There are 5 reasons to be skeptical of lab neurotransmitter testing. Instead, learn to assess your symptoms to gauge neurochemical levels more effectively.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that brain cells use to communicate with each other.
These brain chemicals are involved in all aspects of life.
They are a factor in everything from how happy, relaxed, and motivated you are to what foods you crave and how well you sleep.
While it’s not fully understood how neurotransmitters are involved with mood and mental disorders, there’s definitely a link.
You may have heard that laboratory neurotransmitter testing can determine your levels of these important brain chemicals.
The idea is that the results can be used to help you restore proper balance with the appropriate drugs or natural therapies.
But the effectiveness of these tests is dubious.
In this article, we examine the reliability of neurotransmitter testing and then look at alternative ways to determine your neurotransmitter status.
If you are considering having your neurotransmitter levels tested, this is information you’ll want to know.
5 Reasons to Be Skeptical of Laboratory Neurotransmitter Testing
Scientists have found over a hundred neurotransmitters and more will certainly be discovered. (1)
Neurotransmitters regulate mood, cravings, addictions, energy, libido, and sleep.
They control your ability to focus, concentrate, learn, remember, and handle stress.
It’s estimated that 86% of Americans have suboptimal neurotransmitter levels — our unhealthy modern lifestyle being largely to blame. (2)
Chronic stress, poor diet, environmental toxins, drugs (prescription and recreational), alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine can cause neurotransmitter depletion.
Every lab offers a different menu of tests, but typically a neurotransmitter testing panel will encompass some or all of these major neurotransmitters: serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine, glutamate, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and GABA.
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It’s claimed that this information can be used to more effectively treat a whole gamut of brain-related disorders such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, memory loss, brain fog, mood swings, and even autism and Alzheimer’s. (3, 4)
As you might expect, the biggest proponents of neurotransmitter testing are the laboratories that sell these tests and the doctors who use them (and sometimes get a cut of the test fee).
One lab’s website tells you to “test, don’t guess.”
But are these tests any better than guessing?
Here are some compelling reasons to be skeptical.
1. Neurotransmitter testing by lab analysis can’t measure levels in the brain.
Neurotransmitter tests are performed on samples of your saliva, urine, or sometimes blood.
But no correlation has ever been established between neurotransmitter levels in the brain and the rest of the body.
Neurotransmitters that are created in the brain are used to activate brain receptors.
By and large, neurotransmitters that are created elsewhere in the body stay outside the brain since they can’t cross the brain’s filter, the blood-brain barrier.
A surprising number of neurotransmitters are produced in areas besides the brain.
A whopping 95% of your serotonin is produced in your intestines. (7)
Some neurotransmitters are not even produced by your own cells.
The bacteria that reside in your gut have been found to synthesize over 30 neurotransmitters! (8)
Balance Your Neurotransmitters to Take Control of Your Life
2. Neurotransmitter levels are constantly changing.
The amount of any given neurotransmitter present is constantly and rapidly changing.
A molecule of serotonin, for example, has a half-life of one second. (11)
Everything you do — even down to the thoughts you think — impacts your neurotransmitter status on a moment-to-moment basis.
Thus, determining overall levels of neurotransmitters is futile when, by definition, test results are based on your levels at a moment in time.
3. Neurotransmitter lab tests ignore neurotransmitter receptors and other key factors.
Even if we could accurately measure neurotransmitters in the brain, there are other factors to consider.
There are several reasons that neurotransmitters, even when present in sufficient amounts, are not well utilized and can’t do their job: (12)
- Your brain has too few neurotransmitter receptors.
- These receptors exist, but aren’t working very well.
- Other substances have bound to these receptors instead. (Many drugs and recreational substances work by binding to neurotransmitter receptors.)
Other key factors that tests don’t consider is how quickly neurotransmitters are being broken down and whether they are being appropriately recycled.
4. Commercial lab neurotransmitter testing has not held up to scientific scrutiny.
A comprehensive analysis of neurotransmitter testing concluded that there is no connection between neurotransmitters found in the urine and those in the brain.
Another study on the viability of commercial neurotransmitter testing found that these tests had no scientific foundation, and there was plenty of evidence refuting their validity. (13)
5. Neurotransmitter tests are best used as an adjunct diagnostic tool.
The best health care is part art and part science.
Even clinicians who use lab neurotransmitter testing don’t use it as a stand-alone diagnostic tool.
They use it as an adjunct to the body of knowledge they’ve acquired working with patients.
IntegrativePsychiatry.net, which sells a multitude of lab tests, is of the opinion that psychiatric disorders like depression or anxiety can be diagnosed by patient signs and symptoms, but that neurotransmitter testing can provide additional insights. (14)
Online Lab Neurotransmitter Testing
You can order do-it-yourself neurotransmitter tests online that measure neurotransmitters from a sample of your saliva or urine.
But online tests may be your worst option.
Even health care professionals who use neurotransmitter testing admit that they do not rely on test results alone and that tests results are very hard to interpret.
Some commercial labs will help you interpret test results, sometimes for an additional fee.
Here’s a screenshot of one such test showing neurotransmitter levels and commonly associated symptoms.
Keep in mind when you look at the ranges shown that there are no scientifically established norms for ideal levels of neurotransmitters. (15)
Since these test results include typical symptoms, it begs the question “If you’re experiencing these symptoms, couldn’t you match them to the corresponding neurotransmitter without the lab test?”
The answer is yes.
Symptom Assessment: The Best Way to Gauge Neurotransmitter Levels
Symptom-based questionnaires have effectively been used for years to determine neurotransmitter deficiencies.
Dr. Datis Kharrazian is an award-winning research fellow at Harvard Medical School and the Department of Neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital.
He’s also the author of the book I consider my brain health bible, Why Isn’t My Brain Working?.
Dr. Kharrazian states, “There is no scientifically validated way to test neurotransmitter levels through lab testing. The best way is to assess your symptoms.” (16)
And you can assess your symptoms right now.
Here’s a quick list of questions that link symptoms with subpar levels of four major neurotransmitters.
Read through each list and note the set of symptoms that sounds most like what you’re experiencing.
Then review the articles highlighted in the Related articles on Be Brain Fit box.
There you’ll find information on proven supplements, diet, and lifestyle habits that can help bring that neurotransmitter back into balance.
Acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter associated with learning and memory.
Here are typical signs and symptoms seen with an insufficient level of acetylcholine:
- You just aren’t as mentally sharp as you used to be.
- You regularly misplace everyday items like keys and glasses.
- You lose your train of thought during conversations.
- You often have trouble finding the right word.
- You find learning new things stressful.
- You often forget what you just read.
- Your sense of direction is poor and you frequently get lost.
- Your reaction time is slow and you sometimes drive under the speed limit.
- You crave fatty foods.
- A risk factor is the use of anticholinergic medications which block acetylcholine.
How Acetylcholine Deficiency Impacts Memory
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Dopamine is the so-called motivation molecule. It’s also in charge of our pleasure-reward system.
Common low dopamine symptoms include:
- You lack motivation and you procrastinate and leave projects unfinished.
- You need caffeine, sugar, nicotine or other stimulants to get through the day.
- You’re mentally scattered — your focus and concentration are poor.
- You’re tired, apathetic and have little zest for life.
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- You are inexplicably disinterested in the lives of those around you.
- You’ve lost your ability to feel pleasure of all kinds and have little interest in sex.
- Life seems hopeless, you feel worthless.
- You lose your temper, especially when under stress.
Dopamine Deficiency, Depression and Mental Health
NOTE: If you struggle with addictions or other self-destructive behaviors, your problem could be too much dopamine.
If that is the case, read our article How to Counter the Effects of Too Much Dopamine.
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is the brain chemical associated with relaxation. It’s been called “nature’s Valium.”
Here are some typical indicators of low GABA:
- You’re filled with dread for no apparent reason.
- You are easily overstimulated, overwhelmed, and find it hard to unwind.
- You’re always busy but have little to show for your efforts.
- You’re disorganized and usually run late.
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- You find it impossible to relax and always find something to worry about.
- Racing thoughts keep you awake at night.
- Your heart pounds or beats erratically.
- You use food, alcohol, or drugs to relax.
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Serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for happiness and positive mood.
A low serotonin level is often associated with these symptoms:
- You crave carbohydrates and sometimes binge on them.
- You have been told you’re a pessimist or that you worry too much.
- You don’t take pleasure in things you used to enjoy.
- Your thoughts are predominantly negative or obsessive.
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- You have been diagnosed with depression, an eating disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, or seasonal affective disorder.
- You are prone to anxiety and panic attacks.
- You’re a night owl who has trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep.
- You can be irritable, impatient, or angry.
- Your muscles ache but feel better with exercise.
- If you’re a woman, you have PMS (premenstrual syndrome).
Serotonin Deficiency: Signs, Symptoms, Solutions
Online Symptom-Based Neurotransmitter Tests
If you’ve gone through the above questions but are still unsure which neurotransmitters are at the root of your problems, here’s another option.
There are numerous free neurotransmitter quizzes and questionnaires available online to help you determine what your symptoms mean.
Some are better than others.
Here are three created by experts in the field to further guide you:
- Dr. Eric Braverman’s Brain Deficiency Quiz (PDF) will help you find deficiencies in acetylcholine, dopamine, GABA, and serotonin. Dr. Braverman is the founder and president of the PATH Foundation, a nonprofit organization that does research on brain health and healthy aging. The quiz is taken from the information in his bestselling book The Edge Effect.
- Dr. Mark Hyman’s The UltraMind Solution Companion Guide (PDF) is a symptom-based set of quizzes not just for neurotransmitters, but also for fatty acids, vitamin D, magnesium, zinc, inflammation, thyroid and adrenal function, gut health, and more. It is offered as a free supplement to his bestseller The UltraMind Solution.
- Julia Ross’s Mood Type Questionnaire will help you determine your serotonin, GABA, endorphins, and norepinephrine status, as well as how stable your blood sugar levels are. You can take this interactive quiz on her website MoodCure.com.
NOTE: These tests and quizzes are for your general information only. They are not a substitute for professional medical advice.
Do not alter any medications based on a quiz outcome.
If you exhibit signs of depression, an anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or any other mood disorder, please see an appropriate doctor right away.
Neurotransmitter Testing: The Bottom Line
The first neurotransmitter was discovered less than 100 years ago.
Our understanding of how they work, of the links between them and mental health disorders, and of reliable ways to test them are still in the early stages.
Maybe someday a lab test will be able to accurately tell you what’s wrong with your brain chemistry and how to fix it.
But that day is not here yet.
Until then, the best option is to use your symptoms as a guide.
Use our symptoms lists or take a professionally developed quiz to draw your own conclusions.
Then use this information to optimize your neurotransmitter levels with appropriate lifestyle measures.