by Prashanti de Jager
What do certain herbal adaptogens and meditation on compassion have to do with each other? They are two powerful ways to restore the dopamine based “Pleasure Pathway” in the brain, a connection that has been known to Yoga, Ayurveda and Taoists for many millennia and now is also confirmed by western bioscience.
Explaining how this works, why it is so incredibly important to our ability to experience any form of enduring pleasure, and also giving synergistic protocols that really hold space for this induction of deep nectar is the topic I will introduce in this ORGANIC INDIA Newsletter and subsequent blogs.
I remember so clearly, many years ago as I was sitting in an excellent and profound Philosophy of Ethics course. It was the last class of the semester, and when the bell rang and everybody stood up to leave and start cramming for exams, the professor shouted out at us as if he wanted to summarize the course:
“Just remember this, ought implies can!”
I sat back down, closed my eyes, and meditated on that till long after the hall was empty, and obviously, I have remembered this.
“Ought implies can!” Yes, perhaps we “ought” to have a juicier love life, perhaps we “ought” to find more pleasure in the things that seemed to once please us, but the question arises, “Can we?” Over the last decade I have seen an increasing number of people who seem physiologically and anatomically less able to experience the pleasure they once did. A big part of this is the toll of stress in the form of job and life pressures, man-made molecules in our diets, some pharmaceutical drugs, and often in the form of having way too much unbalanced fun and pleasure for too long, particularly “party favor” flavored pleasure. In fact, when we get addicted to almost anything the pleasure pathway tends to fire frequently initially, but eventually there is a “cease firing,” and then, as B.B. sings it, “the thrill is gone.”
There is no paucity of items that you can consume to ensure that your “February” is as juicy and rewarding as possible. But what good is something if you can’t hold it, or can’t even really allow it in. It is like putting gas in a car with no or dysfunctional wheels; like trying to fly a kite in a vacuum; like having a house full of bulbless sockets; it is like, yeah, a bit sad and often downright tragic.
Have you ever wondered how you can make yourself more available to the pleasure and enjoyment of all these things life is waiting to give to you? Are there pathways to pleasure that can be supported so that everything else you do and consume to support your pleasure will be that much more available and supportive?
The answer is a resounding yes, and has many facets, including a very special channel in your bodymind that western scientists call the “Pleasure Pathway.”
Neurologically our ability to experience emotions and pleasure resides with our deep instinctual drives in an area of the brain called the mesolimbic. The field or network of resonance of neurons and neurotransmitters associated with this important activity is called the “Pleasure Pathway.” Made predominantly of dopamine neurons that talk to each other with, you guessed it, dopamine, this pathway or “zone of resonance” starts its glow from the center of the brain, extends through the region above the pituitary gland, then passes through a relay station known as the nucleus accumbens, and ends, or begins, or is reflected, in the front part of the brain.
If our Pleasure Pathway is clear, clean, activated and suitably supplied with enough “fuel” then it is very easy for us to be happy: We literally have an anatomical and physiological bias to be happy! We will literally be able to experience happiness and pleasure from hearing, smelling, tasting, seeing and touching, and even the “sense” associated with thinking and inner feeling. We all know people like this who are so consistently happy that we wonder if they actually are seriously medicated or just really good at squashing themselves into the suppression of deep denial. But it is very possible and in fact is probable if you accomplish the right protocols, as it is a side effect of many meditation and Yoga techniques.
Conversely, due to a variety of stresses, including stressing our brains with substances that we may consume to ensure ecstasy and ease, our pleasure pathways can become very thin, weak, toxic, decrepit and simply uncharged. When this happens we are anatomically and physiologically biased against experiencing pleasure and happiness.
Though “fake it till you make it” can work, a lot of our ability to be happy and experience pleasure is simply not in our conscious control, not entirely in the conscious part of our brain.
Of course, like any neurotransmitter, dopamine has a host of actions, and one of those is key to the ability to experience pleasure, including sexual and romantic pleasure, as it is the molecular equivalent of a love letter or anything you find really sexy. Classically dopamine is associated with pleasure experience, but now it is also seen to be central to the motivation to experience pleasure. You get that difference? In other words, without dopamine not only may you not experience pleasure, but you may not want to! Who wants words like apathy, anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure), and dysphoria (the opposite of euphoria, being very dissatisfied with life) to be words that describe your life, or your loved ones life?
Again, plain and simple: So much of the pleasure we experience is simply the release of dopamine in the pleasure pathway, in fact, it is almost synonymous with that pleasure that you experience, though it is not essential to deep spiritual pleasure, when pleasure is the experiencer. When we experience pleasure dopamine is released and when dopamine is released we experience pleasure. This is why people find themselves finding pleasure in molecules like nicotine, which generates pleasure, and potential addiction because it causes physiological and biochemical modifications by stimulating dopamine neurons to release excessive unbalanced amounts of dopamine in the areas of the brain that control pleasure, aka, the pleasure pathway.
There are hundreds of things we can do to restore our pleasure pathway and they fit into 7 main categories.
It is incredible and intellectually thrilling when you read the bioscience research on this and see how this science confirms what ancient legends have pointed to for millennia.
Ashwagandha and its constituents like withanolides has been shown to support the healthy structure of dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area, specifically bolstering secondary dendrites extending out from these nerves so key to pleasure.8
Ashwagandha is known to support and protect many facets of health in the Pleasure Pathway including stopping the lipid peroxidation that destroys these nerve cells, increasing glutathione and catecholamine content, increasing the activities of glutathione-S-transferase, superoxide dismutase and catalase, and increasing the responsiveness of dopamine receptor binding, all in a dose dependent manner.9 It is remarkable.
You may think that if you eat herbs that have dopamine in them your body will not make as much dopamine. True, these hormones are usually on a negative feedback cycle which means that the more there is the less is produced. However, in the context of whole herbs, one need not worry with these botanical sources within reason as they will not stop the endogeneous supply but rather restore it to healthy vibrant levels. Banana sap and Mucuna are excellent sources of dopamine and dopamine precursors.
Dopamine transport is the membrane that pumps dopamine out of the synapse, where it is active, and back into the cytosol, the intercellular fluid of the cell, where it is stored for later use. Isoflavone phytoestrogens like those found in Shatavri and other herbs can support healthy function of prefrontal lobe dopamine transport membranes.
Absolutely key to transient and long term health is ensuring healthy inflammation response in and around all our cells, and when it comes to cognitive and emotional health, especially around the dopamine neurons. Fruits high in antioxidants, like Triphala, Amla and Blueberries support healthy response to inflammation in and around toxic stress challenged dopamine neurons and even support healthy re-growth of damaged dopamine neurons and healthy re-growth of positive microglia and microglial function in both the striatum and the globus pallidus, so fundamentally key to pleasure awareness.10
Phytoestrogens are polyphenolic non-steroidal plant compounds with estrogen-like biological activity, for instance Shatavrins in Shatavri, Luteolin in Tulsi (Holy Basil), Diarylheptanoids and Curcumin in Turmeric, and Ginsenosides in Panax Ginseng root. Both endogenous estrogen and isoflavone phytoestrogens play an important role in regulating the activity of dopamine neurons in mid-limbic systems, including the amygdala, the center responsible for our emotional learning. Many phytoestrogens, like daidzein and genistein, protect dopamine producing brain cells and help them maintain health not to mention maintaining life.
Phytoestrogens supports key molecules like Nrf2 which is a transcription factor that triggers genes in Dopamine neurons that turn on powerful and innate antioxidant defenses.
Estrogen and phytoestrogens such as the isoflavones possess neuroprotective effects on the morphological aspects of dopamine neurons in the substantia nigra facet of the pleasure pathway.11
Genistein, an isoflavone, significantly preserves motor function in dopamine neurons as the functional effects of genistein were accompanied by preservation of tyrosine hydroxylase-immunoreactive neurons in the SN.
Phytoestrogens, including resveratrol, a polyphenol found in many herbs like HeShouWu and in many red wines, protects dopaminergic neurons in brains that are stressed and poisoned by consumed poisons. Daily use of resveratrol prevents stress and toxin related depletion of striatal dopamine neurons. Best is when the Phytoestrrogens are already in the body when the stress or toxins hit, and so long term use is also of great benefit in neuroprotective protocols.12
All our dopamine neurons have individual guardians or bodyguards called microglia cells. So we need to keep these guardians healthy or they become confused and attack their charges. Dysfunctional activation of microglia and the consequent release of proinflammatory factors are believed to contribute to neurodegeneration, so anything that supports healthy microglial function in dopamine neurons will help our pleasure center remain a happy camper. Phytoestrogens, for instance Biochanin A, one of the predominant isoflavones phytoestrogens in Red Clover, supports healthy dopamine uptake and healthy numbers of dopamine neurons in brains heavily bombarded with stress and/or poisons/toxins, and does so by the inhibition of microglia activation and decreasing the generation of proinflammatory factors.13 The isoflavone phytoestrogen genistein also protects dopamine neurons by supporting the healthy inhibition of microglia activation.14
Besides long term consumption of herbs like Ashwagandha, Shatavri, Tulsi (Holy Basil), Brahmi, and Turmeric, there are dozens of other ways known in Yoga and Ayurveda that can be employed to deeply stabilize, nourish and restore our Pleasure Pathway. We need a confluence of factors for successfully ensuring our deep joy. Here are some examples:
The Pleasure Pathway is associated with the limbic system which is associated with the olafactory: Another reason to take your aromatic adaptogens, like Tulsi as a tea, so that you can use the channel of smell to directly enhance your deep wellness. But you must hold the cup of tea up to your face and “drink” it with your smell and sinuses. This connection between the fragrance of your medicine and your deep limbic and dopamine system is known in many traditions and is confirmed recently by western bioscience as well.
Certain music has also been shown to support healthy distinct dopamine response in the deep pleasure pathways.15
Meditators who skillfully and sincerely focus on compassion can positively modulate these same pleasure pathways, which then hold space for a whole other level of pleasure, a type of spiritual bliss. We all know this of course, and we have known this for thousands of years. In fact, this is a big reason why many people meditate. And western bioscience has confirmed this fact by attaching brain imaging devices to experienced meditators.16
If you stimulate the vagus nerve properly you can trigger the balance of neurotransmitters including dopamine and seratonion. Ujjayi Pranayama is a breathing exercise that stimulates the vagus. Properly accomplished Ujjayi sounds like a lullaby, like a gentle sweet nectarous love song, and is not a rasping sound.
Another great way to restore these pleasure pathways is to bring your sexual energy in and up. You can do this alone or with a sexual partner. This may be a totally different flavor of sex than you are used to but it can be such an incredibly rewarding change of pace, so much so that it can readily change your life. The fact is that the genitals are a great place to generate energy but are not meant to store energy. There are three main places to store sexual/spiritual energy, and one of them is closely related to the pleasure pathway. So you generate energy via sexuality, and you lift that energy up to the top of the head and then let the brain steep in it. Of course, this one sentence description is meant to tell you about this option and not meant to instruct you in it. It is a wonderful deeply delicious adjunct “therapy” though.
Supporting the pleasure pathway has its wonderful side effects. From a neurological point of view increasing your ability to experience pleasure is increasing your ability to cognize pleasure as pleasure. So as these herbal allies sharpen your sense of pleasure, they also sharpen your mind as well. Note that not all cognitive enhancing therapies support the pleasure pathway, but pleasure pathway therapies support cognitive function.
So I just talked a lot about many herbs, and I get it that many people will not know the protocols to use to optimize these herbs for this particular action of pleasure pathway restoration. I will offer ideas into protocols in blogs coming in the next two weeks. But you can start with a couple of capsules each of Ashwagandha, Shatavri and Turmeric twice daily and washing these herbs down by drinking Tulsi Tea brewed strongly. Note it is not just about consuming these herbs, but consuming very high quality sustainably sourced versions of them, prepared consciously. And also remember: you need a confluence of factors and the right use of your mind and breath are very important.
Want to be happy? With all your heart wish the deepest joy for all beings. Want to be strong? With all your heart hold space for the enduring wellness of all beings. Want to experience pleasure? Stop doing things to experience it and start being that which you are. With this we generate miracles within, and by consuming the right adaptogens we solidify the Prana of that compassion into manifest brilliant neurochemistry sparking in the synapse of robust dopamine neurons. People, this possibility for pleasurable and sustainable inebriation is fact, deeply documented, and has been waiting for us for lifetimes.
"May there be Peace and Love (and Pleasure) among all Beings of the Universe!"