Dopamine Deficiency: Symptoms, Causes, & Treatment
Dopamine is a naturally occurring neurotransmitter, or chemical, produced in the brain. It plays a vital role in many mental and physical processes, including the rewards system, movement, emotions, memory and sleep. When the amount of dopamine in a person’s body drops, they become dopamine deficient, and a wide variety of problems can result. Although it can be tricky, it’s important to recognize dopamine-related conditions. The right treatment is key to correcting the deficiency and resolving associated health problems.
Symptoms of Dopamine Deficiency
The symptoms of a dopamine deficiency vary greatly based on what’s causing it. They may include:
- Sadness or hopelessness
- Muscle spasms, tremors, or cramps
- Slower movements and speech
- Frequent pneumonia
- Low sex drive
- Low energy
If low dopamine is to blame, multiple symptoms will likely occur. It’s important to keep track of symptoms and give your doctor and/or psychiatrist accurate information.
What Causes Dopamine Deficiency?
Several conditions have been found to lead to a dopamine deficiency. They tend to be primarily related to the brain’s reward system, but medical and genetic factors can also play a role in their development.
Underlying medical conditions
Certain health conditions are linked to low dopamine levels. These are generally movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease or conditions affecting the lungs.
Medications such as antipsychotics are designed to reduce the amount of dopamine in the brain. This helps treat problems that result from too much dopamine, such as mania in people with bipolar disorder. People taking antipsychotics whose dopamine levels dip too low can have side effects, such as tremors.
Dopamine boosts are caused by pleasurable or relaxing activities. Life stressors, such as financial or relationship trouble, means you will be participating in fewer of these activities.
Eating foods high in saturated fat gives your brain a brief rush of dopamine. However, eating too much unhealthy food can disrupt central nervous system functioning. Dopamine production is part of the central nervous system, so its production is disrupted as well.
A diet high in saturated fat, and other foods which flood your brain with dopamine, is more likely to result in obesity. Obesity is correlated with low levels of dopamine.
Drug use typically increases the amount of dopamine in a person’s brain early on. This is because dopamine is responsible for the euphoria experienced by users of drugs like cocaine. However, as addiction progresses, the brain reduces the number of dopamine receptors, and people need to use more of the drug to get the same high.
How To Boost Dopamine Levels Naturally
When dopamine is boosted through alcohol or illicit substances, the body eventually compensates by decreasing production. It’s important to increase dopamine naturally so the body isn’t overwhelmed and the deficiency doesn’t become worse.
A healthy diet
Foods high in saturated fat can affect a dopamine deficiency, so they should be avoided. High-protein foods like beef, turkey, and dairy contain an amino acid called L-Tyrosine, which your body turns into dopamine. Bananas, apples, eggplant, and tomatoes have been found to be high in dopamine as well.
Studies conducted on animals demonstrate a rush of dopamine during physical activity. This may explain the “runner’s high” many regular exercisers feel during a good workout.
Stress reduction techniques
Any skill or technique that helps you feel relaxed and happy can counter low dopamine. Relaxation skills such as meditation and practicing gratitude are often used to boost dopamine levels.
Reduce alcohol consumption
Avoiding substances like alcohol that artificially promote high levels of dopamine is key to recovering a good balance. When the source of excess dopamine is removed, the body no longer needs to cut down on its number of receptors to restore balance.
Improve sleep habits
Dopamine helps us stay awake and alert. A disruption in dopamine balance can therefore create problems with sleep or staying awake. This makes us drowsy and results in poor coordination and concentration. Getting enough sleep also promotes the body’s natural tendency to release more dopamine in the morning and less at night.
Listen to music
Music creates feelings of pleasure the same way junk food or substances can. For this reason, it’s thought to stimulate dopamine production. Although the science isn’t 100% understood, it’s a good way to boost dopamine levels naturally.
Medical Health Conditions Linked to Dopamine Deficiency
Dopamine deficiency is associated with a wide range of medical diagnoses. Whether the deficiency leads to the medical health condition or vice versa, treatment will be most effective if it’s matched to the correct diagnosis.
A major symptom of depression is anhedonia, or lack of interest in things that once interested someone. Anhedonia is likely caused by a disruption in the brain’s reward system. Anticipation and pleasure are linked to dopamine, so these emotions diminish when there is not enough of it.
Dopamine, along with the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine, becomes imbalanced in people with bipolar disorder. Fluctuating dopamine levels are thought to contribute to manic and depressive episodes, though exactly why is not well understood.
Research has found that people with ADHD have a higher concentration of dopamine transporters. This causes the overall dopamine levels in the brain to be lower, which is thought to be a risk factor for ADHD.
An imbalance of dopamine is also thought to contribute to obsessive-compulsive disorder. While there is no conclusive proof that dopamine is involved, research has found that medications that affect dopamine levels, like antipsychotics, are effective in treating OCD.
Dopamine deficiency contributes to eating disorders such as binge eating disorder because of the way a poor diet affects dopamine. When unhealthy foods, such as those high in saturated fat, are consumed in excess, the brain is flooded with dopamine. The brain then begins to decrease its amount of dopamine receptors in an effort to re-balance.
Substance use disorders
People who have been abusing drugs or alcohol for a long time likely have a dopamine deficiency. Substance abuse reduces dopamine receptors and raises the threshold for dopamine cell activation. This makes people who struggle with substance abuse less able to experience the positive effects of dopamine.
Restless leg syndrome
Dopamine is a messenger between the brain and central nervous system. The basal ganglia, the part of the brain that controls movement, uses dopamine to regulate muscle activity. When nerve cells are damaged, levels of dopamine in the brain go down, resulting in the involuntary movements and spasms of restless leg syndrome.
Parkinson’s disease affects the specific part of the brain that produces dopamine. When nerve cells in this area are damaged, dopamine levels decrease. This dramatic reduction in dopamine produces the tremors and jerky movements seen in people with Parkinson’s.
Getting Help for Dopamine-related Conditions
Dopamine deficiency causes challenging symptoms and conditions that affect daily life. If you believe you’re experiencing a dopamine-related condition, you don’t have to suffer. There are many ways you can start re-balancing your neurotransmitters naturally. The same things don’t work for everyone, so you may have to try a few to see what works best for you.
Nobu is a comprehensive mental health app you can use to manage your dopamine levels. It features free lessons to help you learn more about your mental health, journaling, meditation, and much more. If you’d like extra support, Nobu offers confidential teletherapy with a licensed mental health professional. Access all the tools, strategies, and support you need to stay healthy by downloading Nobu in the App store or Google Play store.
Edited by – Melissa Carmona
As the content manager at Advanced Recovery Systems, Melissa Carmona puts years of writing and editing experience to work helping people understand substance abuse, addiction and mental health disorders. Melissa is a Florida State University graduate with bachelor’s & master’s degrees in communication and creative writing… Read more.
Written by – Victoria VanTol
Victoria VanTol is a licensed independent mental health practitioner and social worker in the states of Nebraska and Iowa. She received her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Nebraska Omaha in 2017. Since that time, she has worked as a therapist in a youth… Read more.
Medically Reviewed by – Dr. Angela Phillips
Angela is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher, and has worked in public, private, government, and not-for-profit organizations, across clinical and research-oriented roles. Angela’s clinical and research experience has included suicide prevention, cognitive behavioral… Read more.
- Bello, Nicholas, and Hajnal, Andras. “Dopamine and binge eating behaviors.” Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, April 24, 2010. Accessed September 10, 2021.
- Blum, Kenneth. Oscar-Berman, Marlene. Badgaiyan, Rajendra D. Khurshid, Khurshid A. Gold, Mark S. “Dopaminergic Neurogenetics of Sleep Disorders in Reward Deficiency Syndrome (RDS).” Journal of Sleep Disorders & Therapy, February 18, 2014. Accessed September 10, 2021.
- DeFeliceantonio, Alexandra G.; Small, Dana M. “Dopamine and diet-induced obesity.” Nature Neuroscience, January 2019. Accessed September 10, 2021.
- Denys, Damiaan. Zohar, Joseph. Westenberg, Herman G.M. “The role of dopamine in obsessive-compulsive disorder: Preclinical and clinical evidence.” The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, February 2004. Accessed September 10, 2021.
- Gorwood, Philip. “Neurobiological mechanisms of anhedonia.” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, September 2008. Accessed September 10, 2021.
- Healthdirect. “Dopamine.” Australian Government Department of Health, April 2021. Accessed September 10, 2021.
- Li, Peng. Snyder, Gretchen L. Vanover, Kimberly E. “Dopamine Targeting Drugs for the Treatment of Schizophrenia: Past, Present, and Future.” Current Topics in Medicinal Chemistry, December 2016. Accessed September 10, 2021.
- UK National Health Service. “Causes – Bipolar disorder.” March 14, 2019. Accessed September 10, 2021.
- UK National Health Service. “Causes – Restless leg syndrome.” August 6, 2018. Accessed September 10, 2021.
- Robison, Lisa, et al. “Exercise Reduces Dopamine D1R and Increases D2R in Rats: Implications for Addiction.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, August 2018. Accessed September 10, 2021.
- Volkow, Nora D. Wang, Gene-Jack. Kollins, Scott H. “Evaluating Dopamine Reward Pathway in ADHD.” JAMA, September 9, 2009. Accessed September 10, 2021.
- Wang, JG, et al. “Brain dopamine and obesity.” The Lancet, February 3, 2011. Accessed September 10, 2021.