You probably associate dopamine with happiness, but it's not as simple as that. It's more accurate to say that dopamine is the great motivator. Your brain uses it as a reward to encourage you to do things and help you remember them so that you'll do them again. But there is such a thing as too much motivation. Dopamine, like all good things, is best in moderation. Here, you'll find answers to all of your most important questions about dopamine, then learn how you can maintain healthy dopamine levels to keep your mind and body balanced.
What is dopamine?
Dopamine helps regulate motor control and executive function. Whenever you need to do something, your brain triggers a little release of dopamine to motivate you to do that thing. From the smallest voluntary movement to the chores you know you need to do but don't really want to, dopamine gets you moving in the right direction. It also helps you plan, prioritize, and keep track of what you're doing.
- When you're learning something new, dopamine both gets you started and keeps you going. This means that if you have low dopamine levels, you're more likely to decide to quit when things get difficult.
- Dopamine's regulation of motor control can be seen in diseases such as Parkinson's, which are characterized by involuntary movement and tremors associated with low dopamine levels.
Dopamine connects feelings of pleasure to behavior to motivate action. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter released by brain neurons when you do something enjoyable or beneficial. Neurotransmitters send messages through your nervous system, and dopamine's message is "This is great! Let's remember this and do it again sometime!"
- You get a small burst of dopamine just to get the action going—that's the motor control aspect of dopamine. Then, if the action turned out to be enjoyable or beneficial, you get another burst of dopamine to reinforce it.
- There's a dark side to this reward system. If you start craving more dopamine, you might start engaging in pleasurable activities excessively. Ignoring everything else to pursue that pleasure exclusively is a compulsion or an addiction.
- Alcohol and illegal drugs can cause a surge of dopamine, which encourages people to continue consuming them, leading to addiction. Addictions to certain activities, such as gambling or sex, are also tied to a craving for the dopamine that those activities trigger.
Does dopamine make you feel good?
No, dopamine itself doesn't really make you feel anything. Dopamine is commonly associated with pleasure, but the truth is this neurotransmitter is more about "wanting" than "liking." It doesn't actually make you feel good or happy, it simply makes you want to do the thing again.
- You might associate dopamine with a feeling more like a craving for something. When you finally get the thing you've been craving, your brain triggers another burst of dopamine that reinforces your actions.
- Illegal drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, are so addictive in part because they trigger a massive dump of dopamine. Getting so much dopamine at once feels euphoric and users chase after that feeling. Unfortunately, the drugs also make it more difficult for the body to produce dopamine, often trapping the individual in the cycle of addiction.
What triggers the release of dopamine?
Behaviors your brain considers beneficial trigger a release of dopamine. Your brain typically doles out dopamine in small bursts—just enough that you associate whatever you just did with pleasure and want to do it again. The burst of dopamine you get every time you do it reinforces that behavior and makes you more likely to continue doing it.
- For example, when you exercise, your brain keeps kicking out little bursts of dopamine. These little bursts both motivate the voluntary movement to keep you going and make you feel good about exercising. You'll remember that good feeling and want to do it again.
- But how does your brain decide when a behavior is beneficial or pleasurable? Turns out, the brain cells that produce and release dopamine just figure that out on their own. In a healthy brain, dopamine release is self-regulating.
- You can't control how or when your brain releases dopamine. It's a self-regulating, automatic process.
How does a dopamine imbalance affect everyday functioning?
Too much dopamine can result in impulse-control issues. If you have too much dopamine, you might act out immediately without thinking things through. This might lead you to take actions that you regret after the fact. Scientists believe this is genetic.
- High dopamine levels can also make you hyper-competitive, so you take anything anyone says as a challenge. Couple this with aggressive behavior (also caused by too much dopamine) and you have a recipe for trouble.
Too little dopamine makes you less motivated or excited about things. Low levels of dopamine lead to a lack of motivation in general—if your levels of dopamine get super low, you might not even be motivated to leave your bed or eat food. You might also feel really tired or lethargic.
- Dopamine levels can fluctuate throughout your life. If you find that something that once excited you isn't making you feel the same way anymore, that might be because your dopamine levels have dropped.
Can you decrease your dopamine through a dopamine fast?
No, dopamine doesn't actually decrease when you avoid overstimulating activities. You might have heard of the "dopamine fast" concept, which encourages people to abstain from electronic devices and social media for a specific period. This concept is based on a misunderstanding of how dopamine works.
- Abstaining from electronic devices for short periods isn't a bad thing and does have benefits—but those benefits aren't related to dopamine. For example, turning off screens for an hour or two before you go to bed helps you get more restful sleep.
- If you deprive yourself of something for a while, it might indeed seem more pleasurable when you experience it again, but it's not because you've replenished your depleted dopamine stores. The amount of dopamine you have available doesn't diminish that way.
- Talk to your doctor or to a therapist if you think you have excess dopamine. They can help you figure out if medication would be appropriate.
Dopamine-Related Health Issues
ADHD. Dopamine motivates you to start and complete a task. It's also at work when you plan and prioritize things to do. If you have ADHD, you may have difficulty with these functions due to a dopamine deficiency.
- Dopamine's motivational effects also influence how your brain evaluates a task and decides whether it's worth doing or not. Research shows that people with low levels of dopamine tend to look first at the difficulty of the task rather than the reward they'll receive for completing it.
Depression. Some of the most common symptoms of depression are low motivation and the inability to feel pleasure. These things are all associated with a deficiency of dopamine. People with depression might also have a flat affect, meaning that they don't show much emotion. That, too, is attributed to low levels of dopamine.
- In people with bipolar disorder, low dopamine may be responsible for their depressive symptoms, while an excess of dopamine causes feelings of mania.
Schizophrenia. Dopamine has an interesting relationship with schizophrenia that depends not only on the overall level of dopamine but also on the areas of the brain where that dopamine is released. Some symptoms of schizophrenia are caused by a dopamine deficiency while others are caused by an excess of the neurotransmitter.
- Low dopamine is a factor in many of the cognitive deficits associated with schizophrenia, including poor working memory, lack of pleasure, trouble with speech and speech processing, and social withdrawal. These are referred to as "negative" symptoms of schizophrenia because they refer to a loss of typical brain functions.
- High dopamine causes the delusions and hallucinations that many people consider the hallmark of schizophrenia. These are "positive" symptoms because something happens that doesn't happen in a typical brain.
Substance Use Disorder/Addiction. Amphetamines, cocaine, and similar drugs cause the neurons to release massive amounts of dopamine at once. Other drugs, such as heroin, mimic dopamine, making the receptors think they have more dopamine than they actually do. As a result, you start craving the euphoric feelings of a dopamine rush, which can lead to substance abuse and addiction.
- Because drugs disrupt dopamine production, people who misuse drugs don't have enough of it to go around unless they're under the effects of the drug. They start to feel as though they're not capable of enjoying anything anymore unless they're also on the drug.
Methylphenidate (Ritalin) treats ADHD by blocking the reabsorption of dopamine. This drug increases the amount of dopamine available in your body. Having more dopamine enables people with ADHD to have more motivation to start and complete tasks.
- Norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRIs) are also sometimes prescribed "off-label" for ADHD. This just means that they're used to treat ADHD even though they aren't officially approved for that.
Dopamine reuptake inhibitors treat depression. Buproprion (Wellbutrin) is the only drug in this class of NDRIs. This class of drugs increases the available dopamine in your body by preventing it from being reabsorbed.
- Doctors also prescribe these types of antidepressants on a short-term basis for smoking cessation. The drugs work to break the nicotine addiction cycle by blocking the reabsorption of dopamine.
Dopamine-depleting drugs treat movement disorders. Involuntary repetitive movements are believed to be caused by excess dopamine. Although doctors aren't sure exactly how this works, drugs that deplete dopamine in the brain are helpful for people with Huntington's disease, Tourette's syndrome, and other disorders characterized by involuntary repetitive movements or tics. Tetrabenazine, deutetrabenazine, and valbenazine are chemically similar dopamine depleting drugs.
- These drugs are also prescribed for tardive dyskinesia, a side effect of antipsychotic medications that is characterized by involuntary and abnormal movement of the face, neck, arms, and legs. The condition can start years after someone starts taking antipsychotic medication and can be permanent.
Maintaining Healthy Dopamine Levels Naturally
Eat foods rich in L-Tyrosine, the amino acid your body uses to make dopamine. Your brain naturally produces dopamine, but it needs the ingredients to make it. Foods with L-Tyrosine include chicken and other poultry, dairy products, avocados, bananas, soy, and pumpkin or sesame seeds.
- Turmeric, vitamin D, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids are other things that can help increase your dopamine levels.
- Technically, all eating gives you a little burst of dopamine. However, regularly eating sugary and high-fat fried foods can damage your dopamine pathways. This could lead to over-eating in pursuit of that dopamine burst you're used to from eating.
- Eating a high-protein breakfast including eggs, lean meats, and dairy work best to keep you full while also increasing your dopamine.
Get 7-9 hours of sleep every night to maintain appropriate dopamine levels. Sleep deprivation damages your brain's dopamine receptors so that even though your brain is making dopamine, you're not getting the benefits of it. Your brain, in turn, recognizes that it's not getting the dopamine it should be and triggers the release of more.
- More dopamine, in turn, can lead to more impulsive actions, aggression, and hostility. If you've ever been highly irritated after spending an all-nighter, you know what this feels like.
- The best way to make sure you're getting enough sleep is to check in on your energy levels throughout the day. If you find that you're lagging mid-morning or mid-afternoon, it could be that you're not getting enough sleep.
- Sleep tracker apps, available for free on your smartphone, can help you monitor your sleep and keep track of the number of hours you get each night.
Practice meditation to trigger the release of dopamine. People with anxiety disorders also have low levels of dopamine. Meditation is not only physically and mentally calming but also increases dopamine levels. The effects of this can last long after the meditation session if you meditate on a regular basis—say, 20-30 minutes a day every day.
- Focus on your breath for a quick and simple meditative practice that you can do throughout the day whenever you start to feel anxious or nervous. Breathe deeply in through your nose, pause, then exhale slowly through your mouth. You only need to do this for a minute at a time to start feeling the results.
- Yoga has similar effects on dopamine levels, probably because your brain is in a meditative state during yoga as well.
Exercise to increase your dopamine levels. Commit to 20-30 minutes of exercise every day to trigger a release of dopamine that improves your mood and makes it easier to focus. Over time, consistent exercise also improves your memory and general brain function, making it easier for you to learn and process information.
- Sticking to an exercise regime also makes you feel good because it gives you a sense of accomplishment—which comes with its own little hit of dopamine.
Perform random acts of kindness for a "helper's high". Your brain releases dopamine when you do something kind for someone else—researchers call this a "helper's high," similar to the "runner's high" you get from exercise. The boost of dopamine makes you feel great for being kind, which encourages you to seek out other opportunities to practice kindness.
- These moments are easy to find if you keep your eyes open to them. For example, you're coming home after a busy day and see your neighbor struggling with their groceries. Stopping to help them carry the bags in is a kind thing to do and your brain will reward you.
- Random acts of kindness also give you a boost of oxytocin, the so-called "love hormone" that plays a role in trusting people and forming social bonds.
Get a massage from a licensed massage therapist for a dopamine boost. Massage decreases cortisol, a stress hormone that causes you to feel tense and anxious. It also increases dopamine and serotonin, both of which will put you in a better mood.
- Studies have shown that dopamine increases about 31% on average after massage therapy sessions. You might even be able to get a referral from your doctor or therapist so your insurance will cover part or even all of the cost of your sessions.