Imagine having the power to influence your brain chemistry for a more focused, creative, and motivated day.
It's not as far-fetched as you might think.
With the right lifestyle and nutrition habits, you can control your brain’s pre-existing neurochemical pathways by enhancing the neurochemicals you’re already producing.
There are many neurochemicals (more than 100!), but when it comes to your productivity and overall mental health, you're dealing with a handful of especially potent molecules:
These four molecules are involved in a wide variety of mental states and behaviors, including focus, creativity, motivation, drive, learning, alertness, mood, relationships, and feelings of well-being.
We’ll look at all four of these molecules on three different levels:
But before we get into the details, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of what these neurochemicals do exactly in our nervous system.
Quick Intro to Your Nervous System and the Role of Neurochemicals
Your brain is one piece of a larger system called the nervous system—a continuous loop of communication between your brain, spinal cord, body, and all the connections between your organs.
The nervous system is made of trillions of nerve cells called neurons.
Neurons communicate with each other through chemicals and electrical signals.
Here’s how this works:
Neurons don’t physically connect.
There’s a space between the neurons called a synapse. These little gaps are what allow neurons to easily form and break connections.
To communicate, neurons will release little packets of "transmitter chemicals" into the synapse. The next neuron detects these chemicals and passes on this electricity to the next nerve cell.
Depending on what the chemical is, it either makes the receiving neuron more electrically active (excitation) or less electrically active (inhibits).
Neurons don’t just talk one-to-one. (Each neuron can have up to 10,000 connections!)
They form chains of neurons called neural circuits.
These neural circuits are made up of lots of different brain areas that light up in particular sequences, depending on the levels of neurochemicals and hormones in your system. The neural circuits' activity leads to specific behaviors and emotional states.
What you do, think, or feel at any moment, depends on which neural circuits are electrically active or inactive.
The Four Key Neuromodulators
Neuromodulators “modulate” or regulate which neurons in the brain and body are going to be active or inactive.
This brings us to an important point to understand about our own biology:
If you can learn how to control the levels of certain neuromodulators in your system, you can control the activity of neural circuits involved in motivation, focus, and energy to a surprising extent.
As mentioned, we're talking about these four neuromodulators:
We’ll go into a brief overview of each one, followed by an overview of day-to-day tools you can use to impact the level in your system.
Just a quick note before we move on: these neuromodulators have lots of different features and functions in our system. This is not a comprehensive overview. In this article, we’re only looking at these chemicals through the lens of productivity, motivation, and creativity.
1 / Dopamine - Motivation 🏃♂️
The level of dopamine in your system is the primary determinant of your level of motivation, excitement, and willingness to push through effort and pursue your goals.
Dopamine, when elevated above baseline, tends to increase states of motivation, both mental and physical, drive, and (to some extent) focus.
But there’s a lot of misconception about dopamine.
Many people think dopamine is all about pleasure.
Dopamine is not about pleasure. For example, you can enjoy scrolling through Instagram even when your dopamine levels are low.
It's about motivation, pursuit, and craving for goals or for things that are outside our immediate possession and experience—like food, a career goal, a partner, etc. Things we do not yet have but that we want, and where we will put in the effort to get it. That pursuit can be physical, cognitive, or both.
Releasing dopamine is one of the ways your brain has to make you feel good and encourage you to do more of whatever you’re doing.
2 / Epinephrine - Energy ⚡️
This neurochemical is chemically identical to adrenaline. The only difference is that epinephrine is released in the brain, while adrenaline is released from the adrenal glands in the body.
This category of neuromodulator is mainly responsible for generating our energy—our fuel to move.
When epinephrine levels are high, we tend to feel agitated—like we want to move, and we can't shut down our thinking.
When epinephrine is very low, we have less physical energy to move or mental energy to generate thoughts very quickly.
Dopamine and epinephrine are closely related. Epinephrine is manufactured from the molecule dopamine. They collaborate with each other.
3/ Acetylcholine - Focus 🎯
Acetylcholine has a lot to do with focus and which neural circuits become relevant for our consciousness.
It does that through a “sensory gating” process, dampening or blocking irrelevant or redundant stimuli in the background. Think of it as a spotlight on a stage, helping our brain know exactly what is important and leaving everything else (the distractions) in the dark.
Acetylcholine is involved in focus and learning, but not necessarily always in the context of highly motivated and ramped-up states. Acetylcholine can also be released and can encourage the learning and neuroplasticity associated with calm states.
Research also shows that acetylcholine plays a central role in 'synaptic plasticity'—a process in the brain that allows brain cells to store new information and memories. Neuroplasticity can be impacted by an enormous number of different chemicals, but acetylcholine has a particularly potent ability to allow neuroplasticity to happen.
4/ Serotonin - Contentment 🧘♀️
Serotonin is another “feel-good” chemical and is responsible for creating states of contentedness, peace, being happy, feeling relaxed, and feeling soothed.
When we leverage serotonin, we are leveraging a neuromodulator that tends to increase the activity of neural circuits in the brain and body that make us feel relaxed. It tends to decrease the activity of neural circuits that make us rabidly in pursuit of things that we don't have.
So the opposite effect of dopamine.
And just like dopamine, there's a balance to be found:
When serotonin is very high, people can feel dull and lose all motivation to seek out things.
When serotonin levels are very low, people can show agitation and levels of stress. Low serotonin levels are often associated with depression.
Building Your Toolkit of Behavioral and Nutrition Tools
There are several categories of tools you could use to manage these neuromodulators—from behavioral to supplementation to prescription drugs to illegal drugs.
In this post, we're focusing purely on behavior and nutrition.
The simple, immediate tweaks you can make to your day-to-day habits and routines in order to feel more focused, alert, and motivated.
We’ll look at these tools across three levels:
1 / Baseline
Consider that at any given moment, asleep or awake, you have some amount of these neuromodulators being released in your brain and body.
None of these chemicals ever disappear completely, but they tend to be present at different levels.
There’s always a certain natural baseline.
For most people, this is what that looks like in a 24-hour period:
- PHASE 1 (0 to 9 hours after waking)
This is the dopamine and epinephrine-dominated phase of the day. These two neuromodulators tend to be at their highest levels that they will be at any point in the 24-hour period of the day.
- PHASE 2 (9 to about 16 hours after waking)
The serotonin-dominated portion of the day. The dopamine and norepinephrine levels tend to subside a bit. Serotonin levels tend to increase.
- PHASE 3 (about 17 to 24 hours after waking)
This is the phase in which you should be deeply asleep. During this time, there's chaos in terms of which neuromodulators are most present in the brain, with incredible peaks and drops of dopamine, acetylcholine, and serotonin.
Most often, you're not going to see any release of epinephrine or adrenaline because that tends to wake us up and put us into action mode behaviors—which is not required during sleep.
It’s important to have an understanding of these baseline levels and how they change throughout the day, as it determines when you use which tool.
When it comes to baseline levels of neurochemicals, there are certain habits you should be doing nearly every day, if not every day, to have a healthy baseline of neurochemicals:
- Sleep. On average, 7-9 hours of sleep. Some people will say they can function on less, and while that may be true, it’s unlikely they are functioning as well as they could. By depriving their brain of sleep, they’re also depriving it of the essential neurochemicals it needs for optimal cognitive performance.
- Sunlight in the early part of the day, ideally within the first 1-3 hours after waking. Maximize natural sunlight exposure to your eyes. If you wake up before the sun is out, turn on as many overhead lights as possible. If you’re not getting any natural morning light, you’re not getting the chemical lift you might need to tackle your day.
- Avoiding bright lights between 10 pm-4 am. Avoid bright lights in phase 3 of the cycle we talked about earlier. That includes screen lights. This has been shown to negatively impact your dopamine levels.
- Nutrition. What you eat doesn't just impact how you look. It also has a massive impact on how you feel, emotionally and mentally. Instead of relying on supplements, you can be deliberate with the types of food you eat to increase your baseline levels.
> Tyrosine-rich foods. Tyrosine is an amino acid and a precursor to dopamine. In general, high-protein foods tend to be high in amino acids.
> Choline-rich foods. Choline, a precursor to acetylcholine, is an essential nutrient, meaning it can’t be made by the body. You must consume it through your diet. Foods that are naturally high in choline include whole eggs, meats and fish, mushrooms, and whole grains.
> Tryptophan-rich foods. Tryptophan is the amino acid upstream of serotonin synthesis. White meat turkey, whole milk, canned tuna, oatmeal, cheese (cheddar), chocolate, fruits like bananas, and apples.
Nutrition is obviously a complicated topic, with lots of individual nuances, so this list is far from exhaustive. If you do some online research, you'll find plenty of food recommendations.
Then, one more practice specifically for serotonin, there's one hugely underrated practice to ensure healthy baseline levels:
- Gratitude. It's easy to dismiss a gratitude practice as too soft and silly. But there's strong scientific evidence that gratitude has a potent effect on serotonin and the activity of brain circuits that involve serotonin, increasing overall feelings of well-being. And what's most surprising is that the effects are strongest for receiving gratitude from others, more so than giving gratitude.
Directed is all about tools and habits you can deploy in the moment, on the scale of minutes and hours—to have a direct and specific impact on your baseline.
Here, we have specific tools at our disposal to target each neurochemical individually.
🏃♂️ For motivation [dopamine]:
- Deliberate cold exposure. Take a 1-3 minute cold shower, as cold as you can safely tolerate, as well; this is known to increase baseline dopamine for hours dramatically.
- NSDR or Non-Sleep-Deep-Rest. It's not a nap, and it's not meditation. It's a combination of body scan and exhale-emphasized breathing, bringing the brain and body into a state of deep relaxation. You go into this conscious sleep-like state, shown to restore energy and dopamine levels. There's also clear evidence that these moments of deep rest enhance learning and neuroplasticity. So ideal to do this in the middle of the day, after & before blocks of deep, focused work. I keep going back to this 23-minute session (I’ve downloaded the audio from YouTube so I can listen to it wherever I am and can fall asleep without getting woken up by loud YouTube ads.)
⚡️ For energy [epinephrine]:
- Any physical activity, like walking, running, swimming, or even talking, is going to increase levels of epinephrine. If you tell yourself that you are too tired or don’t have the time to exercise, start thinking of exercise as something that restores—not drains—your energy and willpower. Exercise takes caloric energy but gives neural energy by way of increasing epinephrine in the brain.
- Cyclic hyperventilation. Repeating inhales and exhales in a deep and repetitive way is incredibly powerful for increasing levels of alertness. Here is a simple pattern to follow:
- 25-30 deep breaths (inhale through the nose, exhale through mouth).
- Exhale your air and hold your breath with your lungs empty for 15-60 seconds.
- Then inhale once and hold your breath.
- Don’t force the breath hold; start to breathe normally once you feel the impulse to breathe.
- Do this for 2-3 rounds.
🎯 For focus [acetylcholine]:
- Narrowing your visual field. Just like acetylcholine increases focus; focus increases acetylcholine. The practice of consciously narrowing your visual aperture will increase the amount of acetylcholine in particular neural circuits, which will then make it easier to focus. So, stare at a particular visual target at the same distance at which you're going to perform some work, and do that for 30-60 seconds. Then move to your task.
🧘♀️ For contentment [serotonin]:
- Physical contact with loved ones. Serotonin levels are tied to social connection and things that delight us. That can be people but also non-romantic attachments, pets, and even objects.
- Exercise. Serotonin levels are high during exercise, which in part explains the runner's high.
At the final level, we're talking about how to structure the tasks on your to-do list in order to get the most out of the chemicals in your brain.
🏃♂️ For motivation [dopamine]:
When it comes to feeling motivated to work on a particular task, it’s all about having a tight feedback loop.
Telling yourself you are solving a problem or moving toward your goals is a huge stimulator of dopamine release—and entirely under your cognitive control.
Of course, it’s not about lying to yourself and saying you’ve hit a goal when you haven’t. But as you progress toward milestones, register it in your mind. This clear, immediate feedback loop stimulates dopamine release.
So make your goals small and specific, so you can track whether or not you are moving in the right direction.
⚡️ For energy [epinephrine]:
When it comes to epinephrine, it's important to have the right level of “fear” to get the kick to perform at your best.
Norepinephrine is at an optimal level when you feel slightly over-challenged. The “this-is-tricky-but-I-think-I-can-handle-it” feeling.
You won’t be able to feel engaged if the task is way too easy or way too difficult. It’s okay if there’s a bit of frustration and discomfort. In fact, that’s exactly what you want for optimal learning and neuroplasticity—as long as it’s not so bad you’ll want to stop.
🎯 For focus [acetylcholine]:
Set up your environment in a way so you can work single-mindedly on one specific, clearly defined goal without any interruptions or distractions.
Avoid having to second-guess or think about what needs to be done as you’re working on the task.
Writing down in advance what “done” looks like for you is incredibly helpful here.
🧘♀️ For contentment [serotonin]:
Prioritize time in your day-to-day schedule for social connection and physical touch, wherever possible.
Also, know when to stop, and acknowledge the work you’ve done. Reminding yourself of all you’ve accomplished can give you strength, stamina, and also serotonin to push yourself forward in your goals in a healthy, positive way.
For a balanced emotional landscape, you need a good balance between serotonin and dopamine in your system.
Not a One-Size-Fits-All
While these chemical neurochemical pathways are hardwired systems in all of us, this is not a one-size-fits-all approach.
There’s value in trying out the different tools and seeing what works for you.
Take me as an example:
Lots of sources recommend exercise in the morning. For me, my mornings are my highest focus and alertness time. Clearly high dopamine, epinephrine, and acetylcholine levels. It doesn't make sense for me to use that time to exercise.
I typically have a pretty big crash in the early afternoon. Foggy brain, unmotivated, low energy. I aim to go for a run or a walk then, and sometimes even take a cold shower.
This might be entirely different for you. So take the time to observe yourself and to experiment with the different tools available to you.
This deep dive is based on notes and learnings from neuroscience/management book The Leading Brain and Huberman Lab’s episode Optimize & Control Your Brain Chemistry to Improve Health & Performance.