Dopamine plays a crucial role in regulating our mood, motivation, and reward system. So when levels are too low — or even too high — it can lead to a whole range of mental health problems like stress, anxiety, and insomnia, to name a few.
We’ll walk you through the effects of dopamine imbalances, what causes them, and how you can naturally balance levels with exercise and nutrition to support your mental health.
What is dopamine?
Dopamine is a natural chemical in your brain that transmits signals between neurons (information messengers). Dubbed the ‘pleasure’ or ‘addition’ chemical: dopamine activates when something good happens.
For our ancestors, that would have been triggered by survival instincts like the availability of food or having sex, but for us, it could be a new Facebook like, a text, a sugary snack or a win at football. And, if you’ve ever set a goal and worked hard to achieve it, the feeling of satisfaction you get is partly due to a surge of dopamine in your brain.
Can high dopamine levels affect your mental health?
Of course, dopamine plays a vital role in various daily functions, like movement, reward, motivation, and pleasure. However, when there is an excess of dopamine in the brain, it can sometimes lead to mental health problems, including:
- Stress and anxiety — When dopamine is high, it can increase the activity of norepinephrine (a neurotransmitter in the brain which plays a role in the fight or flight response). This can cause feelings of stress, nervousness, agitation, and anxiety, even if there is no real threat.
- Insomnia — Dopamine is involved in regulating sleep, so excessive amounts can interrupt sleeping patterns, leading to insomnia (frequent problems with sleep).
- Psychosis — According to the NHS, psychotic disorders like schizophrenia can be promoted by overactive dopamine receptors in the brain. The link between dopamine and psychosis can be seen in brain scans, and prescribed medicines can reduce the symptoms.
- Addiction — Dopamine is involved in the brain’s reward system, which contributes to addictive behaviour. When someone engages in addictive activities like overeating or shopping, it can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, creating feelings of reward. However, over time, the brain can become desensitised, leading someone to want more of the addictive activity to achieve the same feeling as that initial hit. This reward system is also responsible for goal setting, so it explains the desire to make more money, have more clothes, and have a bigger car. You get the picture!
Can low dopamine levels affect your mental health?
So far, we've discussed the negative impacts of an excessive dopamine system, but healthy dopamine levels are essential to the body's normal functioning. Dopamine coordinates movement aids memory and attention, and helps to process pain.
So what can happen when you don't have enough in the brain?
- Depression — Low dopamine levels have been linked to depression. This is because dopamine plays a role in the reward and motivation functions in the brain, so a deficiency can lead to a decreased ability to experience pleasure, a lack of interest, and a low mood.
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — A lack of dopamine in the brain can make it harder to pay attention and control impulses, which are some symptoms of ADHD. But remember, ADHD is caused by many things, and low dopamine is just one of them!
- Addiction — Although excessive dopamine can cause addiction, the opposite can also be true. When the brain lacks dopamine, people may do things that give them a dopamine hit, leading to a feeling of pleasure. This can result in addictive behaviours, like gambling, overeating, or excessive shopping.
- Parkinson's disease — This condition happens when the brain loses some of its dopamine-producing cells. This can result in tremors, feeling really stiff, and slow movements, and treatment is needed to manage the symptoms.
What causes a dopamine imbalance?
Too much or too little dopamine in the body can be caused by several factors, including genetics, lifestyle, and medical conditions. Some possible causes include:
- Genetics — As dopamine is produced by several genes, the genetic makeup of an individual can affect the functioning of the dopamine system in the brain, leading to imbalances in dopamine levels.
- Lack of exercise — This can lead to a decrease in dopamine release, contributing to imbalances.
- Stress or trauma — A study found stress, trauma or pain, whether it’s short or long-term, can trigger dopamine imbalances. When we experience stress, our body releases cortisol, a hormone that can impact dopamine levels, leading to decreased dopamine release. As dopamine is one of the neurotransmitters that regulate mood and motivation, an imbalance could contribute to mental conditions like depression and anxiety.
- A poor diet — The brain needs specific nutrients like the amino acid tyrosine to produce dopamine. This is found in foods like meat, legumes, and dairy; if these nutrients are unavailable in the diet, dopamine levels can fluctuate.
- Lack of sleep — Sleep deprivation can interfere with signalling in the brain, reducing dopamine release. This can impair mood and possibly lead to conditions like depression.
Although some of these factors may contribute to it, dopamine imbalances are complex and often involve multiple factors. If you’re concerned about your dopamine levels or are experiencing symptoms of an imbalance, it’s always best to speak to a doctor.
How to balance dopamine levels naturally
Of course, some conditions like depression and addiction are complex and may require medication from a doctor to manage them. But you can do a few things to help balance your dopamine levels naturally.
1. Exercise regularly
The benefits of exercise on mental health are clear. Dopamine is released during physical activity, along with other important chemicals like endorphins and serotonin. So if your dopamine levels are low, the great news is that a regular workout routine can boost your levels. And according to NHS England, this can improve your mood and motivation, as well as reduce feelings of stress.
Whether you prefer yoga, swimming, or even just walking on the treadmill, exercise will also help you to curb your cravings for sugary foods; you’ll get your dopamine hit from dumbbells instead of doughnuts! And remember, dopamine is a reward-based chemical, so setting and achieving a fitness goal in the gym can also help to keep those dopamine devils at bay.
If you’re looking for a great place to work out, come and experience one of our Fitness First classes for free.
2. Reduce stress
Chronic stress has been shown to reduce dopamine levels, sometimes leading to low motivation and fatigue. So, although it’s definitely easier said than done, reducing stress can help balance dopamine levels in the body.
Our lifestyle can help reduce stress: regular exercise, healthy eating, getting enough sleep, and medication are all ways in which we can support healthy dopamine levels.
3. Eat foods high in tyrosine
Our body doesn’t just make dopamine; it is built by the amino acid tyrosine, which is present in high-protein foods. So incorporating foods into your diet that are high in tyrosine can support healthy dopamine levels. Lean beef, chicken, pork, and eggs are all full of this good stuff. And for vegans, beetroot, ripe bananas, almonds, and soybeans are excellent sources!
Rewarding your hunger with healthy food options will also deliver a dopamine hit. Doing this time and time again will help to reinforce that eating healthy foods leads to a feeling of satisfaction.
4. Get enough sleep
During sleep, the brain repairs damaged cells, improving the neurotransmitter function, including dopamine. That’s why getting enough sleep is important to support healthy dopamine levels and improve overall brain function.
The right amount of sleep can also help reduce stress, which may have a positive impact on the amount of dopamine in the body.
5. Cut back on unhealthy habits
If you're stuck in a habit like having a chocolate bar after dinner every night or a glass of wine with your favourite show to deliver a dopamine hit, your brain is wired to expect that.
Like an addiction, going cold turkey and simply cutting out these treats is extremely tricky. Instead, you may be able to rewire your brain by gradually cutting out snacks and habits. Try having the chocolate bar every other day at first and slowly cut back.
Yes, a healthy diet and lifestyle can increase the natural dopamine production to influence your mood and feelings of motivation. However, If you are experiencing symptoms of dopamine imbalance, such as depression or low motivation, it's essential to consult with a healthcare professional to determine the underlying cause and develop a treatment plan that is right for you.
Improve your mental health with Fitness First
There’s no doubt that exercise and a healthy lifestyle promote healthy dopamine production, improving your mental health. And at Fitness First, we have a wide range of classes, personal training sessions and more to help you improve your mood and reduce stress.
Or, for more helpful tips and advice on fitness and nutrition, check out our blog.