A high dopamine level can cause self-destructive behaviors like pathological gambling, shopping, eating and sex. Learn how dopamine affects impulse control.
By Emily Miller
Some call it the “brain’s reward molecule;” others know it as the “feel-good chemical.” But to most, it’s simply called dopamine.
Dopamine is a chemical found naturally in the brain that acts as a messenger between brain cells.
It plays important roles in attention, mood and movement.
It is also linked to aspects of human behavior, including motivation and pleasure-seeking.
When a person has too much dopamine in the brain, he or she can suffer from compulsive or uncontrollable urges to gamble, shop, eat and have sex.
In fact, researchers have concluded that people are more likely to act impulsively when dopamine levels in the brain are boosted. (1)
Let’s look at how dopamine affects your brain and drives compulsive behavior.
How Dopamine Causes Compulsive Behavior
According to the Journal of Neuroscience, dopamine is crucial to motivation, learning via reinforcement, and addictions involving food, shopping, sex and gambling.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter — a chemical messenger — which means that it passes information from one nerve cell to the next through the small spaces between them. (2)
A series of nerve cells connects main dopamine-producing areas of the brain with the brain’s motivation and reward center.
The release of dopamine from this area lets the brain know that the current experience is worth repeating.
It helps people modify their behavior so they can get more of the reward. (3)
Studies in monkeys show that each time a monkey receives a fruit morsel or fruit juice, its brain releases high amounts of dopamine.
If a monkey is taught that a particular sound predicts when it will receive the fruity treat, its brain will release dopamine as soon as it hears that sound.
The dopamine release enables the monkey to learn that it will be rewarded when it hears the sound again.
This makes the monkey more likely to seek out the sound in the future. (4)
The same happens in humans.
Certain activities, such as eating, gambling and having sex, excite dopamine-releasing cells.
When you experience bursts of dopamine, you feel rewarded and motivated to do more of the activity that sparked the dopamine release.
In other words, the release of dopamine enables you to feel a reward and take action to get more of it.
It influences the types of food you eat and how much you consume. It also affects whether you become addicted to drugs. (5)
How Dopamine Causes Impulsive Behaviors
Studies show that increased levels of dopamine can make people act impulsively and crave instant gratification.
Over time, impulsive behaviors — behaviors reinforced with rewards — can become compulsive behaviors, meaning a person feels driven to repeat the activity without it necessarily leading to a reward. (8)
Researchers at University College of London conducted a study in 2010 in which they twice asked volunteers to choose between getting a smaller reward sooner or getting a larger reward later.
Each time the researchers asked the question, they changed the conditions.
One time, the researchers boosted the dopamine in the volunteers’ brains using a low dose of L-dopa and then asked the question.
The other time, the volunteers were given a placebo before the question.
All 14 volunteers were more likely to behave impulsively when the level of dopamine in their brains was elevated, according to the study. (9)
Another study by researchers at Vanderbilt University used a PET scan to examine the brains of 32 healthy volunteers between the ages of 18 and 35.
Volunteers were asked to take a test to measure impulsivity.
The first time they took the test, the volunteers were given a placebo.
The second time, they were given a dose of amphetamine, which can trigger the release of dopamine.
Results showed that the brain receptors charged with receiving dopamine were less active in the volunteers who were more impulsive.
Researchers also found that when given amphetamine, the more impulsive volunteers released much more dopamine than those who were less impulsive.
In other words, the brain scans showed a connection between dopamine and impulsiveness. (10)
Learn more —
Dopamine Deficiency, Depression and Mental Health
How to Know If Your Behaviors Are Compulsive
Eating, shopping, sex, gambling — for many, these are simply pleasurable activities.
However, when someone repeatedly engages in these activities to the point that it interferes in the person’s life, it becomes compulsive behavior.
People who engage in compulsive behaviors find it extremely difficult to stop what they are doing even when the activity doesn’t necessarily end with relief or a reward.
They feel compelled to repeat the behavior to relieve an obsession. (11)
A person’s compulsive behavior may be caused by a condition called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
OCD is linked to increased levels of dopamine.
People with OCD repeat behaviors over and over again to reduce anxiety caused by obsessive thoughts. (12)
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Dopamine Medications That Cause Compulsive Behavior
An excess of dopamine can also cause overstimulation, an overactive sex drive and self-destructive behaviors. Pharmaceuticals are one source of excess dopamine in the brain.
Medications that stimulate dopamine receptors are known as dopamine agonists. These drugs act like dopamine to stimulate nerve cells.
Researchers have noted that patients taking these drugs can become susceptible to compulsive gambling, shopping, and unhealthy eating habits. (13)
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Parkinson’s Disease Medications
Parkinson’s disease patients suffer from dopamine deficiency and may be treated with medications that enhance dopamine production or stimulate dopamine receptors.
Dopamine agonists are also used to treat restless leg syndrome.
An analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine examined adverse events reported to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration over a 10-year period.
It linked dopamine agonists to excessive gambling, hypersexuality, shopping sprees, stealing and binge eating.
In fact, the analysis suggests that as many as one in seven patients who take dopamine agonists experienced self-destructive behaviors.
The analysis identified 710 events indicating impulse-control disorders related to dopamine receptor agonist drugs.
Pathological gambling or gambling was mentioned in more than half of the cases, making gambling the most frequent impulse control behavior reported.
Hypersexuality and compulsive shopping were the other most-reported behaviors. (14)
The antipsychotic aripiprazole (sold under the brand name Abilify) is another dopamine agonist observed in the JAMA analysis.
It, too, can reportedly cause compulsive behaviors.
Abilify is designed to stabilize the level of dopamine in the brain.
However, the drug can instead overstimulate dopamine D3 receptors, which are associated with reward, motivation and impulse control.
The drug’s label warns that some patients taking Abilify have had unusual urges, such as gambling, binge eating or eating that cannot be controlled (compulsive), compulsive shopping, and sexual urges. (15)
Several studies dating back to 2011 have pointed to compulsive gambling as a side effect of Abilify.
In each study, patients began gambling after they started taking aripiprazole.
When they stopped taking the drug, the pathological behavior stopped too.
A number of studies also link aripiprazole to compulsive eating and uncontrollable sexual urges.
Women who took Abilify reported gaining nearly 20 pounds in six months through compulsive eating and experiencing increased sexual urges and activities — even when never having engaged in sexual relationships.
“Dopamine receptor agonist drugs are associated with serious impulse control disorders; the associations were significant [and] the magnitude of the effects was large,” according to the JAMA analysis.
ADHD Medications and Recreational Drugs
Lower levels of dopamine are associated with symptoms of ADHD.
As a result, Ritalin and other drugs prescribed for ADHD increase dopamine by targeting dopamine transporters.
Some people abuse these medications because they think high dosage of these drugs will lead to greater focus and attention.
Conversely, too much dopamine can make it hard to focus. (16)
Other recreational drug use, including the use of cocaine and ecstasy, also stimulates the release of dopamine.
Substances such as nicotine and heroin enhance dopamine levels and stimulate reward receptors in the brain.
This explains why these substances become so addictive.
Ways to Reduce Dopamine to Conquer Compulsive Behavior
Anyone who experiences signs of too much dopamine, such as compulsive behaviors, should consult a doctor.
While some pharmaceuticals increase dopamine, others have the opposite effect.
Medications that lower dopamine levels are called dopamine antagonists.
They work by blocking dopamine receptors.
Dopamine antagonists include many antipsychotic drugs.
They may be used to treat conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Dopamine antagonists may also be used to treat nausea and to stop vomiting. (17)
Reglan is an example of a dopamine antagonist that acts on dopamine receptors in the gastrointestinal tract.
The drug is used to treat nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy and post-surgery patients.
Reglan comes with the risk of several serious side effects, including tardive dyskinesia, a condition involving involuntary facial and body movements.
Aside from pharmaceuticals, finding ways to manage stress and getting more sleep are lifestyle changes that could help lower dopamine. (18)
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Experts have found certain herbs, fruits, plants and amino acids can also regulate levels of dopamine.
Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri), for example, can alter the production of dopamine.
Others include white mulberry, noni fruit, magnolia bark and licorice root. (19)
Learn more —
You can find more information about natural remedies to lower dopamine levels in How to Counter the Effects of Too Much Dopamine.
Dopamine and Compulsive Behavior: The Bottom Line
Dopamine is essential to the body’s ability to function properly.
But too much dopamine can lead to self-destructive behaviors such as pathological gambling.
There are several causes of high levels of dopamine, from pharmaceuticals to stress to the foods we eat.
Medications known as dopamine antagonists can reduce the amount of dopamine released in the brain.
However, these drugs can have unwanted side effects and don’t work for everyone.
Lifestyle changes such as getting enough sleep and learning to manage stress may help regulate dopamine.
If you suspect you are experiencing signs of too much dopamine, avoid sugar, caffeine, nicotine and other stimulants.
Your symptoms could be the result of a dopamine-related disorder, so it’s important to talk with your doctor.
About the author
Emily Miller is a content writer for Drugwatch, a website dedicated to providing consumers with informational resources about pharmaceutical drugs, medical devices, procedures and conditions. Prior to joining Drugwatch, Emily reported on health and legal topics for several reputable media organizations, including University of Florida Health. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.