June is Alzheimer's & Brain Awareness Month
It is Alzheimer’s awareness month, and I am glad to see that those who continue to educate us about Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias have included brain awareness month in their title. We are learning more and more everyday about brain function and health. It is becoming clear that it is important at any stage in life to be aware of what a healthy brain is, and how to keep the neurological system of the body functioning well. I want to pass along some information on the role of the brain and the neurotransmitters in keeping the brain and the rest of the body systems communicating for whole system health.
What is the Role of Neurotransmitters?
Functioning primarily in the Central Nervous System neurotransmitters are the brain’s chemical messengers, facilitating communication among the body’s glands, organs, and muscles. Neurotransmitters work with receptors in the brain to influence and regulate a wide range of processes such as mental performance, emotions, pain response and energy levels. Numerous clinical studies have shown that inadequate neurotransmitter function has a profound influence on overall health and well-being. In fact, imbalances in certain neurotransmitters are associated with most of these prevalent symptoms and health conditions:
- Mood disorders; depression, anxiety
- Adrenal dysfunction; fatigue, insomnia
- Loss of mental focus; ADD, ADHD, cognitive fog
- Addiction and dependency
- Hormonal imbalances; E2 dominance, E2 deficiency, low androgens
- Loss of appetite control; insulin resistance
Why do we get imbalances?
Adrenal hormones, sex hormones, and neurotransmitters are functionally interrelated. Changes in sex hormones and adrenal hormones can lead to neurotransmitter imbalances. And at the same time, neurotransmitter imbalances will affect hormone production and function. Everything from aging to chronic stress contributes to body imbalances.
Bioactive substances like caffeine, alcohol and nicotine can, over time, compound these imbalances. Even many of the medications used to manage these conditions as well as some cholesterol lowering medications actually end up creating more imbalances. These substances and medications can suppress or artificially stimulate neurotransmitter receptor function contributing to neurotransmitter depletion and resulting symptoms.
Expression of the following symptoms can indicate neurotransmitter imbalances
- Depressed mood
- Poor sleep
- Loss of mental focus
- Addiction or dependency
- Loss of appetite control
- Compulsive behavior
- Low libido
- Sexual dysfunction
The Key Neurotransmitters
Below is an overview of six important neurotransmitters and their respective roles in various symptomatic conditions. When functioning properly the neurotransmission system has natural checks and balances in the form of excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters.
SEROTONIN is a key neurotransmitter that is involved in the regulation of sleep, appetite and aggression. Serotonin imbalance is a common contributor to mood problems, and pharmacologic agents that alter serotonin levels are among the most commonly used class of drugs prescribed for anxiety and depression. High stress, insufficient nutrients, fluctuating hormones and the use of stimulant medications or caffeine can all contribute to the depletion of serotonin over time. When serotonin is out of range, depression, anxiety, worry, obsessive thoughts and behaviors, carbohydrate cravings, PMS, difficulty with pain control, and sleep cycle disturbances can result.
GABA is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter and, as such, is important for balancing excitatory action of other neurotransmitters. High levels of GABA may be a result of excitatory overload, or a compensatory mechanism to balance the surplus excitatory neurotransmitter activity. These high levels result in a ‘calming’ action that may contribute to sluggish energy, feelings of sedation, and foggy thinking. Low GABA levels are associated with dysregulation of the adrenal stress response. Without the inhibiting function of GABA, impulsive behaviors are often poorly controlled, contributing to a range of anxious or reactive symptoms that extend from poor impulse control to seizure disorders. Alcohol as well as benzodiazepine drugs act on GABA receptors and imitate the effects of GABA. Though these substances don’t cause an increase in GABA levels, understanding their mechanism can give us additional insight into the effects of GABA.
DOPAMINE is largely responsible for regulating the pleasure reward pathway, memory and motor control. Its function creates both inhibitory and excitatory action depending on the receptor it binds to. Memory issues are common with both elevations and depressions in dopamine levels. Caffeine and other stimulants, such as medications for ADD/ADHD, often improve focus by increasing dopamine release, although continual stimulation of this release can deplete dopamine over time. Common symptoms associated with low dopamine levels include loss of motor control, cravings, compulsions, loss of satisfaction and addictive behaviors including: drug and alcohol use, smoking cigarettes, gambling, and overeating. These actions often result from an unconscious attempt to self-medicate, looking for the satisfaction that is not occurring naturally in the body. High dopamine levels may contribute to hyperactivity or anxiety and may also be related to autism, mood swings, psychosis, and attention disorders. L-DOPA is a precursor to dopamine, and is used therapeutically for low dopamine conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.
NOREPINEPHRINE, or noradrenaline, is an excitatory neurotransmitter and a stress hormone. Norepinephrine is involved in a wide variety of actions including attention, focus, regulating heart rate, affecting blood flow, and suppressing inflammation. Involved in arousal, it prepares the body for action by relaying messages in the sympathetic nervous system as part of the autonomic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response. High levels of norepinephrine are often linked to anxiety, stress, elevated blood pressure, and hyperactivity, whereas low levels are associated with lack of energy, focus, and motivation.
EPINEPHRINE, often better known as adrenaline, is synthesized from norepinephrine. Much like norepinephrine, this excitatory neurotransmitter helps regulate muscle contraction, heart rate, glycogen breakdown, blood pressure and more, and is heavily involved in a stress response. Elevated levels of epinephrine are often associated with hyperactivity, ADHD, anxiety, sleep issues, and low adrenal function. Over time, chronic stress and stimulation can deplete epinephrine stores leading to difficulty concentrating, fatigue, depression, insufficient cortisol production, chronic stress, poor recovery from illness, dizziness and more.
GLUTAMATE is an excitatory neurotransmitter and is considered to be the most abundant neurotransmitter in the nervous system. Glutamate is involved in most aspects of normal brain function including cognition, memory and learning, although high levels of glutamate can cause nerve cells are damaged by excessive stimulation. Elevated glutamate levels are commonly associated with panic attacks, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, OCD and depression, whereas low glutamate levels may result in agitation, memory loss, sleeplessness, low energy levels and depression.
What can be done for Neurotransmitter Imbalances?
Neuroendocrine imbalances can be corrected with nutraceuticals (medical grade supplements), BHRT (bio-identical hormone replacement), as well as diet and lifestyle modifications. Much of the diagnosis can be done with the hormone panels provided by saliva testing as well as the patient’s reporting of symptoms. However, including neurotransmitters tests in the diagnosis provides an even more comprehensive view of the body’s functional neuroendocrine status, its interrelationship, and the associated factors that may be contributing to symptoms. Identifying and managing neurotransmitter imbalances are facilitated with a noninvasive urinary test.