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The Connection Between Dopamine and Addiction

The Connection Between Dopamine and Addiction

The release of dopamine is triggered by the brain’s reward center to reinforce pleasurable behaviors. Learn more about how dopamine works and the connection between dopamine and addiction.

The connection between dopamine and addiction is due to the effects of substance abuse on the brain’s reward center. Without getting too deep into the scientific aspects, the dopamine hormone plays a central role in addiction. This is mainly due to the fact that dopamine, the brain’s “pleasure” chemical, is released during substance abuse.

It’s important to remember that while dopamine plays a role in addiction, it is not the only one. Genetics, environment, mental health issues, and other factors can all contribute to substance use. With that being said, understanding the role of dopamine in substance abuse and addiction provides a more in-depth view of why the process of recovery can prove difficult for many men and women.

What Is Addiction?

According to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), addiction, also known as a substance use disorder (SUD), occurs when an individual uses an addictive substance, such as alcohol or illicit drugs, to the point that they are no longer capable of performing daily tasks without the urge to use substances.

What Is Dopamine?

Also referred to as one of the brain’s “feed good” chemicals, dopamine is a hormone that helps us feel good. Along with other chemicals like serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins, the release of dopamine triggers feelings of pleasure by interacting with your brain’s reward center.

What Does Dopamine Do?

In general, dopamine is your brain’s way of regulating your level of motivation to participate in enjoyable activities. It does so by reinforcing pleasurable behaviors with a rewarding feeling.

To illustrate this, imagine you are a pet dog receiving a treat for good behavior. In this case, your brain is the dog owner, and the release of dopamine is the dog treat. The more you sit, roll over, and bark on command, the more treats your owner will offer as a reward.

In other words, when you first partake in a pleasurable activity, your body naturally releases dopamine. The brain quickly forms a positive association with that activity and develops a reward system in response. Each time you engage in the activity, your brain will reward you with the release of dopamine.

What Does Dopamine Feel Like?

When your brain has a healthy amount of dopamine, you will feel more motivated, productive, and attentive. Dopamine also benefits your ability to learn, socialize, and stay active—not only can dopamine motivate you to get up and move, but it can also reward you with a sense of pride and accomplishment during exercise. This is what the term “runners high” refers to.

Alternatively, low levels of dopamine, however, can make you feel sluggish yet restless. Feelings of depression, anxiety, and chronic fatigue are also common in brains that lack appropriate dopamine levels.

When Is Dopamine Released?

When the average person experiences a pleasurable event, the brain releases dopamine. Then, the chemical naturally travels through dopamine pathways in the brain and a sense of pleasure spreads throughout the mind and body.

Typically, dopamine’s effects occur when you’re doing a pleasurable activity, or sometimes when anticipating a reward. For example, your brain releases dopamine as you bite into your favorite dessert. Similarly, you may also experience a “dopamine rush” when you smell the dessert baking in the oven. The taste and smell of good food are natural dopamine boosters.

Many natural ways increase dopamine including:

  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Music
  • Meditation
  • Nutritious food
  • Sunlight


In contrast, when a person misuses an addictive substance, they are essentially forcing their brain to release dopamine without experiencing a pleasurable event. In essence, drug and alcohol use tricks the brain and artificially releases dopamine.

What Drugs Release Dopamine In the Brain?

Research has shown that the most commonly abused drugs trigger the release of dopamine in the brain. Compared to activities that release dopamine naturally, however, addictive substances can trigger 10 times the amount of dopamine to flood the brain and body.

Addictive drugs that increase dopamine include:

  • Alcohol
  • Nicotine
  • Opioids
  • Heroin
  • Cocaine
  • Methamphetamine


Unable to make a distinction between natural and artificial triggers, the brain develops a positive association with drugs that affect dopamine. The same process that makes you long for a chocolate brownie or a mid-day jog is what leads to all-consuming drug cravings.

Does Dopamine Drive Addiction?

Each time a person abuses drugs or alcohol, the substance triggers the release of an intense amount of dopamine. The more drugs someone abuses, the more they force their brain to release the pleasure chemical.

Due to the overwhelming impact of drugs and alcohol on the reward center, the brain dedicates all of its dopamine receptors to satisfy a “high.” As a result, the brain lacks the ability to reinforce naturally rewarding activities with feelings of pleasure. This overstimulation is why a common sign of substance abuse is a lack of interest in activities that once brought pleasure.

Substance abuse disrupts the brain’s reward system and the resulting damages often affect every aspect of a person’s life. As the brain is rewired to prioritize drug abuse, the person loses the ability to complete daily tasks. Patterns of behavior shift focus from the person’s wants, needs, and aspirations to an all-encompassing need to get high. No longer able to experience pleasure without drugs, each moment is spent finding and taking drugs.

What Role Does Dopamine Play In Developing Tolerance?

Following a pattern of drug abuse, the brain tries to compensate for the overstimulation of its reward center by developing a tolerance. While drug tolerance commonly develops in active addiction, it can also occur when a person repeatedly takes any drug, including prescription antidepressants or antibiotics.

This is because long-term drug use and abuse can overwhelm the brain’s dopamine pathways, damaging its ability to manage the release of dopamine. In fact, disruptions in the brain’s reward system due to acute and chronic substance abuse can lead to short-term and long-term changes in the brain’s functions and structure.

To counteract the negative effect of the surplus of dopamine, the brain attempts to adapt in one of two ways:

  • Lowering the production of dopamine
  • Decreasing the number of dopamine receptors


Regardless of which change occurs, the result is a weaker response from the limited release of dopamine.

For example, someone who drinks alcohol every night trains their brain to expect alcohol. In turn, the brain triggers the production of more liver enzymes in order to break alcohol down more effectively. As a result, each time a person drinks, the euphoric effects of alcohol become less intense and short-lived.

Now, the drug produces a less intense “high” following the brain’s stricter hold on the release of dopamine. Incapable of experiencing the intense euphoric high that the drugs once produced, people begin taking larger and larger amounts.

Does Dopamine Affect Men and Women Differently During Addiction?

In general, more men have a substance use disorder than women. With that being said, however, omen are more susceptible to harsher withdrawal symptoms and relapse compared to men.

When men and women abuse drugs, they disrupt the natural release of dopamine in the brain’s reward center. Following routine use of addictive substances, the brain can experience short-term and long-term structural and functional alterations. As a result, both sexes can lose the ability to experience pleasure from natural rewards and eventually lose the ability to experience pleasure altogether.

With that being said, dopamine activity is different in men and women which contributes to the sex-specific differences in the development of addiction and the side effects during drug withdrawal.

Dopamine’s Influence on Addiction In Men

Studies researching the impacts of nicotine record sex-specific changes in the brain’s level of dopamine receptors levels. Findings show men have a higher concentration of dopamine receptors in their brains after being exposed to nicotine. The higher availability of dopamine receptors may contribute to a higher chance of men becoming dependent after being exposed to most addictive substances,

For instance, studies on nicotine exposure in men show a higher concentration of D1, a type of dopamine receptor found in the brain’s reward center. These receptors reinforce engagement in pleasurable behaviors, including the use of addictive substances. As a result, men may be more susceptible to the development of an addiction.

In addition, studies on moderate nicotine addiction show that men have a lower amount of D2, another dopamine receptor, compared to women. Having fewer D2 dopamine receptors may make men more likely to become nicotine dependent.

Additionally, PET imaging studies show that men who smoke cigarettes experience higher levels of brain activation compared to women which suggest that men may experience greater reinforcing effects of nicotine.

Dopamine’s Influence on Withdrawal In Women

Research studying the changes in dopamine levels during nicotine withdrawal highlights the differences between men and women. More specifically, women may experience more severe withdrawal symptoms due to a decrease in dopamine levels in the brain.

During substance abuse, women experience higher levels of dopamine in their brains after exposure to addictive substances. On the flip side, women experience a significant decrease in dopamine levels during withdrawal which elevates symptoms of physical discomfort and psychological distress.

After being exposed to nicotine, studies show that women demonstrate an increase in dopamine levels in the brain’s reward center. On the other hand, women experience a larger reduction in dopamine levels in the brain during withdrawal compared to men. Similarly, studies show that exposure to nicotine during infancy makes women more sensitive to triggers of dopamine receptors, which was not the case in men. As a result, women who are also exposed to nicotine during childhood experience heightened levels of brain activity and restlessness in response.

In addition, studies on the impact of cocaine observed a larger increase in D2 dopamine receptors in several portions of the brain’s reward center in women compared to men. This research suggests that women are more likely to develop an addiction to cocaine than men.

Overall, studies suggest that women appear to experience a greater change in dopamine activity as a result of addiction. Following significant fluctuations in dopamine, women commonly experience more severe withdrawal symptoms from drugs and alcohol.

Dopamine Recovery After Addiction

While there is still much to be learned about the intricacies of addiction, it is evident that substance abuse impacts both men and women due to the significant connection between dopamine and addiction. With that being said, the right treatment and guidance can assist you in eliminating drug and alcohol use in order to lead a healthier lifestyle.

In addition, being mindful of the behavioral patterns that could potentially lead to addiction, such as using drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism for stress or anxiety. Not only does substance abuse impact your mental health and physical well-being, but it can also exacerbate any underlying conditions if you self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.

Abusing substances for an extended period of time can often lead to significant adverse effects from a lack of dopamine. After entering treatment, many people struggle to cope with anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure, which is a common side effect of a dopamine-depleted brain.

Low dopamine symptoms can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Low energy
  • Reduced motivation
  • Poor concentration
  • Lack of pleasure
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Apathy
  • Insomnia


People who have previously struggled with addiction may feel overwhelmed during a dopamine crash and hopeless as they go through this process. It is important to remember that dopamine recovery after addiction can take some time.

Knowing that many people in treatment for addiction are struggling with a dopamine deficiency, treatment centers often provide medications to manage the symptoms.

Treatment for Dopamine and Drug Addiction

Addiction treatment programs provide education on how dopamine affects women differently than men. Psychoeducation groups also teach you how to repair dopamine receptors during the recovery process, which can help prevent a relapse.

For example, people in recovery can also participate in alternative coping strategies to manage stress and anxiety that are healthier than substance use.

Healthy activities that relieve stress include:

  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • Going for a mid-day walk
  • Talking to friends or family members
  • Seeking professional help from a therapist


These activities can help naturally increase the release of dopamine which will improve your mood. By participating in activities that are natural dopamine boosters instead of turning to drugs or alcohol, women can lead happier and healthier lives.

Drug Addiction Treatment at Royal Life Centers

The most important thing to remember when it comes to addiction and substance abuse is that help is available. With an open mind, support from loved ones, and the right combination of treatment options, anyone can make strides toward successful addiction recovery.

To assist in your recovery from substance abuse, Royal Life Centers is dedicated to providing support, resources, and guidance within our addiction treatment programs.

Located in Prescott, Arizona, our Seaglass facility offers gender-specific addiction treatment for women in residential inpatient. While in residential treatment for women, we provide gender-sensitive and trauma-informed care to ensure the safety of each guest. With a focus on person-centered holistic treatments, we work with each woman to create an individualized treatment plan that will meet their unique needs and goals during treatment and recovery.

Royal Life Centers’ rehab for women provides a wide variety of therapies and treatment options, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing, and medication-assisted treatment (MAT). During treatment, you will also learn how to reset dopamine levels through art therapies and recreational activities that encourage creativity and self-expression.

Our Arizona rehab also offers aftercare services for men and women within a separate portion of our facility grounds. During aftercare, guests can participate in treatment programs including partial hospitalization (PHP), intensive outpatient (IOP), and outpatient (OP).

Reach Out

Please feel free to reach out to us at 877-RECOVERY. Our addiction specialists are available 24/7 to assist you through this time and help you find hope in recovery.

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