Moods swings, and some serious forms of depression, can be caused by neurotransmitter abnormalities. This can result from either too much, too little or the absence of a neurotransmitter being made and released in the brain. Here, I will discuss some common neurotransmitter abnormalities related to mood.
The main neurotransmitters that affect mood disorders
There are four major neurotransmitters that affect mood disorders: serotonin, dopamine, GABA and norepinephrine.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is important for regulating sleep, aggression, eating, sexual behavior, as well as mood. Serotonin imbalance is the most common denominator of mood disorders. It is necessary for happiness and a positive attitude. A decrease in serotonin production can cause depression and host of symptoms such as low self-esteem, anxiety, insomnia binge eating, carbohydrate cravings, digestive disorders, low libido, negativity and hyper-vigilance.
Dopamine increases motivation and focus and gives feelings of pleasure and reward. Symptoms of low dopamine levels are apathy, inability to experience pleasure, low energy, low motivation and low libido.
GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which means that it can inhibit overactive brain activity to get you into “relaxation” mode. Without GABA, the brain stays in an overactive state which leads to stress and overwhelm. Other symptoms of GABA depletion are feeling overstimulated, easily stressed, lying awake with racing thoughts, feeling dread for no reason, heart palpitations, cold hands and shortness of breath. GABA deficiency is also correlated with anxiety and panic attacks, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s disease.
Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter (and neurohormone) that stimulates the “fight or flight” response in stress, which increases blood pressure and heart rate and releases glucose into the blood (giving off a boost of energy). Symptoms of low norepinephrine are lethargy, brain fog, lack of passion, fatigue, depression, bipolar disorder, migraines, fibromyalgia and Alzheimer’s disease. High norepinephrine can cause panic attacks, insomnia and anxiety.
Causes of neurotransmitter dysfunctions
Neurotransmitter dysfunction can be caused by various lifestyle and biological factors:
Overexposure to stress
Not enough or the right proteins, vitamins and minerals required to make neurotransmitters ingested through diet
Genetic predisposition, digestive and metabolism problems
Toxic chemicals (heavy metals, pesticides and drugs) that destroy nerves
Caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, NutraSweet, antidepressants, and cholesterol lowering medications that lower neurotransmitter levels
Changes in hormone levels
How to get diagnosed
Treatment for neurotransmitter imbalances will likely not be effective unless they are targeted at the specific neurotransmitter. Diagnosing which neurotransmitters are depleted will help the treatment to correct the imbalance. Looking at all the symptoms for each neurotransmitter should help identify where the imbalance lies.
Balance neurotransmitters naturally
Since diet often modifies neurotransmitter activity, many neurotransmitter dysfunctions can be managed through healthy nutrition. Serotonin can be boosted by taking tryptophan supplements and eating carbohydrates by themselves, which allows tryptophan (from protein, already eaten and digested) to be released into the brain. Tryptophan is the precursor of serotonin. Without it, serotonin cannot be made. Other supplements for boosting serotonin are B complex vitamins, curcumin, L-theanine, magnesium, omega-3 essential fatty acids, Rhodiola rosea and SAM-e.
Foods that increase dopamine besides animal food products include apples, avocados, beets, chocolate, green leafy vegetables, nuts, oatmeal and seeds. If your prefer an easier and fuss-free way to increase your dopamine levels, supplements like L-tyrosine, citicoline, curcumin, Mucuna pruriens, phosphatidylserine and Ginkgo biloba also increase dopamine. For herb lovers, Bacopa monnieri is a herb that can increase or decrease dopamine levels, depending on the need.
Healthy foods that increase GABA are barley, beans, brown rice, chestnuts, corn, kale, potatoes, spinach, sprouted grains, sweet potatoes and yams. Other foods that increase GABA are fermented foods such as unpasteurized yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and miso. Supplements that increase GABA are taurine, lactobacillus rhamnosus, magnesium, L-theanine and kava. Make sure to incorporate exercise into your daily routine as it also increases GABA, especially yoga.
Norepinephrine can be increased naturally through animal food products, bananas, beans and legumes, cheese, chicken, chocolate, eggs, seafood and oatmeal. Supplements that enhance norepinephrine are L-tyrosine, phenylalanine, L-carnitine, arctic root, velvet bean and Asian ginseng. Exercise always increases norepinephrine. If you need to lower norepinephrine levels, you can try taking 5-HTP, melatonin or baking soda.
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