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December 8, 2023

Dopamine and the ADHD Brain with Geoffrey Stagg, MSW, LCSW

by Geoffrey Stagg, MSW, LCSW

There are many things that are important to know about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. One of the most crucial things to know is that there is nothing wrong with your ADHD brain; in fact, the ADHD brain is an incredibly hard-working brain! It just wants to do things a little bit differently.

You see, the brain has many different, but equally important, jobs to do. One of those jobs is to correct any ‘imbalances’ that it detects. For the ADHD brain, this usually takes shape in the form of correcting a dopamine imbalance.

Dopamine and ADHD

First, a little information about Dopamine. Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter (a chemical released by neurons to send signals to other neurons) that plays a significant role in many bodily functions, such as (but not limited to) our memory, motivation, and mood. Dopamine is released during ‘pleasurable’ situations. It serves to reinforce these behaviors and to provide a ‘boost’ of motivation. In other words, it is your brain saying, “Hey there [insertyourname]! What you did there felt good! Please do it again.” We are hard-wired to seek out or engage in these behaviors that release dopamine, which is why things such as junk food and taking risks can become addictive.

Where we begin to see the difference in the ADHD brain is when it comes to the reuptake of dopamine. Essentially, the ADHD brain is quicker to take back that dopamine after experiencing a dopamine producing event. Thus, the motivation does not last as long and the ADHD brain is more likely to go towards those immediately rewarding behaviors first. Such examples of these include such as spending money, snacking on treats, or playing video games.

This is also why stimulant medications are often used as the first line of treatment when it comes to ADHD, as they boost dopamine production and provide higher baselines of dopamine. Of course, while medications are helpful, I encourage you to look at them as another ‘tool in the toolbelt.’ Meaning that while they can be beneficial, but they are not necessarily the only way to proceed when it comes to managing ADHD and correcting dopamine levels. There are many other ways to help your body naturally produce dopamine.

Some examples of other methods include:

With your provider or a nutritionist, looking at possible changes in your diet.

  • Avoiding processed foods, foods with high-fat content, and even looking at caffeine intake are places to start.

Getting a proper night’s sleep.

  • If we are unable to get a restful night’s sleep, this can greatly impact our levels of motivation, focus, and concentration.

Minimizing stressors in one’s life and applying appropriate coping techniques, such as meditation and breathing exercises.

  • Working with a behavioral health therapist can be a great way to develop and ‘fine-tune’ skillsets and techniques that we can utilize to manage stressors, reprioritize tasks, and creating a more beneficial structure for ourselves.

Daily Exercise has been shown to naturally increase our body’s production of dopamine.

Often, for those with ADHD, having a formal diagnosis and professional support can be lifechanging. If you’re experiencing difficulty navigating life or want to know how to support your children with ADHD, learn more about Avance Care Behavioral Health. In addition to individual therapy, we also have family and support group therapy options.

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