Life Out of Control? Blame Your Neurotransmitters

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When your neurotransmitters are out of balance, it causes problems with focus, memory, mood, cravings, sleep and more. Learn how this happens and what to do about it.

overwhelmed manIs there an area of your life where you feel out of control?

Are you a shopaholic, chocoholic, caffeine addict, or worse?

Do you get depressed for no apparent reason, feel overwhelmed by life, have trouble sleeping, or have negative thoughts that you just can’t shake?

It’s very possible that you have a neurotransmitter imbalance.

How Your Brain Cells Communicate

There are about 100 billion neurons in the human brain and these cells communicate with each other via brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.

Scientists have found just over 100 of these communication chemicals, but it’s believed they will ultimately discover thousands.

Neurotransmitters control your ability to focus, concentrate, and remember, as well as regulating mood, cravings, addictions, sleep, and more.

It’s estimated that 86% of Americans have suboptimal neurotransmitter levels. (1)

Our modern unhealthy lifestyle is largely to blame.

Chronic stress, poor diet, environmental toxins, drugs (prescription and recreational), alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine can cause neurotransmitter depletion.  

Many brain and memory supplements include amino acids, herbs, and vitamins that are designed to boost the production of one or more neurotransmitters.

But there is a big problem with this approach.

If you don’t know which neurotransmitters you need to boost, you might well be taking substances that could make your imbalance even worse.

There are two main kinds of neurotransmitters — excitatory and inhibitory.

Read the descriptions of the top four neurotransmitters below and determine which one sounds most like your situation.

Then you can take the right actions and supplement appropriately to optimize your neurotransmitter balance.

Excitatory Neurotransmitters

Excitatory neurotransmitters are not necessarily stimulating.

They increase the likelihood that a nerve impulse will fire.

Two of the most important excitatory neurotransmitters are dopamine and acetylcholine.

Dopamine

Dopamine is the “motivation molecule.”

It helps you get focused and productive.

woman with shopping bagsIt’s also in charge of your pleasure-reward system. (2)

Signs that you may have a dopamine deficiency include low energy and motivation, low libido, and relying on pick-me-ups like caffeine, sugar, chocolate, or other stimulants to get through the day.

People low in dopamine have a tendency towards depression or apathy, but get a buzz from shopping or gambling.

Their illicit drugs of choice are cocaine, amphetamines, or Ecstasy.

The amino acid tyrosine is a precursor of dopamine and must be present for dopamine production.

Foods rich in tyrosine include animal products of all kinds, avocado, green leafy vegetables, green tea, chocolate, and coffee.

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Exercise raises your baseline levels of dopamine by promoting the growth of new brain cell receptors.

Studies have found meditation raises dopamine levels too. (3)

Supplements that increase dopamine include curcumin (a component in the spice turmeric), l-theanine (found in green tea), acetyl-l-tyrosine, Ginkgo biloba, and phosphatidylserine. (4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Acetylcholine

Acetylcholine is for learning and remembering.

When you are low in this brain chemical, you can’t remember, become forgetful, can’t focus, can’t follow plots, and can’t find the right words.

You may crave fatty foods.

You probably have poor muscle tone and find it difficult to exercise.

Acetylcholine deficiencies are associated with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and multiple sclerosis. 

Acetylcholine activity is the target of Alzheimer’s drugs, which block the breakdown of this brain chemical.

A choline-rich diet will help to produce the acetylcholine the brain needs to stay sharp.

Some acetylcholine-rich foods include almonds, blueberries, cruciferous vegetables, cheese, eggs, fish, and chicken. 

Brain supplements that naturally increase acetylcholine levels include alpha GPC, CDP-choline, and vitamin B6.

Inhibitory Neurotransmitters

Inhibitory neurotransmitters decrease the likelihood that a nerve impulse will fire.

Two of the most important inhibitory neurotransmitters are GABA and serotonin.

GABA

GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) can keep you feeling happy and relaxed.

woman meditatingIf you’re low in GABA you may be easily stressed, overstimulated and overwhelmed.

You have a hard time relaxing and slowing down and have trouble sleeping.

You may experience heart palpitations, cold hands, and shortness of breath.

GABA-rich foods are bananas, broccoli, fish, organ meats, spinach, and nuts. 

Individuals low in GABA often self-medicate with food, alcohol, or tranquilizing drugs to relax.

They could benefit from taking the amino acids l-theanine, the calming compound found in green tea, and taurine, which activates GABA receptors.

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B vitamins reduce the wear and tear of stress, while relaxing herbs like hops, passion flower, valerian, and lemon balm promote a sense of calm and help you sleep.

The probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus markedly improves GABA levels. 

It’s been shown that GABA levels can be increased by doing yoga. (9)

GABA supplements are sold, but there is some concern that supplemental GABA doesn’t readily cross the blood-brain barrier. 

Serotonin

Serotonin plays an important part in learning, mood, and sleep.

People low in this substance suffer from anxiety, insomnia, low self-esteem, negative thoughts, OCD, and SAD (seasonal affective disorder).

These people feel better with exercise and when taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) drugs, such as Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, and Lexapro.

Signs you are low in serotonin are that you crave sugar, bread and pasta, have trouble sleeping, and are prone to anxiety, negativity, and depression.

Some foods contain serotonin, but it does not cross the blood-brain barrier.

You may have heard that eating foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan can raise serotonin levels, but that’s not what actually happens.

Surprisingly, serotonin levels drop after eating a meal that contains protein. (10)

The relationship between serotonin, tryptophan and food is complicated.

To learn more, read our discussion about how to how to increase serotonin with food.

Daily exercise, sufficient sleep, and exposure to sunshine will increase serotonin levels, too. 

One of the most amazing things about serotonin is that 90% of it is produced in the intestines, not your brain! (11)

That is why people who fit the profile of low serotonin should consider taking a probiotic supplement to establish healthy gut flora. 

An overabundance of bad bacteria generates toxic byproducts called lipopolysaccharides which have numerous negative effects on your brain including lowered levels of both dopamine and serotonin.

If you are low in serotonin, supplements that can help include 5-HTP, B complex vitamins, magnesium, and a probiotic supplement.

For more information about supplements to boost serotonin levels, read our article 15 Serotonin Supplements to Boost Mood Naturally.

Supplements for Neurotransmitter Balance

Here are supplements that can boost your neurotransmitter production from a company we use ourselves and recommend to you. 

If you have signs of being low in either dopamine or acetylcholine try:

  • Super Brain Booster — contains acetyl-l-tyrosine (a readily absorbable form of tyrosine), vinpocetine, (regulates the flow of neurotransmitters), alpha GPC (highly bioavailable form of choline that forms acetylcholine), and bacopa (naturally balances neurotransmitters)
  • Acetyl-l-Carnitine — contains acetyl-l-carnitine to create acetylcholine and clear the brain of the beta-amyloid fragments associated with Alzheimer’s

If you have signs of low GABA try: 

  • Sleep Helper — contains l-theanine, taurine, passion flower, and lemon balm
  • Super Dophilus — contains the right kind of bacteria needed for optimal brain health

If you have signs of low serotonin try:

  • Super Dophilus — contains the right kind of bacteria needed for optimal brain health
  • RelaxaMag — contains 3 forms of magnesium bound to amino acids for maximum uptake

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