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Understanding the Role of Dopamine in Mental Health

Mental health is a phrase on everyone’s lips (and in everyone’s news feed) especially since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. But just because the term is trendy, doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Many people have had their own mental health journeys, including RSnake. His experiences led him to explore mental health in-depth with guest Julie Korioth, Founder and CEO of Speak as One.

What is Mental Health?

According to the American Psychological Association, “Mental health is a state of mind characterized by emotional well-being, good behavioral adjustment, relative freedom from anxiety and disabling symptoms, and a capacity to establish constructive relationships and cope with the ordinary demands and stresses of life.” As you can see from the definition, mental health depends on a number of factors. It requires individual emotional health, the ability to relate to others in a positive way, and resilience in the face of adversity. Despite the prevalence of mental health tips and tricks online, living an emotionally nourishing life can be a complex process that never ends. RSnake shared his own experience with poor mental health due to stress associated with working in cybersecurity. “We’re very similar in security to mob bosses and spies. We all have the same sort of job where we can’t talk about it with anybody, and if it goes wrong, it goes really, really wrong. And so, you always end up being hypervigilant,” he said. The hypervigilance was warranted. RSnake was followed and received death threats. He explained that he began to notice his mood deteriorating rapidly. He eventually took a few self-assessments and found he rated highly for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This set off some alarm bells for him, and he began to explore evidence-based ways to improve and protect his mental health. Korioth also had first-hand experiences with mental health difficulties including anxiety and panic attacks. “The panic attacks really came on after my divorce,” she said. “I felt like I would be sucker-punched, like it was coming out of nowhere and I didn’t know exactly what was causing it.” She described having to pull over to the side of the road while driving because she felt like she couldn’t breathe. As a result, Korioth began to look deeply into healing her own trauma and supporting her mental health through a number of therapies. Sometimes mental health problems are best solved with introspection, or different types of cognitive or talk therapy. But many issues can be traced to chemical imbalances in the brain.

The Role of Dopamine in Mental Health

The neurotransmitter dopamine has been thoroughly researched, and made headlines as a result. An article in The Guardian called it “the Kim Kardashian of neurotransmitters.” Dopamine plays a major role in all kinds of human behaviors, including the sensations of pleasure and reward. Some research has linked it to the high that drug addicts and binge eaters experience. But dopamine plays other roles in the brain and nervous system too. It is also involved in planning, focus and interest, heart rate, kidney function, sleep, and much more. It’s also important to note that dopamine isn’t the only neurotransmitter involved in addiction. Glutamate and GABA, among others, have also been found to play a role in addictive behavior. Some known diseases are also associated with having either too little or too much dopamine. Schizophrenia, for example, has been linked to having an overactive dopamine system in certain areas of the brain. There may also be a connection between dopamine and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Some research found that adults with ADHD had fewer dopamine transporters and receptors in parts of the brain related to focus and concentration. A lack of dopamine uptake is associated with an inability to feel pleasure, a major symptom of depression. Scientists have also discovered that people with Parkinson’s disease have low levels of dopamine. Obesity has also been linked to having fewer dopamine receptors. However, the science isn’t clear whether obesity is caused by a lack of these receptors, or if living a certain lifestyle is to blame for the changes in people’s brains.

The Role of Dopamine in Addiction

People initially believed drug and alcohol addicts simply lacked the willpower to stop using. The discovery of dopamine’s involvement in addiction changed all this. According to a 2010 essay, drug addiction is now largely understood to be a brain disease. The essay’s authors argue it should be treated no differently than diabetes. The effects of dopamine have been linked to many addictive drugs. Research on people addicted to cocaine, methamphetamine, and nicotine show that dopamine plays a key role in providing the high drug users and smokers feel. Research shows the drugs trigger a fast release of a higher amount of dopamine than would be released with other, more natural experiences. When people use drugs regularly, the brain adapts by making less dopamine and downregulating its receptors. This could be why addicts need more and more of a drug to get the same feeling over time. Since dopamine also plays a role in impulse control, the lower production of dopamine could be one of the factors that makes it more difficult for drug-addicted individuals to stop taking drugs. But dopamine may not be the only neurotransmitter to blame. Some scientists point out that drugs like opium and marijuana don’t trigger dopamine release. Yet people still become addicted to them.

Dopamine Deficiency

Although an overactive dopamine system is not desirable (as with schizophrenia), having an underactive dopamine system also has serious consequences for mental and physical health. Reading about dopamine, people may start to wonder if they are deficient in dopamine. Since this neurotransmitter plays so many roles, and symptoms can overlap with other conditions, dopamine deficiency is hard to diagnose. It’s not as easy as getting a blood test in a lab. Some symptoms of dopamine deficiency include:

- Feeling tired - An inability to concentrate - Anxiety - Moodiness - Depression - Low sex drive - Insomnia

Doctors tend to treat the condition they can diagnose, not dopamine deficiency. They may recommend anti-depressants, other medications, or lifestyle changes to treat the problem. There are some natural ways to boost dopamine levels. But it’s best to check in with a health care provider before trying anything new.


Gut and brain health are linked. There are even nerve cells in the gut that signal dopamine, and bacteria that help create it. Getting enough protein is key to helping the dopamine system function in the body. An enzyme called l-tyrosine helps the body to produce dopamine. This enzyme is found in chicken, beef, eggs and almonds. Another important part of helping the digestive system function is the presence of healthy bacteria in the gut. Some research has found that taking a probiotic supplement helped individuals with depression, anxiety, and stress. Beneficial probiotics can also be found in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso, and tempeh.


It’s not called a “runner’s high” for nothing. Research has linked exercise and dopamine for quite some time. It is known to boost the amount of dopamine and the number of its receptors in the brain. Research has found that the dopamine system received a boost in treadmill-running rats. There has also been research on humans that found aerobic exercise significantly increased dopamine activity in the area of the brain that processes rewards. The study noted there could be a reciprocal benefit; as people exercise more, they feel a sense of accomplishment and pleasure that creates more desire for exercise.


“Sleep is so important and underrated,” said RSnake. Sleep deprivation can cause irritability and anger, depression, and memory loss. A lack of sleep impacts the dopamine system. Research shows that people who are sleep deprived, even for one night, have a decrease in dopamine receptors, making it more difficult for their brains to react to dopamine when released.

The Takeaway

Scientists have made huge strides in the past few decades towards a better understanding of mental health and the role various neurotransmitters play. Although there is still much to learn, this research is helping remove stigma around addiction and other mental health issues, and shedding light on techniques people can use to improve their mental health. To find out more about practices that helped RSnake and Korioth, check out Season 3 Episode 8 of the RSnake Show.


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