You might’ve heard that people with ADHD have different levels of brain chemicals, like dopamine and serotonin, than people without ADHD. (No? Just us?)
But what does that mean, exactly? And is it possible that bringing your levels closer to the normal range could make it easier to manage your symptoms?
To find the answers, we put on our lab coats and investigated the ADHD-dopamine connection. Read on for all the dirty deets about what the relationship might mean for your health and how it affects your daily ADHD symptoms.
Let’s start by taking a quick look at what dopamine is and its role in your body. Then we’ll jump into how it relates to ADHD.
Dopamine is a type of chemical messenger — what experts call a neurotransmitter — in your brain. It’s involved in a ton of important functions, including regulation of emotional responses. One of the main responses is motivation and reward.
Think about any time you’ve passed on a night out with friends to study for a test — that’s your pal dopamine in action. It helps you stay motivated and focused on your goal: getting a good grade so you do well in class.
Got it — now what does that have to do with ADHD?
ADHD is a complex condition that seems to have many different causes. But research suggests people with ADHD tend to have dopamine action and levels that are different from the norm.
Some research has shown that people with ADHD who don’t take medication have lower levels of dopamine transporters — proteins that are involved in the release of dopamine.
When people with ADHD do take certain medications, their levels of dopamine transporters go up.
Another study found that differences in the dopamine transporter gene DAT1 are tied to mood instability but not to other common ADHD traits, like impulsivity or trouble paying attention.
Despite this, the relationship between ADHD and dopamine is far from rock-solid. While some studies seem to show a link, others suggest something different.
A 2013 study, for instance, concluded that ADHD is more closely related to subtle alterations of gray matter in the brain than to levels of dopamine.
Dopamine might not be the only neurotransmitter involved in ADHD.
Serotonin is a mood-stabilizing chemical messenger that helps you feel calm, focused, and emotionally stable. Different levels of serotonin might have something to do with ADHD.
Does ADHD have a link to serotonin levels?
Maybe. A recent research review found that a serotonin deficit could be partially responsible for triggering ADHD symptoms and that people genetically inclined to have altered serotonin activity are more likely to have ADHD.
Just as significant? Taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or l-tryptophan (a precursor to serotonin) appears to alleviate some symptoms.
Translation: The participants in this review who received a serotonin boost saw their ADHD symptoms mellow out.
If your ADHD is getting in the way of your daily life, altered activity of dopamine or serotonin could have something to do with your symptoms going haywire.
It’s also possible that treatments to balance those neurotransmitters could help you feel better.
How low dopamine or serotonin might impact your daily life
Both dopamine and serotonin play key roles in helping you feel calm and focused.
So when these neurotransmitters are not acting the way they should, you might feel anxious, have trouble concentrating, or feel less motivated to get things done.
ADHD treatment options for low dopamine or serotonin
If you feel like your ADHD symptoms aren’t under control, start by talking with your doctor.
Together you can figure out whether dopamine or serotonin could be to blame — and whether treatment to balance these neurotransmitters might be helpful.
You might benefit from medications such as:
It might seem odd to take stimulants for hyperactivity. But stimulant drugs like Adderall and Ritalin work by boosting your brain’s levels of neurotransmitters (like dopamine), which could help increase your focus and attention.
Mediations like Effexor and Pamelor aren’t typically prescribed to treat ADHD symptoms alone.
But they can be helpful for people who are taking stimulants for ADHD and who also have depression, since they increase effects of serotonin and epinephrine in your brain.
Home remedies for low dopamine or serotonin
Stimulants tend to be the standard treatment for ADHD. But you can also take other steps to promote healthy dopamine and serotonin.
Eating a high protein diet, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep and sunlight are all science-backed ways to boost your dopamine levels naturally.
You can up your serotonin levels, too, by eating more eggs, cheese, nuts, seeds, and salmon.