Blog Post | The Role of Dopamine in ADHD


The Role of Dopamine in ADHD


If you have been diagnosed with ADHD, you’ve probably heard that the ADHD brain tends to have different levels of neurotransmitters (or brain chemicals). The dopamine/ADHD relationship seems to be a hot topic these days … at least within the ADHD community. But, what exactly is dopamine, and what is its relationship to ADHD? And most importantly, how can you use this knowledge to help you manage ADHD symptoms? In this blog post, I will begin to answer some of these important questions.

What is dopamine?

Basically, dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain. It’s responsible for a number of important functions, including controlling attention, movement, and sleep processes. However, one of its main roles is related to motivation and reward; in fact, dopamine has been coined the “pleasure chemical”, since it’s released when your brain interprets something as rewarding. For example, when you eat a piece of cake or candy, the sugar causes a rush of dopamine … and when that rush happens, you’re more likely to repeat it in the future. For this reason, dopamine can also be thought of as the “desire chemical”, since it causes you to want to seek out those things that give you a dopamine rush.

What is the relationship between dopamine and ADHD?

Researchers have observed that people with ADHD have lower levels of dopamine than those without. Some believe that this is because the ADHD brain has higher concentrations of proteins (called dopamine transporters), which results in lowering dopamine levels in the brain. This is why so many of us with ADHD tend to seek out high-dopamine activities … in an attempt to “turn on” or stimulate our brain. We might find ourselves driven to do activities that aren’t particularly healthy, such as overeating carbs, excessively using technology, overspending … or even riskier behaviors, such as fast driving or skydiving. While these activities may help us “turn on” our brains, they may not always serve us well.   

What are some healthier strategies for increasing dopamine levels in the brain?

If you have consulted with a doctor or nurse practitioner, you’re probably aware that there are various medications available to manage ADHD symptoms. While some stimulant medications work on increasing dopamine availability in the brain (Concerta or Vyvanse, for example), there are other non-stimulant options (such as Strattera and Wellbutrin) that work on other neurotransmitters. In addition to medications, research indicates that there are also lifestyle changes and activities that can increase levels of dopamine in your brain naturally. Here are some of these strategies:

1. Exercise frequently. 
Studies indicate that exercise is one of the most powerful ways to boost dopamine (as well as serotonin) levels in the brain. Even if you’re busy, you can start small. Something as simple as taking a walk a few times a week can make a difference.

2. Make sure to get enough sleep each night. 
Getting enough sleep can help you regulate your body’s dopamine levels. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7-9 hours of sleep every night.

3. Include protein-rich foods in your diet. 
Make sure to incorporate protein-rich foods into your diet, such as poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, legumes, and nuts or seeds. These foods contain an amino acid called phenylalanine, and once eaten, convert it to  L-Tyrosine — the precursor to dopamine.

4. Mindfulness meditation. 
Regular meditation practice has been shown to raise the level of dopamine and its receptors in the brain — especially for experienced meditators. Here are some worthwhile meditation apps to check out:  Calm, Ten Percent Happier, and Headspace.

5. Listen to music.
Listening to certain types of music can stimulate dopamine release in the brain. Some brain imaging studies have found that listening to music stimulates the pleasure reward centers of the brain, which are rich in dopamine receptors.

6. Break down large tasks into small doable chunks.
Dopamine is released after you accomplish a goal — whether it’s large or small. So to facilitate more dopamine “hits'', try to break down large tasks into smaller chunks, whenever possible.  For example, developing a daily checklist of your top 3 priorities and checking them off your list can systematically release a “hit” of dopamine.

Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter that appears to play a significant role in ADHD symptoms and management. In addition to medications, there are a number of lifestyle changes and activities you can do to boost dopamine levels naturally, including exercise, sleep, diet, meditation, and music, as well as breaking down large goals into manageable chunks. Please stay tuned for future blogs, where I will discuss some of these strategies in more detail.  


Andrea Yellinek, MS, OTR/L, ACC, CACP
ADHD Coach | Center For Living Well with ADHD, LLC

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