Dopamine Addiction What Is It And How To Overcome It

By Sarah Fader

Updated August 13, 2019

Is dopamine addiction a real thing? Because of the powerful feelings associated with dopamine, addiction can happen quickly. This fact has been used as an argument that dopamine itself is what's addictive rather than the drugs or behaviors that cause a surge in this important neurotransmitter.

To find the answer to whether dopamine addiction is real, you need to understand both the role of dopamine in the brain and what addiction is.

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What Is Addiction?

Addiction is more than liking something. It's more than seeking it out. A review of studies on addiction set out to define what addiction is. It describes five components that define addiction:

1) Engaging in the behavior to satisfy an appetite.

2) Being preoccupied with the behavior.

3) Being only temporarily sated after engaging in the behavior.

4) Losing control over the behavior.

5) Continuing the behavior despite negative consequences.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine adds to this definition that addiction is a chronic brain disease involving the reward, memory, and motivation system, but that addiction involves other parts of the brain as well. It is dysfunction within this system that causes the addiction.

The ASAM definition of addiction further makes it clear that addiction is a process that can happen with both substances and behaviors that are chronically misused or overused. The process happens because the dopamine system isn't functioning properly.

The dysfunction of the dopamine system, then, is the cause of addiction and not the addiction itself.

What's So Great About Dopamine?

Dopamine does help us feel good. It does this by giving us the feeling of reward for behaviors we do. Those rewards give us the motivation to do that behavior more. They also prompt us to meet our survival needs like eating.

Unless we're suffering from an addiction such as drug addiction, this reward/motivation system is a very positive thing. We're more likely to go after what we want and feel rewarded when we achieve it.

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Dopamine is released in anticipation of the desired reward. When we receive the reward, the feeling of the reward goes away soon after. We want to get that feeling again. Does that mean it's the dopamine we want? In a way, it is, but more scientifically, what we seek is substances or behaviors that give it to us. It's these substances and behaviors we're addicted to, not the dopamine itself.

What Happens When You Have A Dopamine Deficiency?

You can't get by without any dopamine. Without it, you wouldn't be able to do anything. You wouldn't even be able to move.

If you have some dopamine but not enough, you can have any of several conditions connected with low dopamine.

  • Depression
  • Social phobia
  • Parkinson's Disease
  • Alzheimer's Disease

What Happens When You Have Too Much Dopamine?

Schizophrenia has been linked to having an overabundance of dopamine. When you have this disease, it isn't that you're craving dopamine and overproduces it. It's a complex condition that involves many parts of the brain. The brain is simply dysfunctional. You aren't addicted to dopamine, but because your brain isn't functioning correctly, you have too much dopamine.

Does Dopamine Addiction Cause Physical And Mental Disorders?

What we know about mental and physical conditions is that some are associated with problems in the dopamine system. Does this mean that these problems cause the conditions? That much isn't yet known.

The subject of dopamine and addiction is complex, and it's likely different for different conditions. It could be that the conditions are caused by other factors and the dysfunction in the dopamine system is one effect of the condition.

The following diseases and disorders fall into this category of being associated with problems in the dopamine system.

Dopamine And Depression

The connection between dopamine and depression is well-established. However, dopamine isn't likely the only neurotransmitter involved if you have depression. Certainly, people with Parkinson's disease who also have depression have low dopamine. However, dopamine depression factors can be either more or less of the problem, depending on your unique biochemical makeup.

Depression and dopamine changes that go with it are often implicated in addictions. That's why dopamine antidepressants such as bupropion can help with addiction as well as depression. The depression-dopamine connection, then, plays a part in the treatment of many different conditions, particularly addictions.

Dopamine And Bipolar

The dopamine theory of bipolar, although still relatively new, suggests that dopamine plays a major role in both depressed and manic phases of bipolar. During the manic phase, dopamine transmissions are high. In depression, your dopamine is low.

It's also interesting to note that the as you go through mania, your dopamine receptors become less sensitive, leading you into eventual depression. As the transmissions decrease during the depressive phase, the receptors become more sensitive again, leading you back to mania.

Porn And Dopamine

Pornography consumption, especially when it's frequent, activates the dopamine system. You may feel a reward when you know you're about to see porn. You also feel pleasure while you're viewing it, but that reward isn't as great as that of anticipation.

Dopamine transporter levels go down as pornography use increases. This decreases the dopamine transmissions over time. As they decrease, pornography use usually increases, creating an ongoing cycle of addiction that becomes more and more serious as time goes by unless you get treatment.

Dopamine And Sex

The connection between dopamine and sex is extremely strong. Scientists believe the evolution of the dopamine system happened because it ensured survival. A part of survival is procreation, and sex was necessary to achieve that.

When sex becomes an addiction, the dopamine system is of course involved. When you seek sex so intensely that you suffer negative consequences, it can decrease your chances of survival instead.

With treatment, you can learn to control those impulses. When you do, you're more likely to live a stable and healthy life. With a steadier supply of rewards for survival behaviors via dopamine, sex becomes more satisfying in the long term.

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Cocaine And Dopamine

Cocaine and dopamine increases may seem to go together. You take cocaine, you feel good, at least for a while. In fact, the feeling is so intense you want to do it again as soon as possible.

Over time, your dopamine system begins to change. Your dopamine receptors become less available not only for cocaine rewards but other satisfactions as well. Your dopamine transporters become less available for dopamine transmissions, too.

Your brain no longer releases as much dopamine as it once did. You start having intense cravings when you aren't using, and the pleasure you get from the drug decreases. Cocaine dopamine dysfunction changes your brain chemistry in the long term. If you get to this point, treatment is crucial to deal with the addiction and return your dopamine system to its equilibrium.

Marijuana And Dopamine

Marijuana is the most used illegal drug in the U.S. What is the connection between weed and dopamine? Long-term marijuana use affects the dopamine reward system in a way that decreases motivation.

All drugs of abuse affect dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain activated during the dopamine system's anticipatory reward response. For weed, this effect can change the dopamine system and lead to continued use and addiction to other drugs.

Alcohol And Dopamine

Again, with alcohol and dopamine, responses in the dopamine pathway for nondrug rewards diminish as the addiction progresses. This happens in the mesolimbic system. A second dopamine pathway, the one called the inhibitory control pathway, is also disrupted, causing a lack of behavioral control.

ADHD And Dopamine

Children with ADHD are typically treated with stimulants. You may be worried that your child's treatment for ADHD and dopamine effects related to it might cause your child to be an addict later in life. The truth is that when children get this treatment for ADHD, they have a decreased risk of substance use disorders and cigarette smoking.

Dopamine ADHD dysfunction studies are aimed at providing safe and effective treatments, with emphasis on treatment for pediatric patients.

Dopamine And Parkinson's

In Parkinson's Disease, dopamine dysfunction causes a variety of problems. It's related to problems with mood, movement, and memories.

The dysfunction in Parkinson's dopamine causes because the components of the dopamine system are degenerating. There are fewer dopamine receptors. Dopamine transmissions are fewer and milder, which leads to memory problems. The neurons in the brain that synthesize dopamine are lost over time so that less and less dopamine is present.

Parkinson's disease and dopamine are a subject of intense research as scientists work to find treatments for Parkinson's dopamine dysfunction. Many possible treatments are being investigated to manage the problems with dopamine Parkinson's creates. A similar Alzheimer's dopamine problem causes memory problems in that disease, too.

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Dopamine And Schizophrenia

There is a dopamine hypothesis of schizophrenia that's been around for a long time. The dopamine theory of schizophrenia states that schizophrenia comes from a state of having too much dopamine in the brain.

This dopamine schizophrenia hypothesis grew out of the fact that neuroleptic drugs, which decrease dopamine, were effective treatments for schizophrenia. Also, drugs that increased dopamine made the condition worse.

The dopamine schizophrenia debate began, as scientists began to wonder whether schizophrenia and dopamine were related that way. A part of the problem with this theory is that when normal patients are given large doses of dopamine, they don't develop schizophrenia symptoms. Also, neuroleptic drugs don't help all people with schizophrenia. The debate continues and bears watching as new studies are completed.

Finding Balance

Although the exact mechanisms of dopamine, addiction, and other conditions aren't all known yet, what we do know is that healthy people have a stable and well-functioning dopamine system. So, it stands to reason that finding balance within the dopamine system may be a good way to remain healthy or to deal with or overcome dopamine-related conditions if possible.

Medications And Dopamine Balance

Medications for dopamine deficiencies and excesses can have a large impact on the dopamine system. You can also eat foods and take supplements that help you correct dopamine deficiencies. However, if you have a serious medical or psychiatric condition, it's best to consult with a doctor or psychiatrist to find the right regimen for medications and lifestyle changes.

Therapy And Dopamine Balance

Therapy can also be effective in restoring balance in the dopamine system. Psychotherapy changes the brain structure, including the dopamine system. Scientists have found physiological changes in the dopamine system by looking at neuroimaging results after a year of psychotherapy.

If you'd like help with a dopamine-related condition, therapy may be for you. Even if you have no symptoms of a dopamine problem, talking to a counselor may help you gain and maintain a steadier state in your dopamine availability and transmissions.

Licensed counselors at BetterHelp.com is a good way to explore dopamine-related subjects like mood, memory, motivation, pleasure, and reward. With one-to-one counseling, you can assess your mental health and possibly prevent problems before they happen. When you do, you'll open the path to better mental health and a happier, more fulfilling life.


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