ADHD & Dopamine: What’s the link?
ADHD is a complex mental health condition, and while the underlying cause of ADHD is still unknown, it can be attributed to several risk factors, including dopamine deficiency.
ADHD & Dopamine
Dopamine – often called the “feel-good” hormone – is a type of neurotransmiter, made in the brain, which acts as a chemical messenger that carries messages between the nerve cells in your brain and the rest of your body 1. When it’s produced by the adrenal glands, dopamine acts as a hormone, which plays a role in the pleasure and reward system, motivation, memory, mood, movement, sleep, attention, behaviour and cognition.
In people with ADHD, researchers have found that they have higher concentrations of proteins called dopamine transporters. The concentration of these proteins is known as dopamine transporter density (DTD). These transporters take dopamine out of the brain before the chemical can ‘finish its job’, so the higher the DTD, the lower the dopamine level in the brain. Similarly, reduced levels of the neurotransmiters serotonin and norepinephrine may also contribute to the development of ADHD.
With the right amount of dopamine, your child will likely feel happy, focused, and motivated. Too little dopamine causes mood swings, memory loss, sleep issues, or concentration problems and may make them feel unmotivated, sad, and sleepy. However, too much dopamine, can make your child feel euphoric and energised, making it harder for them to sleep, control impulses or cope with feelings of aggression.
What does this mean for my child?
Writing for ADDitude magazine, Dr Ellen Litman says that as a result, ADHD brains will crave dopamine and are highly motivated to find stimulation for “optimal functioning”. This could include:
- High-risk activities such as physical risk-taking. As your child grows into adulthood, they may have a tendency towards smoking, caffeine, alcohol, opiates, risky sex, gambling, reckless driving, and compulsive buying.
- A preference for carbs and sugary foods. Both carbohydrates and sugar activate the dopamine reward centre in the brain. People with ADHD will often ‘self-medicate’ with food, and so struggle with good diet and nutrition.
- Physiological discomfort when they’re bored or in a mundane situation. This will compel them to fidget, become noisy, laugh loudly or seek out conflict.
- Sleep issues. Research suggests that low dopamine could be the reason behind the connection between ADHD and a person’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm, resulting in disregulated sleep. This explains why children with ADHD prefer to watch TV, sit on social media or play computer games at night, and struggle to fall asleep.
Litman says that ADHD brains often overreact or underreact to the stimuli at hand, and they rarely engage with moderate stimulation. “These opposite routes to the same goal explain how a high-energy, outgoing, talkative, over-subscribed individual and a shy, low-energy, passive, and withdrawn individual can each have an ADHD brain.”
She explains that for the more impulsive ADHD brains, optimal functioning means more stimulation – “seeking louder, faster, bigger, funnier, and riskier” – the more intense, the better. While on the other hand, hypersensitive ADHD brains can’t deal with the sensory overload, so they will “reduce stimulation by avoiding group activities, tuning out of conversations, and isolating themselves”. Litman says that they often find comfort in the self-contained world of video games where they have control over the kind and amount of stimulation. This means that for the inattentive ADHD brain, gaming could become addictive.
How can it be treated?
Low dopamine can be treated with medication, exercise, and the right foods. ADHD medication includes stimulants, such as amphetamine and methylphenidate, that work by targeting dopamine transporters; they slow down how much dopamine their body reabsorbs so that there’s more available in their brain for longer periods, and so, increase dopamine levels. Exercise can also help control ADHD symptoms by increasing dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. Ensure that your child is getting regular exercise, to get the full benefit of exercise.
[Read more here: Why your child needs exercise for ADHD symptom management.]
Although further research is required on the effects of food on neurotransmiters, it’s suggested that a diet high in magnesium and tyrosine-rich foods could help. Magnesium and tyrosine (an amino acid) are considered the building blocks for dopamine production. The best foods to increase dopamine include chicken, almonds, apples, avocados, bananas, beetroot, chocolate, green leafy vegetables, green tea, oatmeal, oranges, peas, sesame and pumpkin seeds, tomatoes, turmeric and watermelon.
1Cleveland Clinic. (2022). Dopamine. Cleveland Clinic [Online]. Accessed on 24 April 2023.
Available from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22581- dopamine#:~:text=Dopamine%20is%20known%20as%20the,part%20of%20your%20reward%20system
- Benisek, A. (2022). ADHD and Dopamine: What’s the Link?. WebMD [Online]. Accessed on 21 April 2023. Available from https://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/childhood-adhd/adhd-dopamine
- Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. (n.d.). New Directions on ADHD and Better Sleep. CHADD [Online]. Accessed on 26 April 2023. Available from https://chadd.org/adhdnews/adhd-news-caregivers/new-directions-on-adhd-and-beter-sleep/
- Cleveland Clinic. (2022). Dopamine. Cleveland Clinic [Online]. Accessed on 24 April 2023. Available from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22581-dopamine#:~:text=Dopamine%20is%20known%20as%20the,part%20of%20your%20reward%20system
- Duggal, N. (2021). Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): The Role of Dopamine. Healthline [Online]. Accessed on 21 April 2023. Available from https://www.healthline.com/health/adhd/adhddopamine
- Johnson, S. (2019). Is there a link between ADHD and dopamine? Medical News Today [Online]. Accessed on 21 April 2023. Available from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325499
- Litman, E. (2022). Never Enough? Why ADHD Brains Crave Stimulation. ADDitude [Online]. Accessed on 21 April 2023. Available from https://www.additudemag.com/brain-stimulation-and-adhd-cravingsdependency-andregulation/#:~:text=Key%20aspects%20of%20the%20reward,triggers%20a%20release%20of%20dopamine
- Seay, B. & Ratey, N. (2023). The ADHD-Dopamine Link: Why You Crave Sugar and Carbs. ADDitude [Online]. Accessed on 21 April 2023. Available from https://www.additudemag.com/slideshows/adhdobesity-link/