Dopamine is widely known as “the feel-good chemical”, but it does more than just boost your mood. It acts as a neurotransmitter and hormone to regulate several biological and cognitive functions, including blood pressure1, motivation, attention, and learning.
It is also believed to be a major factor in the executive dysfunction that many ADHDers struggle with, since ADHD is associated with a lower bioavailability of dopamine.2
Read on to find out what dopamine is, what it does, and—the big one—how to fix low dopamine levels... without using medication.
Too long; didn’t read
- Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter and hormone that influences physical and cognitive processes, like motivation, learning, and working memory.
- Dysfunctions in the dopamine system are associated with a number of physical and mental health conditions.
- There are ways to fix low dopamine levels with diet adjustments, such as limiting sugar.
- Lifestyle factors are important too! Get enough sleep, sunlight exposure, and regular exercise.
- It's difficult to change habits, but don’t feel discouraged. Try not to run before you walk.
What is dopamine and what does it do?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced in the brain and a hormone produced in the adrenal glands, alongside adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine). These three compounds belong to a group of "catecholamines", and are involved in the body's stress responses.
As a neurotransmitter
…it acts as a messenger between neurons and plays an essential role in mediating executive functions.3
The cognitive skills regulated by dopamine include:
- Working memory
- Reward, motivation, and drive
- Mood and emotions
- Inhibition (impulse control)
As a neurotransmitter, dopamine is involved in:
- Movement and motor skills
- Sleep and arousal
- Lactation (nursing)
Several dopamine pathways in the central nervous system are responsible for physiological and neurological processes - and disruptions in the dopamine-reward pathway are associated with ADHD.4 Within this pathway, dopamine is released during pleasurable experiences, and later drives the motivation to repeat the actions that led to that pleasure.
But this isn't limited to just "pleasurable and rewarding" experiences in the traditional sense. For example, we're also showered with dopamine when we recognize the rewards of completing simpler tasks, such as paying our taxes or finally using one of those planners we've been neglecting.
As a hormone
…it acts as a local messenger and modulates functions such as:
- Insulin production5
- Gastrointestinal movement (peristalsis)
- Heart rate1
- Blood pressure
- Lymphocyte activity in the immune system
- Increased sodium excretion through urination6
Finding the right balance for dopamine levels
Phew, that was a lot, wasn’t it?
Now that we know about the functions of dopamine, it makes sense that the release of dopamine needs to be regulated—balance is key. But what happens when we have too little or too much dopamine?
Dopamine deficiency is characterized by lower-than-optimal levels of dopamine available for the brain and body to utilize. This can be due to lots of things, and only you and your doctor can determine the exact cause of your low dopamine levels.
What causes low dopamine levels?
If you don't have "enough" dopamine in your system, it may be because of:
- Nutrition and diet
- Underlying health conditions
- Brain injury
- Drug use or medication interactions
- Issues in dopamine signal transmission
What are the signs of low dopamine levels?
Depending on the underlying cause or causes, symptoms of dopamine deficiency can include:
- Lack of motivation
- Brain fog
- Trouble focusing
- Mood swings and emotional dysregulation
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Sleep issues
- Rapid weight loss or weight gain
- Muscle cramps, tremors
- Muscle stiffness
Can dopamine levels be too high?
Just like low dopamine can cause issues with mental and physiological health, too much dopamine also comes with considerable risks.
Signs and symptoms of too much dopamine:
- Sudden high sex drive or hypersexuality
- Severe anxiety
- Increased impulsive behavior
- Decreased empathy
Mental health conditions related to dopamine
Dysfunctions in the dopamine system are involved in a number of disorders and conditions, including:
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Restless leg syndrome
- Parkinson’s Disease
How to increase dopamine levels without medication
Always check with your doctor before making any lifestyle changes. Going overboard on dopamine can truly be "too much of a good thing". That said, if you feel your dopamine levels could use a boost, here are five strategies to increase your dopamine naturally.
1. Get moving.
Exercise affects almost all neurotransmitters and hormones. In fact, aerobic exercise (the kind that gets your heart pumping) increases dopamine levels.7 Don’t worry if you’re not a runner - neither am I. The best kind of movement is one that you actually want to do. Think about activities you enjoy that increases your heart rate for about 30 minutes.
Maybe a dance class is more to your liking, or jumping rope, or playing a team sport with your friends.
Swimming? Hiking in nature?
Just start moving.
2. Listen to good music.
Put on some tunes that boost your mood.
Pair it with the first strategy (exercise), and you're on your way to boosting your dopamine.
3. Prioritize your rest and relaxation time.
When you’re running on fumes, your dopamine levels are also affected. Prioritize your self-care!
Get a good night’s sleep.
Sleep deprivation reduces dopamine receptor availability, resulting in decreased wakefulness.9
It may not surprise you that mindfulness and meditation can help with emotional regulation. But did you know that regular meditation can actually lead to a persistent increase in tonic dopamine levels?10
4. Get some sunlight!
Not only will the sunshine stimulate vitamin D production and keep your circadian rhythm in check, but it can also increase dopamine receptor availability.11
Combine this with exercise or meditation in the morning, and you’re off to a great start.
5. Consider adjusting your diet.
Eat protein-rich foods
Foods that are rich in protein—particularly in tyrosine or its precursor phenylalanine—can improve your health in lots of ways.
You can find high levels of protein in:
- Soy products
- Peanut butter
More research is needed on microbiota, but some studies suggest a link between the gut microbiota and dopamine.12 Consuming probiotics could help your gut microbiota grow healthier, and potentially boost its ability to produce dopamine.
Reduce your intake of sugary and processed foods
Sweet snacks and fried foods may provide a rush of dopamine short-term, but it's usually followed by a crash when dopamine levels drop lower than before. Similar to the tolerance effect of recreational drugs and alcohol, a spike in dopamine can lead to a blunting of dopamine sensitivity.