Balancing neurotransmitters (otherwise known as correcting disrupted brain chemistry) is one of the issues I work the most on with my clients. Simply because neurotransmitters are involved in pretty much every aspect of health, but especially when we are dealing with conditions like Candida, SIBO, IBS and other functional gut disorders, adrenal fatigue, depression, anxiety disorders, OCD or any other mental health issue, excess sympathetic nervous system activity (aka sympathetic dominance), sugar and carb addiction, compulsive overeating or binge eating, or drug and alcohol addiction.
In a nutshell, neurotransmitters are naturally occurring chemicals in the brain used by neurons to transmit information throughout the brain and body. For example, neurotransmitters instruct your heart to beat, your lungs to breathe, and your gastrointestinal system to digest your food. They also modulate mood, sleep cycle, stress, appetite, weight, cognitive functions, speech, perception, motor functions, self-esteem, energy levels, pain, sexual arousal and desire and more.
Neurotransmitters are also intricately involved with spirituality, quality of life and interpersonal relationships, as they are what enables us to experience inner peace, feelings of well-being, serenity, empathy and compassion, regulation of impulsivity and aggressiveness, bonding with self and others, and to experience deep purpose and meaning in life and connection to whatever spiritual belief we hold. You can learn more about the basics of these amazing little substances on the following page.
There are two types of neurotransmitters – excitatory (stimulates) and inhibitory (calms). Serotonin, GABA and endorphins/enkephalins are our primary inhibitory neurotransmitters. Norepinephrine, epinephrine, glutamate, and histamine are the primary excitatory. Acetylcholine and dopamine can be inhibitory or excitatory. Like most things in life, neurotransmitters need to remain balanced for optimal health. Too much or too little in either direction can lead to significant impairment in mental, physical and/or spiritual health.
Neurotransmitters are also formed in and used by the gut or the alimentary canal (from the esophagus to anus) and known as the enteric nervous system. For example, serotonin and GABA play a critical role in gut motility and other digestive functions. However, it’s important to note that the brain cannot use the neurotransmitters formed in the gut. Neurotransmitters used by the brain must be formed in the brain.
Two Basic Principles Involved in Balancing Neurotransmitters.
- Remove the substances that disrupt brain chemistry. There are numerous elements that can ramp up, deplete, inhibit, or disrupt normal neurotransmitter production or function. In order to achieve and maintain balance, these factors need to be eliminated.
- Give the brain what it needs to produce and transmit neurotransmitters adequately. The bottom line is that the brain needs a specific set and amount of nutrients in order to produce neurotransmitters and for them to transmit properly. These nutrients are acquired through your diet. If these nutrients are not supplied in adequate numbers in your diet on a daily basis, then production and function will be impaired.
However, within these two principles there can be hundreds of aspects that may contribute to imbalances in neurotransmitters. Here are the primary issues that should be explored and addressed.
Eliminate Mind-Altering Substances
The first step is to get rid of the substances that impair brain chemistry. All the following substances disrupt neurotransmitter function and/or production and should be avoided.
- all psychotropic drugs (cocaine, meth, heroin, lsd, etc.)
- marijuana (including medical marijuana or cannabis oil)
- antidepressant medication (Zoloft, Prozac, etc.)
- anti-anxiety medication (e.g. Ativan, Xanax, Klonopin, and other benzodiazepines)
- sleep medication (e.g. Ambien, etc.)
- ADHD medication
- caffeine (including coffee and green tea)
- sugar (all types, including honey and coconut sugar)
- chocolate (including dark or raw cacao)
- high carb foods
- artificial sweeteners
- artificial flavorings, dyes, preservatives, additives
The balance of neurotransmitters cannot be obtained if one is engaging with any of the aforementioned substances. Even if you eat the correct diet and do everything suggested on this page, you are not likely to see significant improvements if these aspects are not removed.
Diet for Balancing Neurotransmitters
The primary nutrients the brain needs for adequate production and transmission of neurotransmitters is acquired through animal protein and fat. Animal protein provides amino acids and other nutrients for formation and fat is required for transmission. The diet that balances the brain is a low-carb Paleo diet that is individualized for your unique needs.
All plant-based sources of animal protein are either incomplete or inferior. Protein and fat should come primarily from animal sources. Most fat should be saturated fat and complimented with monounsaturated fat. It’s equally important to maintain balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, also best acquired through animal protein.
Cholesterol is also vital for normal brain function. It is a basic building block in the membrane of brain cells, provides fuel for neurons and aids in neuron function. So, again another reason animal protein is so important. Cholesterol interacts with sunshine to produce vitamin D, which is another vital nutrient for adequate brain function.
Carb intake for the day should not exceed 60 to 70 grams at most. Many people feel better under 50 grams per day. If one is attempting to overcome sugar and carb addiction, compulsive overeating or binging, then carb intake almost always needs to be under 50 grams per day. High carb foods initially cause a big surge in neurotransmitters, and when eaten daily, this leads to tolerance and depletion and then addiction to carbohydrates.
High carb meals are also a form of stress on the body, as it will initially cause a rise a blood glucose and then a drop. Both of these scenarios set off the stress response system, which as discussed further below, also leads to the depletion of neurotransmitters. Additionally, high blood sugar caused by the consumption of carbohydrates is associated with significant brain shrinkage, like that found in Alzheimer’s individuals.
All three meals per day should contain a minimum of four ounces of animal protein and as much as eight ounces. Consume however much is needed to feel satiated in combination with fat.
Meals should be no more than five hours apart. In End Your Addiction Now, Dr. Charles Gant explains that we experience hunger as an unpleasant event because there is a decline in neurotransmitters.
If snacking is needed in between meals, snacks should consist of animal protein and fat. (e.g. hamburger, hard boiled egg, chicken thigh, a piece of steak)
It is critical to keep blood sugar stable, as when blood sugar drops, there is an increase in the excitatory norepinephrine and a decrease in inhibitory neurotransmitters. Blood sugar is kept stable with animal protein and fat and eating those meals consistently three times a day.
No sugar. Sugar is a drug that depletes neurotransmitters. ( This includes honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar etc.)
Low-carb vegetables in moderation. (No high starch foods like potatoes. A medium sized potato is the equivalent of a half cup of sugar.)
Nuts, seeds and low-sugar fruit in moderation or strictly limited.
Butter, ghee and heavy cream are acceptable forms of dairy, unless one has an autoimmune condition, is intolerant of dairy or has problems with dairy exorphins, which you can learn about on this page.
The diet should be free of alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, grains, legumes, milk products with lactose, high carb foods, as mentioned previously, all of these disrupt neurotransmitters.
Please note that corn is a grain, not a vegetable. Peas are a legume, not a vegetable. Peanuts are a legume, not a nut. So, each of these are eliminated.
Take a look at the following page for more guidance on designing and personalizing your Paleo diet.
Avoid Mind-altering Herbs
There are a wide variety of herbs that can impair neurotransmitter function and production as well. Some of them include but are not limited to, St. John’s wort, Olive Leaf, curcumin, valerian root, passion flower, holy basil, kava kava, etc.
Herbs affect the brain in a similar manner as prescription based drugs, the brain responds by down-regulating production of or responsiveness to the neurotransmitter with ongoing use of these substances, thus perpetuating the imbalance.
Clean Up Environmental Toxins
There is nothing more harmful to the brain than pesticides and herbicides. They can cause depletion of dopamine, serotonin, endorphins and GABA and an excess of glutamate, acetylcholine, histamine, and norepinephrine. They also cause an increase in blood glucose.
The home and yard should be completely free of pesticides and herbicides. Do not live in farming areas or communities that do aerial spraying for mosquitoes etc.
Other common everyday chemicals found in your cosmetics, household cleaning supplies, air fresheners, disinfectants, personal care products, laundry soap, dish soap, can all disrupt brain chemistry. All these products should be natural, non-toxic and environmentally friendly.
Make sure your sheets and blankets are not washed in chlorine bleach, it is a major neurotransmitter disruptor.
If the environmental toxin aspect is ignored, you are not likely to see any improvements, regardless of what other steps you take.
Within this category, one should also assess heavy metal status. Heavy metals can impair neurotransmitter production or function. For example, too much copper can impair synthesis of serotonin and GABA. Mercury and other toxic metals can cause chronic excess sympathetic nervous system activity.
When we are under stress, we have a greater need for neurotransmitters, because they are what helps us cope with the stressful situation and return to the non-stress (parasympathetic) state.
If stress is ongoing, then many inhibitory neurotransmitters like dopamine, endorphins, GABA, and serotonin can become depleted and we can end up in a chronic state of excess sympathetic nervous system activity.
We all have an immense amount of stress so a variety of stress management techniques like mindfulness meditation and deep breathing exercises, communing with nature, smiling, should be built into our lives on a daily basis.
Assess Microbial Overgrowth
Overgrowth of bacteria, yeast, viruses, or parasites can all cause major disruption to production or function of neurotransmitters. Toxins produced by microbes may alter neurotransmitter production or function and it appears the microbes themselves may be able to tap into our transmission system. Each of these issues should be explored to see if they are applicable to your situation. If they are, then they should be addressed accordingly.
Microbial overgrowth is a very common cause of imbalance in neurotransmitters, and thus a wide array of psychological disorders and gastrointestinal conditions.
Get Adequate Sleep
When we don’t get enough sleep, neurons lose sensitivity towards neurotransmitters, which makes them less effective. Additionally, stress hormones are elevated when we are sleep deprived, which then creates a higher demand for neurotransmitters. And, the brain flushes itself of waste proteins that accumulate between brain cells during the day, while we sleep.
Although exercise is crucial for all aspects of health, including brain health, too much exercise or the wrong type can deplete inhibitory neurotransmitters and cause an elevation in norepinephrine or histamine, and contribute to excess sympathetic nervous system activity.
Chronic cardio, traditional aerobics, marathon running or any type of endurance exercise are experienced as stress on the body, which as we established above drains neurotransmitter levels.
Exercise should be mild and gentle. Low-impact most of the time with an occasional burst of high-intensity. High-intensity should be brief and followed by rest and recovery. How much you exercise should be guided by what is comfortable for your body. If you feel worse after you exercise, you have pushed too hard.
Get Adequate Sunshine
Sunlight stimulates the release of neurotransmitters. However, it also interacts with cholesterol in the body to form vitamin D that is needed for regulating enzymes in the brain and cerebrospinal fluid associated with activating nerve growth and the construction of neurotransmitters. Vitamin D also protects neurons from free radicals and inflammation.
Consider Possible Supplementation
Amino acid supplementation with the required vitamin and mineral co-factors can be used in some cases to help restore balance to neurotransmitters. For example, dopamine needs tyrosine iron, niacin, folic acid and B6 (p5p), and it needs vitamin c, copper, sam-e, and magnesium to break down. Serotonin needs tryptophan, iron, folic acid, B3, B6 (p5p), chromium and vitamin C and it needs B5 and sam-e to break down. Acetylcholine needs choline and B5. Endorphins/enkephalins need l-leucine, methionine, glycine, tyrosine, and a multi-mineral with copper. GABA needs glutamine, B6 (p5p), magnesium, taurine, and vitamin C. Other minerals like zinc are typically needed for all of these.
However, not everyone responds positively to supplementation. Some supplements meant to increase GABA, like glutamine or GABA itself, can actually increase glutamate instead. 5HTP used to increase serotonin can increase cortisol or norepinephrine. Tyrosine or phenylalanine used to increase dopamine or endorphins can increase norepinephrine. Experiment cautiously and adjust accordingly.
Assess whether digestive enzymes are needed. A lack of hydrochloric acid or other digestive enzymes can result in sub-optimal levels of amino acids required for the production of neurotransmitters, due to impaired digestion.
Practice Mindfulness and Deep Breathing
The regular use of mindfulness and deep breathing are excellent tools for increasing inhibitory neurotransmitters and lower the excitatory neurotransmitters, thus reducing stress, increasing parasympathetic nervous system activity, calming the mind and an abundance of other benefits. At a minimum, they should be practiced daily every morning when you get up and every night when you go to bed. You can learn how to do them both quickly and easily in the following resource.
Commune with Nature
Spending time in nature stimulates calming inhibitory neurotransmitters that lower stress and modulate mood. It’s also a great way to get your daily dose of sunshine needed for vitamin D production and a supreme place for practicing mindfulness. Get out at least several times a week, or more if possible.
Explore Genetic Polymorphisms
There are a wide variety of genetic polymorphisms that can affect the production or function of neurotransmitters. Genomics testing can be used to identify these issues. However, keep in mind that the most important aspect in regard to how a genetic polymorphism is expressed is influenced by the diet you eat and the toxins in your environment, and other lifestyle factors. So the best way to help a genetic issue is to eat a primal diet and live in a clean environment as we already discussed.
Balancing Neurotransmitters is an Ongoing Event
The modern world in which we live in promotes an imbalance in neurotransmitters. If you live the typical lifestyle of the average individual in our society, then you will be swimming in a sea of mind-altering toxins, drowning in stress, barely keeping your head above water with a nutrient-depleted diet and medicate all the consequences of these actions with a vast array of pharmaceuticals. All of which makes it impossible to have properly functioning brain chemistry.
Keeping neurotransmitters in balance requires constant vigilance and an ongoing concerted effort to remain deeply committed to the proper diet and lifestyle as discussed. It is a life-long process, not something you do just once.
Charles Gant, M.D. End Your Addiction Now.
Dr. David Perlmutter. Grain Brain