If I had to pick a favorite subject, or system when it comes to human health, I’d have to go with neurotransmitters and brain function. Of course I don’t focus on neurochemistry in isolation and that’s where that whole holistic health thing comes in. “Holistic- characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.” Thanks M’ Dubs’! (Does calling Merriam-Webster “M’ Dubs’” count as a proper citation?)
In order to thoroughly cover this topic, I’ll try to really focus on the key points without going on a tangent into other systems, but let me just start by pointing out that addressing neurotransmitters in isolation would kinda’ be like cutting the grass while the house is on fire. Nothing should be treated in isolation.
I feel like that last sentence alone should be the new mantra of our medical system…sighhhhh maybe someday.
So why neurotransmitters and brain chemistry? What makes these little molecules so powerful and fascinating? Why should you care?
Pretty simple and amazingly powerful. Without getting back on my soap box for an emotional tangent, let me simply re-iterate that I believe most of us are simply wanting to get the most out of the one life we’re given. Or at least that’s my attitude. Whether you’re working out six days a week to “lose thirty pounds”, juicing raw veggies for hours on end to “detox”, or purchasing a timeshare in Hawaii…I would bet it’s because you think those ventures will lead to a higher quality of life.
If you’re not sure, try doing the 5 why’s exercise really quick. Ask yourself “why am I doing what I’m doing” and keep asking yourself “why” to each of your responses until you get five layers deep. Example: “Why am I working out at 5 am five days a week? Because I want to lose thirty pounds. Why do I want to lose thirty pounds? Because a lot of my favorite clothes don’t fit anymore and I don’t want to have to shop for larger sizes. Why don’t I want to shop for larger clothes? Because I’d feel…”. I think you get the idea. By the time you get to the fourth or fifth level, you might be feeling some heavy stuff. I love this exercise when I’m starting with a new client, although I’ll usually stop at three “why’s” in a consult because people tend to get uncomfortable when a stranger digs into their soul.
Okay, back on track with these neuro-hormone things!
We all know the brain is the master control center of the human body, so it only makes sense that brain activity and chemistry is one of the most powerful factors on overall health. I think what fires me up so much about this topic is the fact that WE HAVE A LOT MORE CONTROL OVER IT THAN MOST REALIZE! Also, with psychiatric medications being dispensed like Halloween candy and a society that centers around stimulation and quick fixes…we’ve found ourselves in a mental health crisis.
I truly despise the “political” side of health. I’m not really a fan of most man made systems in the first place, but when it comes to the health of our species I don’t understand why common sense doesn’t prevail. I think it has something to do with money, but I dunno’. Insert sarcastic meme here.
Now let me be clear that I’m not a tree hugging, narrow minded, “pick a side” individual that believes that all pharmaceuticals are bad, or the system is out to get us. I don’t see black and white in this multi-shades of gray world we live in. (I swear I wasn’t trying to make a pun there so I don’t think I should lose my man card for that un-intended reference.)
Where were we? Oh yeah, politics and health. Yeah! I’m not about that life, hence why I’m an independent practitioner. I believe in common sense. I believe in nature. I believe in scientific investigation. I believe in morals and goodness. If you like the other stuff, or aren’t sure what I’m talking about, I’d highly recommend watching the documentaries Fed Up, Prescription Thugs, and Fat Head. Especially Prescription Thugs in relation to the subject of this article.
How many of you have ever been on a psychiatric medication before? How many of you know someone personally that is, or has been on a psychiatric medication before? How many of you have struggled to come off these drugs? How many of you have experienced negative side effects in relation to these drugs?
Let me again re-iterate that I’m not anti-western medicine, or pharmaceuticals. Just because I’m a holistic health professional doesn’t mean I’m biased to one methodology. I think western medicine and pharmaceuticals are amazing! I mean let’s be real here. Without the technological advancements in these fields I’m pretty dang sure our life span would be much shorter than it is. We truly can thank these advanced medical treatment options for saving countless lives and improving the quality of life for countless ill individuals. I truly and sincerely mean this.
The issue that I have is how quickly drugs get dispensed without any investigation, education, or other suggestion. To keep this focused on the subject at hand, do I think psychiatric medications are purely evil? No. I do not. I believe they can serve a valuable purpose in very ill and/or unstable individuals.
What I’m referring to is when a 9-year-old that’s pumped up on high fructose corn syrup, fake food, asked to sit and pay attention for 7 hours a day inside away from fresh air and sunlight, is put on Ritalin for ADD…without any testing, investigation, or other recommendations and education.
What I’m referring to is when a woman presenting many symptoms and likely has multiple imbalanced hormones is put on Zoloft as soon as she mentions feeling depressed, without any further investigation.
What I’m referring to is the 17-year-old being prescribed Xanax because he’s anxious about his post-graduation plans.
I don’t necessarily blame the professionals as much as I blame the system and the amount of pressure is being placed on the professionals. Do these health professionals have the time to sit there and do a thorough intake and investigation? Do they have time to educate the patient on all the many factors that they could work on to improve and alleviate their symptoms? I’m not an MD so I don’t know. What I do know from experience is that most run in and out of patient rooms like a turkey with its head cut off. A mumbled referral here, a quick Rx there, and on to the next.
I’m not going to sit here and whine and moan that the system is evil. Do I think there is corruption in the Pharma-Medical-Insurance triage? Absolutely. Do I think that’s an excuse for individuals to be un-educated and whiny? Absolutely not!
You absolutely have to be your own health advocate at the end of the day! It is your own dayum’ responsibility to take ownership and responsibility for your health! If you’re reading this, then you are doing just that! Go ahead and give yourself a high five for being proactive and awesome, you life-dominator you!
This giant mess of a system is exactly why there are thousands of thousands of alternative health minded professionals out there trying to educate and empower you! This is why I’m up at 5 am on Sunday of Labor Day weekend cranking out this heart-felt article!
The problem with psychiatric medications:
As I said above, I do believe that psychiatric drugs can be extremely helpful in cases where an individual is very unstable. They can indeed help someone “get over the hump” or get through a really rough point. The problem is that it’s all too often that once the Rx is dispensed there isn’t much else to it. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to hand out a prescription for any of these mind-altering substances. Heck, you don’t even have to refer them to a psychiatrist.
It’s one thing if a patient undergoes thorough psychiatric testing and is working closely with a psychiatrist and clinical psychologist to manage mental and mood disorders. It’s another thing entirely to get handed an Rx from your family physician as a Band-Aid for your symptoms before your sent on your merry way.
Outside of severe cases in which there truly is a diagnosable mood disorder that is being closely treated and supervised by a trained clinician, I personally do not believe these drugs should be given out at all. There are simply far too many lifestyle factors, that if sub-optimal can result in depression or other mood related symptoms, whether it be something simple like candida overgrowth, hormone imbalances, nutrient deficiencies, or heck, just a lack of dang movement and sleep!
Another problem with these neural drugs is that their benefits can be intense, inconsistent, and short lived! Depending on which neural pathways and chemicals the drug is acting upon, they may be able to stimulate the release of certain neurotransmitters. They may be able to block the re-uptake of certain neurotransmitters to give them a bigger chance to exert their effects. But the one thing they can’t do is make the neurotransmitters or replace them to begin with. These drugs alter the way your brain’s neurons are naturally designed to function temporarily to enhance the effects of targeted neurotransmitters…but that means you still have to be producing adequate levels of the neurotransmitters in the first place!!!! This is why many times someone might initially feel better if they’re put on a drug that is compatible with their brain chemistry, only to then have their symptoms return soon after. Just like the gasoline in your car, at some point you have to re-fill the dang tank! Replenishing neuro-hormones, or really any biochemical substance in the body, requires…NUTRIENTS! Whadddya’ know?!
Yet another issue with the manner in which these drugs typically get prescribed is that they each target different pathways and enhance the effects of different neurotransmitters. Some of the mechanisms of action are understood, while some of the drug’s effects are not well understood. I find that relatively disturbing personally. The thing that most of us, unless you study neuroscience for fun like a nerd as I do, don’t realize is that without a thorough investigation it’s a total crap shoot as to what neurotransmitter is causing your symptoms. That’s assuming that it’s an issue with neurotransmitters at all and not another physiological issue entirely (more info below).
First of all, we all have different genetic variances that influence the rate at which each neurotransmitter is produced and metabolized. Some of us are more inclined to produce higher levels of dopamine and might be more “type A” personalities, while others might be more suited with higher levels of GABA and might seem more chill and go with the flow type of people. The balance of all of these neural chemicals is perhaps the most powerful factor in how you feel mentally. By simply throwing an SSRI at someone that reports symptoms of depression, you are essentially giving them a big boost in serotonin effects. Maybe you get lucky and they respond well and it just so happens that serotonin was the issue, but if the problem was, let’s say low dopamine and their dopamine to serotonin ratio was off, then you might have just made the problem worse! It’d kinda’ be like giving a women estradiol when in reality it’s their progesterone that is the issue. Do estrogen and progesterone work together to regulate a woman’s hormone cycle? Yes, but although estrogen and progesterone might work together to create certain effects, they are inherently two different molecules with two different effects and must be in proper balance with one another. The same thing goes with your neuro-hormones.
I’ve actually written multiple articles on this subject already, so feel free to check out the following for more info:
(A snapshot of the biopterin pathway which is where many neurotransmitters are produced. Each circle represents a gene and corresponding enzyme. As you can see the biochemistry can get very complex and altered by many physiological factors.)
To keep it brief, neuro-transmitters are amino acid (constituents of protein) derived signaling molecules. Just like other hormones, these neuro-hormones can have different effects on different tissues. Example: Melatonin helps regulate our sleep cycle in the brain, but also regulates peristalsis and gut transit time in the gastrointestinal tract. In order to be considered a neurotransmitter, a chemical must be produced within a neuron (brain cell) or by an enzyme produced in a neuron. The chemical is released by a neuron into the synaptic cleft and triggers either an excitatory or inhibitory response in the next neuron. These chemical signals control our body’s autonomic nervous system to promote either a sympathetic response (“fight or flight”), or a parasympathetic response (“rest and digest”).
Our bodies would really just be clumps of trillions of cells if it wasn’t for signaling molecules (hormones), and it is our neurotransmitters that react to sensory intake through our environment. Although this subject is infinitely complex and we’re still learning the complex synchrony of it all, there are many things that we do know through scientific research, clinical experience, and anecdotal evidence when it comes to what we can do to influence neurotransmitter balance to restore health.
What can cause neurotransmitter imbalances in the first place?
Nutrition- this one should be pretty obvious. “You are what you eat”, or really you are what you eat, can digest, and can assimilate. If you aren’t consuming the nutrients (amino acids, vitamins, minerals etc.) that a certain neurotransmitter is produced from…what happens?
Digestion- as I said above, putting the right foods in your face isn’t enough. You must be able to properly digest and absorb those nutrients. If you don’t have a gall bladder, have an array of mal-digestion symptoms etc., you probably aren’t properly digesting those precious nutrients.
Absorption-once digested, food particles have to be absorbed through the brush border barrier to enter the body. Parasites, bacterial infections, fungal overgrowth, dysbiosis, leaky gut and more will all prevent proper entry of nutrients into the body.
Assimilation- this is where genetics really comes into play. Your genetic code determines the enzymes your body produces to make all chemical reactions possible. It is these enzymes that control how the nutrients you ingest are used. There are many key genes that can have dramatic implications on your ability to produce different chemicals and neurotransmitters in the body. A few of the more well understood genetic mutations are:
-MTHFR: a mutation in this gene can have a major impact on your ability to properly synthesize and metabolize many neurotransmitters, amongst many other things.
-COMT: this gene metabolizes catechols and catechol based hormones, such as epinephrine and nor-epinephrine.
-MAO: this gene regulates the breakdown of amine based neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine.
-TPH: tryptophan hydroxylase is the enzyme that converts the amino acid tryptophan into 5-htp, which is the direct precursor to serotonin and subsequently melatonin. It’s not as well known, but is one that I have spent more time on in my own research.
Exercise and Movement- supplying your cells with the right nutrients is only part of the equation. You still have to give your body the stimulus and reason to produce substances. If you live a stagnant life, you will have stagnant biochemistry.
SUNLIGHT- this is not talked about nearly enough! Sunlight is the MAIN BIOLOGIC REGULATING MECHANISM! Without proper amounts of UV and IR light, we cannot properly synthesize (create) or metabolize (break down) neurotransmitters. It’s not just about Vitamin D people! We aren’t a cave dwelling species and yet we spend most of our lives inside. I’ve discussed the effects of light on brain function in other articles, but the mechanisms of sunlight affecting brain chemistry (particularly infrared and ultra violet) will be covered more thoroughly in future articles.
Other Hormone Imbalances- systems of the body don’t go out of whack in isolation. If there is a neurotransmitter imbalance, there will very likely be another hormone imbalance, whether it be thyroid, adrenal, gonad, or other endocrine gland, related. This is why we must treat the body in whole. At times it can feel like the “chicken or the egg” as far as where the dysfunction began.
Environmental Toxins- heavy metals, cosmetics, car exhaust, cleaning products, and tap water are just a few different sources of toxins that we absorb through our environmental exposure. Many of these chemicals wreak havoc in the body and require a great deal of energy and nutrient to properly eradicate. This adds even more burden on the already stressed body.
Emotional Trauma/Stress- perhaps one of the more obvious factors causing NT depletion. When enduring emotional stress or trauma, there is a higher demand for neurotransmitters, especially excitatory, as a HPA axis stress response is invoked.
Physical Trauma/Stress: similar to emotional stress, nagging injuries or physical trauma creates a stress response to qualm inflammation. This can be something as simple as muscle imbalances due to poor posture, or something more severe, like a herniated disc.
Medications: obviously the afore-mentioned psychiatric drugs will alter NT metabolism. However, it’s not just the nootropic drugs that alter NT levels. Many common, over the counter drugs, or prescriptions can negatively impact gastrointestinal and liver function and in turn, affect brain chemistry.
Related Article: Stress is Everything
Symptoms of Neurotransmitter Imbalances:
Depression or other mood disorders
Anxiety or unfounded worrying/anxiousness
Sleep cycle issues
Focus or memory problems
Lethargy or chronic fatigue
Weight control issues
Inability to lose fat (especially in midsection)
Immune system problems and lack of resilience to disease
Migraine headaches or chronic pain
PMS/peri-menopausal or menopausal symptoms
And many more.
When to test
(My most recent NT test results. I had actually conducted a self-experiment with my supplement/nutrition protocol and used the test results to confirm my hypothesis. Success!)
If you, or someone you care for, has experienced one or more of the above symptoms persistently I urge you to take a deeper look. The human body is a complex organism and symptoms can often be related to many different factors, as described above. Outside of severe mood disorder situations, I firmly believe a Holistic Investigation is superior in neurotransmitter imbalances. I believe many of the psychiatric medications in use today are far too inconsistent and unpredictable in their effects leaving the patient reliant, confused, and still imbalanced.
I personally have had my own journey to health in this area, which is why I am so passionate on the topic. Throughout my life I have struggled with bouts of depression, chronic fatigue, lethargy, disordered eating, binge eating, anxiety, and more. I personally have been on Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Adderall, and Vyvanse, and through my own investigation and self-treatment have been able to not only come off all prescriptions, but also truly feel the best I have ever felt! I use regular lab testing and protocol monitoring to adjust as needed to stay at my peak! I literally have experienced more benefit from natural nutritional support (such as 5-htp) than with medications. I now have the pleasure of being able to assist others take control of their health as well!