Fixing Your Brain: A Guide to Balancing Neurotransmitters
Understanding, Troubleshooting, and Addressing a major component in Mental Illness and Chronic Conditions
This article is also available at keenanerikssonfitness.com
Neurotransmitters are signaling chemicals in our brains. They are responsible for our moods, motivation, energy, learning ability, and much, much more. When our neurotransmitters become unbalanced, we experience some of the worst states of being known to man.
When neurotransmitters become unbalanced, we may experience depression and anxiety (serotonin,) sloth, anger and lack of motivation (dopamine,) panic attacks, stress, and inability to calm down (GABA,) heart problems, burnout, and intolerance to exercise (noradrenaline,) and memory and focus problems (acetylcholine.)
We must understand how neurotransmitters work inside our brains, how specific imbalances manifest themselves, and how we can treat an imbalance in the short and long term.
Brain Chemistry 101
Note: If you don’t want to know the knitty-gritty science, and just want to learn how neurotransmitter imbalances feel and how to fix them, you can skip to the next section.
The cells in our brains communicate via synapses. Think of a nerve cell as a sort of web, with a bunch of little nodes sticking out at the end of branch-like structures. At the ends of these branches are pre-synaptic and post-synaptic cells, where nerve cells communicate with each other via chemical signal molecules known as neurotransmitters.
At the junctions between one nerve’s pre-synaptic cell and another nerve’s post-synaptic cells, there is a small gap. This is the synapse. The pre-synaptic cell has vesicles which store neurotransmitters, and the post-synaptic cell has receptors which grab onto free floating neurotransmitters upon their release from the adjacent pre-synaptic cell.
Here’s where the fun begins. Nerve communication occurs when the brain sends an electrical signal called an action potential. When this action potential reaches the end of a nerve, it triggers the presynaptic cell to release neurotransmitters which then float across the synapse and attach to receptors on the postsynaptic cell. If enough neurotransmitter molecules attach to the receptors, the postsynaptic cell will reach a threshold and fire an action potential to the next cell, continuing the brain’s line of communication.
In order to keep the nerve cells from remaining in a permanently active state, the enzymes monoamine oxidase (MAO) and catechol-o-methyl transferase (COMT) will destroy the neurotransmitters attached to the receptor sites, while some of the neurotransmitters will be re-absorbed by the vesicles on the presynaptic cell in a process known as reuptake.
If any one of these processes is compromised or inefficient, it can cause a neurotransmitter related issue. Let’s say for the sake of this argument that these were serotonin-reliant cells. If you have genetic defects that result in low serotonin, it will affect all the cells in your nervous system that are reliant on serotonin.
Furthermore, if you have issues with your MOA or COMT enzymes, de-sensitized receptor sites, or too little or too high reuptake by your presynaptic cell vesicles, these factors can all contribute to neurotransmitter imbalances. In fact, anti-depressant drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) are believed to work by inhibiting the process of reuptake by the vesicles and therefore increasing the signal strength of serotonin.
There are many neurotransmitters, and they each affect the brain and body in unique ways. The main neurotransmitters we’ll be talking about today are:
- Gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA)
Identifying Neurotransmitter Imbalances
Low levels of each neurotransmitter contribute to unique symptoms, and so can be identified in relation to our experiences of reality. The following sections will discuss each neurotransmitter individually along with symptoms of too low and if necessary too high levels of each.
Low dopamine levels are the culprit behind the major disease Parkinson’s, while too-high levels of dopamine is theorized to be a factor in schizophrenia. Dopamine is associated with motivation, and is considered our “achievement” molecule.
Symptoms of low dopamine include
- Feelings of hopelessness or dread
- Low self-esteem/self-worth
- Lack of motivation
- Difficulty starting and finishing projects
- Easily losing one’s temper from minor setbacks
- Difficulty managing stress
- Anger, aggressiveness, and irritability when stressed
- Tendency towards isolation
- Apathy towards friends and family
- Weight gain
Answers of “Yes” to the following questions may indicate a dopamine deficiency
- Do you smoke cigarettes or tobacco products? Y / N
- Have you gained more than 20 lbs since you were 20 years old? Y / N
- Do your drink 3 or more alcoholic beverages 2 or more times a week, or exceed 6 alcoholic beverages per week? Y / N
- Do you rely on coffee or stimulants to get going in the morning? Y / N
- Do you find it difficult to exercise due to lack of energy, even though you know you should? Y / N
- Do you have low (or no) sex drive? Y / N
- Have you been diagnosed with or have you ever experienced the symptoms of heart disease, poor circulation, or cardiovascular problems? Y / N
- Do you eat compulsively, or when you feel stressed? Y / N
- Do you have trouble focusing at home or at work? Y / N
- Do you have difficulty sleeping at night, or feeling refreshed in the morning? Y / N
Conditions like schizophrenia not-withstanding, it is rare to have too-high levels of dopamine. However, it is possible and sometimes can be brought on by improper supplementation. Many of the symptoms of too-high dopamine can resemble the symptoms of low levels of other neurotransmitters, so keep that in mind. That said, the most common and unique symptoms of too high dopamine include:
- Feelings of mania or insanity
- Pleasure seeking, including sexual promiscuity or thrill seeking
- Hyper-focus, a feeling of being “locked in” and that others are operating in slow motion
- Organization of thoughts
Serotonin is the neurotransmitter most commonly associated with emotion and mood. Low serotonin is considered to be the culprit in depression and social anxiety disorders. High serotonin is a condition known as serotonin syndrome which may be life-threatening, though it usually only occurs due to the consumption of serotonin-increasing supplements or drugs. Serotonin is also heavily involved with our perception of reality, and psychedelic drugs primarily operate on the serotonin pathways.
Symptoms of low serotonin are:
- Feelings of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, apathy, frustration, or anger
- Feelings of depression
- Loss of pleasure towards things you once enjoyed
- Difficulty staying positive or feeling joy
- Low mood on cloudy days
- Less socializing
- No longer enjoying relationships, possibly isolating oneself by result
- Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, and feeling well rested
Answers of “yes” to the following questions may indicate a serotonin deficiency
- Do you wake up frequently at night, or find it difficult to stay asleep? Y / N
- Do you have a tendency to eat despite not feeling hungry? Y / N
- Have you lost interest in activities you used to deeply enjoy? Y / N
- Do you feel that you used to be more adventurous? Y / N
- Do you find it difficult to make decisions? and take a long time to make a move when faced with many different choices? Y / N
- Do you notice that you are caught in a thought loop of negativity or notice that the same thoughts happen over and over again? Y / N
- Do you have difficulty with conflicts or dealing with times of crisis? Y / N
- Do small problems become big deals, and do you find you dwell on them? Y / N
- Do you think or have you thought about suicide? Y / N
- Have you been told that you are difficult to get along with, or that you are moody, now, or when you were a teen or young adult? Y / N
- Do you feel like you are just surviving, but not thriving? Y / N
Like I said earlier, too high serotonin is rare, and manifests as a potentially life-threatening condition known as serotonin syndrome. However, knowing the symptoms of serotonin syndrome can prepare you in case you ever take too much of a serotonin-boosting supplement and worry that you may have the condition.
Symptoms of too high serotonin, or serotonin syndrome are:
- Dilated pupils
- Muscle rigidity
- Rapid heart rate and high blood pressure
- Loss of coordination
- Muscle twitching or spasms
Serotonin syndrome can be life threatening, so you should go to the ER if you think you may have triggered it with drugs or supplements.
Gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA)
Gamma-amino butyric acid, or GABA, is the neurotransmitter responsible for calming the nervous system and down regulating the effects of stimulating nor-epinephrine. Think of it like a gentle massage for the nervous system. Adequate GABA levels are associated with calm and content, while low GABA feels like overwhelm and contributes to panic disorder.
Symptoms of low GABA are:
- Rapid or uneven heartbeat
- Heart palpitations
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Sweaty palms
- Cold hands and feet
- Excessive worry
- Easily scared
- Out-of-body feelings
- Obsessive compulsive traits
- Unexplained feelings of stress, panic, and anxiety
- Feelings of dread or doom
- Tendency to expect the worst from people and scenarios
- Unexplained feelings of overwhelm
- Racing, restless thoughts
- Difficulty turning off thoughts when trying to relax
- Scattered attention, difficulty focusing on one task
- Worrying about scenarios that are unlikely to occur
- Feeling uneasy, on-edge
- Becoming easily tired or fatigued
- Losing your train of thought and feeling your mind go blank
- Depersonalization and feelings of unreality
Answers of “Yes” to the following questions may indicate a GABA deficiency
- Do you experience panic attacks, or sudden, unexplainable episodes of over-whelm? Y / N
- Do you ever feel detached from reality, like you’re observing but not actually here? Y / N
- Do you feel like you can’t help but vividly imagine worst-case scenarios? Y / N
- Would you describe yourself as feeling “burnt out” and “spent” without recovering? Y / N
- Do you feel stiffness or soreness despite lack of exercise? Y / N
- Does your heart ever skip a beat, or give the feeling of a fish flopping in your chest? Y / N
- Do you ever feel “starved for air” like something is in your throat or you just can’t get enough oxygen? Y / N
I’ve never heard of someone having too high GABA, however the symptoms would be a complete lack of fear, but also a lack of motivation. You would feel like just not doing anything all day, and you wouldn’t notice much emotion. Too high GABA would have you feeling like you didn’t feel much of anything, actually, and you’d find it difficult to get yourself to focus on anything.
Acetyl-choline is the neurotransmitter most involved with our pre-fontal cortex, aka the “human” part of our brains that truly separates us from animals. Acetyl-choline is involved with working memory, learning, and navigation.
Symptoms of low acetyl-choline are:
- Poor memory, or loss f visual, photographic, and/or verbal memory
- Loss of or poor creativity
- Poor word recall and loss of comprehension
- Difficulty with mental math
- Difficulty recognizing people and placing faces
- Slow mental responsiveness
- Poor spatial orientation, or clumsiness and tendency to bump into things
- Difficulty navigating or using directions when driving
Answers of “Yes” to the following questions may indicate acetyl-choline deficiency:
- Have people told you that you are absent-minded? Y / N
- Do you have recent or significant hair loss? Y / N
- Do you rely heavily on lists, and feel the need to write everything down or you’ll forget? Y / N
- Do you have poor management skills? Y / N
- Do you feel that your brain no longer works as it used to? Y / N
- Has your memory become worse? Y / N
- Do you find it difficult to remember phone numbers and addresses? Y / N
- Does Alzheimer’s or dementia run in your family? Y / N
- Do you forget important items like your wallet or keys? Y / N
- Do you forget whether you have taken your supplements, medications, or prescriptions? Y / N
- Do you have difficulty remembering faces? Y / N
Too high acetylcholine primarily operates by inhibiting other neurotransmitters. The symptoms of too high acetylcholine may be similar to the symptoms of too low serotonin, as they have a close balancing relationship.
Root Causes of Neurotransmitter Imbalances
Once we have identified potential neurotransmitter imbalances, it is time to treat them. However, you should know this needs to be a careful process, and if you suspect multiple neurotransmitter deficiencies, be sure to educate yourself thoroughly and if possible, work with a professional. That said, first we’ll discuss a few major causes of neurotransmitter imbalances that you should address right away, regardless of targeted neurotransmitter therapy.
Treat the gut.
You may not know this but your gut is actually a sort-of second brain. It contains over 300 million neurons, and affects our mood and behavior, and is considered to be the source of intuition (gut feelings are actually valuable input.) Furthermore, damage to our gut biomes: the colonies of bacteria that live inside us and keep us healthy, has been implicated in many mental diseases, including autism. Poor gut health is a major factor in neurotransmitter imbalances for two main reasons.
- Neurotransmitters are made in the gut! Most of the serotonin in our bodies is made in the gut first, and the other neurotransmitters are no exception. If your gut health is poor, then your body is less capable of converting amino acids from food into the neurotransmitters in your brains.
- Gut inflammation leads to brain inflammation. This bit is a little more nerdy. There is an epidemic condition called leaky gut, which occurs because the cell wall of our intestines begin to rip and allow foreign molecules into our bloodstream. This process is driven by inflammatory foods such as gluten, pesticides such as glyphosate, and environmental factors such as over-sterile birth environments, etc. As bad as leaky gut is, what is worse is that it directly contributes to leaky brains. Our brains are housed inside something called the blood-brain barrier, a membrane which keeps foreign molecules from causing inflammation. Glyphosate, which is a chemical in the pesticide round-up, is on many of the foods we eat and causes both leaky gut and leaky brain problems. The inflammation from this damage directly contributes to neurotransmitter programs.
So, what do we do? Well, gut health is a topic that is extensive and intricate and deserving of it’s own long article, but you can start by addressing gut dysbiosis and leaky gut. For the sake of keeping this article on-topic, I suggest strongly that you look into the product Restore by Biomic Sciences. Restore directly heals leaky gut and heals the tight junctions which are damaged in leaky gut and leaky brain. I’ve written about it more extensively in my article about glyphosate, but you should also check out the work of Dr. Zach Bush, who is a genius triple Ph.D who helped create the product.
I know it may seem hokey, but stress is a major factor in neurotransmitter imbalances that we can actually control for. Lack of sleep, over-working yourself, too much exercise, and negative relationships and thoughts all affect your neurotransmitters. As you continue to stress yourself and push towards burnout, the more you’ll gamble with creating neurotransmitter problems. Thankfully, there are great, free tools you can use to de-stress your life. Here are my number one methods for managing stress:
- Prioritize quality sleep above everything else
- Implement yoga, or meditation into your daily routine
- Practice daily gratitude, preferable every morning before the day starts and every night before retiring
- Read books about self improvement, such as Psycho-cybernetics by Maxwell Malts, Way of the Seal by Mark Divine(has several meditations too,) or 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson
- Implement saunas and cold exposure into your weekly routine. I recommend infrared or dry saunas, and the work of v for the cold exposure therapy.
With all of that said, addressing your lifestyle can be a long road to fixing major neurotransmitter problems that are affecting you right now. This is why I want you to start on these lifestyle changes now, so that you can address the cause while we also work to address the symptoms. Now we can get into supplements that target specific neurotransmitters directly.
Dopamine Raising Supplements, Prescriptions, and Hormones
- Mucuna Dopa or L-dopa(herb)
- Tyrosine (amino acid)
- L-Phenylalanine (amino acid)
- Rhodiola rosea (herb)
- Methylfolate (b-vitamin)
- Ginkgo (herb)
- Guarana (herb)
- Wild green oat extract (herb
- ADHD Medications: Ritali Adderal, (Methylphenidate and an amphetamine, respectively)
- Modafonil aka provigil (nootropic drug)
- DHEA (hormone)
- HGH (hormone)
- Thyroid hormones T3 & T4
- Bioidentical testosterone
- Selegiline (depranyl)
Dopamine may also be raised by sunlight exposure, optimal vitamin d levels. Methods which increase testosterone may also by extension increase dopamine. Dopamine is increased by MAO-B inhibitors. The last drug on the list: Selegiline, has shown particular effectiveness for this purpose. If you have a family history of Parkinsons, it may be worth occasional dosing as a preventative measure.
Serotonin Increasing Supplements, Drugs, and Hormones
- Prozac (prescription drug)
- Niacin (vitamin b3)
- 5-htp (amino acid)
- Tryptophan (amino acid)
- Melatonin (hormone)
- Fish oil (DHA & EPA Omega 3 Fats)
- Magnesium glycinate
- Passionflower (herb)
- St. John’s Wort (herb)
- Pregnenalone (hormone)
- Bioidentical testosterone (hormone)
- Vitamin B6
Serotonin may also be increased by meditation practices. Furthermore, long term prozac use has been found to upregulate neurogenesis, a process by which the brain creates new neurons. It increases brain plasticity and has shown potential in reversing brain aging.
GABA Increasing Supplements, Medications, and Hormones
- Suntheanine L-theanine (amino acid)
- L-glutamine (amino acid)
- Kava (herb)
- Phenibut (chemical)
- Niacin (vitamin b3)
- Essential amino acids
- Taurine (amino acid)
- Inositol (chemical)
- Glycine (amino acid)
- Magnesium glycinate
- Tryptophan (amino acid)
- L-phenylalanine (amino acid)
- St. John’s Wort (herb)
- Melatonin (hormone)
- Pregnenalone (hormone)
- DHEA (hormone)
- Valerian Root (herb)
- Passionflower (herb)
- GABApentin (prescription drug)
- Growth hormone releasing hormone (GHRH)
A note on increasing GABA, phenibut is considered effective but also highly addictive, even more so than prescription drugs. Also, taking supplemental GABA may be ineffective due to the inability for the GABA molecule to cross the blood-brain barrier.
Acetyl-choline increasing supplements, medications, and hormones
- Alpha-GPC (nootropic)
- Citicoline (nootropic)
- Sunflower lecithin (fat)
- Huperzine-A (nootropic)
- Acetyl L-carnitine (amino acid)
- Phosphatidylserine (fat)
- Alpha lipoic acid (fat)
- R lipoic acid (fat)
- Fish oil
- Ginkgo biloba (herb)
- DHEA (hormone)
- HGH (hormone)
- Conjugated linoleic acid (fat)
- Bacopa monnieri (herb)
- Korean ginseng (herb)
- Phosphatidylcholine (nootropic)
Additional Neurotransmitter Balancing Biohacks
So, there we have it. Now you have a long list of options to start working on your neurotransmitter imbalances. That said, where should you start? Well, one of the most popular methods is Amino Acid Therapy. Look through the above lists, and you’ll find amino acids among almost all of them. In particular, 5-htp and tryptophan for serotonin, GABA and L-glutamine for GABA, tyrosine for dopamine, and acetyl l-carnitine for acetyl-choline. Many of these directly raise their neurotransmitter when taken, and I have a few suggestions for you to use to educate yourself on amino acid therapy.
Check out the work of Dr. Daniel Kalish, creator of the Kalish Method for targeted amino acid therapy to balance neurotransmitters. His book is short and to the point, but covers all the bases of amino acid therapy.
Another amazing resource is the work of Trudy Scott at www.antianxietyfoodsolution.com. She has a method for targeted amino acid therapy which I personally love, and she goes over it on the wellness mama podcast and in her book which can be bought on her website.
Resources & Links
Due to the extensive nature of this post, I am not including the links that were listed as supplements under each neurotransmitter. Otherwise I’d just be repeating those lists here in an unorganized fashion. The resource list is a way to quickly find the links that were interspersed throughout the article, and since the neurotransmitter supplements are already organized into lists anyway, I do not see the need to add un-necessary clutter by having them again here.
- Restore Gut Health by Biomic Sciences
- My Article on Glyphosate and it’s dangers to the gut biome
- Dr. Zach Bush Website and Research
- Psycho-Cybernetics by Dr. Maxwell Malts
- Way of the Seal by Mark Divine
- 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson
- Wim Hof Method
- Kalish Institute Website
- The Kalish Method by Dr. Daniel Kalish
- Anti-anxiety food solution (Trudy Scott’s Work)
- Wellness Mama Interview of Trudy Scott on Amino Acid Therapy
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