Your nervous system looks roughly like a road map. Nerves carry information from the body to the brain and vice versa. The brain is composed of roughly 86 Billion neurons. Chemical messengers called neurotransmitters carry messages between neurons to help the brain receive the information, decide what it means and execute a reaction. Neurotransmitters are responsible for emotional regulation, pain perception, motivation, concentration, memory energy, libido and sleep.
For the purposes of this book, we will focus on the Big 6 Neurotransmitters:
- Excitatory: Dopamine, Norepinepherine, Glutamate
- Inhibitory: GABA, Serotonin
- Neuromodulator: Acetylcholine
Dopamine is your main pleasure chemical. When you do something that is beneficial to your existence, your body releases dopamine as a reward. It is kinda like when your parents gave you a chocolate chip cookie if you did something good. Dopamine is responsible for:
- Behavior and cognition
Problems associated with dopamine imbalance include:
- Cognitive control (racing thoughts)
- Attentional control
- Impulse control
- Working memory
Symptoms of excess
- Unnecessary movements, repetitive tics
Most antipsychotic drugs are dopamine antagonists, that is, they will reduce dopamine levels. Antipsychotic drugs are used for many things other than schizophrenia including mood stabilization, insomnia and nausea.
- Symptoms of insufficiency (no pleasure/reward)
- Reduction in emotional responses (Flat, apathetic, “blah”)
- Lack of motivation
- Diminished expressiveness (speech/socialization)
- Difficulty concentrating or poor memory
- Restless legs syndrome
Norepinepherine is an excitatory neurotransmitter that is implicated in preparing the body for the fight or flight reaction and increasing motivation and attention to the task at hand. Unfortunately, if the system stays stressed for too long, it self-adjusts to protect the body. It is like keeping your foot floored on the gas pedal while the car is in park. In the case of the care, eventually it would overhead and the engine block would crack (it would die.). Thankfully, your body senses ongoing excess stress and “turns down” the amount of energy being sent to fight or flee so you don’t end up like that poor car. The technical term for this is “underactivity of the stress response system,” which means things that used to get you excited or bothered don’t phase you anymore. This results in low energy, daytime fatigue, concentration/focus issues, and general apathy (kinda like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh).
Symptoms of Excess
- ADHD or problems with concentration
- Poor Sleep
Symptoms of insufficiency
- Loss of alertness
- Poor Memory]
GABA and Glutamate
Glutamate acts as an excitatory (get up and go) neurotransmitter.
GABA mainly serves as an anti-anxiety, calming agent and is made from the breakdown of glutamate.
There is always a balance of these two neurotransmitters… like making a warm bath, constantly adjusting the hot and cold
Symptoms of excess GABA
- Excess sleepiness
- Shallow breathing
- *Increased blood pressure
Symptoms of GABA insufficiency
- Anxiety, feeling dread for no particular reason
- Difficulty concentrating
- Seizure disorders
- racing thoughts
- Cold hands
- Heart palpitations and shortness of breath
Symptoms of excess glutamate
- Excess adrenal function
Symptoms of glutamate insufficiency
- Memory loss
- Low energy level
- Insufficient adrenal function
Serotonin is most often thought of as the neurotransmitter “responsible” for depression. This could not be further from the truth. Serotonin does help regulate
- Sleep patterns
- Pain perception
Symptoms of excess
- Apathy, Emotional flatness or dullness
- Insomnia and other sleep problems
- Difficulty concentrating and learning
- Poor memory; amnesia
- Difficulty making decisions and acting on them
- Sexual dysfunction
- Pain sensitivity
- Insomnia (Serotonin is broken down into melatonin which cues the body to sleep.)
- Women are much more likely to experience mood disorders and carb cravings
- Men are more likely to be impulsive, have ADHD, and drink alcohol in excess.
Serotonin and other hormones
- Estrogen is needed to produce serotonin and serotonin is broken down into melatonin. (BMC Women's Health)
- Low serotonin and high testosterone levels lead to aggressive behavior. (Isr Med Assoc J. 2003 Sep;5(9):653-8.)
- Testosterone modulates serotonergic receptor activity in a way that directly affects aggression, fear and anxiety.
In lower amounts, ACh can act like a stimulant by releasing norepinephrine (NE) and dopamine (DA).
- Higher-order thought processes
- Sexual desire and activity
Symptoms of excess
- Depression (all symptoms)
- Mental Fatigue
- Impaired cognition, attention, and arousal
Symptoms of Insufficiency
- Lack of motivation
- Poor attention
As you can see all of these neurotransmitters are somehow involved with mood, motivation, libido, hunger, sleep, pain and attention/concentration. You can also see that depressive symptoms can be caused by a variety of things, not just low serotonin! Unfortunately, since neurotransmitters are found throughout the body, there is no way to effectively test the levels of the different neurotransmitters in your brain (which would make diagnosis and treatment SO much easier). On the next page there is a summary chart of the main neurotransmitters. Highlight any symptoms you are having and, as you go through the book, see if you can identify what the cause(s) are for you.
Aside from not being able to tell which neurochemicals are too low or too high another challenge is that all of these neurotransmitters like to stay in a particular balance. It is like making a good marinara sauce. You have to find the right proportions of garlic, onion, oregano, thyme, marjoram, fennel, basil and pepper. The same is true for neurotransmitters. For example, there is an inverse relationship between serotonin and acetylcholine, that is, as one goes up, the other goes down. You may have an imbalance of more than one neurotransmitter. And, just as there is more to a marinara sauce than spices, there is more to happiness and your nervous system than just the 6 neurotransmitters you learned about.
Stress hormones like cortisol and sex hormones like estrogen, progesterone and testosterone all impact the availability of serotonin. Likewise, your skin actually serves as a giant receptor telling your body about when it is time to be awake, to sleep, and via pain or pleasure whether to fight, flee or relax.
It is complicated, but the first step to true recovery is to get your body healthy so everything is as “balanced” as it can be. Only then can you get a good idea of whether there may be true neurotransmitter imbalance which requires medication, or whether the symptoms were caused by other factors which threw things out of whack. It is estimated that more than 80% of Americans have neurochemical imbalances due to lifestyle choices, poor nutrition and “stress.” The rest of this book will help you figure out how to best support your body and brain in being happy and healthy.
Cautionary Note: If you are suicidal or homicidal or severely depressed, do NOT use this book right now. Seek professional help. Once you are stable and feeling a bit better, you can start talking with your provider about how to incorporate some of this into your recovery routine.