Have you ever wondered if there is a biochemical reason for the way you feel or the kinds of health problems you experience?
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the nervous system; they include serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine (noradrenaline), acetylcholine, glutamate, and gamma-aminobutyric acid a.k.a. GABA. There are over 100 different kinds of neurotransmitters in your nervous system that relay signals between nerve cells and other parts of the body.
A Balancing Act: Excitatory vs. Inhibitory Neurotransmitters
Each neurotransmitter has a unique set of functions, which work with and against one another in an intricate fashion. Researchers have linked certain neurotransmitter abnormalities (deficiencies, excesses, and relative imbalances) to a variety of conditions / illnesses and sets of symptoms. These include mood disorders like anxiety, depression, and bi-polar disorder as well as weight issues, migraines, insomnia, hormonal imbalances, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), fibromyalgia, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s), Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and countless others.
Fortunately, there are many ways you can impact neurotransmitter function: dietary choices, herbs, supplemental nutrients, pharmaceuticals, and lifestyle habits.
Your brain is a master recycler and “upcycler”, it can transform an excitatory neurotransmitter like glutamate into an inhibitory one like GABA and synthesize norepinephrine (excitatory) from dopamine, which can function as both an excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitter. Further, serotonin (inhibitory) is a precursor to melatonin, a neurotransmitter-like hormone synonymous with sleep. Seven major neurotransmitters do almost all the work. Histamine is amongst them but was excluded from the list below because of its distinctive role in mediating the inflammatory response and allergic reactions. However, it does play a lesser-known role in metabolism, temperature control, hormone regulation, and the sleep-wake cycle, amongst other functions too. Symptoms of a deficiency of one neurotransmitter may mimic or overlap with an excess pattern of another.
The Top 6 Brain Neurotransmitters
- Role / Function: chief neurotransmitter of the parasympathetic nervous system – activates smooth muscle contractions and glandular secretions, dilates most blood vessels (exception: bronchoconstriction), slows heart rate, regulates sleep cycle, arousal, learning (neuroplasticity, brain speed), directs attention and memory
- Signs of deficiency: dry mouths, issues with urination, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, myasthenia gravis, eye disorders, poor recall, slow response time, difficulty with memory, focus, cognition, ASD
- Boosters: amino acids (carnitine, taurine), herbs (ginkgo, Korean ginseng, Chinese club moss extract (huperzine)), vitamins (thiamine (B1), pantothenic acid (B5), cobalamin (B12)), phospholipids (phosphatidylserine, phosphatidylcholine, choline), essential fatty acids (DHA)
- Norepinephrine (Noradrenaline):
- Role / Function: chief neurotransmitter of the sympathetic nervous system – stress response (mobilizes body for action), alertness / vigilance, arousal, reduces glandular secretions, constricts blood vessels (increase blood pressure), increases heart rate, liver function
- Signs of deficiency: adrenal dysfunction / burnout, heart problems, exercise intolerance, difficulty waking in the morning, atypical depression (fatigue, sleepiness, increased appetite, lethargy, apathy)
- Boosters: amino acids (phenylalanine, tyrosine, SAMe), herbs (licorice, Siberian or Korean ginseng, cordyceps, rhodiola, ashwagandha, nettles), minerals (vitamin C), bio-identical neuro-hormones (DHEA, cortisol), foods (meat, fish, dairy products, beans / legumes, nuts, whole grains, brightly coloured fruits and vegetables (for bioflavonoids))
- Role / Function: aids sleep, relaxation / calmness, regulates anxiety, muscle function / activity, early development / learning
- Signs of deficiency: insomnia, anxiety, panic, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, chronic stress, depression, irritability, fibromyalgia, muscle pain, headaches, epilepsy, seizures, ASD
- Boosters: amino acids (glutamic acid, L-theanine, taurine, inositol), herbs (valerian, passionflower, ashwagandha, magnolia bark), vitamins (thiamine (B1), niacinamide (B3), pyridoxine (B6)), bio-identical neuro-hormones (PharmaGABA, melatonin, glutamic acid, progesterone), carbohydrates (inositol), food (tea (source of theanine), milk peptides (source of Lactium))
- Role / Function: sleep onset and REM sleep as well as wakefulness, appetite, digestion, arousal, mood (especially depression), memory, decision-making, constriction of blood vessels
- Signs of deficiency: insomnia, poor appetite, low libido, low self-esteem, anxiety, panic, depression, bi-polar disorder, irritability, aggression, delusional thinking, psychosis, impulsive behaviour, thyroid dysfunction (low TSH)
- Boosters: amino acids (5-HTP, tryptophan, SAMe, L-theanine), herbs (passionflower, St. John’s wort), vitamins (pyridoxine (B6)), minerals (calcium, magnesium, zinc), bio-identical neuro-hormones (melatonin), essential fatty acids (DHA + EPA)
- Role / Function: mood, pleasure, reward / motivation / reinforcement, decision-making, control of complex movements and coordination, attention, working memory, learning, raises TSH
- Signs of deficiency: low motivation, mood swings, anger, fear, psychosis, depression (lack of pleasure, brain fog), ADHD, Parkinson’s disease / Parkinsonism (tremor, slow movement, muscle stiffness, impaired speech), muscle cramps / spasms, loss of balance, constipation, low energy, weight issues, GERD, difficulty swallowing
- Boosters: amino acids (phenylalanine, tyrosine, methionine, L-theanine), herbs (rhodiola, ginkgo), vitamins (B complex, pyridoxine (vit B6)), phospholipids (phosphatidylserine)
- Role / Function: dominant excitatory neurotransmitter and most common neurotransmitter in the brain (by far), learning, memory, perception
- Signs of deficiency: concentration problems, mental exhaustion, low energy, CFS, thyroid dysfunction, insomnia, coma, psychosis, schizophrenia
- Boosters: amino acids (glutamic acid, L-glutamine), carbohydrate (glucose), food (caffeine, meat, fish, eggs, oysters, flavour-enhancers, wheat / gluten, soy sauce, dairy and aged cheeses, peanuts, tomatoes, potatoes, mushrooms)
So, You Think You May Have an Imbalance: To Test or Not to Test?
By taking inventory of your neurotransmitter levels, you can help identify any underlying neurochemical imbalances that are affecting your health. Most neurotransmitter kits analyze urine samples; while results have shown correlation with neurological conditions, it does not confirm the cause. Further, experts like Dr. David Perlmutter, MD believe that it is a bit of a stretch to assume that a urine catch would accurately reflect brain levels (let alone activity). Another option is doing a neurotransmitter questionnaire like The Braverman Personality Type Assessment, a free online evaluation of four important brain chemicals: acetylcholine, serotonin, GABA, and dopamine. In Dr. Braverman’s test, you will answer a series of true and false questions about your memory and attention, physical traits, character, and personality to approximate your dominant neurotransmitter “nature” and screen for any deficiencies. Further, suggestions of specific amounts of nutrients and herbs to take in order to create more balance are provided. Before taking any new supplements, always check with a qualified healthcare provider to ensure safety and efficacy of treatment. The Braverman Test is meant to be fun and informative but cannot take the place of a clinical assessment.
Optimal health and function rely on balanced neurotransmitter release and reuptake in the synaptic cleft (junction between nerve cells). The chemical messages cannot be relayed if there are insufficient amounts of neurotransmitters available and the effects can be far-reaching and diverse.