Most people have heard of the neurotransmitter dopamine and understand that it’s release is associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. Dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in reward and motivation behavior. Most rewards such as: food, sex, drugs, etc. are all capable of increasing the level of dopamine in the brain. Just before an orgasm, dopamine levels are considered at their “peak.”
In addition to playing an integral role in motivational and reward processes, dopamine is involved in motor control as well as triggering a release of various hormones. High levels of dopamine tend to enhance concentration, boost mood, and have a pro-social effect. Anyone that’s taken a psychostimulant medication like Adderall has gotten a first-hand experience of the psychological outcome of elevated dopamine.
Within the body, dopamine widens the blood vessels, by inhibiting norepinephrine release. It also helps us excrete sodium and is able to reduce levels of insulin. Dopamine also serves to protect your gastrointestinal tract and improves immune function. While maintaining sufficient dopamine levels is beneficial for mental health and physical functioning, too much dopamine can create dysfunction.
High Dopamine Levels Symptoms: List of Possibilities
Understand that many of the symptoms associated with high dopamine can also occur with high or low levels of other neurotransmitters. Since each person likely has a unique blend of neurotransmitters, it is very difficult to pinpoint specifically which neurotransmitters are elevated unless he or she ingested a specific drug. Also realize that one individual could experience anxiety from high norepinephrine and another from high dopamine.
Additionally a person’s neurobiology, brain structure, and genetics will also influence symptoms a person experiences from high dopamine. Two people could have equally high levels of dopamine, but entirely different symptoms may result. This could be due to differences in dopaminergic receptors and how each brain processes the dopamine. Below is a list of symptoms that could stem from high dopamine.
- Agitation: Those with high dopamine may feel internally restless and overstimulated. While sufficient dopamine can actually help some people stay calm, abnormally high levels can make a person feel internally nervous and knotted. It may be difficult to sit still for long periods of time.
- Anxiety: Some people may feel more anxious when dopamine levels increase in certain parts of the brain. This may be due to dopaminergic receptor dysfunction as well as the specific areas of the brain that experience the dopamine elevations. This is generally why some people with anxiety disorders feel more anxious with dopamine reuptake inhibitors (DRIs).
- Cognitive acuity: People call amphetamines “speed” for a reason – it makes their cognition speed up and their mental performance improves. It seems like other people are functioning in slow-motion whereas the user is locked in a state of peak performance. Heightened levels of dopamine are associated with improvements in cognitive function such as memory, learning, and problem solving.
- Feelings of pleasure: Activities provide more pleasure to those with high levels of dopamine. Even relatively mundane activities such as writing, watching TV, or those requiring hard work may evoke feelings of pleasure. In normal people, these normal activities aren’t associated with a dopamine boost (or pleasure). In someone with heightened dopamine, everything may seem pleasurable.
- Hedonism: Many people notice a sense of hedonism or pleasure-seeking behavior when dopamine levels become excessive. Hedonistic behaviors can be exhibited by those with low dopamine (as a way to elevate it) as well as those with high dopamine (due to the feeling of intense pleasure).
- High energy: Those with high levels of dopamine may experience heightened levels of energy. As an example think of someone who just took cocaine or a person experiencing bipolar mania – both will exhibit high levels of energy. A contributing factor to the increase in energy is the increase in dopamine.
- High libido: It is known that raising dopamine levels is associated with a heightened sex drive and increased sexual pleasure. This is why many people use stimulants and drugs like MDMA (which have stimulant properties) to increase pleasure during sexual intercourse. Even medications that produce minimal dopaminergic increases (e.g. Wellbutrin) can result in hypersexuality and offset a decreased sex drive associated with high serotonin.
- Hyperactivity: Some people become hyperactive (not to be confused with inattentive) when they have high levels of dopamine. The hyperactivity may be a byproduct of constant pleasure-seeking behavior associated with dopamine elevations. High dopamine for some people makes it difficult to sit still (counterintuitive to most ADHD diagnoses).
- Insomnia: Excess dopamine may make it difficult to fall asleep, thus resulting in insomnia. Low levels of dopamine are associated with lethargy and chronic fatigue. Drugs that increase dopamine levels in the brain are associated with sleeping problems and insomnia.
- Learning: High dopamine in certain areas of the brain may enhance our ability to learn new things. Those with deficient dopamine have a difficult time sustaining motivation to put forth sustained effort to learn something new. Those with low dopamine may experience learning deficits because they remain unmotivated.
- Mania: Those experiencing mania or hypomania may be partially fueled by elevations in dopamine. Mania is characterized by decreased need for sleep, feelings of happiness, talkativeness, social behavior, impulse behavior (e.g. shopping sprees), etc. Hypomania is considered a slightly milder version of mania. Both conditions may worsen or become triggered with increases in dopamine.
- Motivation: Those that are peak performers, overachievers, and “go getters” tend to have high levels of dopamine. This dopamine is what fuels their energy, performance, and helps them focus on the pleasure that they’ll get from the endgame or outcome. In other words, if a person with high dopamine knows they can get a monetary prize by completing a certain amount of work, they’ll be highly motivated to finish the work.
- Organization of thoughts: Higher levels of dopamine may be involved in cognitive organization or allowing us to organize our thoughts. Those that have a difficult time organizing thoughts or staying productive are thought to have lower levels of dopamine. If you have an easy time organizing your thoughts and verbalizing these thoughts, you may have elevated dopamine.
- Paranoia: Those experiencing paranoia tend to have heightened levels of extracellular dopamine in the brain. Those with conditions like paranoid schizophrenia and paranoid personality disorder tend to also have problems with the number of dopaminergic receptors. The paranoia can often be mitigated with drugs that decrease dopamine. Even those without psychiatric conditions can experience paranoia as a byproduct of using certain drugs for the dopamine boost.
- Productivity: Those that are highly motivated tend to implement systems that increase their productivity. Since there is a dopaminergic reward associated with getting more work done (e.g. money, fame, success), those with high dopamine may be more productive than average. Those that are lazy, unmotivated, and underproductive may need to elevate their dopamine levels.
- Reward seeking: You’ll be more likely to seek out rewards such as sex, money, food, and possibly drugs. While temporary increases in dopamine are a byproduct of rewarding stimuli, chronic dopamine elevations may also make you more likely to seek these rewards for a greater sense of pleasure. Therefore reward-seeking behavior may increase; this is the opposite of reward deficiency syndrome (RDS).
- Self-control: Dopamine is associated with improvements in cognition and an ability to organize our thoughts and behavior. Those with low levels of dopamine tend to have a difficult time resisting rewards, whereas high levels of dopamine may produce a greater sense of self-control. Inability to resist immediate gratification is characterized by a short-term dopamine boost, but long-term depletion. Resisting rewards is thought to help increase levels of extracellular dopamine.
- Social seeking: Many individuals with high levels of dopamine engage in pro-social behavior. Novel social situations tend to release more dopamine in the brain. Those that take psychostimulants such as Adderall for the social effect know first-hand that dopamine elevations make socializing easier.
- Stress: Those who experience high levels of stress such as those associated with a nervous breakdown may experience boosted dopamine production. This dopamine is produced by the sympathetic nervous system that senses “danger.” Dopamine also initiates the production of adrenaline, leading you to feel extremely alert and less relaxed. Excess stress however is associated with depletion of dopamine or a “burn out.”
Note: The irony is that low levels of dopamine can also produce some of the same symptoms like anxiety, but the subtype will differ of the particular symptom. An anxiety stemming from dopamine deficiency will likely not intrinsically “feel” the same as one from an overproduction of dopamine despite the fact that both make a person feel “anxious.”
High Dopamine Levels: Adverse Reactions
Sometimes high levels of dopamine exposure in certain areas of the brain can produce adverse physiological and psychological reactions. A majority of these adverse reactions are a result of individuals taking medications and/or illicit drugs as well as improper dopaminergic processing.
- Aggression: Certain individuals respond to dopamine elevations by becoming increasingly aggressive towards others. This may be observed by an increase in “antisocial” (not to be confused with asocial) behaviors. They may lash out at others, destroy property, or be unable to channel their aggression in a productive manner.
- Bizarre posturing: High levels of dopamine in the motor circuitry of the brain can produce a variety of odd symptoms including bizarre posturing. Someone with elevated dopamine may have a difficult time sitting still or may position their body in a seemingly uncomfortable or socially abnormal position.
- Burning tongue: Another less common sensation that some individuals experience that has been associated with high dopamine is a “burning tongue.” This is generally a sign of dysfunctional dopamine processing in the brain.
- Depression: Certain types of depression may actually be characterized by high levels of dopamine. A person who is depressed with high dopamine may still retain high levels of energy, a sex drive, and may lash out at others with aggressive behaviors.
- Delusions: At an extreme, excess dopamine is associated with delusions among those with schizophrenia and even those without any mental illness. With too much dopamine, a person may become mistrusting of others and come to experience false beliefs or perceptions that have no logical basis in reality. Delusions of “grandeur” may be provoked with extremely high levels of dopamine.
- Digestive tract problems: High dopamine in the brain stem has been associated with problems in the digestive tract. Problems in the digestive tract as a result of dopamine tend to be the causes of nausea and vomiting.
- Hallucinations: Those that have experienced a psychotic episode as a result of schizophrenia or drug abuse may have experienced dopamine-induced hallucinations. When dopamine rises to a level that the brain cannot process, a person may experience hallucinations. The hallucinations may be auditory (e.g. hearing voices), visual (e.g. seeing things), or a combination of both.
- Hiccups: Some people could experience increased occurrences of hiccups as a result of high dopamine. It has been theorized that the hiccups tend to be a result of heightened dopamine in the brain stem.
- Muscle twitching: When the motor circuitry of the brain is affected by high dopamine, a person may experience involuntary movements, tremors, shakes, and muscle twitching.
- Nausea: Some people experience a nausea that is directly caused by increased levels of dopamine. Generally it is not problematic and subsides as soon as the dopamine level is decreased.
- Salivation: Another symptom that people can experience from high dopamine is that of excess salivation. Among those with neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s it has been observed that dopamine increases can trigger salivation.
- Suspicious thinking: This is associated with delusions and excessive paranoia that may result from high dopamine. Those that are suspicious of others’ motives and believe that people may be out to get them may have high dopamine as well as a dysfunction in their ability to process it. As a result, someone may end up on an antipsychotic to cope with the delusions.
- Vomiting: When taken to an extreme, high levels of dopamine may result in a person vomiting. At a certain point, too much dopamine may actually make a person feel physically sick when it cannot be properly processed.
How To Reduce Dopamine Levels
Those that have excess dopamine and believe that high dopamine may be problematic, there are some options to consider. In an individual without mental illness, a common way to decrease the effect of dopamine is by eliminating stimulants and increasing serotonin production. Among people with a mental illness, generally the most accepted way to decrease the potentially harmful effects of high dopamine is to take an antipsychotic.
Antipsychotics: These are a class of psychiatric drugs that are primarily used to treat schizophrenia and psychosis. They are sometimes used for the treatment of bipolar disorder and certain types of major depression. These are highly potent drugs at decreasing dopamine, but come with a number of risks and side effects. Therefore they should only be taken by those with psychiatric conditions warranting their usage.
Dietary intake: Eating a diet rich in foods that increase serotonin (e.g. carbohydrates) may help offset the effects of high dopamine. You may want to avoid caffeinated beverages (e.g. coffee or tea) and foods that are rich in L-Tyrosine (a dopmaine precursor) such as: dark chocolate, duck, oatmeal, cheese, and chicken.
Supplements: Some have theorized that taking supplements that increase serotonin will naturally offset the effects of high dopamine. Below is a list of some supplements that tend to
- St. John’s Wort
Conditions associated with High Dopamine
There are several conditions associated with abnormally high levels of dopamine. Keep in mind that certain conditions may fluctuate between high and low dopamine (e.g. bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc.).
- Bipolar disorder: It is believed that hyperactive dopamine receptors may trigger a transition from the depressive phase of bipolar disorder to a manic (or hypomanic) phase. Dopaminergic activity is thought to increase during a state of mania. This is why many individuals with bipolar disorder often find antipsychotic medications (which lower dopamine) to be helpful for controlling manic phases.
- Drug “high”: While a person is “high” on drugs like cocaine, pscyhostimulants, and other drugs, dopamine levels are elevated. Although the dopamine levels become elevated while the person is high, they may decrease to a level below baseline such as with amphetamines. This leads a person to build up a tolerance to the drug and over time, their dopamine levels become depleted. It takes a substantial period of time for the person to remain drug-free for dopamine levels to increase back to baseline.
- Psychosis: Many people experience psychosis as the result of a mental illness or drug abuse. It is characterized by a loss of contact with reality. Certain symptoms of psychosis are likely enhanced by abnormally high levels of dopamine and dopaminergic function. Like schizophrenia, those with psychosis are generally treated with antipsychotics (which lower dopamine).
- Schizophrenia: Certain subtypes of schizophrenia are heavily influenced by overproduction of dopamine. When a person experiences the positive symptoms of schizophrenia such as hallucinations and delusions, there tends to be excess dopamine and dysfunction in the mechanisms by which it is processed. This is why individuals with schizophrenia are administered antipsychotic agents that deliberately reduce dopamine.
Have you ever experienced high dopamine?
If you’ve experienced an elevated level of dopamine, feel free to share your experience in the comments section below. Discuss why you believe that what you experienced was a direct result of high dopamine and not something else. If you utilized a certain drug that is associated with heightened levels of dopamine, share what you were using. While a substantial level of dopamine can clearly yield benefits in terms of motivation, pleasure, and reward, too much dopamine creates dysfunctional symptoms.