Neurotransmitters Fact Sheet

Neurotransmitters Fact Sheet

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that regulate many physical and emotional processes including movement, stress response, cognition, emotions, energy, cravings, pain and more.

Functioning in the central nervous system (CNS), as well as in the periphery, neurotransmitters facilitate communication between the brain and the body’s glands, organs and muscles. They are released from neurons and travel across a small space, called a synapse, to reach receptors on target cells. Inadequate neurotransmitter function disrupts the signal to target tissue and has a profound influence on overall health and well-being. In fact, imbalances in certain neurotransmitters are associated with many of the prevalent symptoms and conditions seen in doctors’ offices today including:

  • 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: obesity and insulin resistance

These symptoms are often compounded by the use of bioactive substances including caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and prescription medications that can contribute to neurotransmitter depletion and worsening of symptoms by suppressing or artificially stimulating neurotransmitter receptor function.

When functioning properly, the neurotransmission system has natural checks and balances in the form of excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters. These are classified according to their effects on the receptor site on the postsynaptic neuron. Excitatory neurotransmitters cause depolarization
of the membrane, causing that neuron to “fire” and send a signal. Inhibitory neurotransmitters cause hyperpolarization, preventing the neuron from forwarding a signal. Though there are many neurotransmitters found in the body, there are nine in particular that play significant roles in primary symptomatic conditions.

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 found in the CNS 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 and/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 dopaminergic 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 depression, 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 satisfaction that is not occurring naturally in the body.