Neurotransmitter function has a profound impact on physical and mental health and well-being. Neurotransmitters are essential chemical messengers used by neurons in the brain to send and receive electro-chemical signals within the brain and facilitate communication with all the other organ systems in the body. These powerful neurochemicals are responsible for regulating practically all functions in life, such as cognitive, physical, and mental performance, sleep cycle, weight, pain perception and response, and our emotional states.
Essentially they are the communication system of the mind, body, and nervous system. To get a good picture in your head of what this means, you can think of your telephone service. A complex web of interconnections that allows communication to take place. Neurotransmitters literally govern every system in the body either directly or indirectly.
How we think, feel, and behave are all regulated by neurotransmitters. Even your spiritual health is greatly affected by your neurotransmitters, as it can be very difficult to achieve inner peace and find meaning and purpose in life when neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and GABA are not sufficient or are disrupted or norepinephrine, glutamate, acetylcholine, or histamine are in excess.
Research tells us that deficiencies, imbalances, disruption or malfunctioning of neurotransmitters is extremely common in our society and is at the root of many of common health conditions, because when neurotransmitters are not functioning properly then the mind and body do not communicate effectively. When communication malfunctions, then organ systems don’t function as they should. This results in a variety of undesirable symptoms both physically and psychologically. Recent research suggests that approximately eight out of ten people suffer from some form of neurotransmitter imbalance.
Symptoms of Neurotransmitter Imbalances or Deficiency
There are many symptoms as a result of neurotransmitter imbalances or neurotransmitter deficiency, but these are some of the most common:
- Alcoholism and drug addiction
- Nicotine addiction
- Sugar addiction
- Caffeine addiction
- Carbohydrate addiction and/or binging)
- Sex addiction
- Gambling addiction
- Any form of addiction
- Migraine headaches
- Impulsive behavior
- Muscle problems
- Panic attacks
- Chronic pain
- Weight gain and inability to lose weight
- Kinetic disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Eating disorders
- General malaise
- Poor concentration
- Hormone Dysfunction
- Memory Impairment
- Cognitive disorders
- Adrenal fatigue
- Excessive sex drive or low sex drive
- Mood swings
- Lack of motivation
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
It’s also important to note the symptoms of neurotransmitter imbalances or deficiencies overlap with many other conditions like adrenal fatigue, thyroid problems, and hormone imbalances, so it’s important to rule out other possibilities.
Types of Neurotransmitters
We have many different neurotransmitters, but the ones we are most familiar with include serotonin, dopamine, GABA, endorphins/enkephalins, endocannabinoids, acetylcholine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, glutamate, and histamine. They all fall under one of two different types called inhibitory or excitatory. Inhibitory neurotransmitters calm the brain, while excitatory stimulate the brain. Serotonin, GABA, and endorphins fall under the inhibitory category; norepinephrine, epinephrine, histamine, and glutamate are excitatory; and dopamine and acetylcholine can be inhibitory or excitatory.
Too much or not enough of either one can lead to problems; the key is to maintain balance. For example, not enough serotonin results in depression; not enough dopamine leads to ADHD, but too much is associated with psychosis; too much norepinephrine or acetylcholine results in anxiety, but not enough of either one can impair cognitive function; not enough GABA can cause anxiety, panic disorders, and autistic symptoms, but too much would result in sedation; low levels of endorphins and emotional and physical pain become unbearable. Imbalances of any neurotransmitter can lead to addiction, but dopamine is the primary driving force in addiction.
What Causes Disruption to Neurotransmitter Function
There are eight primary factors that affect neurotransmitter function and may lead to imbalances:
1. Alcohol, mind-altering drugs, and nicotine (This includes both recreational and prescription based. Including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, benzodiazepines, amphetamines, anti-depressants, etc.)
Alcohol and drugs are a catch 22. Many people with neurotransmitter imbalances or deficiencies often turn to alcohol and drugs to counteract or soothe the symptoms they are having from an already existing imbalance or deficiency and although initially, they provide some relief, they ultimately damage and deplete neurotransmitters even more. Anyone with neurotransmitter issues is at extremely high risk of addiction. On the other hand, the use of drugs and alcohol causes neurotransmitter depletion as they overstimulate them to the point that the brain stops producing them.
Sugar and caffeine are the two most detrimental foods for neurotransmitters because they have a similar effect on the brain as hard drugs, but so are white flour and other refined junk food and a high-carb diet. A diet that is low in protein or high in complex carbohydrates is also a major contributor. Vegetarians are particularly vulnerable to neurotransmitter deficiencies because of the lack of meat protein that provides all the essential amino acids we need.
3. Environmental toxins
Common everyday chemicals found in most peoples homes like perfume, cologne, cleaning supplies, air fresheners, housing construction, personal care products, carpeting, pesticides, herbicides, nail polish, laundry soap, fabric softener, clothing etc., have a serious impact on neurotransmitters because they can land on receptors and/or inhibit production and function.
4. Chronic stress
High levels of ongoing stress also cause malfunctioning and depletion of neurotransmitters. This can be the result of a high-stress lifestyle that doesn’t ease up or stressful circumstances you must endure like a demanding job, poverty, dysfunctional relationships, abuse, violence, chronic illness, etc.
If you lived with child abuse or neglect as a child, chances are very great that your neurotransmitters are out of balance and/or deficient. The same applies to prisoners of war, victims of violence, victims of a natural disaster, civilians living in a war zone, and war veterans. For example, PTSD is the result of neurotransmitter disruption.
Having a relationship with a narcissist, psychopath, sociopath, or abuser of any kind at any age damages the brain and affects neurotransmitter function.
Some people are born without certain enzymes that are needed to synthesize neurotransmitters which result in deficiencies or disruption of neurotransmitters.
6. Nutritional deficiencies
Adequate levels of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and fatty acids are crucial for the production and regulation of neurotransmitters. As much as 80% of the population may have nutritional deficiencies. Amino acid is the primary nutrient needed for the production of neurotransmitters as well as healthy fats. Amino acid deficiencies are extremely common because they are derived from protein and most of the population is not eating enough protein. Other nutrients vital for neurotransmitter function include the B vitamins and minerals.
7. Candida overgrowth or SIBO
The overgrowth of Candida yeast is extremely common in our society and it too alters and disrupts the functioning of neurotransmitters. Other unfriendly organisms like bacteria and parasites may interfere in neurotransmitter function as well.
8. Food allergies and sensitivities
Undiagnosed food allergies and sensitivities can inhibit or stimulate neurotransmitter activity.
Steps to Improve Neurotransmitter Function
- No smoking
- No drinking or drugs (including marijuana)
- No sugar
- No caffeine
- No chocolate
- No white flour and other junk food
- Keep blood sugar stable
- Eat lots of animal protein and moderate amounts of fat. Read this page for more info on the diet that will help replenish neurotransmitters.
- Identify food allergies and sensitivities and adjust diet accordingly
- Regular exercise – but not too strenuous or excessive. Excessive exercise can actually deplete neurotransmitters, so exercise should be mild.
- Practice mindfulness, deep breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, communing with nature and other spiritually fulfilling activities like prayer, yoga, daily walks, humor, art, music, making love, nurturing relationships, writing and public service.
- Reduce environmental toxins in your living space and work environment
- Address Candida overgrowth and other unfriendly organisms
- Get adequate sunlight
- Reduce stress and adopt daily stress management techniques
- Get adequate sleep
- Identify nutritional deficiencies and address with supplementation accordingly
- Amino Acid Therapy: once extensive neurotransmitter depletion has occurred it is sometimes difficult to replenish them through diet and lifestyle changes alone. Many practitioners prescribe amino acid supplements that may include GABA, tryptophan, tyrosine, glutamine, DPA, DLPA, l-theanine or 5-HTP, depending on what your symptoms are. GABA, l-theanine and glutamine increase your GABA, tryptophan and 5-HTP increase your serotonin levels, DPA or DLPA increase endorphins and tyrosine increases your norepinephrine and dopamine. A balanced amino acid supplement is often required as well along with their specific cofactors. Amino acids are the building blocks for neurotransmitters. The amino acids are usually taken in conjunction with a variety of other vitamins and minerals because they work together and need each other to make the brain function as it should. For example, pyridoxal-5-phosphate is needed for the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin. Its very important to be aware that natural therapies can be just as powerful as a prescription drug and should be taken seriously. Before engaging in these types of therapies, I encourage you to always do your homework, work with a provider who has extensive knowledge in amino acid therapy and have a thorough understanding of all that is involved and all possible outcomes. Each system in the body is interconnected. When you try to jump start one system and other systems are not functioning as they should, it can result in something totally unexpected and actually result in the exact opposite effect. For example 5-HTP increases cortisol, which can be detrimental to someone who has adrenal issues. Glutamine suppresses cortisol and increases glutamate, which is an excitatory neurotransmitter. This can be detrimental to someone with adrenal exhaustion and someone who has excitatory neurotransmitters that are too high and experiencing anxiety. Personally, I had very bad experiences with both 5-HTP and glutamine, as well as a product called l-theanine, which increases GABA, because they crashed my adrenals and overstimulated my excitatory neurotransmitters, which resulted in an exacerbation of a variety of symptoms and provoked new symptoms I didn’t even have prior to taking them. They all worked in the opposite direction for me and were counterproductive. I hear regularly from my clients that they have had similar experiences. This doesn’t mean it will happen to you, but it does mean you should be aware and cautious. (Please read all my precautions further below.)
- Common prescription drugs on the market that are used for depression, anxiety, Parkinsons, hyperactivity, OCD, etc., work by altering the neurotransmitters in the brain; when you hear a disorder described as a chemical imbalance the chemicals they are referring to are neurotransmitters. However, the problem with prescription drugs is that in the long run they actually make the problem worse. They deplete the neurotransmitters even more and create even more imbalance.
- As we learned earlier, environmental toxins, stress, Candida, diet, etc., all have a negative effect on neurotransmitter function and some of these factors, like environmental toxins or excessive stress, may be out of our control and continually throw our neurotransmitters out of balance. Thus eating and living in a manner that supports neurotransmitter balance is important on an ongoing basis.
Hormones and Adrenals
Neurotransmitters also work in conjunction with hormones and adrenal glands, so it is also helpful to evaluate these levels as well. Hormones and adrenal glands need balanced neurotransmitters to function properly and neurotransmitters are also impacted by hormone levels and adrenal functioning. Their relationship is reciprocal. In order to get one functioning properly, a balance needs to be restored in each.
All systems in the body work in conjunction with one another and affect each other and certain neurotransmitters also impact adrenal functioning. Hormones have a profound impact on neurotransmitters and vice versa. If these systems aren’t functioning adequately, additional support may be necessary.
Neurotransmitter Testing and Screening
One of the most popular methods used by practitioners to test neurotransmitter levels is a urine test that measures the actual levels of neurotransmitters in the urine. A company called NeuroScience is one of the leaders with this method. However, I learned in an article in the Townsend letter titled, Urinary Neurotransmitter Testing: Problems and Alternatives, by Julia Ross, M.A., founder of Recovery Systems in Northern California, that this type of urine testing is not very reliable.
She cites a study that states “levels of neurotransmitters in urine vary rapidly in reaction to both stress, chemistry and diet-related (especially pH) changes.” When urine testing was compared to cerebrospinal fluid, which is well known to be the most accurate method for measuring neurotransmitters, results did not correspond. Additionally, Julia states that this is what has found to be true in her own recovery center. She also feels that using a screening tool that she designed that asks a variety of questions is just as reliable as a lab test.
Dr. Charles Gant, of the Academy of Functional Medicine, tells us that the level of neurotransmitters in the blood or urine tell us nothing about what is going on in the brain. He recommends testing for the neurotransmitter precursors (aminos, b vitamins, minerals and fatty acids) and neurotransmitter metabolites through an Organic Acids test an Amino Acid Plasma and an RBC mineral test. However, he also uses a written questionnaire that he designed as a screening tool as well. If you have the funds, I recommend testing all the precursors and metabolites. If not, then the screening tool will be beneficial.
Taking too much of amino acid or supplement when you don’t need it can put the neurotransmitters further out of balance and create new problems. So exercise caution with supplementation. And lab tests or screening tests should always be used as a guide and not a God.
Additionally, amino acids must be accompanied by their vitamin and mineral co-factors or they are ineffective. So, for example, if you are deficient in vitamin B6, which is needed to make the conversion from tryptophan to serotonin, then tryptophan by itself will not be effective. Knowing which neurotransmitters are out of balance is also important because they work together and sometimes one is the precursor to another.
It’s also really crucial to know what your goals are, because even amino acids and herbs can be counterproductive if you don’t know what you’re trying to address. If you’re trying to decrease levels of norepinephrine and increase serotonin at the same time then some supplements are not the best choice.
For example, St. John’s Wort is a popular herb used to treat depression, however it is not good for someone with excessively high levels of norepinephrine, because it also increases norepinephrine. Melatonin which is often used to help people sleep will also increase norepinephrine levels and tyrosine will also increase norepinephrine, so anyone with high levels of norepinephrine would not want to take these products. So if you try to address a depression problem and aren’t aware you have high levels of norepinephrine as well, then the product you take could be counterproductive and exacerbate some of your symptoms.
Dosage is important as well. The amount of particular nutrients needed varies from person to person depending on biochemistry. Taking an amino acid supplement from the health food store without some guidance from a professional may not have the correct dosage or combination of nutrients needed for your body.
I cannot stress enough, how important it is to work with a knowledgeable healthcare provider anytime you take a product like Sam-e, 5-HTP, St. John’s Wort or any amino acid, herbal or nutritional formula that manipulates neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are a very complex issue with many variables to take into account.
PLEASE NOTE: Manipulating neurotransmitters, whether it is by natural means or pharmaceutical drugs, is serious business. Not everyone responds to nutritional therapy in the same manner and negative effects are possible. In my opinion, amino acid therapy should only be done under the supervision of a knowledgeable health care provider with a high level of expertise in neurotransmitter therapy. Be sure to communicate all changes in mood, behavior and physical functioning. Always inform friends and family members anytime you begin a new treatment method, so they can watch for changes in mood or behavior that you may not be aware of because of altered perception.
Contact Me Today to Support Neurotransmitter Function
The bottom line is that neurotransmitter function is a critical factor to address when we are optimizing our health, regardless of what health condition we are dealing with. Contact me today and we can work together to encourage good brain health with proper diet and lifestyle changes.