ADHD: Dopamine Deficiency or a Bodymind Protesting?

Jesse Meadows
8 min readNov 2, 2021

Chemical imbalance is a marketing myth, but the suffering is real.

digital collage of a head sculpture with eyes closed and brain exposed at top of the head, imposed on top of a pink and white image of a crowd’s hands upstretched, each giving the finger
Art by the author

Dopamine is the new serotonin, and people are blaming it for everything. Addicted? It’s the dopamine. Can’t concentrate? Not enough dopamine. No motivation? You need more dopamine! I’ve even seen people say that they can physically feel their lack of dopamine.

What they’re feeling, though, is not their actual neurotransmitter count, because that’s impossible. Researchers don’t have a test that can quantify the neurotransmitters in your brain. There are companies that claim to measure urinary neurotransmitter levels, but they’re sketchy — one was fined $6 million for manipulating results in order to sell supplements.

When someone says they’re feeling a lack of dopamine, they’re talking more about the cultural meaning of the word than the science; because we’ve been told that dopamine modulates pleasure and reward, it’s become a biochemical shorthand used to express certain experiences like disengagement or distraction.

ADHD is not a dopamine deficiency, though it is marketed as such to sell pharmaceuticals. Blaming dopamine for ADHD is just the newest iteration of the chemical imbalance myth that made everyone think depression is caused by low serotonin, despite research dating back to the 70’s demonstrating that it’s not.

Pay close attention to the phrasing that’s used when articles claim this — you’ll see vague verbs that make almost-claims, as in this copy on Adderall’s website that Jonathan Leo and Jeffrey Lacasse analyzed in their Study of Consumer Advertisements:

“Research suggests an imbalance in the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters (substances that may transmit messages in the brain), may account for many of the signs and symptoms of ADHD” [emphasis mine]

The ADHD industry’s premier marketing publication ADDitude Magazine, however, eschews the vague verbs and makes outright claims:

“ADHD was the first disorder found to be the result of a deficiency of a specific neurotransmitter,” reads a March 2021 article that cites exactly zero sources. This is because ADDitude considers itself a source with a “Medical Review Panel” full of doctors who have ties to pharma…

Jesse Meadows

writer + digital artist doing critical adhd studies + re-politicizing mental health | they/them