Last updated July 11, 2022.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.
Dopamine deficiency is implicated in depression, addiction, Parkinson’s, ADHD, and other conditions. Understand the connection and learn what you can do.
If you wake up every morning and feel like life offers little to look forward to, you may have a dopamine deficiency.
Dopamine is the main brain chemical responsible for making us feel motivated.
Besides making us feel fatigued and moody, a low dopamine level also plays a role in many mental disorders.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is considered one of the “feel-good” neurotransmitters, along with serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins.
It has several distinct major functions.
Dopamine has been called the “motivation molecule” because it provides the drive and focus needed to be productive.
It’s also been called the “reward chemical” since it’s in charge of the brain’s pleasure-reward system.
Dopamine plays a role in numerous brain functions involving mood, sleep, learning, the ability to focus and concentrate, motor control, and working memory.
What Does Dopamine Do?
Understanding dopamine’s functions is a work in progress.
Over 110,000 research papers have been written about it, yet scientists are still trying to determine exactly what it does.
Here are some of the known functions of dopamine.
Dopamine is crucial to the feeling of motivation we need to work towards both long-term and short-term goals.
It delivers a feeling of satisfaction when we’ve accomplished what we set out to do.
Dopamine is released when our needs are about to be met.
It helped our prehistoric ancestors survive by giving them an energy boost when they were presented with a great opportunity, such as locating a new source of food.
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You wouldn’t think that we would need to be motivated to find food, yet lab mice with dopamine deficiency are so unmotivated that they starve to death even when food is readily available.
Our modern lifestyle doesn’t provide the fundamental opportunities for dopamine enhancement that our ancestors experienced.
But we still seek out dopamine boosts because of the way it makes us feel — alive and excited.
Healthy vs Unhealthy Ways to Increase Dopamine
There are both healthy and unhealthy ways to get a dopamine lift.
You can raise your dopamine level by watching or playing sports, learning something new, finishing a project, or landing a new account at work.
Any form of accomplishment that gives you that “Yes, I did it!” feeling will increase dopamine.
Conversely, unhealthy ways to stimulate dopamine production involve using addictive substances or engaging in addictive behaviors.
What “Dopamine Deficiency” Means
There is no reliable way to measure dopamine levels in the brain.
What is known is that certain clusters of symptoms are linked to abnormal dopamine activity.
So whenever you see the phrases “low dopamine” or “dopamine deficiency,” know that these terms mean that one or more of the following is taking place:
- Too little dopamine is being made.
- There are too few dopamine receptors or the receptors aren’t working as well as they should.
- Dopamine is being broken down too soon or not being appropriately recirculated.
Causes of Dopamine Deficiency
There’s a wide range of reasons for being low in dopamine.
Poor diet is a big factor.
Diets high in sugar and saturated fats can suppress dopamine.
Too little protein in your diet can leave you with an insufficient amount of l-tyrosine, an amino acid that’s the major building block of dopamine.
You may also be low in one or more of the cofactors needed to turn l-tyrosine into dopamine, such as vitamins B6 and B9, copper, zinc, and iron.
Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D activates the genes that release dopamine, and few of us get enough of this critical “sunshine vitamin.”
The Wrong Supplements
Surprisingly, some natural supplements could be the culprit.
5-HTP and melatonin are the most common supplements that can deplete dopamine, but there are several others as well.
The herbal remedies white mulberry (Morus alba), noni fruit (Morinda citrifolia), magnolia bark (Magnolia officinalis), and licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) inhibit dopamine function and should be avoided if increasing dopamine is your goal.
Underlying Health Conditions
Your general state of health can contribute to dopamine deficiency.
Here are some of the many health conditions linked to dopamine deficiency:
There’s an entire category of drugs called dopamine antagonists that work by binding to dopamine receptors to block dopamine activity.
Three main types of drugs that fall into this category are tricyclic antidepressants, drugs for nausea and vomiting, and some antipsychotics.
" There’s a growing body of evidence that dopamine deficiency may be the underlying cause of depression in many cases.
Psychosocial stressors can cause less dopamine to be produced.
Examples of this kind of extreme stressor include grief, abuse, poverty, social discrimination, or living with an addict.
Children who experience a traumatic childhood may continue to produce less dopamine throughout adulthood.
And lastly, one of the most unexpected dopamine depleters might be your mobile phone.
There’s evidence that the electromagnetic radiation emitted by cell phones disrupts levels of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.
Low Dopamine Symptoms
Dopamine deficiency drains the joy from life.
It can leave you feeling apathetic and hopeless.
It makes it hard to start tasks and even harder to finish them.
Common dopamine deficiency symptoms include:
- lack of motivation
- inability to experience pleasure
- trouble getting going in the morning
- mood swings
- memory loss
- inability to focus and concentrate
- inability to connect with others
- low libido
- sugar cravings
- caffeine cravings
- inability to handle stress
- inability to lose weight
Low dopamine levels are also linked to numerous mental health disorders.
Let’s talk about some of the most common conditions with a dopamine connection.
Low Dopamine: An Unexpected Cause of Depression
No one knows for sure what causes depression, but the most popular theory is that it’s due to a lack of the mood-elevating brain chemical serotonin.
But there’s a growing body of evidence that dopamine deficiency may be the underlying cause of depression in many cases.
This could explain why selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), antidepressants that work by increasing serotonin, work for only 40% of those who use them.
Here’s some of the key evidence that dopamine may play a bigger role in depression than generally acknowledged.
The idea that depression is caused by low dopamine is not new.
One study published nearly 30 years ago states that dopamine has wrongly been ignored as a cause of depression and that there’s a large body of evidence that antidepressants that target dopamine can be effective for treating depression.
More than fifteen years ago, Harvard Medical School researchers discovered that dopamine dysregulation is implicated in depression.
Clinical trials have found that people with depression have lower levels of a major metabolite of dopamine (homovanillic acid) in their central nervous system.
There’s some evidence that SSRI antidepressants work by indirectly affecting dopamine levels.
And lastly, some antidepressants, like Wellbutrin, are known to work by increasing dopamine.
Wellbutrin belongs to a class of antidepressants, the norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitors, which are sometimes prescribed when SSRIs don’t help.
The Difference Between Serotonin and Dopamine Depression
Doctors must rely on trial and error when prescribing antidepressants for their patients.
Blood tests are being developed that may eventually take the guesswork out of this process.
But until these tests have been perfected and made widely available, the best way to determine if your depression is related to a low serotonin or dopamine level is by your symptoms.
While there is definitely crossover between the two sets of symptoms, there are a few key differences as well.
Dopamine-based depression expresses itself as lethargy and lack of enjoyment of life, while serotonin-based depression tends to be accompanied by anxiety.
People with dopamine-related depression often use sugar, caffeine, or nicotine as a quick fix to temporarily feel more alive.
This is no coincidence — they all increase dopamine.
Or they may resort to self-destructive behaviors, such as recreational drug use, excessive shopping, gambling, or porn for their dopamine surge.
With a serotonin deficiency, you’re more likely to binge on carbohydrates like ice cream or cookies, particularly when worrying thoughts keep you up at night.
The Dopamine-Addiction Connection
Substances and behaviors that are addictive provide a temporary, unnatural flood of dopamine.
Addictive drugs like cocaine and amphetamines cause up to 10 times more dopamine to be released than normal.
Addictive behaviors such as internet use, shopping, gambling, porn, thrill-seeking, and pursuit of power have similar effects.
Brain receptors become overwhelmed and eventually respond by producing less dopamine and reducing the number of receptors available.
Imaging studies confirm that the brains of substance abusers release less dopamine and have fewer dopamine receptors.
One of the hallmarks of addiction is needing more and more to get the same effect due to this downregulation of dopamine.
This is why many former addicts rely on caffeine, sugar, and smoking to keep up their energy, focus, and drive.
What they are really doing is self-medicating with weaker, socially accepted dopamine-boosting substances.
Low Dopamine and Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that occurs when the brain gradually stops producing dopamine.
Parkinson’s usually starts with a slight tremor in one hand.
Patients gradually lose their ability to regulate their movements and emotions.
There is no cure, but so far, the most effective treatment is levodopa, a natural compound that converts into dopamine.
ADHD and Dopamine Deficiency
The underlying cause of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is still unknown.
But it is widely accepted that the root cause of ADHD is likely an abnormality in dopamine function.
This seems logical since dopamine is critical for maintaining focus.
Most ADHD medications are based on the “dopamine deficiency” theory.
Prescription medications used to treat ADHD are believed to work by increasing the release of dopamine and norepinephrine while slowing down their rate of reabsorption.
Dopamine Deficiency Linked to FMS and CFS
Both fibromyalgia (FMS) and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) are associated with low dopamine levels.
The symptoms of dopamine deficiency experienced by FMS and CFS patients include brain fog, achy muscles, poor concentration, tremors, poor balance and coordination, and walking abnormalities.
How to Increase Dopamine Levels Naturally
If you experience signs or symptoms of a low dopamine level, you don’t have to live with it.
There are several lifestyle changes that can raise dopamine levels naturally.
The amino acid l-tyrosine is a precursor of dopamine.
Tyrosine-rich foods provide the basic building blocks for dopamine production.
Phenylalanine is an amino acid that converts into l-tyrosine.
Virtually all animal products — meat, fish, poultry, and dairy — are good sources of both l-tyrosine and phenylalanine.
Here are some other foods known to increase dopamine:
You can’t buy dopamine supplements per se.
Dopamine is a serious medicine used only in emergency situations like heart attacks and shock.
So while actual dopamine supplements are not available, there are several supplements that increase dopamine via various mechanisms.
The most obvious dopamine supplement to consider is the amino acid l-tyrosine.
It is the precursor to dopamine and without it, you can’t make adequate dopamine.
Even if you think you get plenty of l-tyrosine in your diet, stress, over-work, lack of sleep, and illness can all increase your need for l-tyrosine.
Vitamin D, Magnesium, and Omega-3 Fats
Deficiencies of vitamin D, magnesium, and omega-3 essential fatty acids are extremely common, and each can contribute to dopamine deficiency.
Lastly, you can take one of these natural supplements known to increase dopamine levels:
Phenylethylamine is sold as a dopamine-boosting supplement, but I don’t recommend it.
Phenylethylamine is rather useless as a mood-altering supplement since, once ingested, it has a half-life of only a few minutes.
Activities That Raise Dopamine Levels
Any activity that makes you feel happy and relaxed increases dopamine.
Physical exercise stimulates a spurt of dopamine and is one of the neurotransmitters responsible for “runner’s high.”
Get a therapeutic massage.
It can boost dopamine by over 30% while also decreasing the stress hormone cortisol.
Meditation causes a dopamine release.
So do creative hobbies that focus the mind similarly to meditation, such as knitting, art, sewing, baking, and gardening.
Playing and listening to music you enjoy stimulates a dopamine release.
Interestingly, you don’t even have to listen to music.
Just the anticipation of hearing it has the same effect.
Seek and Find
Engage in “seeking and finding” activities, such as geocaching, fishing, bird watching, genealogy, and collecting of all kinds.
This emulates the hunt that provided our ancestors with their dopamine boosts.
Take on new challenges and set small, regular mileposts to push your progress.
Accomplishing goals, even small ones, stimulates a surge of dopamine.
Overcoming Dopamine Deficiency: Take the Next Step
A dopamine deficiency can sap the joy from life.
It is also a factor in many mental health conditions, including depression and addictive behaviors.
Make appropriate lifestyle changes to raise your dopamine levels:
- Eat a diet high in dopamine-promoting foods.
- Engage in known dopamine-enhancing activities — physical exercise, meditation, hobbies, music, and goal planning.
- Take appropriate dopamine-boosting supplements.
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