There is nothing worse than wanting to want to do something….
… and then, not doing it.
You know what I mean?
You could be at work and a task deadline is looming, yet you cannot seem to peel away from Facebook.
Or, you have a project that has been circling around in your mind forever that you promised yourself you would get to today… after one more load of laundry.
You get the point.
It is a frustrating situation when you feel like you are not motivated to do something, especially if you know that you “should” do it.
In my previous article, I discussed how lack of drive is not a character defect. Rather, mindset, biology, and neurochemical factors are all at play. Once all of these aspects are addressed additional support may be needed to combat any residual focus and brain fog problems.
In this article, I will discuss natural ways to boost dopamine to enhance attention. I will also explore the use of adaptogens and nervine botanicals to optimize stress and mental resiliency and support cognition.
7 Tips for Boosting Dopamine Naturally
One area to explore if someone is feeling undriven is their levels of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is associated with reward, memory, and motivation and can be depleted by lifestyle and various other brain factors (see box 1). Dr. Amen discusses seven ways to modulate dopamine naturally. These include:
- Eating tyrosine rich foods which is needed to make dopamine (e.g., almonds, bananas, fish, chicken, beans). (Other foods that may boost dopamine and enhance focus include caffeine and dark chocolate.)
- Exercising and getting in movement throughout the day.
- Meditating, which influences brain response patterns and neurobiology.
- Getting a massage to combat stress, which depletes dopamine.
- Catching Z’s, sleep is important for the brain cells to renew, repair, and build new neural connections.
- Playing music.
- Using nutrients and botanicals to raise dopamine such as mucuna and tyrosine (in some cases). *
*You always want to check with your doctor before implementing supplement or botanical changes.
Although these tips can be helpful, oftentimes if one has been depleted and overwhelmed for some time, additional restorative therapeutics are needed. In these instances, I have found using naturopathic medicinal herbals and essential oils that support brain health and combat mental fatigue to be particularly beneficial.
Adaptogens: Promoting Stress Resiliency & Mental Endurance
The article, “Adaptogens: A Review of their History, Biological Activity, and Clinical Benefits,” from the American Botanical Council, reviews several definitions of adaptogens. All of them have the underlying outcome of reviving resiliency to stress and enhancing physical and mental function. I have excerpted them from the journal and outlined them below.
Definition 1- “The term adaptogen was introduced into scientific literature by Russian toxicologist Nikolay Lazarev in 1957 to refer to substances that increase the “state of non-specific resistance” in stress.1,2 His concept was based on Hans Selye’s theory of stress and general adaptation syndrome,3 which has 3 phases: alarm phase, phase of resistance, and phase of exhaustion (Figure 1).* Later, another Soviet scientist, pharmacologist Israel Brekhman, postulated that adaptogens must be safe and normalize body functions irrespective of the nature of stressors.6,7”
Definition 2- “Adaptogenic substances are stated to have the capacity to normalize body functions and strengthen systems compromised by stress. They are reported to have a protective effect on health against a wide variety of environmental assaults and emotional conditions.8”
Definition 3- “Adaptogens are innocuous agents, nonspecifically increasing resistance against physically, chemically, biologically, and psychologically noxious factors (“stressors”), normalizing effect independent of the nature of pathologic state.6,7”
Definition 4 – “Adaptogens are substances that elicit in an organism a state of nonspecifically raised resistance, allowing them to counteract stressor signals and to adapt to exceptional strain.9”
Definition 5- “As a pharmacotherapeutic group, adaptogens were recently defined as herbal preparations that increased attention and endurance in fatigue, and reduced stress-induced impairments and disorders related to the neuro-endocrine and immune systems.5,10 This definition was based on evidence obtained from clinical trials, which authors evaluated in accordance with the European Medicines Agency Assessment Scale and the Jadad scale—a recognized, evidence-based, validated grading rationale for clinical trials. Today, the term adaptogen is widely used by many herbalists although it has yet to gain prominence in mainstream pharmacology.”
Table 2 and Table 3 of this article review the pharmacological profile and clinical efficacy of some of the common adaptogens of Rhodiola, Eleuthero, Schisandra, Ginseng, and Withania. Whereas all of them have been shown to benefit the central nervous system and relieve physical and mental fatigue, they each have their own unique, specific, and additional benefits. None are classified as stimulants, rather they are balancing herbals that are rejuvenating.
I must say, I have an especially fond spot for adaptogens, as they are my “realistic, accepting herbs.” They can’t take away normal wears and tears on the psyche, but many have reported they do help them respond better to these strains.
How Adaptogens Work
According to the article, “Evidence-based Efficacy of Adaptogens in Fatigue, and Molecular Mechanisms Related to Their Stress-protective Activity” these medicinal botanicals have various mechanisms of action that combat brain fog and exhaustion. The article reviewed these molecular pathways to provide a rationale for their efficacy in clinical trials.
Regarding the human trial evidence, the abstract reiterates what was stated in the first article reviewed above:
- Strong scientific evidence is available for Rhodiola rosea SHR-5 extract, which improved attention, cognitive function and mental performance in fatigue and in chronic fatigue syndrome.
- Good scientific evidence has been documented in trials in which Schisandra chinensis and Eleutherococcus senticosus increased endurance and mental performance in patients with mild fatigue and weakness.
- Based on their efficacy in clinical studies, adaptogens can be defined as a pharmacological group of herbal preparations that increase tolerance to mental exhaustion and enhance attention and mental endurance in situations of decreased performance.
The mechanisms of actions of these herbals are pretty complex, but they are summarized succinctly in this article. Overall, they are related to the regulation of body processes via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). The HPA axis, and its interaction with other organ systems, influences many biological responses, especially stress, digestion, hormones, mood, and more. (source, source, source)
The compounds in the botanicals act as mediators of stress response at the cellular and genetic level which corresponds to the HPA response. This includes affecting levels of nitric oxide, circulating cortisol, and ATP production.
For those who want the nitty-gritty, minute details, I’ve broken down the abstract of the above paper again below:
- The beneficial stress-protective effect of adaptogens is related to regulation of homeostasis via several mechanisms of action associated with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the control of key mediators of stress response such as molecular chaperons (e.g. Hsp70), stress-activated c-Jun N-terminal protein kinase (JNK1), Forkhead Box O transcription factor DAF-16, cortisol and nitric oxide (NO).
- The key point of action of phytoadaptogens appears to be their up-regulating and stress-mimetic effects on the “stress-sensor” protein Hsp70, which plays an important role in cell survival and apoptosis. Hsp70 inhibits the expression of NO synthase II gene and interacts with glucocorticoid receptors directly and via the JNK pathway, thus affecting the levels of circulating cortisol and NO.
- Prevention of stress-induced increase in NO, and the associated decrease in ATP production, results in increased performance and endurance.
- Adaptogen-induced up-regulation of Hsp70 triggers stress-induced JNK-1 and DAF-16-mediated pathways regulating the resistance to stress and resulting in enhanced mental and physical performance and, possibly, increased longevity.
Balancing the Nervous System Response with Nervines
Another group of herbals that are helpful with mental fatigue and burnout are called nervines. These herbs have a specific action on the nervous system and tend to have a directional effect. They can be differentiated into three major categories: nervine relaxants, nervine stimulants, and nervine tonics. This means they can act to blunt a hyperarousal state, stimulant the brain and body, or tonify the nervous system. (source, source)
A flowsheet and chart of both adaptogens and nervines which lists their indications and actions can be found here.
Lack of focus and mental fatigue have many root causes that need to be considered. A naturopathic and functional medicine doctor can help one decipher what may be the underlying issues that are impacting their client’s cognitive function and attention. Then, they can personalize a wellness protocol that is best suited for the individual. Various lifestyle practices, nutrients, and supplements can be used to enhance dopamine. Additionally, botanicals, such as adaptogens and nervines, are often included in this plan to assist with stress resiliency and tonify the nervous system.
In upcoming posts, I will review some of my favorite herbs and essential oils for cognition, focus, and energy.
In the meantime, please share your thoughts and comments below.
Do you have a favorite herbal or dopamine practice to enhance your focus?
Share below, it may make the list!
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Mental Health Resources
If you are in need of additional support and professional health, please reach out!
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (U.S.) — Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Crisis Text Line — Text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor
- Lifeline Crisis Chat — Chat online with a specialist who can provide emotional support, crisis intervention and suicide prevention services at www.crisischat.org
Other Uplifting Resources
Disclaimer: This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)
According to experts and the World Health Organization (WHO), there is no approved standard of care treatment, cure, or preventative for COVID-19. Supportive measures, vaccination, and containment are in full force as a result. Please see the CDC website and your state’s website for more information and updates. They also state when to contact your physician related to symptoms and travel history, exposures. Please read my more detailed article on this subject here.
This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.
Thanks Pixabay and Canva.