When we think of mental health and factors that can improve it or cause it to deteriorate, most likely big impact items come to mind: relationships (supportive or destructive), fears and phobias, self-confidence and self-control. We think of counseling, diet and exercise most often as things we can do to improve it. Although these are important contributors to improving mental health, we are complex beings, and much of our life experience involves things that affect us on a cellular and intercellular level.
As we are generally unaware of life at that level, it is hard to recognize or acknowledge how important the chemistry of our bodies is to our overall wellness and satisfaction with life. With some understanding about neurotransmitters and their powerful role in how we feel and how we interact in the world around us, we can begin to realize that supporting neurotransmitter health is an important foundation for our efforts to attain and maintain mental and emotional health.
What are neurotransmitters?
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that enable neurons (nerve cells) to “talk with” other neurons. They help communicate messages related to sensation – from the outside world, through our senses, and from internal conditions. They also trigger our responses to those sensations. Finally, they are involved in integration – learning and memory building.
There are factors that influence their ability to transmit messages. Some factors enhance or inhibit the release of neurotransmitters, and some hasten or delay their destruction or block receptor sites.
Norepinephrine (adrenaline), synthesized from tyrosine, is responsible for alertness. Its release is triggered by stress, and it transmits fight-or-flight signals to the appropriate tissues. High doses of caffeine can enhance its release, as can amphetamines. It is normally degraded after need has passed, but its removal from synapses can be blocked by antidepressants and other drugs. Norepinephrine also influences our reward system, although it is not responsible for feelings of pleasure.
Dopamine, also synthesized from tyrosine, helps regulate movement and emotional response. It controls our reward and pleasure centers, helping us learn what can give us more pleasure in the future.
Serotonin is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that is produced mainly in the gut. It works with dopamine to keep us “happy.” It plays a role in sleep, appetite and mood regulation, as well as planning and decision-making. It influences behaviors related to cooperation or selfishness. As a healthy gut microbiome is essential for its production, this is a great example of how digestive health, based on good nutrition and appropriate supplementation, can contribute to mental and emotional health.
Histamine is involved in wakefulness, appetite control, learning and memory. This is why using over-the-counter antihistamines can make you feel sleepy or nauseous and can have a negative impact on focus.
GABA (Gamma amino butyric acid) is the main inhibitory or calming neurotransmitter. When glutamates trigger neurons, GABA follows behind and “puts on the brakes.” A healthy balance of glutamates and GABA is critical. The GABA/glutamate system is vulnerable, and disruptions early in life (including prenatal) may set the stage for neurological disorders later in life.
Endorphins and Endocannabinoids
Endorphins are released in response to certain stimuli, including pain, fear and stress. These natural opiates inhibit pain and are stronger than morphine. They play a role in emotions and feelings of pleasure. Some of the things that stimulate production of endorphins include intense exercise (runner’s high), yoga and meditation, acupuncture, UV light, light alcohol consumption (e.g., one glass of wine), and childbirth.
Endocannabinoids are lipids synthesized on demand and secreted throughout the central nervous system. Receptors are in the brain, the immune system, gland tissues and everywhere in the body. They play a role in mood, memory and our internal reward system, inflammations, insulin sensitivity and fat and energy metabolism. They have a very short half-life and a retrograde function – while other neurotransmitters move from pre-synapse to post-synapse, endocannabinoids move from post-synapse to pre-synapse.
Balance is the key
Neurotransmitters are powerful, affecting us awake and asleep - our movements, emotions and mental functioning all depend on a healthy balance of neurotransmitters. Nutritional products with single ingredients promoted as supporting individual neurotransmitters are less effective than forumulas that offer a range of nutrients to promote overall health and balance, including adaptogens.
Better support of neurotransmitter health is crucial to better mental health. Our Hope & Possibility formulas have been developed in partnership with Dr. Gregory L. Jantz, founder of The Center – A Place of Hope, who uses them regularly to provide supplemental nutrient support for his patients.