Dopamine and breakfast

T.S. Wiley wrote a lot about the protein-rich breakfast; here’s my understanding of her take on it.

N.B. I highly recommend her book, Lights out: sleep, sugar, and survival.

Quotes are mainly taken from the text. I’ve tracked down some of the cites; the rest are in the back of the book, albeit somewhat unorganized :/

Part 1. We naturally have a cortisol spike first thing in the morning, known as the Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR).  This peak, which can be screwed up by artificial light at night or a big evening dinner, helps support morning light-induced dopamine.




Dopamine is great, but may induce impulsivity if it’s unfettered.

Enter: the protein-rich breakfast. It provides tryptophan and a bit of insulin to promote serotonin synthesis (eg, Manjarrez-Gutierrez et al., 1999).

Not enough serotonin to make you crazy, just enough to balance the dopamine = impulse control.

~ circadian balance achieved ~






Chemical Structures of Neurotransmitters


My two cents: cortisol gets a bad rap, but I don’t think the CAR is bad at all.  It’s actually beneficial.  However, if you’re worried about the catabolic effects of cortisol on skeletal muscle (which you shouldn’t be in this #context), then a protein-rich breakfast might be just what you need to counteract it.

*chronically elevated cortisol = no bueno (it actually decreases dopamine, eg, Pacak et al., 2002)… very different from the transient CAR

One of the many problems with artificial lighting is the endless “summer-like” short nights, year-round.  Wiley stresses that insulin should be low when it’s dark:  on a large time-scale, this translates to low carb availability in long dark winters; on a small time-scale, this translates to an early low carb dinner.

Big evening meals plus artificial light at night messes up the CAR.

“In this state, breakfast is easy to skip” !!!


breakfast like a king


Not enough cortisol to enhance dopamine, and prolactin shifted into the daytime = “you’re kind of stupid, too, with no memory or ability to plan.” (this book is infinitely quotable!)

[the prolactin shift is more related to short sleep duration, but makes AM cortisol & dopamine more important]

When all your ducks are in a row, “Dopamine controls protein craving just as NPY controls carbohydrate intake.  With your dopamine up, your serotonin falls, so you want meat.”  Meat = protein-rich breakfast in this #context.



Delaying breakfast long after you wake, see morning sun, and getting a dopamine hit = circadian phase delay, you age faster, and are predisposed to many modern diseases.

Morning dopamine is also important for glucose control, eg, Cycloset*.  It also prevents daytime prolactin, which is a side effect of nights shortened by artificial light.  Daytime prolactin also promotes autoimmunity, and hunger via NPY activation.

*Cycloset (bromocriptine) is a dopaminergic drug which, when taken immediately upon waking, improves blood glucose control throughout the day (eg, Pijl et al., 2000).

Part 2: The food-entrainable oscillator (FEO) zeitgeber has remained somewhat elusive, but JP’s hypothesis that ghrelin suppression by a protein-rich breakfast is a strong candidate, imho.


ghrelin GH


Dietary protein suppresses ghrelin more so than carbs or fats (eg, Bowen et al., 2006 and Foster-Schubert et al., 2008).  Insulin is more ghrelin-suppressive than carbs per se, which strengthens the case for dietary protein (eg, Iwakura et al., 2015).

We can garner little information from knockout experiments because another hormone, obestatin, comes from the same gene as ghrelin and appears to have an opposite function.  #MouseDoctorFail

Ghrelin promotes sleep in humans (eg, Weikel et al., 2003), so we might not want a big meal late at night suppressing it.

Increased ghrelin is also one of the ways in which sleep restriction increases hunger and appetite (eg, specifically for carb-rich foods, in this study: Spiegel et al., 2004).

These two articles also appear to support the hypothesis:

Ghrelin effects on the circadian system of mice (Yiannelli et al., 2007)

Stomach ghrelin-secreting cells as food-entrainable circadian clocks (LeSauter et al., 2009)

So, why is a protein-rich breakfast important to circadian biology: is it the dopamine/serotonin or ghrelin hypothesis?  I don’t know (sorry), but my money is on both and more.  Unknown-unknowns and all that jazz.

For full access to all articles and much more (or if you just like what I do and want to support it), become a Patron! Five bucks a month and there are many other options. It’s ad-free and you can cancel if it sucks 🙂

Also, I’m open to suggestions, so please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or contact me directly at

Affiliate links: if you’re still looking for a pair of hot blue blockers, Carbonshade is offering 15% off with the coupon code LAGAKOS and Spectra479 is offering 15% off HERETrueDark is running a pretty big sale HERE.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, read this then this.

20% off some delish stocks and broths from Kettle and Fire HERE

If you want the benefits of  ‘shrooms but don’t like eating them, Real Mushrooms makes great extracts. 10% off with coupon code LAGAKOS. I recommend Lion’s Mane for the brain and Reishi for everything else.

calories proper

Become a Patron!




Be Sociable, Share!
  • mysminnie

    I’ve been waking up bright eyed and bushy tailed at sparrows’ fart since I took your advice and stopped eating after dark, Bill.

  • Sky King

    Upon doing some research on Wiley and her protocols… it appears that for men it’s based on MAGNETISM and not on light! O_o

  • Sky King

    [Delaying breakfast long after you wake, see morning sun, and getting a
    dopamine hit = circadian phase delay, you age faster (theoretically),
    and are predisposed to many modern diseases (theoretically).]

    Can you provide any links to research studies verifying that?

    • “I’ve tracked down some of the cites; the rest are in the back of the book”

  • Sky King

    As I mentioned in the past… it doesn’t appear TS Wiley hasn’t any medical or clinical qualifications.

    As stated in Wikipedia:

    On October 11, 2006, Erika Schwartz, Diana Schwarzbein, and five other MDs …. alleged that Wiley has no medical or clinical qualifications. Wiley has claimed on her website and in speaking engagements that she earned a B.A. in anthropology from Webster University in 1975. On November 27, 2006, Newsweek reported that Webster has no record of this degree.
    Wiley’s bio page was then changed to “Pending B.A. in Anthropology, Webster University, 1975” and then again to “Attended the B.A. Program in Anthropology, Webster University, 1970-1975”. ABC News reported on February 16, 2007, that, according to Webster, she received only a blank diploma. Wiley was awarded a B.A. from Webster University in May, 2013.

  • David Leitner

    Bill, What causes the cortisol spikes at around 2pm and 7pm on the graphic? I though cortisol basically went down in a linear way after the morning.

    • many things can cause transient (non-harmful) bumps in cortisol — in this case, meals

      important point is that these bumps are nothing compared to chronic high cortisol, where it can be >2x and stay elevated for prolonged periods of time

  • Dr Josh Lamaro

    low serotonin make u crazy = not true
    only from conventional authoritarian view. being creative, free thinking and having a distaste for authoritarianism is the natural state. there are no governing authorities in nature. the modern world is set up to suppress dopamine and increase serotonin. much of this began in the 60s when governments sanctioned research to show that LSD (bromocryptine has similar effects) was harmful, after observing that masses of young people who were free thinking and creative were hard to control.
    elevated serum serotonin has been linked to male aggression and most all disease states.

    • “Enter: the protein-rich breakfast. It provides tryptophan and a bit of insulin to promote serotonin synthesis…

      Not enough serotonin to make you crazy, just enough to balance the dopamine = impulse control.”

      • Sky King

        A protein-rich lunch and/or a protein-rich dinner will do the same thing! Atkins and Eades have already covered this. Simply put… protein produces satiety hormones much more than carbs, especially processed carbs, ever will.

        • Dopamine happens in the morning.

          You can have a protein-rich lunch &/or dinner, but breakfast is when it’s important for circadian rhythms.

          • Sky King

            OK, Thanks! 🙂

      • Keith Duco

        Is this why a large dose of protien before bed usually results in vivid, crazy, and weird dreams?

        • I don’t think this is a “thing” 🙂

          And if it is, I don’t know!

          • Keith Duco

            It does for me, especially a whey protein shake right before bed. I googled and found that a few other people experience this as well. It took me a while to connect the two. It definitely is a different experience. I wake up remembering every little aspect of my dreams and they end up being completely off the wall.

        • Charles Richardson

          I (and a lot of others) get the same effect from large intake of prebiotics + probiotics before bed time.

  • Sky King
  • Berny3

    A recommendation I’ve often heard, and I have no science to back this up, is to eat sweet things at night to help you sleep better. And based on my own experience this seems to work. Ice cream an hour or so before retiring does better for my sleep than a steak dinner. Like I said, I have no science here, but my basic rhythms work better by getting most of my proteins early in the day and at least some carbs towards evening. Perhaps the early low carb dinner recommended here should be mostly fat?

    • “Perhaps the early low carb dinner recommended here should be mostly fat?”

      sure, and low carb plants

  • Billy Mitchell

    Hey Bill!

    Great Post. That book is a great read. One of my all time favs. Had a question for ya.

    “Insulin is more ghrelin-suppressive than carbs per se, which strengthens the case for dietary protein (eg, Iwakura et al., 2015).”

    My understanding was that carbohydrates are more insulinogenic (is that the right word?) than protein.

    Also, I hear a lot of folks say to support brain serotonin we want a higher ratio of carbohydrate to protein in a meal. And to support brain catecholamines we want a lower ratio of carbohydrate to protein. Thoughts?

    Also have you seen this paper? I see it cited a lot by those who make the statement above.

    Thought it was kind of interesting and seems to support more of what you’re saying (If I’m reading it correctly). Seems like protein is resulting in a greater decrease in tyrosine and tryptophan from the blood stream.

    • in general, carbs are more insulinogenic than proteins

      Milk-and-Cookie hypothesis:
      Milk gives you BCAAs & tryptophan.
      Cookie induces insulin secretion.
      Insulin drives BCAAs into muscle, allowing for more tryptophan into the brain.
      And voila, sleepy! …i have no idea if this is true 🙂

      As to the protein/carb ref, I suspect amino acid composition of the protein may be relevant.

  • K

    How high of a protein consumption are we talking about? I understand #context but a ballpark or % of daily protein ?

    • if you’re not used to it, I’d start small and maybe work up to a third of your daily protein intake. Ymmv.

  • Bill Fan

    How soon after waking should breakfast be? First 30 min?

  • Eve

    How early is early for working professionals? And can the benefits of consuming most of the calories at night (i.e. Close to fasting) offset the circadian benefits that comes with a big pruning meal? I find that, among other things, eating a big breakfast revs up my appetite, rather than dampening it. What do you end up doing?

    • early = sunrise

      “benefits of consuming most of the calories at night”?
      benefits come from timing meals with light = morning/daytime

  • Mike B

    The quote in the picture is actually from Maimonides, way before Adell Davis was born…

    • Charles Richardson

      Yes, but she quoted it in her first book.

  • Guru_G5

    So how does intermittent fasting look in terms of this evidence (delaying breakfast)?

    • If you wanna do intermittent fasting, the science seems to favor an early dinner over a delayed breakfast.

      • Guru_G5

        But intermittent fasting also seems to increase longevity, via gene expression etc. Furthermore, most people who intermittent fast eat big dinners. Personally dinner is my biggest meal but then I wait a few hours before sleeping. Can you combine these two approaches? Protein rich breakfast, smaller meals after and a fasting window starting 4-6 hours before bed. Everything I read based evolutionarily indicates this is the opposite of how humans ate traditionally, with small meals and snacks during the day and if there is a successful “hunt” then feast at night. Problematic for me. Usually these things are much more complex than our attempts to understand so I like to go with the traditional approach as default.

        • According to the thrifty hypothesis, evolutionarily all of those things were to optimally help us survive famine. In other words, it’s the best way to increase adipose tissue.

          My 2 cents: if you’re hell bent on IF, have breakfast in the morning, skip lunch & have an early dinner.

          Two short posts if you’re interested:

        • Dan Ordoins

          For me I just make my breakfast around noon, the largest meal of the day. Then dinner is a lighter protien rich meal around sunset or 3-4 hours before bed.
          The morning I just catch the sunrise and get busy doing things.
          Seems to work.
          If I have a large meal at dinner and even if it is 3-4 hours before bed I just don’t sleep as well as going to bed on a lighter stomach.

          Art DeVany talks about doing a 16/8 but with having a little later breakfast 8-9 am. Then after 4-6 hours a workout or excercise which he says you are back into an almost fasted state. Then wait a couple hours then a dinner 3-4 hours before bed.
          Thus still having a breakfast, fasted excercise, dinner 3-4 hours before bed and in the light cycle all within 8 hours and getting a 16 hour Intermitent Fast.
          That may be a great approach too.

          Just my two cents

  • Patrick Jarzabski

    what if one has abnormal work hours and wakes up before the sun rises? do you eat upon waking or should you wait a few hours to eat

    wake up at 3am or 4am
    sunrise at 7am

    i usually eat my first meal at 8:30am

    • That’s a pretty tough schedule. I would gauge it with sleep quality — if you wake well-rested, go for it. You could try eating at sunrise for a few days and see how you feel. And I’d definitely use blue blockers a couple hours before bedtime.