The Brain Game - Balancing Neurotransmitters and Hormones
By Dr. Wendy Wells, NMD
Here's one of my favorite talks about how to improve our brain chemistry for healing depression, anxiety, ADHD, and insomnia. The presentation aims to provide a simple framework to help understand the complexities of brain chemistry. We'll also cover testing and treatments to easily diagnose, and re-balance our brain chemistry.
Use the menu below for easier page navigation:
- How the Brain Works
- Symptoms of Neurotransmitter Imbalance
- What Causes Imbalance?
- Resupply and Rebalance Neurotransmitters
- Treatment Options
- Important Points About Medications
Brain and Nerves Controls Behavior
The brain is the master controller of nervous system, using chemicals called neurotransmitters to "talk" with itself. Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers of the nervous system, made by nerve cells.
Hormones are chemicals secreted by endocrine glands, regulating the function of a specific tissue or organ. Some nerve cells also produce hormones.
What Do You Think?
What do you think of when you hear someone has a "brain chemistry" health problem? Symptoms? Manifestations? Chemical imbalance? In fact brain chemistry affects the entire human being, including:
- Emotional states
- Mood, behavior, social attitude
- Sleep, heart function, metabolism
- Focus, learning ability
How Does The Brain Work?
The brain's 100 billion neurons connect the various organs and brain regions into a complex network of circuits that control specific functions within the body. These circuits serve as on/off switches for the millions of messages and processes carried out on a daily basis. For example, the perception of DANGER "turns ON" the brain, inducing a fear response, which may send the body messages such as, "tense up muscles, palms sweat, increase heart rate, and breath faster."
Neurotransmitters - Excitatory and Inhibitory
Neurotransmitters control the on/off switches of the nervous system. Some neurotransmitters are more likely to facilitate the transmission of certain messages and are considered "excitatory" = ON. Likewise, some neurotransmitters are more likely to impede the transmission of certain messages and are considered "inhibitory" = OFF.
Excitatory neurotransmitters increase the likelihood that a neuron's signals are sent. How does this work? Activation of excitatory neurotransmitters chemically change an electrical message. Excitatory neurotransmitters are responsible for providing energy, motivation, focus, they rev up the system.
Low Excitatory Levels - Do you have LOW LEVELS excitatory neurotransmitters ?
- Lack of focus
- Lack of excitement about life
High Excitatory Levels - Do you have HIGH LEVELS of excitatory neurotransmitters ?
- Over-thinking simple tasks
- Caffeine make you nuts?
Inhibitory neurotransmitters decrease the likelihood that a neuron's signals are sent. This opposes or balances the effects of excitatory receptor activation. Inhibitory neurotransmitters are responsible for calming the mind and body, by filtering messages, slowing down the system, and inducing sleep.
Low Inhibitory Levels
- Monkey mind
- Can't calm down
- Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep?
High Inhibitory Levels
- Wake up tired
- No energy in the afternoons
- No motivation for life
Which type of neurotransmitter stores do you have to little of? Which do you have to much of? Family? Friends? Children?
It's All About Balance
A balanced nervous system is necessary to maintain optimal health. When the critical balance between the excitatory and inhibitory systems is lost, it creates a situation that increases the likelihood of a neurotransmitter-related condition developing. BALANCE = optimal health
Symptoms of Neurotransmitter Imbalance:
- Appetite control
- Attention issues
- Developmental delays
- Behavioral problems
- Low mood
- Low libido
- Mood disorders
- Sleep disorders
The Gas Line Is Running Low
Similar to a gas line that runs from a propane tank to a furnace, the gas is like a supply of neurotransmitters. When the gas line is full and functioning, the furnace runs well, and keeps the house warm. If the supply runs low, the furnace loses efficiency, or it might stop functioning altogether, leaving the house at the mercy of old man winter. The same logic applies to neurotransmission. Without enough neurotransmitters in the system, the system as a whole does not function properly. This creates a situation ripe for the onset of disease. Neurotransmitter related conditions can manifest due to an imbalance between the excitatory, and inhibitory systems.
An individual who sees a stressful, but non-threatening situation, sends an excitatory neurotransmitter signal from the eyes to the brain. Fear is excitatory. With a healthy nervous system, inhibitory neurotransmitters will filter out the excitatory message, thereby preventing an unnecessary fearful response to the non-threatening situation. Fear (inhibitory filter) can handle fear with ease. If the individual has a compromised inhibitory system, then the excitatory stimulus will override the weak inhibitory message, thereby activating an unnecessary fear response.
/ Excitatory Effect
/ Inhibitory Effect|
How Does Imbalance Happen? What Is The Cause?
A healthy nervous system is characterized by meeting two basic criteria. First, it must have sufficient levels of neurotransmitters. Secondly, the excitatory and inhibitory systems must work together.
An imbalanced system is characterized by low levels of neurotransmitter supplies, with an excess of certain neurotransmitters. This is where natural medicine plays a role to correct imbalances and low stores of neurotransmitters that are linked to:
- Weight Issues
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Causes of Neurotransmitter Imbalance
Have you been labeled with a disease name?"I have been told I have depression and will have this condition for life," or do you just have an imbalance that simply needs a correction?
Due to stress, and eating poorly, excitatory neurotransmitter stores are depleted, resulting in a lack of focus, and motivation. When stress is reduced, along with healthy eating, neurotransmitter stores are replenished and balanced, eliminating depression.
What Causes Depression Symptoms?
Low excitatory neurotransmitter stores
- Low epinephrine, norepinephrine
- Causes fatigue, no "get up and go"
High inhibitory neurotransmitter stores
- High GABA, Glycine
- Too much "calm"
- Low serotonin stores
- Low mood, negative attitude
- Could be one or more of these
Causes of ADD/ADHD Symptoms
The brain uses neurotransmitters to maintain focus and concentration. Imbalances in brain chemistry can lead to inattentive and hyperactive behaviors, making it of difficult to focus when performing tasks.
- Dopamine - high
- Norepinephrine - low, high=hyperactivity
- Epinephrine - low
- PEA - very high or very low
- GABA - low or high
- Cause can be one or more of these
Causes of Anxiety Symptoms
- Serotonin - low
- Glutamate - high
- Aspartic acid - high
- Norepinephrine - high
- Epinephrine - high
- PEA - high
- GABA - low or high
Causes of Insomnia Symptoms
- Epinephrine - high
- Norepinephrine - high
- Serotonin - low
- Glutamate - high (monkey mind)
- PEA - high
- Taurine - low
- GABA - low
Cause of Uncontrolled Appetite and Difficult Weight Loss
- Serotonin - low
- Glutamine - low
- Epinephrine - low
Cause of Addictions
- Glutamine - low
- Dopamine - low
What Can I Do To Resupply and Rebalance Neurotransmitter?
First, find out exactly which neurotransmitters are out of balance. Neurotransmitter testing is available. Urine sample and saliva samples identify exactly which of your neurotransmitters are out of balance.
Why Is It Important To Test?
Example - Anxiety
- Low calming/inhibitory neurotransmitter stores
High excitatory neurotransmitter stores
Low B vitamins
This is why medications MAY or MAY NOT work
Testing can tell us why
Example - Anxiety symptoms
- Given Lorazepam
No result or makes you drowsy
Lorazepam affects one of the 15 different neurotransmitters
Perhaps it was the wrong one
Example - ADHD
- Low calming neurotransmitters
Example - Depression
- High calming neurotransmitters
Low excitatory neurotransmitters
What Causes Imbalance?
Imbalances in brain chemistry are caused by:
- Hormone imbalance
- Poor dietary habits
These imbalances can lead to changes in behavior.
Hormone Imbalance - Low estrogen
Hormone changes cause brain imbalance. Estrogen, when in balance in the body increases:
- Blood flow to the brain
- Serotonin levels (mood)
- Norepinephrine (focus)
- Epinephrine (energy)
- Memory Improvement
- Reduced risk for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's
Hormone Changes Cause Imbalances
- Low progesterone
- Post-partum depression - classic example
- Opposes estrogen
Low testosterone?" Look out. He's gonna blow." You're not sure why you're angry. You used to be at least a little laid back, but now you get frustrated more easily, are depressed and not fun to be around. Why? It's called Irritable Male Syndrome (IMS), and it's caused by hormonal imbalance.
- High Cortisol - the stress hormone decreases memory and learning
- Low DHEA levels are associated with chronic stress, anger, negativity
- One can raise their DHEA with meditation
Toxins Cause Imbalance
- Air and water pollution
- Heavy metals
- Food dyes and preservatives
- Industrial cleaners
Recreational drug use interferes with proper manufacture of brain neurotransmitters and can prematurely kill brain cells
Poor Diet Causes Imbalance
- Junk food
- Fast food
These foods DO NOT PROVIDE the brain with the needed ingredients to make proper amounts of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are made from protein containing foods in our diet. Sugar can lead to depletion of certain neurotransmitters. Avoiding large amounts of sugar helps prevent the rapid loss of neurotransmitters that eventually leads to low levels.
Hereditary Causes of Imbalance
- Family DNA
- Disposition towards imbalance
- Toxicity passed down through birth
Stress Causes Imbalance
Stress DEPLETES stores of neurotransmitters, which causes imbalances as a result of various challenges, including:
- Busy schedule
- Emotional trauma
- Personal issues
- Daily stressors
- Use up precious neurotransmitter stores
Prevalence of Neurotransmitter Imbalance
Research shows that 80% of the US population has an brain chemistry imbalance. Yikes. Remember, you are driving next to these folks making it important to determine if the brain is sending messages properly.
Treatment Options - Be Aware
If you are currently taking medication for imbalance, then I strongly recommend you see a naturopathic physician. Taking some natural medicines can be dangerous in combination with prescriptions.
Healthy lifestyle choices can improve neurotransmitter & hormone levels leading to better sleep patterns.
Eat a Healthy Diet
- Avoiding foods high in sugars
- Avoid environmental toxins
- Develop a consistent sleep schedule
Exercise raises the levels of many neurotransmitters, including serotonin. Exercise during the day has been scientifically shown to help people sleep more soundly.
Making Our Own Neurotransmitters
How do we make neurotransmitters in our body? - AMINO ACIDS + VITAMINS + MINERALS = NEUROTRANSMITTERS
The reason we have low neurotransmitters is due to low supplies of high quality protein, vitamins, and minerals. Amino acids come from properly digested protein in our diet:
- Vitamins - Vitamin C, B6, SAMe
- Minerals - Copper, magnesium
Stores Running Low
- LOW amino acid, mineral, vitamin stores = LOW neurotransmitters
- High stress over time, depletes neurotransmitters stores
- Result - Insomnia
Balance Your Hormones
Bio-identical hormone replacement can be safe and natural. Testing must be done to determine which ones need balancing. Testing available:
- Blood Test - covered by most insurances
- Urine Test- more accurate
- Salivary Test- more accurate if you are not currently taking bio-identical hormones
Treatment Options - Supplements
- 5HTP - Makes serotonin, Calming, Can be used for anxiety or depression
- L-Theanine - Calming, Lowers glutamate (monkey mind), Used for anxiety or insomnia
- GABA -Can be calming if stores are low, Helpful for sleep, Helpful for anxiousness or ADD/ADHD
- B vitamins - are essential. Modulate stress in the body, Can give you more energy
Treatment Options - Better Sleep
- Sleep - support for calming
- Herbs - Valerian, hops, chamomile, passion flower, skullcap, Calming to the nervous system
- Amino acids
- Melatonin - Natural sleep hormone, Resets body to know when it is bedtime. Testing important here, and could be related to high cortisol
With children - testing is HIGHLY recommended. To correct imbalances:
- Increase dopamine - increase FOCUS
- L-tyrosine makes dopamine
- Decrease or Increase norepinephrine - for HYPER
- Phosphatidylserine to decrease
- Phenylalanine to increase
- Glycine, taurine - CALMING
- Herbs - Rhodiola rosea, vitamin - B's
- DIET/EXERCISE is extremely important here
Testing Provides Specific Treatment Protocols
All the neurotransmitter are tested, can include hormones. Highs and Lows neurotransmitters are determined. Specific, amino acids, vitamins, minerals. hormones, are given based on YOUR sample. Once your stores are built up again, and causes are determined if possible. Supplementation can be slowly discontinued over time.
Following are 3 cases. Each had neurotransmitter testing while correcting imbalance with supplementation. Underlying causes were also addressed
Patient example: 23 year old female
Symptoms of imbalance include, uncontrolled bingeing, drug use followed by reckless impulsive behavior and then Depression. neurotransmitter test results revealed High (+) norepi, epi, dopa, glutamate and Low (-) serotonin, low gaba. After 2 days on supplementation Patient reports clear decision making, Improved mood, No desire to binge. Behavior modification also supported by counseling
Patient example: 7 year old male
Imbalance: He has very poor diet, hotdogs, mac n cheese, candy. Can't sit still at school, up from seat every 5 minutes, with inability to control impulses. Hits other children, and pushes. Child put on Adderall where symptoms got WORSE. Testing revealed, High - excitatory neurotransmitter - all of them. Child given amino acids and vitamins that support the calming neurotransmitters , herbs that calm nervous system. Strict dietary changes to support his body. Post treatment, teachers report, "like a totally different child"
Patient example: 45 year old female
Imbalance: severe depression and panic attacks while driving. Taking Effexor 75mg 3x/day. Testing revealed, Low serotonin, High dopamine. Used increasing dose of natural supplementation as she slowly discontinued medication. One month follow up patient reports "feels like herself again"
IMPORTANT Points About Psycho-Active Fluoride-Based Medications
SSRI's such as, Prozac, Effexor, Zoloft, stops the body's removal of serotonin. However, if your amino acid stores are low, will you be making any serotonin? No. So your levels will not increase on medication, resulting in poor response to medication.
For medication side effects see:www.rxlist.com
Are you given Lexapro and Wellbutrin for depression symptoms? Lexapro slows the breakdown of serotonin. Wellbutrin slows the breakdown of norepinephrine and dopamine. If you do not have sufficient stores of these will you feel better? Absolutely not. Furthermore, If you do not need more norepinephrine and dopamine, or there's too much norepinephrine and/or too much dopamine, then as with ADHD you'll feel hyperactive, and not able to focus.
- The brain and nervous system are the primary controllers of behavior
- Balance of excitatory and inhibitory
- Neurotransmitters and hormones can become imbalanced due to various
- stressors including, poor diet, toxicity, menopause, etc.
- Laboratory tests indicate precise treatment plan to restore balance
- After 3-6 months of treatment, if the causes are removed, the body maintains balance, and can be weaned off supplementation, with a healthy diet, along with healthy lifestyle choices.
Page Updated: January 2013
Cognitive Memory Research
Memory improvement using stress reduction techniques
Nutrition and proper breathing provide clues for improved brain health
Men and Women Have Specialized Brain Skills
Women have the reputation of being able to talk and listen while doing all sorts of things at the same time, whereas men supposedly prefer to talk or hear about various things in succession rather than simultaneously. Brain-imaging studies may now have revealed an anatomical substrate for this behavioral difference, by demonstrating that language functions tend to place more demands on both hemispheres in women while being more lateralized (and mainly left-lateralized) in men. Women also have more nerve fibers connecting the two hemispheres of their brains, which also suggests that more information is exchanged between them. Canadian Institutes of Health Research