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As you might suspect from the name, neurotransmitters are the brain’s “chemical messengers” — transmitting important messages between nerve cells (called neurons).
Neurotransmitters come packaged in tiny bubbles called vesicles. And every millisecond, billions of your brain cells use vesicles to send signals to each other..
Typically, each vesicle holds only a single type of neurotransmitter with specific functions.
For example, the neurotransmitter dopamine is associated with memory and cognitive skills.
The neurotransmitter serotonin helps regulate mood and sleep.
And the neurotransmitter, GABA, can boost mood or have a calming, relaxing effect on the nervous system.
Here’s how they work…
Scientists compare the neurotransmitter to a key and the receptor site to a lock. Of course, it takes the right key to open specific locks.
Some neurotransmitters are excitatory, -causing a neuron to send a signal.
Others are inhibitory, -preventing signals from being sent.
When the levels of excitatory neurotransmitters are too high, the result can be anxiousness or feeling “out-of-control”.
When the levels of an inhibitory neurotransmitter are too high, important signals may be stopped. This can lead to changes or problems in mood.
If you wonder why neurotransmitters are so important…
An imbalance of neurotransmitter levels has been associated with a number of health concerns, including mood problems, memory or thinking issues, sleep difficulties, loss of self-esteem, and numerous others.
What Causes Neurotransmitter Imbalance?
With such a complex system, it’s easy for things to go wrong.
Many factors influence your ability to produce these important brain chemicals.
Here are seven of the most important ones:
Stress. Chronic stress can significantly deplete neurotransmitter levels.
Poor diet. Since neurotransmitters are made in the body from nutrients such as proteins, vitamins and minerals, poor nutrition affects the body’s ability to produce these vital chemicals. In addition, substances such as caffeine, alcohol, and artificial sweeteners can diminish neurotransmitter levels.
Toxins. Many toxic substances, including heavy metals and pesticides, can alter the nerve cells that are needed to produce serotonin and other neurotransmitters.
Digestive issues and faulty metabolism. Gut problems and metabolic concerns can impair the absorption and breakdown of food, which reduces the ability to manufacture neurotransmitters. It’s important to note that many neurotransmitters are made in the gut, which is home to over 300 million neurons.
Hormonal issues. Changes to levels of certain hormones can lead to neurotransmitter imbalance.
Prescription drugs. Certain drugs, including cholesterol lowering medications, can deplete neurotransmitter levels.
The aging process. Research shows that the aging brain has a reduced ability to produce vital neurotransmitters.
Three Key Neurotransmitters and How to Balance Them
Your brain produces hundreds of neurotransmitters, but three of them are particularly important to everyday brain health.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, sleep and appetite, as well as inhibit pain.
It is sometimes called the “happiness molecule” because of its importance to overall contentment and well-being.
Serotonin is produced not only in the brain, but also in the gut. Since serotonin cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, any serotonin used inside the brain must be produced in the brain.
Low levels of serotonin have been linked to poor memory, low mood, craving for sweet or starchy foods, difficulty sleeping, anxious feelings, and low self-esteem.
Here are three doctor-recommended nutrients that help naturally balance serotonin levels:
Griffonia seed extract 5-HTP. This nutrient, derived from an African woody shrub, is a precursor to serotonin. 5-HTP helps increase brain serotonin levels to balance moods and the sleep/wake cycle.
Zinc. This essential mineral is important for many brain functions. It increases the uptake of serotonin in certain areas of the brain and shows potential for helping with mood concerns. Seniors and vegetarians are at particular risk for zinc deficiency.
Vitamin B6. This important vitamin is necessary to convert 5-HTP into serotonin.
The neurotransmitter dopamine is associated with motivation, and is called the “achievement” molecule.
Dopamine influences many brain-related functions, such as mood, motivation, memory, cognition, and learning. It also aids in sleep regulation.
Unfortunately, many health issues and lifestyle choices can lower your levels of this vital neurotransmitter.
Low levels of dopamine have been associated with lack of motivation, feelings of hopelessness or low self-worth, difficulty managing stress, irritability, weight gain, low libido, and difficulty starting and finishing projects.
Here are several nutrients that help naturally balance dopamine levels:
Omega-3 fish oil. Many studies have shown that fish oil containing EPA and DHA benefits mental health, at least in part due to its influence on dopamine regulation.[vii] For instance, an animal study found that a fish oil-enhanced diet increased dopamine levels in the brain’s frontal cortex by 40 percent and enhanced dopamine binding capabilities.
Mucuna pruriens. This tropical legume, also called “velvet bean” contains an amino acid called levodopa (L-dopa), which is needed for your brain to produce dopamine. Studies have shown that Mucuna pruriens helps boost dopamine levels in humans.
Vitamin D. About 77 percent of Americans are said to be deficient in the “sunshine vitamin,” as it’s called. Vitamin D functions in the regulation of neurotransmitters such as dopamine. An animal study noted improved dopamine levels in subjects supplementing with vitamin D3. In addition, vitamin D regulates the conversion of the amino acid tryptophan into serotonin.
Gamma-amino butyric acid, or GABA, is an amino acid and inhibitory neurotransmitter responsible for calming down the nervous system. It has a broad range of effects on the body and mind, including increased relaxation, reduced stress, a more calm, balanced mood, alleviation of pain, and better sleep.
Low GABA levels can result in feeling overwhelmed, panic, worry, racing thoughts, and the tendency to expect the worst in people and situations.
Here are two nutrients that help naturally balance GABA levels:
Passion Flower. This calming herb helps boost brain levels of GABA, promoting nervous system relaxation. It’s been shown to lower stress and anxious feelings, as well as promote restful sleep.
L-Theanine. This amino acid also helps boost levels of GABA. It helps prevent neurotransmitter overstimulation, which keeps the excitatory system in balance. In addition, it helps boost serotonin and dopamine. L-theanine helps regulate emotions and mood, cognitive skills, sleep, relaxation, and creativity.
In this article, you’ve seen that neurotransmitters are the brain’s vital chemical messengers. They influence a wide range of body functions: mental performance, emotions, pain response, sleep, and others.
Because of their important functions, taking measures to support your neurotransmitter balance can have a profound influence on your overall health and well-being.
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