People with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may have low levels of dopamine, a chemical that plays an important role in reward and motivation. Therefore, increasing dopamine levels may help with some of the symptoms of ADHD.
Research has shown that people with ADHD tend to have low levels of dopamine in the brain. However, it is a complex condition that involves dysregulation of dopamine and another chemical, norepinephrine.
Stimulant medications that treat ADHD
Lifestyle changes can also help, especially in conjunction with standard ADHD treatments. Exercise, a healthy diet, and therapy all offer potential benefits.
Read on to learn more about how to increase dopamine in people with ADHD.
The dopamine theory of ADHD claims that inadequate dopamine decreases motivation and focus and affects learning and memory. It also reduces the reward that people with ADHD experience from completing tasks.
This may help explain their distraction and challenges with executive function.
The medications that treat ADHD also tend to increase dopamine levels in the brain. They do this by blocking dopamine reuptake, allowing more of the chemical to stay in neurons.
This suggests that increasing dopamine levels in the brain — or improving the access that neurons have to dopamine — can reduce ADHD symptoms.
Experts believe that an interaction between genetics and the environment may play a role. There is significant evidence that it runs in families, and identical twins are more likely to both have ADHD rather than just one of them having it.
Viruses, smoking during pregnancy, and exposure to alcohol during pregnancy may also play a role.
Some other interventions that may help include:
- fortified cereals
- beef liver
- black-eyed peas
- Brussels sprouts
- orange juice
- turnip greens
Anecdotally, some people find that certain foods improve symptoms or make them worse. It can be helpful to keep a food and symptom diary to monitor how symptoms change in response to a person’s diet.
According to a 2021 systematic review, exercise and dopamine have a bidirectional relationship. This means that exercise increases dopamine levels, and people with more dopamine may be more likely to exercise.
Individuals with ADHD may find that they feel better when they exercise. It can help to schedule a regular daily exercise session or to take a movement break when a person feels stressed or restless.
While no recent research has directly tested psychotherapy as a tool for increasing dopamine, anecdotally, people report experiencing more motivation and reward after psychotherapy.
In therapy, a person may be able to work on cultivating lifestyle interventions to improve their ADHD symptoms. For example, a therapist can help a person find the time and motivation to exercise.
Increasing dopamine is just one treatment strategy for managing ADHD.
A number of research-supported interventions can improve outcomes whether or not they affect dopamine. A person can ask a doctor the following:
- What treatment options are best for my form of ADHD?
- What should I do if treatment does not work?
- What lifestyle changes should I consider making?
- What can I do to better manage treatment side effects?
- What are the risks of medication, and is there anything I can do to mitigate those risks?
- Is there anything I can safely do to increase dopamine naturally?
ADHD may indicate a dopamine deficiency or difficulties with processing dopamine in the brain. This can affect the ability to feel motivated or to find certain activities rewarding.
Standard ADHD treatments, including medication, can help increase dopamine and improve symptoms.
Before trying any major lifestyle shifts or diets to manage ADHD, a person should speak with a doctor.