—you hear some information, you read a book, something changes your mind—before you alter your course of being. So every change, every positive life change, every dietary improvement, starts with the mental decision. It’s necessary—but it’s not sufficient. And when we read self-improvement blogs or fitness blogs like Mark’s Daily Apple, we get the opportunity to make those those first changes every day. If we don’t follow up that initial blast of dopamine, it’s all for naught. Nothing happens and we end up chasing the dopamine high.

Keep reading MDA. Just make sure you’re not just reading it. If something I write appeals to you, something speaks to you, then try living it. Try doing it—and let me know how it turns out for you.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care!


About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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26 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Delving Further Into Dopamine”

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  1. Interesting stuff here…always happy when I hear some good things to support my coffee habit. And love the term “productive optimism” which perfectly describes the way I feel on a Monday morning when I’ve had a relaxed Sunday (hopefully with an Eagles win) and wake up excited to take on the day.

  2. I think ancestral, natural laws of variability would suggest that any habitual behavior has long term consequences. Anything taken out of its natural context or taken to a repetitive extreme has the potential to create desensitization and dysfunction. Even healthy things need a cycle of famine to balance the feast. Technology creates unnatural access to EVERYTHING. lol. Personal limits, tribal and relational accountability in the end may still be the answer. Reeling us in when necessary.

  3. This dopamine stuff is fascinating to me and it explains so many of my own personal issues. I just downloaded Lustig’s “The Hacking of the American Mind” and so far, it’s an interesting read. I’m getting a dopamine surge thinking about getting to the actionable chapters!

  4. Mark, I object to your jeremiad on porn including the salacious comment: “Hard things are what make us humans”!!
    (No, I’m not serious.)

  5. A couple things about porn. What do you do if you have no girlfriend? Or are not married, or don’t want to go to a bar to pick up a floosy just to get laid and hopefully not get STDs. It’s the orgasm a man (or woman) is after, and without porn, for many, there’s no release. That can be dangerous too. IT’s a safety valve. And like anything else, it’s all a matter of moderation. I’m an old boomer and I can do more curls and dips, and have more testosterone flowing when I’m watching a video of a sexy babe. I’m not talking about hard-core, just the sight of a sexy body, soft-core, does wonders for a workout. But that’s just me.

    1. Exactly, and with the rise of extreme feminism, it is becoming harder and harder to define what a normal male/female relationship is these days.

  6. I’ve been reading into dopamine a lot. Especially where it leads to addiction and choices of instant satisfaction vs grit and long term goals (staying on the wagon)
    Maybe dopamine is not our friend if we want to improve grit.

    How do you see this?

  7. “scanning through the blocked cable channels straining to see a breast through the static”. That’s awesome! Thank you for reigniting a vivid memory of growing up in the 70’s!

  8. Porn, like anything else, can be taken to extremes, and some people are more addiction-prone than others. With most people, however, it satisfies a temporary need, whether the stimulus is the computer, a magazine, a dirty movie, or one’s imagination. Then, once release is achieved, it’s forgotten about and life goes on. I see no real problem with that as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. Like prostitution, the aversion to pornography is more deeply rooted in church teachings and the country’s “blue” laws than actual practicality.

  9. Hi Mark, you switch between referring to caffeine and coffee interchangeably here but what about caffeinated tea? As it happens, this does not have the same affect as a strong real ground coffee for me – only coffee provides me with the ‘productive optimism ‘ you described, which I think of more as just plain old ‘motivation’ as opposed to a pure hit of energy…. Other people have mentioned the same thing to me – do you think there is some other unique ingredient in coffee which is stimulating dopamine vesrsus tea or is it just because coffee provides a more acute hit of caffeine?

  10. Some here may want to check out the book “Your brain on Porn” and/or Robb Wolf’s podcast with author. Among other issues, it sounds like their is a serious issue of mis-wiring the brain at a young age.

  11. Love everything Mark writes, but for once I have to call him out on
    “Coffee just seems to be really really good for us, or at least not bad”
    Sadly whilst I have loved coffee for many years agree with the facts about most benefits, and thought I had a healthy relationship with it, 1 – 2 cups a morning, and it powered me through whatever I needed, I recently realised it was causing chronic adrenal fatigue syndrome. It took me a while to find this out, but unfortunately Im not the only one. There can be too much of a good thing 🙁 watch out

    1. Coffee definitely isn’t really, really good for everyone. I loved it with a little heavy cream, but the only thing it ever provided me with was diarrhea if I drank more than a half a cup. I switched to tea years ago and never regretted it.

  12. Also, there is apparently a genetic difference between people regarding caffeine. Some people are fast metabolizers and some are slow metabolizers of caffeine, and this apparently makes a big difference as to whether someone will benefit from coffee or not.

    1. This is what I understand to be true as well. My husband and I had our genetic testing completed through 23 and Me and our report stated that we were fast metabolizers of caffeine. This was evidence to support my personal belief that two cups of coffee a day are not a problem for me. They make me feel exactly the same way Mark described, with no ill effects. My morning coffee makes me sooooo happy.

  13. If you want to see the true detriments of porn, check out “your brain on porn” ted talk on youtube. In it, he talks about the Coolidge effect and the never-ending novelty of porn exhibits a release of dopamine to the same magnitude of cocaine. However, instead of the 30min cocaine high you can watch porn for hours. This causes desensitization of dopamine receptors in the brain leading you to come back for more and more to get that same stimulus – therefore porn addiction. Brain scans of heavy porn users are similar to those of heroin users. Im 23 and most of all my friends watch this stuff on a daily basis including me in the past. I think this obsession with the internet is ruining the lives of many especially those who grew up in the world of high-speed internet where everything Grok wanted and worked hard for is there at a click of a button.

  14. This Sisson guy is laughable. Energy has no existence whatsoever in itself. It is a totally absract property , invented, that we humans assign to objects, a number, nothing more. Neither energy, nor its units are stuff….at all….. You cannot do damage to human cells with “energy”. Calories. Are . Not
    ?Anything but ABSTRACTION. CARBON-stuff-matter is what people eat. Matter and energy are not related at all.

    The entire blogosphere are a pack of idiots.

  15. I had an interesting conversation with my dental hygienist yesterday. She told me she was trying to quit coffee in order to lose weight. I asked her why, and she said that when she drinks coffee it makes her appetite go away and this was bad because she was supposed to eat six times a day, with two hours between each meal! Sometimes, because I am so immersed in the primal lifestyle, I forget that there is still so much conflicting, confusing information all over the media. Coffee is just one of the many things the average consumer finds confusing. This is why I am constantly referring people to this website!

  16. I agree on the points on pornography. I’ve been of the same opinion for several years. I’m liberal, and I think that people should do whatever they want within their rights; but for me, the commercialization of sex, the dominance of lust over sexuality, the hunger approach vs a fulfillment approach, more is good vs less is more, and the high likelihood that the majority of the actors are subjugated and exploited, the troubling questions about the ethics of supporting sexual exploitation or sexual trafficking, and the difficulty differentiating purely free choice from exploitation and the preying upon the vulnerable… All these factors make the Grok in me unhappy. I think, as Mark does, once you really think about the ethics (not morality, I’m not about policing choice!) of that dubious industry, one would quite likely view it at least with suspicion, more likely with contempt.

  17. I was just going to post this under the original hijacking dopamine post and then saw this one, so with multi-tasking time restraints like usual, before delving into Delving Further Into Dopamine, I give you:
    It pretty much echoes what Mark said about facebook.
    I’m going to post this on facebook too, which I used to be hooked on, but for a long time now, after I realized how much time I was shallowly wasting, I use it pretty much exclusively for messages/chat.