Dopamine and ADHD: A Closer Look
Updated: Apr 5
Dopamine is a key neurotransmitter that is thought to be dysregulated in individuals with ADHD.
Dopamine helps us with attention, activity, and motivation.
There are things we can do other than medication to increase our optimize our available dopamine including exercise, good nutrition, and mindfulness.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is involved in the brain's reward system, which plays a crucial role in motivation, attention, and focus, some of the key concerns in individuals with ADHD. Research suggests that individuals with ADHD may have lower levels of dopamine in certain areas of the brain, which can lead to the symptoms of ADHD. So when we talk about treatment for ADHD, we're often talking about ways to impact dopamine.
You may remember from other articles, I don’t like to conceptualized ADHD as a disorder. Instead I consider ADHD to be a divergence – meaning different, but not inherently bad.
Back to dopamine, though. In particular, the prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain that is important for executive functioning, including attention, decision-making, and impulse control. Dopamine plays a crucial role in regulating activity in the prefrontal cortex. So, low levels of dopamine can lead to decreased activity in this area, which can impair cognitive function. This can easily cascade into symptoms related to attention, hyperactivity, and motivation.
Most medications for ADHD work to increase the level of dopamine by stimulating its immediate release or by inhibiting its uptake.
One of the hallmark symptoms of ADHD is inattention, which can manifest as difficulty focusing, forgetfulness, and distractibility. We hypothesize dopamine is involved in regulating attention by controlling the release of other neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine. Low levels of dopamine can lead to decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, which can impair attention and focus.
Hyperactivity is another common symptom of ADHD. While the exact cause of hyperactivity is not fully understood, research suggests that it may be related to the brain's reward system. When dopamine is released, it activates the brain's reward pathway, leading to a feeling of pleasure. This feeling can motivate individuals to seek out more pleasurable experiences, such as physical activity. In individuals with ADHD, this may lead to hyperactivity.
Motivation is often a challenge for individuals with ADHD, but also individuals with depression and other mental health diagnoses. Dopamine is essential for motivation because it is responsible for the feeling of pleasure that comes from accomplishing a goal. Again, low levels of dopamine can lead to a lack of motivation and decreased interest in activities that were once enjoyable. Some folks find working with an ADHD coach is helpful in the development of motivation.
What can we do about low levels of dopamine?
This article mostly focused on how dopamine is related to ADHD, but I want to discuss some non-pharmacological interventions that you can do today that impact dopamine levels. That is not to discount the role of medication for improving dopamine levels in individuals with ADHD, but I think it is important to do these things first, and then add medication for ADHD, only if needed.
Increases Dopamine Levels:
Exercise has been shown to increase dopamine levels in the brain. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, which are chemicals that produce a feeling of euphoria. These endorphins also stimulate the release of dopamine, which can improve attention and focus. Ultimately, exercise can help to:
Improves Executive Functioning:
Executive functioning refers to a set of cognitive processes that are responsible for organizing, planning, and prioritizing tasks. Individuals with ADHD often struggle with executive functioning. Regular exercise has been shown to improve executive functioning in individuals with ADHD, and in some case completely eliminate the need for medication.
Stress can exacerbate symptoms of ADHD. Exercise has been shown to reduce stress by increasing the production of those same feel-good endorphins.
Sleep problems are common among individuals with ADHD. Exercise can improve sleep quality by serving as an outlet for energy and increasing availability of neurotransmitters and hormones associated with sleep. Sleep is an essential component of health, which is especially important for those with potential deficits of dopamine.
Nutrition is another non-pharmacological intervention that can have a significant impact on the symptoms of ADHD. Certain dietary changes have been shown to improve cognitive function, reduce hyperactivity, and increase attention span. Here are some ways that nutritional changes can benefit individuals with ADHD:
Eliminating Processed Foods:
Processed foods contain high levels of sugar, artificial colors, and preservatives, have been shown to exacerbate symptoms of ADHD. These foods can cause blood sugar spikes, which can lead to a decrease in attention and focus shortly after consumption. But it’s actually completely understood. We just know that studies have shown a reduction of processed foods leads to a reduction in ADHD symptoms. The goal is to eliminate processed foods replace them with whole, nutrient-dense foods.
Increasing Protein Consumption:
Protein is essential for maintaining healthy brain function. It provides the body with amino acids, which are the building blocks of neurotransmitters, including dopamine. Increasing protein consumption can help improve focus, attention, and mood. Foods high in protein include lean meats, fish, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
Eating a Balanced Diet:
Eating a balanced diet is important for overall health and wellbeing, and it can also improve symptoms of ADHD. A balanced diet should include plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. This can help provide the body with the necessary nutrients it needs to support healthy brain function. This doesn't mean you can't enjoy the indulgences. We just want to be mindful of not making our primary source of nutrition.
Eliminating Allergenic Foods:
Food allergies and intolerances can have a significant impact on cognitive function and behavior. Common allergenic foods include dairy, gluten, and artificial additives. Eliminating these foods from the diet can help reduce hyperactivity, improve attention span, and reduce irritability in individuals with ADHD.
Supplementation with vitamins and minerals can also be beneficial in managing symptoms of ADHD. Omega-3 fatty acids, for example, have been shown to improve cognitive function and reduce hyperactivity. Vitamin B6 and magnesium are also important for brain function and can help reduce symptoms of ADHD. This is especially important for those with nutritional deficiencies.
It's important to note that while dietary changes can be beneficial, this can be somewhat complicated. I always recommend using an integrative psychiatry approach to holistically treat ADHD - and any other mental health concern.
Mindfulness is another non-pharmacological intervention that has been shown to be beneficial in managing symptoms of ADHD. Mindfulness is a practice of focusing one's attention on the present moment and accepting thoughts and feelings without judgment. Here are some ways that mindfulness can benefit individuals with ADHD:
Improves Attention and Focus:
Mindfulness practices, such as meditation, can help improve attention and focus. These practices teach individuals to focus their attention on the present moment, which can help reduce distractibility and improve cognitive function. When we reduce multitasking, we are working our brains in different ways.
Reduces Stress and Anxiety:
As we said before, stress and anxiety can exacerbate symptoms of ADHD. Mindfulness practices can help reduce stress and anxiety by promoting relaxation and increasing feelings of calmness, in addition to tapping into unused or underused parts of our brain.
Improves Executive Functioning:
Again, executive functioning refers to a set of cognitive processes that are responsible for organizing, planning, and prioritizing tasks. Mindfulness practices can help improve executive functioning by promoting awareness and attention to detail. When we are engaged in the present, our ability to focus increases dramatically.
Individuals with ADHD often struggle with self-awareness. Mindfulness practices can help increase self-awareness by promoting introspection and reflection. This can help individuals with ADHD better understand their symptoms and develop coping strategies to manage them.
It can take time to develop the necessary skills to benefit from mindfulness practices. There’s no wrong approach here. A great place to start is with guided mediation from a free app like Insight Timer.
Conclusion: Dopamine and ADHD
Dopamine plays a crucial role in the symptoms associated with ADHD, including inattention, hyperactivity, and decreased motivation. The best treatment for ADHD is highly individual. While medication can be helpful in managing symptoms, non-pharmacological interventions such as exercise, nutrition, and mindfulness meditation can also be tremendously beneficial. By improving dopamine levels and managing symptoms, individuals with ADHD can lead fulfilling and successful lives.
If you have any additional questions about ADHD or integrative psychiatry in general, shoot me an email or reach out through my website. If you're looking for a provider and you're in the Washington, DC area, I'd love to help you on your treatment journey!