Last Updated on May 13, 2022 by Valarie Ward
When you are experiencing a low mood that is interfering with your ability to take care of yourself or your day-to-day responsibilities, there are probably chemicals in your brain responsible. Some of the chemicals that might be lacking include serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, and gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA). The lack of these can cause depression, anxiety, or executive dysfunction, among many other changes in physical and mental health.
In the last installment of this series, we took a look at serotonin, its relationship with depression and antidepressants, and ways to get more of it. Today we’ll be doing the same thing with dopamine, its relationship with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and adrenaline, and ways to get more of it. That said, ADHD in adults (particularly those assigned female at birth) is not well-researched or understood, so we will only be able to go on the information as best we know it today.
Dopamine: The motivating chemical
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which is a chemical in your brain similar to a hormone. Both hormones and neurotransmitters send signals from one part of your body to another–such as estrogen sending signals throughout the body that signal the start of menstruation. (In fact, estrogen and dopamine have a very interesting relationship which we will be talking about another day!) Neurotransmitters simply tend to travel a shorter distance in the body than hormones do (though a chemical can be both a hormone and a neurotransmitter).
A very oversimplified description of dopamine is that it is a chemical based on rewards–we might get a little hit of dopamine from the satisfaction of shopping, sex, smelling fresh-baked cookies, or getting positive feedback. The actual mechanisms of dopamine are more complicated than that, particularly as they relate to both the brain and bodily movements. Instead of simply being about rewards, dopamine assists with several forms of motivation, including taking action towards your goals, visualizing the rewards of your actions, seeking rewarding activities, and exerting effort.
These motivational issues are all closely related to executive dysfunction–a series of behavioral difficulties that make it difficult to plan and execute tasks. Causes of executive dysfunction can include ADHD, autism, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and others.
ADHD, Dopamine, and Adrenaline
ADHD is a somewhat poorly understood and underdiagnosed condition. The stereotypical ADHD patient is an elementary-aged boy who can’t sit still, keep quiet, or follow directions in class. However, ADHD does not always present as outward hyperactivity, and many people (particularly the even less frequently diagnosed group of assigned females at birth) do not get a diagnosis until much later in life, despite showing chronic problems with work, school, and social relationships. These problems are often misdiagnosed as depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses.
I’ll insert my own experiences as an AFAB: I have just recently been diagnosed with ADHD at 30 years old, and my hyperactivity was all inward–as though I had a thousand thoughts floating around in my brain and could not grab the right ones at the right time in conversations, or figure out how to grab a few and order them into a structure for my day.
Interestingly, dopamine is strongly correlated with adrenaline (also called epinephrine) and norepinephrine (or noradrenaline)–your two “fight or flight response” chemicals that kick in when you are very stressed. These two together with dopamine are all considered catecholamines–chemicals active in the nervous system.
The most common medications for treatment of ADHD are amphetamines like Adderall–and no, amphetamines and methamphetamines are not the same. Adderall specifically helps the brain absorb more norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and dopamine. Adderall can help executive function in many ways, such as by making people more willing to put forth effort towards their goals, even when they may not receive a reward for those goals or if the reward would be small.
To go back to my personal anecdote: I’ve recently begun taking prescription Adderall, and it is as though the cloud of thoughts in my brain has parted, so it’s now easier for me to access the thoughts I need to plan my day or to access my thoughts during work meetings. This has made me more calm, confident, and productive–though it would not have the same effect on someone who did not have ADHD.
Getting More Dopamine
While medication can be very helpful in increasing dopamine and other chemicals associated with executive function, this is not the only way to increase your dopamine and your motivation to engage in life. Other ways include the following:
- A proper night’s sleep is the first great way to improve all the pleasure chemicals in your brain–not just dopamine. However, this is made much more difficult since the lack of dopamine is correlated with difficulties in maintaining a circadian rhythm (a regular sleep-wake cycle). This may in part explain the high co-occurrence of sleep disorders and ADHD. (Here are some tips for getting a better night’s sleep if you have ADHD.)
- Exercise probably increases dopamine in the brain; it has been shown to help with a number of health conditions which dopamine affects, including Parkinson’s, and many animal studies have been done which show dopamine improvements in animals engaging in exercise. However, more trials are needed to solidify this link in humans.
- Meditation can also increase dopamine–and you can combine the effects of meditation and exercise together by doing yoga.
- Vitamin D–most commonly found in certain food products and sunlight–is another dopamine-boosting chemical. (So to really triple down on your dopamine production, consider doing your yoga or other exercises in direct sunlight–but make sure you wear sunscreen!)
- Finally, massages have been shown to increase the level of dopamine in the brain (along with serotonin).
Dopamine is a motivational chemical that is often lacking in mental conditions including depression, anxiety, and ADHD, or any other condition that leads to a lack of executive function. If you are having issues with executive function (planning, starting, and following through with tasks), you may want to discuss your options with a doctor or therapist. Taking medication or making lifestyle changes to increase your dopamine levels can make it easier for you to initiate, follow through with, and enjoy the rewards of tasks.
As with all of the other hormones and neurotransmitters on this list, though, more research is needed to examine these effects. We also need a broader cultural understanding of the different types of ADHD (inattentive vs. hyperactive) and how they present in adults–not just children.