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21 Substances That May Increase Motivation

Written by Helen Quach, BS (Biochemistry) | Last updated:
Medically reviewed by
Jonathan Ritter, PharmD, PhD (Pharmacology), Puya Yazdi, MD | Written by Helen Quach, BS (Biochemistry) | Last updated:

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A lack of motivation to complete tasks can block your ability to get ahead in life. In this article, we explain how motivation works in the brain and what the problem behind your motivational deficits could be.

What is Motivation?

Dopamine and Motivation

If you’re looking to improve motivation, you should look into things that increase dopamine.

The dopamine pathway is strongly implicated in motivational processes. Motivation refers to an internal drive to engage in a specific behavior, typically in pursuit of a reward or reinforcer [1].

Injecting dopamine blockers slows motivated reward-seeking behaviors [1].

Dopamine has also been highly accepted in reinforcement learning, a motivated learning process based on the incentive of reward [1].

Dopamine provides motivation due to an increased feeling of reward when tasks are completed [1].

Cost-Benefit Analysis of Motivation Theory

This theory says every decision has a cost and value that must be calculated, increasing your motivation towards tasks deemed more important to yourself [2].

The costs associated with motivated actions may include:

  • Physical Effort
  • Mental Effort
  • Time
  • Loss of potential opportunities
  • Discomfort
  • Danger (perceived possibility of pain or death)

The benefits associated with motivated actions may include:

  • Fulfilling physical and psychological needs
  • Obtaining secondary reinforcement (to physical and mental needs)
  • Escaping from harm

Motivation increases when the benefit of a task outweighs the costs.

Another theory of motivation (social-cognitive) is that if you think you are capable of getting something done, you’ll be more motivated to do it [3].

Diseases Linked to Low Motivation

Having a healthy brain will help with motivation. By protecting nerve cells, increasing blood flow, and preventing diseases, you can keep your motivation high [4].

Apathy and disease-induced deficits in motivation are displayed in patients with disorders like:

8 Natural Substances to Improve Motivation

The FDA has never approved any substance or therapy for the purpose of increasing motivation. To prevent unexpected interactions, talk to your doctor before making significant changes to your lifestyle, diet, or supplement regimen.

With that said, recent research has uncovered some interesting connections between lifestyle, supplements, and motivation. Future research will be needed to determine how safe and effective these strategies might be.

1) Sunlight

Sunlight exposure:

  • Increased available dopamine receptors, which helps increase the effects of dopamine [5].
  • Increases serotonin and its receptors, vital to mood and outlook [6].
  • Entrains the circadian rhythm and helps with sleep [7].
  • Raises endorphin levels, which increases motivation [6].
  • Increases productivity [8].

2) Flavonoids

Flavonoids are a class of plants and fungal secondary by-products. They can be found in many foods in a healthy diet, as well as supplemented with extracts.

There are thousands of different flavonoid extracts with varying effects, some having the potential to increase motivation.

In rats, cocoa flavonoids maintained high dopamine levels (urine) [4].

Blueberry flavonoids had an acute improvement of mood in children and young adults [9].

Flavonoid(s) Mechanisms:

  • Increase dopamine by inhibiting the MAO enzymes [10].
  • In a rat model of Parkinson’s, some flavonoids (polymethoxylated flavones, procyanidins, and isoflavones) protected dopamine neurons [11].
  • Increase brain blood flow [4].
  • Prevent the death of neurons [4].
  • Increase synaptic plasticity (the strengthening or weakening of synapses over time) [4].
  • May delay the progression of brain diseases [12].

3) Caffeine

Caffeine is a brain stimulant and the world’s most widely consumed drug.

In a double-blind crossover study, it enhanced exercise capacity and reduces perceived efforts, suggesting that it can increase motivation to exercise in sedentary people [13].

Moderate doses of caffeine increased sexual motivation in female rats [14].

Caffeine improved motivation and cognitive performance in complex tasks (bees) [15].

Caffeine Mechanisms

4) Pregnenolone

Pregnenolone is a hormone that can increase reward-related processes and improve mood and motivation in rats [18].

Rats’ motivational incentive increased after pregnenolone injections. They more easily found a reward in a new location [19].

Rats also had increased dopamine and dopamine responses to morphine (using pregnenolone sulfate) [18].

Pregnenolone reduced motivation deficits induced in mice (by a competitive NMDA activator) in active avoidance and lever-press learning tasks [20].

No clinical studies have yet been conducted to investigate the effect of pregnenolone on human motivation.

Pregnenolone Mechanisms

  • Increases steroid hormones such as allopregnanolone, which increases brain cell production, protects the brain and reduces cell death and inflammation[21].
  • Increases dopamine release and response [18].

5) Nicotine

NOTE: Nicotine is a harmful and addictive compound. The FDA has warned that nicotine use interferes with the development of the teenage brain and increases the risk of complications during pregnancy and birth, regardless of the method of delivery (cigarettes, e-cigarettes, patches, chewing tobacco, etc.). We strongly recommend against using nicotine for any reason.

Nicotine potently activates the fight or flight nervous system and acts mostly on nicotinic acetylcholine receptors [22, 23].

It is an addictive drug. Non-smoking ways of consumption including snus, patches, gum/lozenges, and vaporizing reduce the danger of smoke exposure but do not remove the risk of addiction.

Nicotine can induce [24]:

  • Reinforcement of reward
  • Enhancement of performance

Nicotine is currently under investigation for the treatment of [25]:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • ADHD
  • Depression/Anxiety
  • Schizophrenia

Nicotine significantly improved motivation-driven behavior in rats [26].

Nicotine Mechanisms

  • Increases dopamine in the brain [27].

13 Synthetic Drugs That Increase Motivation

Caution: Selfhacked does not support taking these or any drugs. Do not take this post as promoting the use of these medications. It is for informational purposes alone. These are popular drugs, and people should know their uses, the evidence behind them, and their drawbacks.

No drug has ever been approved by the FDA for the purpose of increasing motivation; the studies below are investigational and not powerful enough to be considered sufficient evidence for use. Do not take any drug without a doctor’s recommendation.

Joe does not use any drugs from this list because he likes to increase dopamine naturally.

The list was created from a nootropics survey and we are just providing the research behind why users might experience more motivation on some of these drugs. We do not advocate for their use.

1) Adderall/Dextroamphetamine

Adderall is a combination of amphetamine salts (25% Levoamphetamine, 75% dextroamphetamine) used to treat narcolepsy and ADHD.

Amphetamine increased the user’s motivation to pick tasks with a higher workload with higher rewards compared to lower effort tasks with less compensation [28].

Due to stimulants’ ability to improve motivation, Adderall is currently used to treat apathy in brain disease and psychiatric patients [28].

Adderall can make some people more jittery, while dextroamphetamine can provide a more subtle mental effect.

Amphetamines are very addictive and should be used with caution. Abuse can lead to brain toxicity [29].

Healthy university students who used Adderall reported an increase in [30]:

  • Energy levels (both body and brain)
  • Sense of well-being
  • Drive to complete a task or achieve a goal
  • Interest and emotional investment in their work
  • Enjoyment in the work

Adderall/Dextroamphetamine Mechanisms

  • Increases dopamine by inhibiting dopamine reuptake [31].
  • Body and brain stimulation [32].

2) Methylphenidate (Ritalin)

Methylphenidate is a brain stimulant commonly prescribed for narcolepsy and ADHD. It:

  • Improved attention in a study (double-blind randomized controlled trial) of children with ADHD [33].
  • Increased activation and connectivity of brain networks important to reward [33].
  • Increased motivation to perform an ongoing task [34].

Methylphenidate (Ritalin) Mechanisms

  • Increases dopamine in the brain [35].

3) Modafinil

Modafinil is a wakefulness-promoting drug for treating excessive sleepiness. It is also widely used off-label as a cognitive enhancer.

  • In non-sleep-deprived patients, Modafinil reduced fatigue levels and reaction time, while improving motivation and vigilance [36].
  • Modafinil enhanced highly-demanding cognitive performance in healthy individuals (double-blind randomized controlled trial) [37].
  • Modafinil (200 mg/day) notably increased task performance and enjoyment, as well as creative thinking in healthy patients (double-blind randomized controlled trial) [38].
  • Increased motivation in mice [39].

Modafinil Mechanisms

  • Proposed to weakly inhibit dopamine reuptake transporters, preventing the decrease of dopamine, however, this theory is controversial [R, R].
  • Increases other neurotransmitters including the histamine orexin, norepinephrine, and serotonin [40].

4) Adrafinil

Adrafinil is a discontinued, non-FDA approved wakefulness-promoting agent, formerly used in France to promote alertness, attention, wakefulness, and mood, especially in the elderly.

It is an analog of Modafinil [41].

Adrafinil may improve performance motivation and may increase libido [41, 42].

Adrafinil in Animals:

  • Improved discrimination learning (in aged beagle dogs) [43].
  • Improved motivation and depression symptoms (in mice) [44].

Adrafinil Mechanisms

  • Thought to work similarly to modafinil, but more research needs to be done to determine how it works.

5) Bromantane/Ladasten

Bromantane is a Russian drug with stimulating and anti-anxiety effects [45, 46].

It does not possess any addictive potential and has no serious side effects [46].

Bromantane supplementation increases the ability to handle physical and mental loads (actoprotector) [46].

Bromantane has few clinical studies, making the existing evidence insufficient to support its use for this purpose. However, anecdotal results are available [47, 48, 49].

Bromantane/Ladasten Mechanisms

  • Increases dopamine through tyrosine hydroxylase and amino acid decarboxylase [50, 51].
  • Reduces oxidative stress, which plays a role in motivational deficits and psychological disorders [52, 46, 53].

6) Selegiline (L-Deprenyl)

Note: selegiline has only been investigated for the purpose of increasing motivation in animals. Clinical date is lacking.

Selegiline (L-Deprenyl) in smaller doses inhibits the enzyme MAO-B. In larger doses, it also inhibits MAO-A. This prevents the breakdown of dopamine and other neurotransmitters [54].

In Alzheimer’s patients, selegiline was more effective at improving cognitive functions and reducing impairments than oxiracetam [55].

Selegiline helped with:

  • Motivational incentive (in dogs) [56].
  • Severe apathy associated with traumatic brain injury [57].
  • Protecting dopamine neurons, and was shown to be well tolerated in Parkinson’s Disease [58].

Selegiline Mechanisms

  • Enhances Dopamine D1 and D2 receptors [59].
  • Increases dopamine [60].
  • At low doses inhibits MAO-B, preventing the breakdown of beta-phenylethylamine, dopamine, tyramine, and benzylamine [61, 62].
  • At higher doses inhibits MAO-A, preventing the breakdown of dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and tyramine [61, 63, 64].

7) Semax

Semax is a drug developed in Russia prescribed primarily for its cognition-enhancing effects.

Patients with a motor neuron disease had a significant emotional and motivational increase after being administered Semax [65].

Semax improved food motivation in rats that were isolated from birth [66].

Users report benefits such as:

  • A stimulation compared to mild Adderall
  • More interest in things
  • Removal of lethargy
  • General enthusiasm
  • Social motivation
  • Decreased procrastination

Some side effects include:

  • Overstimulation
  • Anger
  • Hair thinning
  • Headaches
  • Anxiety

Semax is generally well tolerated, and often side effects are from using too much or a stronger version like NA-Semax, or NA-Semax-Amidate [67].

Semax Mechanisms

  • Increases serotonin [68].
  • Enhances dopamine release when combined with d-amphetamine [68].

8) Tianeptine

Tianeptine is an antidepressant.

In rats, tianeptine injections prevent stress-induced changes in the hippocampus, thus reducing the stress-induced reduction in motivation [69].

Tianeptine Mechanisms

  • Enhances dopamine release in the brain and increases dopamine receptor D2 and D3 activity [70].
  • Blocks stress-induced changes of long-term potentiation (LTP) in the brain (hippocampus, prefrontal cortex) [71].
  • Normalizes glutamate levels [72].

9) Sulbutiamine

Sulbutiamine is a synthetic derivative of thiamine that crosses the blood-brain barrier (BBB) better than thiamine [73].

It is a rather subtle nootropic and may be best as an addition to a stack.

It has few clinically relevant studies, but user discussions are available: [74, 75, 76].

Sulbutiamine Mechanisms

  • Increases choline activity in the hippocampus [77, 78].
  • Reduces dopamine release from the prefrontal cortex, increasing dopamine (D1 receptors) [79].

10) LSD-Microdose

NOTE: LSD is an illegal drug. The FDA has not approved LSD for any reason. We recommend strongly against using LSD for any reason. The research below is purely investigational and has been included for the purposes of information only.

Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), also known as acid, is a psychedelic drug that in recent years has found potential as a treatment for conditions with micro dosages [80].

LSD Microdosing Mechanisms of Action for Improving Motivation are not clinically clear.

Joe has tried micro dosing and did not see improved acute motivation. He believes it could be that by making people happier/positive and less anxious, they become more motivated.

Racetam Drugs and Motivation

11) Phenylpiracetam (Phenotropil)

Phenylpiracetam, prescribed as Phenotropil, is a more potent phenyl-derivative of piracetam.

It induced stimulant effects that lasted for approximately 4 hours (in mice) [81].

In patients with brain diseases, phenylpiracetam improved coordination, higher brain function, and attention [82].

In animals, Phenylpiracetam:

  • Increased the workload at which mice are willing to perform to obtain more rewarding drugs [81].
  • Reduced depression [83, 81].
  • Increased exploratory behavior and movement in mice impaired by a dopamine blocker (Haloperidol) [84].
  • Improved operant conditioning (learning behavior modified by reward and consequences) in albino rats [85].

Phenylpiracetam Mechanisms

  • Phenylpiracetam is thought to act by selectively inhibiting dopamine transporters, which increases dopamine levels and improves mood and motivation [86, 87].

12) Oxiracetam

Oxiracetam improved:

  • Reaction Time (in patients with degenerative dementia) [88].
  • Cognitive Function (in patients with degenerative dementia) [88].
  • Disturbances of the circadian rhythm (in rats with a disease of blood vessels in the brain) which are associated with a reduced response to reward [89, 90].

Oxiracetam studies in animals:

  • Improved performance in the multi-trial avoidance task (in mice) [91].
  • Improved both active and passive avoidance tasks when combined with nicotine (in mice) [91].
  • In rats with brain damage from an acetylcholine inhibitor, Oxiracetam significantly improved learning ability during active-avoidance (pole climbing) tests [92].

Oxiracetam Mechanisms:

  • Enhances AMPA glutamate receptors in brain cells, which helps increase motivation [93, 94].
  • Increases acetylcholine in the brain, important for mediating arousal [92, 95].

Factors that Reduce Motivation

The best way to increase motivation is to live a healthy lifestyle, decrease stressors, address underlying health problems, and get a good night’s sleep. These will win out over drugs and other substances every time!

If you believe that you are already ticking all of those boxes and you still struggle with motivation, talk to your doctor about any complementary strategies that could be right for you.

1) Poor Circadian Rhythm

Circadian Rhythm disruption is both a symptom and a pre-existing factor in many psychiatric diseases [90].

Circadian gene mutations have been linked to an unusual response to reward [90].

Changing your sleep schedule on different days was associated with reduced responses to reward.

Nearly 43% of the mammalian genome is estimated to be rhythmic clock-controlled-genes critical to mood and reward [90].

2) Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation reduces dopamine function and dopamine receptors (D2) in the human brain (ventral striatum) [96].

REM sleep deprivation reduced motivation (in rats) [97].

Avoid room light exposure, and blue light (tv, phones, computers) before bedtime as light is associated with a decrease in melatonin onset and duration, and negatively affects sleep, and the circadian system [98, 99].

Takeaway

Low motivation is a hallmark of many mental and physical illnesses. Some natural and synthetic substances may be able to improve motivation, but it’s always better to address the underlying cause of a symptom such as this.

Try to make healthy lifestyle choices, get a good night’s sleep, and remove stressors from your life before turning to supplements, and always talk to your doctor about any complementary strategies you take to improve your health.

This section contains sponsored links, which means that we may receive a small percentage of profit from your purchase, while the price remains the same to you. The proceeds from your purchase support our research and work. Thank you for your support.

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About the Author

Helen Quach

BS (Biochemistry)

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