There are numerous chemicals found in our brains called neurotransmitters. Neurons are nerve centers which communicate with one another. Our mood, behavior, emotions, sleep, focus and attention, are all controlled by these neurotransmitters. These chemicals are tightly regulated and require an array of vitamins and minerals in order to be manufactured. When imbalanced, and when a person has malnutrition, these neurons are unable to communicate. The results of this imbalance may include depression, anxiety/panic, insomnia (sleep disorder), ADD/ADHD, alcoholism, addictions (drugs, sugar, and caffeine), mood swings and personality disorders.
Included in the list of the major neurotransmitters are serotonin, dopamine, nor epinephrine, epinephrine, GABA, and glutamate.
Serotonin is most familiar to us because most common and popular anti-depressants are based on affecting serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is derived from an amino-acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan, an amino acid is found in protein such as warm milk and turkey. It plays a role in mood, libido, appetite, sleep, memory and learning, temperature regulation, vasoconstriction (circulation) and others. Even though there is circulating serotonin in the brain, it is interesting to note that 80% of serotonin is found in the digestive tract. Blood levels of serotonin are typically low in depressed people. There may be a correlation with Alzheimer’s disease and low levels of serotonin. Increasing levels of serotonin is possible naturally by taking supplements. Serotonin direct precursor is 5-HTP, and both 5-HTP and tryptophan help increase good mood and aid in anti-anxiety and insomnia. L-theanine derived from green tea also increases brain serotonin as well as dopamine and GABA.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is increased in the brain with any sensation of pleasure whether physical, mental or chemical. Dopamine affects voluntary movement, behavior, cognition, sleep and dreaming, mood, attention and learning and memory. A person low in dopamine may experience depression, less motor control, cravings, compulsions, addictions, loss of satisfaction, poor attention and focus and low libido. Decreased dopamine activity is also found in restless leg syndrome and ADHD. The primary illness associated with dopamine imbalance is Parkinson’s disease, where there is a loss of dopamine-secreting cells in the brain. A person with diminished dopamine levels will seek out ways to raise their levels such as dare-devil acts, bing eating, drugs etc. dopamine levels can be raised with natural supplementation of l-theanine, l-tyrosine, adequate intake of copper and folate, and involvement in healthy balanced pleasurable activities.
Norepinephrine (along with epinephrine) is a “stress” hormone. It increases heart rate, glucose release and blood supply to the muscles and brain, among other things. It also induces alertness, arousal, and plays a role in the reward system. Low levels contribute to conditions such as ADHD, depression, schizophrenia and hypotension (low blood pressure). Loss of nor epinephrine-releasing neurons is indicated as part of Alzheimer’s disease. Balanced nutrition, exercise, and stress management are helpful in maintaining proper levels of this neurotransmitter.
Epinephrine is also known as adrenaline, is produced both in the brain and the adrenal glands. It is secreted into the blood stream when one has a scare or otherwise stressful experience. It is known as the “flight or flight” hormone (and neurotransmitter). It increases blood sugar levels and fatty acids when extra energy is needed. States of anxiety, stress, and worry, especially chronically, increase epinephrine levels. When this chemical and cortisol is called for frequently the body becomes fatigued and imbalanced. A result is that even small stresses are perceived as large ones. This “catch 22” then leads to further breakdown and exhaustion and weakened immune system. Again, exercise, stress reduction, yoga, and adrenal supporting supplements are helpful.
GABA is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. In other words it calms down excitable brain activity. This is especially useful for those who can’t fall asleep. GABA levels are reduced up to 30% in people from insomnia for 6 months or more. It is also reduced in major depression and anxiety disorders. Using glutamate as in MSG interferes with GABA.
In conclusion, though millions of prescriptions for SSRI meds such as Zoloft and Paxil are written daily for anxiety, depression and sleep disorders, using natural supplements such as 5-HTP, tryptophan, SAMe, theanine and GABA may have similar results without side effects and addiction. Balancing the hormone system especially the adrenal function with supplements and stress reduction techniques is also very useful.