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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