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Key facts

  • Dopamine is a chemical messenger that is naturally released from nerve cells in your brain — it acts on cells in different parts of your brain to produce a wide range of effects.
  • One of it's functions is to create a good feeling after you do something enjoyable — this makes you want to do it again, and this is why dopamine plays a role in addiction.
  • Dopamine is also one of the ways your brain controls your movements — low levels of dopamine in certain areas of the brain causes Parkinson's disease.
  • Dopamine imbalance also happens in mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia.
  • You may need medicine to help treat the symptoms of too much or too little dopamine.

What is dopamine?

Dopamine is a chemical messenger (neurotransmitter) that works in the brain. It helps nerve cells send messages to each other. It's produced by cells deep in the brain and acts on cells in other parts of the brain.

What is the role of dopamine?

Dopamine acts on areas of the brain to give you feelings of pleasure, satisfaction and motivation. Dopamine also has a role to play in controlling memory, mood, sleep, learning, concentration, movement and other body functions.

When you feel good, for example, when you achieve something or do something fun, it's because you have an increase of dopamine in the brain. Sometimes, you might start wanting to feel more of this dopamine 'reward', which is how dopamine is involved in addiction. The good feeling that dopamine gives you after pleasant experiences, including eating nice food, having sex, winning a game and earning money can also happen after drinking alcohol and using illegal drugs. In addiction you continue to drink or use drugs to try and get the feeling again.

What happens if I have too much or too little dopamine?

Having too much or too little dopamine in some parts of the brain are linked to some mental illnesses including depression, schizophrenia and psychosis.

Having too much dopamine is linked to being aggressive and having trouble controlling your impulses. Dopamine imbalances are also related to ADHD and addiction.

Having low levels of dopamine can make you less motivated and excited about things. In Parkinson's disease, there is not enough dopamine in the areas of the brain important for movement. This leads to problems with muscle stiffness and movements such as walking.

The symptoms of a dopamine imbalance depend on what is causing the problem. They include physical symptoms such as:

They can also include mental or psychological symptoms such as:

  • feeling tired and unmotivated, or sad and lacking hope
  • having low libido (sex drive)
  • hallucinations (experiencing something that's not real)

How can I adjust my dopamine levels?

Adjusting dopamine levels is complicated, as it is involved in many different roles in the brain. You doctor won't measure your dopamine levels directly, and there is no simple test to measure it. Your symptoms will be the clues that tell your doctor if you have too much or not enough dopamine. They will then prescribe medicines to adjust your dopamine level, based on your symptoms, and make adjustments based on how your body responds and how you feel.

Can diet and exercise affect my dopamine levels?

You can increase your dopamine levels naturally by eating a healthy diet, including foods rich in tyrosine (the protein needed to make dopamine). These include nuts, seeds, dairy and meat.

Healthy activities that make you feel good will also raise dopamine. These include exercise, meditation and getting enough sleep.

The idea of a 'dopamine detox' has become popular recently. It is when you avoid pleasure triggers such as junk food or social media for a period of time. The idea is to reset your brain and to make you enjoy healthy pleasures and not be tempted by addictive behaviours. You can't really 'detox' from dopamine as it will always be in your brain, but the idea of being aware of your choices and habits can still help you to live the way you really want to.

What medicines can affect dopamine?

If you have a mental illness such as depression or schizophrenia, your doctor may prescribe medicines to adjust your dopamine levels. These can include antidepressants, mood stabilisers, or other treatments.

If you are taking a specific type of antidepressant called a non-selective MAO inhibitor, you should be careful not to eat foods with too much tyramine (which occurs from the partial breakdown of tyrosine). These foods and some medicines can react and cause very high blood pressure. This medicine is not commonly used today, and your doctor will advise you on how to adjust your diet if they prescribe this medicine for you. Read more on low tyramine diets, and what foods to avoid.

If you have Parkinson's disease, your doctor can give you a range of different medicines to increase your dopamine levels and improve your symptoms.

To search medicines by active ingredient or brand name, use the healthdirect Medicines search feature.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have noticed movement changes or muscle stiffness and are worried about Parkinson's disease you should see your doctor to discuss your concerns — they will examine you and refer you if you need specialist care.

If you are experiencing symptoms of mental illness, such as feeling low, lacking interest in life or having hallucinations; your doctor can help you get a diagnosis so you can get the right treatment.

Resources and support

Parkinson's Australia is a resource for people living with Parkinson's disease. They provide education and information on the causes, symptoms and treatments.

SANE is the leading national mental health organisation for people with complex mental health issues in Australia and for the families and friends that support them. This service is not for crisis support.

If you or someone you know is at immediate risk of harm, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance or visit your nearest hospital. For support with suicidal thoughts, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2023

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