Dopamine & Insomnia

Insomnia wreaks havoc on your life, leaving you tired and frustrated. Insomnia affects your cognitive functioning and your mood, affecting your ability to complete tasks and interfering with your ability to interact effectively with others. When you struggle to get a good night's sleep, it can affect your brain. As little as one night of lost sleep may affect your levels of dopamine in your brain.

Just one sleepless night increases levels of dopamine in your brain. Credit: KatarzynaBialasiewicz/iStock/Getty Images


Insomnia refers to a condition of prolonged sleeplessness or sleep disturbances. It is a common occurrence and complaint brought forward to physicians, according to the journal "American Family Physician." Insomnia is diagnosed using the Diagnostic Statistical Manual-IV Text Revision, or DSM-IV TR, criteria and individuals' self-reports of their sleep patterns. Taken into account are periods of restlessness, as well as difficulties falling or remaining asleep.

When Lack of Sleep Becomes Disordered

When does insomnia become a disorder instead of merely a sleep disturbance? According to Thomas Roth, Ph.D., in the "Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine," a disorder is a condition associated with negative consequences, and these consequences are not a normal result of the condition but rather the result of a pathological response. Some sort of stimulus, including acute medical illness or stress, usually brings about intermittent bouts of insomnia. Addressing or removing the stimulus can usually reverse intermittent insomnia. More severe and persistent instances of insomnia require testing and perhaps medical intervention once the cause is determined.

Causes of Insomnia

The cause of your insomnia may be difficult to pinpoint. Common causes for insomnia listed in the DSM-IV TR include medical causes such as nonprescription drugs like caffeine and prescription medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Medical conditions such as pain, sleep disorders and thyrotoxicosis can also contribute to sleep disorders. Psychological conditions, including depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety, can be a major cause of sleep disorders. Finally, environmental factors are at the root of insomnia. Some environmental causes include bedroom temperature or noises during nighttime hours.

The Dopamine Effect

Sleep and awake cycles are governed by a complex interaction between neurotransmitters, including dopamine, among others. As dopamine is an excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitter, which direction it takes depends on the dopamine receptor. According to the website Integrative Psychology, low dopamine levels can cause a host of challenges, as can high dopamine levels. Low dopamine may contribute to depression and poor concentration, where high dopamine can lead to excitability and agitation. There is a reciprocal relationship between sleep and dopamine in that at the same time that dopamine can encourage or prohibit sleep, sleeplessness can increase levels of dopamine.

Dopamine as Treatment for Insomnia

Dopaminergic agents may be prescribed by your physician to treat insomnia if it is determined that low levels of dopamine are the cause of your insomnia, particularly if you are suffering from an illness such as Parkinson's disease or restless leg syndrome. However, these same dopaminergic agents may have a paradoxical effect, meaning that they may aggravate insomnia and worsen your symptoms. If this occurs, your physician may discontinue the dopaminergic agent in lieu of another medication such as benzodiazepines or gabapentin. Dopaminergic agents also can have side effects, including fatigue and sedation, muscle stiffness, and dyspepsia.

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.
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