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“Rynda Laurel, founder of VRY, says she started taking Mucuna pruriens while trying to wean herself off antidepressants. “[It] was like a magic bullet for me,” she says. “My mission is to show people there are more natural alternatives to pharmaceuticals.”
I’ve tried meditation apps and antidepressants, but it was a dose of dopamine that gave me back my mojo.
As a 35-year-old who has experienced periods of anxiety and depression for nearly two decades, I’ve come up with a benchmark for when simply feeling “down” becomes a problem: it’s when I can no longer do things I know will make me feel better. And a few months ago, I was feeling low and subdued and couldn’t find the motivation to do much.
When I feel like this, I know I should go to that party, exercise or spend quality time with my boyfriend, but I just can’t get out of the door. Usually, I put this down to laziness or self-sabotage, becoming frustrated with myself for making poor decisions.
Popular psychology and mindfulness meditation apps are touted as an easy fix for various psychological ills, such as depression, anxiety or stress. But for many people, including myself, the notion that our emotional state is in our own hands isn’t always helpful.
So I began looking beyond pop psychology and into the field of neuroscience. What I learned has changed how I think about my emotional state in a hugely positive way. I’m a long way from “mastering my moods”, as the meditation apps promise, but I’m a little bit closer to understanding them.
My first foray was a lecture on the subject of dopamine by the neuroscientist Ali Jennings (alijennings.co.uk) who is studying the link between depression, motivation and low dopamine levels.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, carrying messages in the brain. It is vital to our body’s reward system so is often called the “feel-good hormone”, but Jennings says this can be misleading.
“Dopamine itself isn’t making you happy or sad,” he explains. Instead, it’s released when we anticipate a reward, providing motivation to reach our goal. “Your mood gets better if you get something you want,” Dr Jennings adds. “Dopamine just gives you the drive to pursue it.”
He believes too little dopamine may lead to a lack of motivation, along with other symptoms of depression.
A thirsty consumer of popular psychology, I’m more used to hearing the opposite: if I just meditate enough, say the right affirmations or download a certain app, I will feel better. Do things properly and my moods will be as easy to steer as a dodgem car. This idea was put forward in 1952 by a bestselling book, The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. Peale’s work has since been discredited, but we can’t shake the notion that we’ll feel fabulous if we insist loudly enough that we are fabulous. Upbeat, millennial-pink mantras clutter Instagram, proclaiming the power of self-belief.
The thing is, this approach leaves me feeling like depression is all my fault. I have failed to grip the steering wheel, and my dodgem is swerving all over the place.
The traditional treatments are dogged by problems, too. In the past I’ve been prescribed Citalopram, but antidepressants – many of which work by altering levels of another neurotransmitter, serotonin – can cause severe side effects, and there are concerns about over-prescription, with the number doled out in the UK doubling over the past decade.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that many of us are looking for alternatives. In the US, “mood-balancing supplements” are big news, with brands such as Potion and VRY claiming to boost dopamine production. In the UK, Brain Feed is a new line of “brain health” supplements, including 5-HTP for “serotonin enhancement”.
Keen to see if they could really give me a lift, I ordered VRY’s Dopa Mind, containing Mucuna pruriens. This seed is naturally rich in L-dopa, which is converted to dopamine in the brain and is already widely used to treat low levels of the neurotransmitter in Parkinson’s disease patients.
Although I’m usually sceptical of pricey supplements – and Dopa Mind costs £27 for 90 tablets – the results were almost immediate. Within a few days, I felt more motivated, positive and able to cope with challenges at work.
Rynda Laurel, founder of VRY, says she started taking Mucuna pruriens while trying to wean herself off antidepressants. “[It] was like a magic bullet for me,” she says. “My mission is to show people there are more natural alternatives to pharmaceuticals.” But while my blues did lift, I noticed other changes too. I felt wilder, more reckless, and was more likely to strike up conversations with strangers.
“Dopamine is that big red button that motivates us to pursue reward.”
Clinical psychologist Dr Jessamy Hibberd says understanding how the mind works often helps her patients, but cautions against relying on supplements.
“It’s important to look at our behaviours, too, and how we can control them,” she says. “Our moods are elevated by pleasure, and this is linked to dopamine, but it’s up to us to determine what we derive pleasure from, whether that’s exercise, making time for friends, or an activity we enjoy.”
Personally, I find making sense of the chemicals in my brain reassuring, since I no longer feel like a failure when my moods fluctuate. I won’t be taking Dopa Mind, or any other mood supplement, every day. But when I feel low, I wouldn’t mind turning to it for a little extra push.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED Telegraph UK April 15, 2019.