Dopamine: What It Is & What It Does

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on July 09, 2024
7 min read

Dopamine is a hormone and a type of neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, made in your brain. Your nervous system uses it to send messages between nerve cells. These messages also travel between your brain and the rest of your body. 

This unique neurotransmitter affects your body, brain, and behavior. Dopamine plays a role in how we feel pleasure and rewards. It's a big part of our unique human ability to think and plan. It helps us focus, work towards goals, and find things interesting.

Like most other systems in the body, you don’t notice it (or maybe even know about it) until there’s a problem.

Too much or too little dopamine can lead to many different health issues. Some are serious, like Parkinson’s disease. Others are less severe.


Dopamine travels along four major pathways in the brain. These pathways are like highways with pit stops (dopamine receptors) along the way. Dopamine stops at these receptors to send and receive various messages. These messages are signals that affect movement, coordination, pleasure, and cognition, or thinking.  

Dopamine plays a big role in your reward system. When you do something that feels good, your brain releases a rush of dopamine. You naturally seek more of that good feeling by repeating the behavior that made you feel good. This could be anything from eating delicious food to binge-watching your favorite show. Or more harmful behaviors like drug or alcohol overuse.

It affects many parts of your behavior and physical functions, such as:

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that, like dopamine, regulates mood and other bodily functions. Both hormones increase positive moods and emotions. Serotonin and dopamine both play a role in digestion and sleep. 

Serotonin is connected to happiness and mood, while dopamine is associated with feelings of reward and motivation. 

While these two neurotransmitters are similar, they work in different ways. The balance between these hormones is important as they sometimes work together, and at other times inhibit or hold each other back. Too little of either hormone may cause mental health conditions. 


It’s hard to pinpoint a single cause of most mental health disorders and challenges. But they're often linked to too much or too little dopamine in different parts of the brain. Examples include:

SchizophreniaThis severe but treatable psychiatric disorder causes hallucinations (seeing things that aren’t real) and delusions (firmly believing in untrue ideas). Other symptoms include disorganized thoughts and unusual body movements. A dopamine imbalance along different pathways in the brain causes these symptoms.

ADHD. No one knows for sure what causes attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Some research shows it may be due to a shortage of dopamine. This problem may be due to your genes. The ADHD drug methylphenidate (Ritalin) works by boosting dopamine.

Drug misuse and addiction. Drugs such as cocaine can cause a big, fast increase of dopamine in your brain. That satisfies your natural reward system in a big way. But repeated drug use also raises the threshold for this kind of pleasure. This means you need to take more to get the same high. Meanwhile, drugs make your body less able to produce dopamine naturally. This leads to emotional lows when you’re sober.

It also plays a role in diseases that aren’t related to mental health. One of these is Parkinson’s disease. Another is obesity.

Parkinson’s disease. Dopamine enables neurons, or nerve cells, in your brain to communicate and control movement. In Parkinson’s, basal ganglia, which are an important part of brain cells and nerves that control body movement, steadily break down. Without a signal to send anymore, your body makes less dopamine. 

These changes in your brain lead to a chemical imbalance that causes physical symptoms, including tremors, stiffness, slowed voluntary movement, poor balance, and poor coordination. Doctors treat these symptoms with medications that raise dopamine levels.

Obesity. Most of the time, if you take in more calories than you burn, you’ll gain weight. So why can’t  people with obesity simply eat less and slim down? The answer isn’t that simple. 

If you have obesity, you may face obstacles that others don't, including problems with your natural reward systems. This can affect the amount of food you eat before you feel satisfied. 

Studies suggest that in people with obesity, the body may not release enough dopamine and serotonin.

Dopamine can play a life-saving role in relaxing or tightening blood vessels (veins and arteries). Doctors use prescription dopamine (Inotropin) to treat:

If your doctor prescribes dopamine, watch for these side effects:

Because many drugs interact with it, it’s important that your doctor knows all the medications you take.

Dopamine isn’t measured with a blood test, so there’s no particular number that shows you have a normal level. Instead, your doctor will ask you lots of questions about your medical history, lifestyle, and how you feel. If you have a normal, balanced dopamine level, you’ll feel happy, motivated, alert, and focused. 

Low dopamine symptoms

If you have low levels of dopamine in your brain, you may have the following symptoms:

  • Little motivation to complete tasks or achieve goals
  • Not feeling pleasure in activities you once enjoyed
  • Little energy
  • Anxiety or sadness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Low sex drive

High dopamine symptoms

If you have a high dopamine level, you may feel:

  • Euphoria, or intense excitement and happiness
  • High levels of energy
  • Increased sex drive

The downside of too much dopamine in your brain includes:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Difficulty controlling your actions

Dopamine is a complex brain chemical and scientists are still learning how it works. 

Some research shows that certain foods high in magnesium and tyrosine, an amino acid that changes into dopamine in your brain, may increase dopamine levels. Examples are chicken, almonds, apples, green leafy vegetables, green tea, tomatoes, and turmeric. 

Dopamine levels rise when you do things that make you feel happy and relaxed. To get a rush of dopamine, you can try to disconnect from your phone and instead go exercise, spend time in nature, or read your favorite book. 

Supplements that increase dopamine levels are:

  • Tyrosine
  • L-theanine
  • Vitamins D, B5, and B6
  • Omega-3 essential fatty acids
  • Magnesium

Dopamine detox, also called dopamine fasting, is a trend that’s gained popularity in recent years. Dopamine fasting was first developed by Dr. Cameron Sepah as a cognitive behavioral therapy technique to help those struggling with impulsive and addictive behaviors. Rather than acting on your impulses to feel immediate satisfaction caused by a rush of dopamine, this practice relies on willpower to manage your response to impulses.

The term dopamine detox leads people to think that cutting out all pleasurable activities will reset dopamine levels. This isn’t true because your body continues to make dopamine even if you hold back from doing things that make you happy.  

Instead, dopamine fasting involves managing your behaviors and meeting your needs by targeting behaviors you’d like to improve. Through fasting, you replace unhealthy habits with healthy activities.

 How to do a dopamine detox

A dopamine detox doesn't mean that you hold back from all activities that bring you joy. Instead, you focus on targeting behaviors that cause problems in your life, which usually fall into these categories:

  • Pleasure eating or emotional eating
  • Internet or gaming
  • Gambling or shopping
  • Porn or masturbation
  • Thrill-seeking behaviors
  • Recreational drug use 

Dopamine fasting means different things to different people. For some, this means they disconnect completely from electronic devices and social media. Others try extreme, unhealthy forms of fasting, like holding back from healthy activities like eating or exercising.

There isn’t one set approach to dopamine fasting. One recommendation is to begin by easing into the fast, starting with a few hours, to 1 day a week, to a week, and beyond, in a way that doesn't interrupt your life. 

Dopamine is a complex hormone and neurotransmitter that affects emotions, behavior, and movement. It plays a major role in how we feel pleasure, seek rewards, and stay motivated.  Dopamine levels that are too high or too low cause mental and physical conditions like Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your dopamine levels. 

What does dopamine do to a person? Dopamine affects your mood, emotions, and behaviors. You’ll feel happy, motivated, alert, and focused if you have a balanced dopamine level. Too much or too little dopamine causes problems with impulsive behavior, sleep, and movement. 

How does dopamine make you happy? Dopamine sends chemical messages in your brain to let you know that something feels good. This feel-good chemical signals your brain to feel that happy feeling when you do things that you enjoy. 

How can you increase dopamine? A healthy lifestyle, a diet rich in magnesium and tyrosine, and certain supplements can help you maintain balanced dopamine levels. You can also increase dopamine by doing things you enjoy. 

Does sex release dopamine? Dopamine triggers feelings of arousal, motivation, and reward. If you find sex pleasurable, your body releases a rush of dopamine in response to those good physical feelings.