Dopamine is both a neurotransmitter and hormone and has several important functions in the human body. It is involved in movement, memory, feelings of pleasure, and plays a significant role in the reward system of the brain. When you feel good or feel a sense of reward, large amounts of dopamine release into your brain. High levels of dopamine help to provide feelings of pleasure and euphoria, whereas lower dopamine levels can leave you feeling tired, unmotivated, and unhappy. Low levels of dopamine are also associated with several mental and physical health conditions, including Parkinson’s disease and depression. This article will discuss the causes and symptoms of dopamine imbalance, as well as different methods for balancing dopamine levels in your body. These include medications and supplements, as well as natural ways to boost dopamine like exercise and diet changes.
What is dopamine?
Dopamine plays an essential role in daily life and acts as both a neurotransmitter and hormone in the human body. Both hormones and neurotransmitters are brain chemical messengers that send signals and messages around your body in different ways. Dopamine is made in the brain from the amino acid tyrosine, which is converted into L-dopa (or levodopa) and then finally into dopamine.
There are five different types of dopamine receptors. Each type has a variety of effects, and these are all involved in important bodily functions, such as memory, movement, learning, and in the brain’s reward systems.1
Dopamine is known as the feel-good hormone and is responsible for feelings of pleasure after doing something that you enjoy.2 It activates the reward system in your brain, and large amounts of dopamine are released when you feel rewarded – for example when trying new activities, and when you are feeling happy or accomplished. This increases your motivation to continue seeking out behaviours that release dopamine and can sometimes lead to repetitive behaviours or addictions.
What is dopamine deficiency?
Dopamine deficiency is when you have a low level of dopamine in your body. This occurs due to an issue with the body’s dopamine system; either there is not enough dopamine being produced or not enough being received in the brain. This can stem from dysfunctional dopamine receptors in the brain, and can have several physical and psychological effects, including health conditions and behavioural addictions.
While a dopamine deficiency can have diverse, serious effects, it is not a condition itself and presents through other psychological or physical health conditions.
What are the symptoms of dopamine deficiency?
Dopamine deficiency (low dopamine level) can have several different effects on the human body. There are many symptoms, which may differ from person to person and depend on the underlying cause. For example, the symptoms of someone with low dopamine levels associated with depression will be very different from the symptoms related to someone with Parkinson’s disease.
If you have low dopamine levels, your symptoms might include:
- Feeling tired
- Feeling unmotivated
- Concentration problems
- Feeling sad or unhappy
- Sleep problems
- Mood swings
- Low sex drive
More specific symptoms may relate to the underlying cause of your dopamine deficiency, including:
- Hand tremors
- Loss of balance or coordination
- Increased muscle stiffness
- Muscle cramping
- Short-term memory problems or forgetfulness
- Emotional changes related to self-esteem, anger, and pleasure
- Problems with impulsiveness
- Feeling a reduced sense of organisation
- Social withdrawal or anxiety
- Involuntary limb movements or sudden urges to move your legs (restless leg syndrome)
It is important to note that dopamine systems are very complex. It is not yet clear whether low dopamine levels cause these symptoms alone, or whether dopamine only contributes alongside other genetic and lifestyle factors.
What causes low dopamine levels?
There are several different causes of dopamine deficiency, including problems with the areas of your brain that produce dopamine, including:
- Too little dopamine being produced
- Damage or death of dopamine receptors
- Too few dopamine receptors
- Dopamine not being recirculated correctly
- Dopamine being broken down too quickly
It is important to note that low levels of dopamine will affect different people in different ways, and the causes of dopamine deficiency are not fully understood. It is not clear whether low levels of dopamine cause symptoms and conditions, or whether these conditions cause dopamine deficiency. Several different health conditions are thought to cause (or be caused by) low levels of dopamine, including the following.
Parkinson’s disease is a movement disorder that slowly worsens over time. It causes symptoms that affect someone’s ability to move, and can lead to tremors and difficulty walking or balancing. Whilst the exact cause of Parkinson’s disease is unknown, studies have linked the disease to the loss of neurons (brain cells) that make dopamine.. This leads to low levels of dopamine, which affects communication and chemical messaging in the brain.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects people’s behaviour, and symptoms typically are noticed during early childhood. ADHD can affect someone’s ability to focus, pay attention, or control impulsive behaviours. Studies have shown that individuals with ADHD have higher levels of dopamine transporters, which mean they have lower levels of dopamine in the brain as it is taken back up into the neuron before it can have any effect.3
Certain medications reduce the amount of dopamine available in your brain, such as antipsychotic drugs. Although this can help to treat mental health symptoms, such as mania, dopamine levels can fall too low and lead to side effects. Medications that alter dopamine levels should be diagnosed by medical professionals, and dosage should be monitored closely.4
Drug and substance misuse
Stimulant and drug use can affect dopamine levels in the brain, specifically after repeated or long-term misuse. Studies have suggested that substance abuse can affect the activation and signalling of dopamine brain cells, eventually leading to decreased dopamine levels and difficulties feeling the positive effects of dopamine.5
Diet is thought to contribute to dopamine levels. Specifically, eating foods high in saturated fat, such as butter, cakes, bacon, fatty meat and cheese, lead to sudden rushes of dopamine. Eating too much of these foods can disrupt dopamine functioning, and lead to lower levels of dopamine over time.6
Mental health conditions
Low levels of dopamine have been linked to several mental health conditions, including depression and some symptoms of schizophrenia.4 One of the main symptoms of depression is having reduced feelings of pleasure or joy from things that you once enjoyed, and these feelings are linked to dopamine and the reward system in our brain. However, the impact of dopamine on mental health conditions is not yet fully understood, and it is difficult to determine whether dopamine deficiency is the cause, or an after effect of these conditions.
What will happen if you have dopamine deficiency?
Dopamine levels in the brain cannot be accurately measured. Whilst blood tests can be taken to measure levels of neurotransmitters, this does not reflect levels in the brain and throughout the central nervous system. Therefore, healthcare providers will discuss medical history, lifestyle, and symptoms with patients before diagnosis. Diagnosis is largely based on symptoms of other health conditions related to dopamine deficiency, and then specific tests for those conditions can be performed. Your doctor can then determine whether they believe you have low dopamine levels, and the best plan for treatment.
Different conditions may be diagnosed differently. For example, if you believe you have Parkinson’s Disease, a physical exam will be taken, looking for symptoms such as tremors or muscle stiffness. Your doctor might also use imaging and tests to rule out other conditions.
Dopamine deficiency can cause difficult and challenging symptoms that affect your daily life. If you believe you have low levels of dopamine, or are experiencing symptoms related to abnormal dopamine activity, seek medical care as there are several methods for balancing your dopamine levels.
How to balance dopamine?
Treatment for low dopamine levels depends largely on the symptoms and underlying cause. For example, the treatment for restless leg syndrome and Parkinson’s Disease may be very different.
One method for increasing dopamine is taking medication. Medication must only be taken if prescribed by a doctor, as its dosage and prescription must be closely monitored to avoid side effects.
Dopamine agonist drugs are a type of medication used to treat symptoms of dopamine deficiency, however the type of medication may change depending on primary symptoms or related conditions. Pramipexole and ropinirole are medications used to increase dopamine levels for conditions or symptoms including Parkinson’s disease, depression, and low sex drive. These medications mimic dopamine, causing your body to react in the same way as it would to dopamine, and can provide relief from movement or motor symptoms.7
Levodopa is another medication also used to treat Parkinson’s disease. Levodopa is the amino acid in your brain that gets converted into dopamine, and therefore this medication helps to produce more dopamine.8
Dopamine reuptake inhibitors are another type of medication that prevent the reuptake of dopamine in your body. This means that more dopamine is available for your brain cells. Dopamine reuptake inhibitors are used to treat depression and narcolepsy, as well as helping individuals to overcome addictions like smoking and binge eating.
How to regulate dopamine levels naturally
There are several diet and lifestyle changes that are thought to naturally increase dopamine levels.
It is thought that eating a diet including foods high in tyrosine may influence dopamine levels, as this amino acid is needed to produce dopamine in the brain. Foods containing high amounts of tyrosine include:9
- Velvet Beans
Supplements thought to increase dopamine levels include:
- Vitamin D
- Vitamins B5 and B6
- Omega-3 essential fatty acids
Engaging in activities that make you feel happy and relaxed may also help to increase dopamine levels. For example, walking outside or exercising regularly.10 Ensuring you get regular, high quality sleep may also help to regulate your body’s dopamine system.11
Can you have too much dopamine?
You can have too much dopamine, for example when there is too much dopamine concentrated in one area of the brain and it does not reach other parts. High levels of dopamine are linked to extreme feelings of euphoria, energy, and pleasure. However, these symptoms can lead to negative effects such as difficulty sleeping, having poor impulse control, being more aggressive, and even having psychotic episodes.
Increased dopamine can also lead to more risk taking, and addictive behaviours. High levels of dopamine can be caused by both legal and illegal substances, including nicotine and cocaine. It is thought that drug use and substance abuse stimulates dopamine increase of two to ten times more than typical pleasurable activities like enjoying food or sexual intercourse. The increased dopamine levels from such substances can create potential for addictive behaviour and can lead to serious problems when one tries to withdraw or quit, often requiring addiction treatment.12
Dopamine acts as a neurotransmitter and hormone in the human body and has several important functions, related to movement, memory, and feelings of pleasure or reward. Whilst there are several causes of low dopamine levels, it can be difficult to find out the exact underlying cause. Symptoms and related health conditions are usually diagnosed and treated instead of the dopamine deficiency directly. The different treatment options depend on these factors, and the treatment for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease differs from psychological conditions like depression. Medication, supplements, and lifestyle changes have all been shown to affect dopamine levels. However, more research is needed to understand how dopamine relates exactly to these conditions, and how different lifestyle factors and choices may influence dopamine levels.
- Bhatia A, Lenchner JR, Saadabadi A. Biochemistry, dopamine receptors. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 [cited 2023 Feb 17]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538242/
- Ayano G. Dopamine: receptors, functions, synthesis, pathways, locations and mental disorders: review of literatures. Journal of Mental Disorders and Treatment [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2023 Feb 17];2(2):undefined-undefined. Available from: https://www.mendeley.com/catalogue/96ec3a60-675e-33c1-b5c6-9f9bed362a11/
- Lai TKY, Su P, Zhang H, Liu F. Development of a peptide targeting dopamine transporter to improve ADHD-like deficits. Molecular Brain [Internet]. 2018 Nov 9 [cited 2023 Feb 17];11(1):66. Available from: https://molecularbrain.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13041-018-0409-0
- Li P, L. Snyder G, E. Vanover K. Dopamine targeting drugs for the treatment of schizophrenia: past, present and future. CTMC [Internet]. 2016 Oct 20 [cited 2023 Sep 18];16(29):3385–403. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5112764/
- Ashok AH, Mizuno Y, Volkow ND, Howes OD. Association of stimulant use with dopaminergic alterations in users of cocaine, amphetamine, or methamphetamine: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Psychiatry [Internet]. 2017 May 1 [cited 2023 Feb 17];74(5):511–9. Available from: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2608759
- DiFeliceantonio AG, Small DM. Dopamine and diet-induced obesity. Nat Neurosci [Internet]. 2019 Jan [cited 2023 Feb 17];22(1):1–2. Available from: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41593-018-0304-0
- Collo G, Cavalleri L, Bono F, Mora C, Fedele S, Invernizzi RW, et al. Ropinirole and pramipexole promote structural plasticity in human ipsc-derived dopaminergic neurons via bdnf and mtor signaling. Neural Plast [Internet]. 2018 Feb 4 [cited 2023 Feb 17];2018:4196961. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5817382/
- Gandhi KR, Saadabadi A. Levodopa(L-dopa). In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 [cited 2023 Feb 17]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482140/
- Briguglio M, Dell’Osso B, Panzica G, Malgaroli A, Banfi G, Zanaboni Dina C, et al. Dietary neurotransmitters: a narrative review on current knowledge. Nutrients [Internet]. 2018 May [cited 2023 Feb 17];10(5):591. Available from: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/10/5/591
- Hansen CJ, Stevens LC, Coast JR. Exercise duration and mood state: how much is enough to feel better? Health Psychol. 2001 Jul;20(4):267–75.
- Korshunov KS, Blakemore LJ, Trombley PQ. Dopamine: a modulator of circadian rhythms in the central nervous system. Front Cell Neurosci [Internet]. 2017 Apr 3 [cited 2023 Feb 17];11:91. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5376559/