Protein and Dopamine

Start your day off with a dopamine burst from protein!

Looking to start your day off with a better mood? Dopamine is a feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain that is responsible for a positive mood. We all know that coffee is great for getting those dopamine receptors firing – but according to a new study, a high protein meal does as well. Low dopamine levels are associated with depression and a wide range of health problems, such as weight gain and lethargy. When most people get depressed, they’re likely to crave high sugar/fat foods because these foods lead to a fast increase in dopamine which alleviates depression, but at the same time is not suitable for your waistline.

If you eat high fat/high sugar foods for too long, it can change your brain. Previous research in rats has found that the gene expression and availability of dopamine receptors can be altered in some regions of the brain from consuming too much sugar over an extended period. The effect sugar has on dopamine and dopamine receptors makes it addictive, and is why it is often so difficult to eliminate sugar from the diet. This energy-dense, yet nutrient-void foods can lead to increased appetite, overeating, and weight gain over the long term. Thus, identifying equally palatable, but nutrient-rich, healthier replacements such as a high protein meal might reduce some of these adverse effects.

A recent study looked at this theory and concluded that eating a high protein breakfast including eggs, lean meats, and dairy was best at reducing mid-morning cravings while increasing dopamine levels. The subjects consumed either a 350‐calorie normal‐protein breakfast (containing 13g protein), a 350‐calorie high‐protein breakfast (containing 35g protein), or continued to skip
breakfast. The researchers measured levels of homovanillic acid levels, which are associated with dopamine levels in the brain. When the researchers analyzed the data, the addition of a protein breakfast led to reductions in food cravings and increases in homovanillic acid, with greater responses with the high‐protein breakfast meal. These data suggests that the daily addition of breakfast, particularly one high in protein, may be beneficial in reducing food cravings and potentially modulate the underlying substrates that control food overeating and reward in young overweight/obese people.  The researchers were quoted as saying, “Specifically, the rate of dopamine synthesis is sensitive to local substrate concentrations, primarily the amino acid tyrosine, which is influenced by the protein content of a single meal as well as within the overall diet. Since tyrosine is the substrate required in the rate-limiting step of dopamine synthesis, the consumption of higher protein meals containing increased tyrosine potentially leads to increases in dopamine synthesis.”

Hajnal A, Norgren R. Repeated access to sucrose augments dopamine turnover in the nucleus accumbens. Neuroreport. 2002 Dec 3;13(17):2213-6.

The Effects of a High Sugar Diet on the Brain

Hoertel HA, Matthew J Will MJ, Leidy HJ. A randomized crossover, pilot study examining the effects of a normal protein vs. high protein breakfast on food cravings and reward signals in overweight/obese “breakfast skipping”, late‐adolescent girls.  Nutr J 2014,13:80.

Fernstrom JD, Fernstrom MH: Tyrosine, phenylalanine, and catecholamine synthesis and function in the brain. J Nutr. 2007, 137: 1539S-1547S. discussion 48S.

Fernstrom MH, Fernstrom JD: Effect of chronic protein ingestion on rat central nervous system tyrosine levels and in vivo tyrosine hydroxylation rate. Brain Res. 1995, 672: 97-103.