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What is dopamine?

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What is dopamine?Dopamine deficiencyHow to increase dopamine levels naturallyMedication optionsSummary
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter essential to the brain’s memory, reward, and motivation processes. You can increase your dopamine levels by exercising and eating certain foods.
Medically reviewed by Nicole Washington, DO, MPH
Written by Cathy Lovering
Updated on November 30, 2023

Dopamine is essential to the chemical signaling between brain cells. It’s crucial for memory, learning, motivation, and muscular activity, among many other body processes. If you have low levels of dopamine, it can affect your mood and change how you interact with people and the world around you. 

Certain medical conditions can cause dopamine levels to drop. In these circumstances, a doctor may prescribe a dopamine agonist medication. 

You can also increase your dopamine levels naturally through physical activity and dietary changes.

What is dopamine?

Woman enjoying relaxing time at home, which increases dopamine levels
Photography by AleksandarNakic/Getty Images

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in several bodily functions, such as memory, pleasure, and motivation processes.

Research has found that people with certain diagnoses, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, depression, and schizophrenia, have different levels of certain neurotransmitters.

Dopamine plays a critical role in the brain’s ability to learn, perform executive functions, and control movement. It’s also vital to the brain’s reward and emotion pathways.

Dopamine, therefore, is often closely linked to mental health. It’s also an important factor in motivation. Research has found that low dopamine levels relate to low motivation and that stimulating dopamine can reverse this tendency. 

What are the signs of dopamine deficiency? 

The signs of dopamine levels can vary depending on the cause. Two common examples of conditions connected to low dopamine levels are schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.  

Medical professionals characterize schizophrenia by positive, negative, and cognitive symptoms. Low dopamine in schizophrenia is associated with the negative symptoms of the condition, which include:

  • lack of emotional expression
  • decreased speech
  • reduced desire to socialize
  • reduced motivation for daily activities
  • decreased experience of pleasure

In Parkinson’s disease, the loss of cells that produce dopamine in the substantia nigra area of the brain can result in many changes to muscle movement. Lack of dopamine in Parkinson’s disease may lead to:

  • trembling in the jaw, arms, hands, or legs
  • stiff limbs
  • slow movement
  • problems with coordination or balance

If a doctor thinks you may have a specific health condition affecting your dopamine levels, they can investigate this further to make sure you receive appropriate treatment. 

How to increase dopamine levels naturally

If you’re experiencing low dopamine levels, you can take steps to increase your levels without medication. These methods involve dietary changes and participating in activities that can raise your levels of dopamine.  

Dietary changes

Adding foods high in the amino acid L-tyrosine to your diet may boost your dopamine levels.

Foods high in tyrosine include:

  • soybeans
  • nuts
  • eggs
  • cheese
  • beans
  • whole grains

Meat products like beef, pork, fish, chicken, and lamb are also high in tyrosine.

Eating less saturated fat can help with dopamine signaling. Research shows that high amounts of saturated fat in the diet over a long period of time can reduce dopamine response. 

Supporting your gut health

Research has shown that the bacteria in your gut may have an impact on your brain’s dopamine levels. The gut is also essential to the body’s breaking down and use of dopamine. 

You can support your gut health and possibly increase your dopamine levels by eating more foods with probiotics such as Lactobacillus. These foods include:

  • sauerkraut 
  • miso
  • tempeh
  • pickles
  • yogurt
  • kefir
  • kombucha

You might also consider a probiotic supplement. These are typically available over the counter at your pharmacy. You can get advice on taking supplements from a pharmacist or other healthcare professionals. 

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Getting enough exercise

You may have experienced positive mood changes after physical activity. This is because exercise can increase your dopamine levels and lift your overall mood.

If you feel like your levels are low, consider engaging in moderate activity, such as:

  • a brisk walk
  • yoga
  • riding a bike
  • hiking

Getting enough sleep

Researchers are still looking into how sleep impacts neurotransmitters. Sleep might be an important factor in regulating healthy dopamine levels.

Recent research shows an association between sleep and keeping your dopamine levels balanced. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults get at least 7 hours of sleep per night.

Enjoying the sunshine

Spending time in the sun might increase dopamine levels. Older research from 2011 found the availability of dopamine receptors in the striatal area of the brain was higher in people with greater exposure to sunlight. The study involved 68 participants, and results were adjusted for age, sex, and smoking status.

Consider going for a 5–10-minute walk during the day to increase your exposure to direct sunlight.

Medication options for dopamine deficiency

If you have a diagnosis of a condition that’s connected to low dopamine levels, a doctor might recommend medications, such as dopamine agonists.

These drugs can help to improve dopamine signaling and availability. Doctors typically prescribe them for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and restless leg syndrome.

Examples of dopamine agonists include:

However, bromocriptine (Parlodel) and cabergoline (Dostinex) treat hyperprolactinemia, a condition where you have a high level of the hormone prolactin in the blood. They’re not usually prescribed for Parkinson’s disease, as they require long-term use at a high dose, and there’s a risk of disease or damage to heart valves and lungs.

Common side effects of dopamine agonists include dizziness upon standing and irregular heartbeat. You might also experience nausea, vomiting, or headache. These are dose-dependent, which means the side effects are usually worse at higher doses of the medication.

Using dopamine agonists for a long time may also cause mental health changes, such as:

  • hallucinations
  • confusion
  • mania
  • depression

If you’re taking dopamine agonists and experiencing any of the above physical or mental health symptoms, consider speaking with a healthcare professional. They can identify whether your dosage needs to change or whether an alternative medication may be more suitable.

If you need help covering the cost of medications, the free Optum Perks Discount Card could help you save up to 80% on prescription drugs. Follow the links on drug names for savings on that medication, or search for a specific drug here.

Summary

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter essential to motivation, memory, and muscle movement, among many other processes.

Low dopamine is a feature of conditions like Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia. A doctor might prescribe a dopamine agonist to help treat your symptoms.

You can raise your dopamine levels naturally through exercise, getting enough sunlight, and adding foods with tyrosine and probiotics to your diet. 

Download the free Optum Perks Discount Card to save up to 80% on some prescription medications.

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