Neurotransmitter imbalances can cause problems with mood, memory, addictions, energy, libido, and sleep. Learn how this happens and what to do about it.
Is 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?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, it’s very possible that you have a neurotransmitter imbalance.
What Are Neurotransmitters?
The human brain is composed of roughly 86 billion neurons. (1)
These cells communicate with each other via chemical messengers called neurotransmitters.
Scientists have found just over a hundred of these communication chemicals, and it’s believed that ultimately thousands will be discovered. (2)
Neurotransmitters regulate mood, cravings, addictions, energy, libido, and sleep.
They control your ability to focus, concentrate, learn, remember and handle stress.
Neurotransmitter Imbalance Causes
It’s estimated that 86% of Americans have suboptimal neurotransmitter levels. (3)
Underlying health conditions such as hormone imbalances, chronic inflammation, thyroid diseases, and blood sugar disorders can cause neurotransmitter imbalances. (4)
You can be genetically predisposed to certain neurotransmitter imbalances as well. (5)
But the unhealthy modern lifestyle is largely to blame.
Chronic stress, poor diet, environmental toxins, drugs (prescription and recreational), alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine are major culprits.
Understand What Neurotransmitter “Imbalance” or “Deficiency” Really Means
You’ll often hear about “neurotransmitter imbalances,” “low neurotransmitter levels,” or “neurotransmitter deficiencies.”
We use these terms on this site too, but the reality is complicated and these phrases are not technically accurate.
Because, in fact, there are no reliable ways to measure neurotransmitter levels in the brain and there are no scientifically accepted norms as to what those levels should be. (6)
What is known is that certain clusters of symptoms are linked to abnormal neurotransmitter activity.
- Too little of the neurotransmitter is being made or formation is being inhibited.
- There are too few receptors for the neurotransmitter to bind with.
- The neurotransmitter receptors aren’t working very well.
- The neurotransmitter is being broken down too soon.
- The neurotransmitter is not being appropriately recirculated.
Know Your Neurotransmitters
Many brain and memory supplements include ingredients such as 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 shotgun 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.
While all neurotransmitters are important, the “big four” are serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine, and GABA.
Here’s an overview of each neurotransmitter, including how to tell if you might be too low in a particular one.
Decide which deficiency sounds most like your situation and then you can take appropriate steps to optimize your neurotransmitter levels.
Serotonin — The “Happiness Molecule”
Of all the neurotransmitters, serotonin definitely gets the most attention.
Serotonin is called the “happiness molecule” because it’s so essential for a positive mood.
Low serotonin levels are linked to the most common mood disorders of our time — depression, anxiety, eating disorders, insomnia, obsessive compulsive disorder, and seasonal affective disorder.
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The most commonly prescribed antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) which are believed to help depression by increasing serotonin levels.
(In reality, it’s not fully understood exactly how SSRIs work.)
Symptoms of low serotonin include carbohydrate cravings, binge eating, insomnia, anxiety, negativity, digestive disorders, low self-esteem, low libido, and hypervigilance. (9)
Men and women express somewhat different symptoms of low serotonin. (10)
Women are much more likely to experience mood disorders and carb cravings, whereas men are more likely to be impulsive, have ADHD, and drink alcohol in excess.
Serotonin Deficiency: Signs, Symptoms, Solutions
How to Increase Serotonin
Tryptophan is the amino acid precursor, or building block, of serotonin.
It’s found mainly in protein-rich foods like meat, eggs, fish, and dairy.
So theoretically eating tryptophan-rich foods should raise serotonin levels, but the relationship between serotonin, tryptophan and food is not that straightforward.
Unexpectedly, both tryptophan and serotonin levels drop after eating a meal containing protein.
It turns out that protein blocks the synthesis of tryptophan into serotonin. (11)
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Eating carbohydrates alone — with no protein — at some of your meals or snacks allows tryptophan to enter your brain and boost serotonin levels there.
Another surprise is that tryptophan supplements work better than tryptophan found in food to increase serotonin.
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Other supplements that raise serotonin levels include SAM-e, B complex vitamins, magnesium, l-theanine, omega-3 essential fatty acids, curcumin, and the adaptogenic herb Rhodiola rosea.
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5-HTP is often recommended to increase serotonin, but it’s not my top choice.
A review of over 100 studies on 5-HTP concluded there is still no real evidence that it alleviates depression. (12)
It’s not intended for long-term use and should never be taken with antidepressants, sedatives, or natural remedies that can increase serotonin like kava, valerian, SAM-e or St. John’s wort. (13)
When taken together they can lead to potentially serious serotonin syndrome.
Daily exercise, sufficient sleep, and exposure to sunshine will increase serotonin levels, too.
15 Serotonin Supplements to Boost Mood Naturally
Dopamine — The “Motivation Molecule”
Dopamine has been coined the “motivation molecule.”
It provides the drive and focus needed to do what needs to be done.
Alarmingly, lab mice that are dopamine deficient are so apathetic they’ll literally starve even when food is readily available — that’s how important dopamine is to motivation! (14)
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Dopamine is released when your needs are about to be met and delivers a feeling of satisfaction when you’ve accomplished your goals. (17)
If you’ve lost your zest for life or find yourself engaging in self-destructive behaviors to get your kicks, you may be low in dopamine.
Signs of low dopamine include apathy, low energy and motivation, low libido, and inability to experience pleasure.
Dopamine deficiency can manifest as a lethargic and apathetic form of depression unlike serotonin-based depression which is usually linked to anxiety. (18)
Dopamine Deficiency, Depression and Mental Health
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The Best and Worst Ways to Increase Dopamine
Many people self-medicate with addictive substances like caffeine, alcohol, sugar, nicotine, and recreational drugs to increase dopamine.
Others get their dopamine hit from excesses of all kinds — too much shopping, sex, gambling, video games, and thrill-seeking behaviors.
Fortunately, addictions and risky behaviors are not the only way to increase dopamine!
You can increase dopamine naturally with the right foods, supplements, and lifestyle activities.
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The amino acid tyrosine is a major building block of dopamine and must be present for dopamine synthesis.
Tyrosine can be found in most animal food products.
Other foods that increase dopamine include avocado, green leafy vegetables, apples, beets, chocolate, oatmeal, nuts, and seeds. (19)
Two of the most popular beverages on the planet, coffee and green tea, increase dopamine.
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While these drinks offer significant health benefits, be mindful that caffeine is easily abused and addictive tendencies are a hallmark of low dopamine.
There are plenty of supplements that increase dopamine naturally.
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A good one to start with is acetyl-l-tyrosine, a highly absorbable form of tyrosine that readily crosses the blood-brain barrier into the brain. (20)
Bacopa monnieri, a traditional Indian Ayurvedic herb, helps regulate dopamine production up and down as needed. (26)
This makes bacopa an excellent choice for balancing dopamine levels especially for those who suspect they have too much dopamine.
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And since dopamine is released when you accomplish a goal, taking on new challenges helps raise dopamine levels.
So, break down your long-range plans into short-term goals.
Then, every time you tick an item off your “to do” list, you’ll get a little dopamine boost.
How to Increase Dopamine Naturally
Acetylcholine — The “Molecule of Memory and Learning”
Acetylcholine, the first neurotransmitter to be discovered, is essential for learning and memory. (29)
Symptoms of acetylcholine deficiency are typical of “senior moments” — struggling to remember, focus, follow plots, and find the right words — regardless of age.
Acetylcholine levels drop by as much as 90% in Alzheimer’s patients. (30)
Acetylcholine activity is the target of Alzheimer’s drugs, which attempt to slow the progression of cognitive decline by blocking the breakdown of this brain chemical.
How to Increase Acetylcholine
If you are low in acetylcholine you may find yourself craving fatty foods.
If so, pay attention! Your brain is trying to tell you something.
The best way to increase acetylcholine is to stop eating a low-fat diet.
The precursor to acetylcholine is choline, a nutrient found mainly in high-fat dairy products, fish, meat, and poultry.
The best sources of choline by far are egg yolks and whole eggs. (31)
According to Dr. Datis Kharrazian, author of Why Isn’t My Brain Working?, the brain literally starts to digest itself for the raw materials needed to create acetylcholine when you don’t provide it with enough dietary fat.
If you’re a coffee drinker, consider switching to tea which slows the breakdown of acetylcholine. (32)
The most common type of choline supplements do little to raise acetylcholine levels, but there are some forms of choline that do. (33)
The alpha GPC (L-alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine) form, which occurs in human breast milk, readily enters the brain to improve memory and cognition. (34)
Another form of choline that increases acetylcholine is citicoline.
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Citicoline also increases blood flow to the brain, brain plasticity and the capacity to grow new brain cells. (35)
Other supplements that naturally increase acetylcholine levels are huperzine-A, derived from Chinese club moss, and galantamine, derived from the snowdrop flower.
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The last tip for increasing acetylcholine is to avoid anticholinergic drugs.
These are drugs that destroy acetylcholine and are surprisingly common.
A good rule of thumb is that any medication that starts with “anti” is likely to affect your acetylcholine levels such as antibiotics, antihistamines, and antidepressants.
How Acetylcholine Deficiency Impacts Memory
GABA — “Nature’s Valium”
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a relaxing neurotransmitter that’s been dubbed “nature’s Valium.”
This brain chemical normally puts the brakes on brain activity on an as-needed basis, but when you’re low in GABA your mind gets stuck in the “on” position.
Typical symptoms of low GABA are being easily stressed out, overstimulated, and overwhelmed.
Other signs and symptoms of low GABA are lying awake with racing thoughts, feeling dread for no particular reason, and experiencing heart palpitations, cold hands, and shortness of breath.
Low GABA is associated with anxiety disorders and panic attacks, as well as physical disorders with an emotional component such as irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia. (40)
How to Reduce Cortisol, the Stress Hormone
How to Increase GABA
You may be drawn to unhealthy ways to increase GABA such as reaching for high carbohydrate foods, alcohol, or drugs to relax.
But there are healthy foods and supplements that will do the trick.
According Dr. Eric Braverman, bestselling author of Younger Brain, Sharper Mind, bananas, broccoli, brown rice, citrus fruit, fish, lentils, nuts, oats, organ meats, spinach, and whole grains are among the best foods for increasing GABA.
Fermented foods like unpasteurized yogurt, kefir, saurkraut, kimchi, and miso also raise GABA levels.
GABA supplements are available, but are of limited use since GABA is too large a molecule to cross from the bloodstream into the brain.
Instead, consider taurine, an amino acid that activates GABA receptors in the brain and encourages the formation of GABA. (41)
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Probiotic supplements that contain Lactobacillus rhamnosus markedly improve GABA levels. (42)
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Other GABA-boosting supplements include magnesium, l-theanine, and kava.
If you live where you can buy picamilon, you might want to give it a try.
It combines GABA with niacin to create a compound that more readily enters the brain. (43)
Picamilon is considered a smart drug among college students who use it to boost memory, focus and brain power. (44)
In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration decided it was more drug-like than supplement-like and pulled it from the shelves, so it is no longer readily available in the US. (45)
All kinds of exercise can increase GABA, but yoga in particular stands out.
One study found that just a single one-hour session of yoga increased GABA levels by 27%. (46)
GABA Supplements for Stress and Anxiety Relief
What About Neurotransmitter Testing?
You can order do-it-yourself neurotransmitter tests online that measure levels of neurotransmitters in your saliva or urine.
Many experts believe these tests are a total waste of money since there is virtually no proven connection between the levels of neurotransmitters found circulating throughout your body and those in your brain.
Neurotransmitters are not produced just in the brain — 95% of your body’s serotonin is produced and resides in your intestines! (47)
A comprehensive analysis of neurotransmitter testing concluded that there is no connection between the actual levels of neurotransmitters found in the urine and those in the brain.
This makes sense when you consider that neurotransmitters generally do not cross the blood-brain barrier.
By and large, neurotransmitters created in the brain stay in the brain and those created elsewhere in the body stay there.
Symptom-based questionnaires have been used for years to determine neurotransmitter deficiencies quite effectively.
Hopefully, what you read in this article can help you determine the neurotransmitter deficiencies that pertain to you.
But if you are still unsure which neurotransmitters are at the root of your problems, here are three free reputable quizzes to guide you toward some answers:
- Dr. Eric Braverman’s Brain Deficiency Quiz — available as a PDF.
- Dr. Mark Hyman’s The UltraMind Solution Companion Guide — available as a PDF.
- Julia Ross’s Mood Cure Questionnaire — available on MoodCure.com.
Neurotransmitter Imbalances: The Bottom Line
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers used by brain cells to communicate with each other.
They exert a great deal of control over many aspects of life.
By recognizing the symptoms of deficiencies of the most influential neurotransmitters, you can take appropriate steps to bring your brain chemicals — and your life — back into balance.