An imbalance of neurotransmitters can lead to problems with mood, memory, addictions, energy, 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 nerve cells, or neurons. (1)
These brain cells communicate with each other via chemical messengers called neurotransmitters.
For a chemical to qualify as a neurotransmitter, it must meet certain criteria. (2)
It must be found and produced inside the brain and there must be receptors specific for it alone.
A simple analogy for the system of neurotransmitters and receptors is that it works somewhat like a lock and key.
Types of Neurotransmitters
Scientists have found over a hundred of these brain chemicals and believe that more will be discovered. (3)
There is more than one way to categorize the known neurotransmitters.
One common way to classify them is by their chemical structure.
This puts them into categories like amino acids, peptides, and monoamines.
Another way they are often categorized is by their function — whether they are excitatory or inhibitory.
Inhibitory neurotransmitters decrease the likelihood that a nerve impulse will fire, whereas excitatory neurotransmitters increase the chances.
However, this division is not clear-cut since some neurotransmitters can either excite or inhibit depending on the type of receptor available. (4)
What Neurotransmitters Do
Neurotransmitters regulate your mood, motivation, cravings, energy, libido, and sleep.
They control your ability to focus, concentrate, learn, remember, and handle stress.
In many ways, they shape how you live your life and who you are.
They send messages to your autonomic nervous system which controls involuntary actions like breathing, heart rate, and digestion.
Abnormal neurotransmitter activity is responsible for many nervous system diseases and psychiatric disorders.
How Neurotransmitters Work
Neurons do not touch each other; there is a microscopic space between them.
Thousands of neurotransmitter molecules are packaged into small sacks on the ends of neurons and get released into this space.
Neurotransmitter molecules then have the potential to bind with receptors on the adjacent neuron.
This is how these cells communicate with each other.
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Causes of Neurotransmitter Imbalance
It’s estimated that nearly 90% of us have subpar neurotransmitter levels. (5)
Lifestyle factors certainly play a big role in this.
Chronic stress, poor diet, environmental toxins, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and recreational drugs are major culprits. (6)
Underlying health conditions such as hormone imbalances, chronic inflammation, thyroid diseases, and blood sugar disorders can also cause neurotransmitter imbalances. (7)
You can be genetically predisposed to certain neurotransmitter imbalances. (8)
And lastly, there are entire classes of prescription drugs and over-the-counter remedies that work by altering neurotransmitter levels.
For example, drugs that are dopaminergic work by increasing dopamine activity, while those that are anticholinergic block the synthesis of acetylcholine.
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What Neurotransmitter “Imbalance” or “Deficiency” Really Means
You’ll often read about “neurotransmitter imbalances,” “low neurotransmitter levels,” or “neurotransmitter deficiencies.”
We use these terms too, but the reality is not this simple and these phrases are not technically accurate.
A better phrase would be “abnormal neurotransmission activity.”
" By recognizing the symptoms of abnormal activity of the most influential neurotransmitters, you can take appropriate steps to bring your brain chemicals — and your life — back into balance.
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.
What is known is that certain clusters of symptoms are linked to below average neurotransmitter activity.
Each neurotransmitter is a part of a neurotransmitter system which includes the neurotransmitters themselves, their receptor sites, and neurons.
So whenever you see a phrase like “neurotransmitter imbalance,” realize that this is a shortcut that means one or more of the following is happening:
- Too little of the neurotransmitter is being made or its 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.
The “Big Four” Neurotransmitters and How to Balance Them
There are over 100 known neurotransmitters, but just a handful do most of the body’s work. (9)
While all neurotransmitters are important, the “big four” are serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine, and GABA.
These are responsible for most mood disorders and problems with memory and focus — which may be why you are here!
It’s important to know where your imbalances lie before you start taking measures to rectify the situation.
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.
Many drugs, including antidepressants, also work this way.
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 are not doing you any good and could even be making your imbalance worse.
Here’s an overview of each of the four major neurotransmitters, including symptoms of imbalances and steps you can take to optimize your neurotransmitter levels.
Serotonin: The “Happiness Molecule”
Of all the neurotransmitters, serotonin has gotten 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:
- eating disorders
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
- seasonal affective disorder
The most commonly prescribed antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) which are believed to help depression by increasing serotonin levels.
(In fact, it’s not fully understood exactly how SSRIs work.)
Symptoms of low serotonin include:
- binge eating
- carbohydrate cravings
- digestive disorders
- low libido
- low self-esteem
Men and women manifest symptoms of a low serotonin level somewhat differently.
Women are much more likely to experience mood disorders and carb cravings, while men are more likely to be impulsive, have attention problems, and drink alcohol in excess.
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.
Eating carbohydrates separately — 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 to increase serotonin than the tryptophan found in food.
Other supplements that raise serotonin levels include:
- B complex vitamins
- omega-3 essential fatty acids
- Rhodiola rosea
5-HTP is often recommended to increase serotonin, but it’s not our top choice.
A review of over 100 studies on 5-HTP concluded that there is still no real evidence that it alleviates depression. (12)
But even more important is that it’s not intended for long-term use and should never be taken with antidepressants, sedatives, or natural remedies that can increase serotonin such as kava, valerian, SAM-e or St. John’s wort. (13)
When taken together, these substances can lead to a potentially serious condition called serotonin syndrome.
Daily exercise, sufficient sleep, and exposure to sunshine can increase serotonin levels too.
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Dopamine: The “Motivation Molecule”
Dopamine is quickly gaining on serotonin as the most talked-about neurotransmitter.
It has been called the “motivation molecule.”
It provides the drive and focus you need to do what needs to be done.
Dopamine is so critical to motivation that dopamine-deficient lab mice become apathetic to the point where they’ll literally starve even when food is readily available. (14)
Dopamine has another important role as the brain chemical in charge of the body’s pleasure-reward system.
Dopamine is released when your needs are about to be met and delivers a feeling of satisfaction when you’ve accomplished your goals. (15)
If you’ve lost your zest for life or find yourself engaging in self-destructive behaviors to feel good, your dopamine level may be low.
Signs of low dopamine include:
- inability to experience pleasure
- low energy and motivation
- low libido
Dopamine deficiency can manifest as a lethargic and apathetic form of depression unlike the anxiety-ridden depression linked to low serotonin. (16)
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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 fix from behavioral 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.
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.
Besides animal food products, other foods that increase dopamine include: (17)
- green leafy vegetables
Two of the most popular beverages, coffee and green tea, increase dopamine.
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 as well.
An excellent supplement to start with is l-tyrosine, the precursor to dopamine.
- Ginkgo biloba
- Mucuna pruriens (velvet bean or cowhage)
Bacopa monnieri, a traditional Indian Ayurvedic herb, helps normalize dopamine production up or down as needed. (23)
This makes bacopa an excellent choice for balancing dopamine levels, especially for those who suspect that they have too much dopamine.
And since dopamine is released when you accomplish a goal, taking on new challenges helps raise dopamine levels.
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.
Acetylcholine: The “Molecule of Memory and Learning”
Acetylcholine, the first neurotransmitter to be discovered, is essential for learning and memory.
Symptoms of acetylcholine deficiency are typical of “senior moments” — struggling to remember, focus, follow plots, and find the right words.
But these symptoms can occur regardless of age.
Acetylcholine levels are significantly lower in Alzheimer’s patients.
Acetylcholine activity is the target of Alzheimer’s drugs, which attempt to slow the progression of cognitive decline by blocking the breakdown of acetylcholine.
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How to Increase Acetylcholine
If you are low in acetylcholine, you may find yourself craving fatty foods.
If so, pay attention!
Your brain is urgently trying to tell you something.
The best way to increase acetylcholine is to quit your low-fat diet and start eating healthy fats.
Alarmingly, 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. (26)
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. (27)
If you’re a coffee drinker, consider switching to tea which slows the breakdown of acetylcholine. (28)
Not all forms of choline supplements effectively raise acetylcholine levels, but there are a few that do.
It has been found to improve memory and cognition in Alzheimer’s patients. (31)
Another form of choline that increases acetylcholine is citicoline.
Citicoline also increases blood flow to the brain, brain plasticity, and the capacity to grow new brain cells. (32)
It is used therapeutically to treat a wide variety of serious brain disorders including age-related cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. (33)
Other supplements that naturally increase acetylcholine levels are huperzine-A, derived from Chinese club moss, American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), and gotu kola (Centella asiatica).
The last tip for increasing acetylcholine is to avoid anticholinergic drugs.
These are drugs that destroy acetylcholine; they are surprisingly common.
A good rule of thumb is that any medication that starts with “anti” is likely to affect your acetylcholine level — antibiotics, antihistamines, and antidepressants, for example.
GABA: “Nature’s Valium”
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a neurotransmitter that’s been dubbed “nature’s Valium” for its positive role in relaxation.
This brain chemical normally inhibits brain activity on an as-needed basis, but when you’re low in GABA, your brain gets stuck in the “on” position.
Typical symptoms of low GABA are being easily stressed out, overstimulated, and overwhelmed.
Other signs and symptoms of a GABA deficiency are lying awake with racing thoughts, feeling dread for no particular reason, and experiencing heart palpitations, cold hands, and shortness of breath.
A low GABA level is associated with anxiety disorders and panic attacks, as well as physical disorders with an emotional component such as irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease. (36)
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 can do the trick.
Good food sources of GABA include: (37)
- brown rice
- sprouted grains
- sweet potatoes
Fermented foods like unpasteurized yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and miso also raise GABA levels. (38)
GABA supplements are available, but may be of limited use since, theoretically, GABA is too large a molecule to cross from the bloodstream into the brain.
Though it seems that GABA supplementation works well for some people.
The only way to know for sure if it will work for you is to give it a try.
If supplemental GABA doesn’t work for you, consider taurine.
This is an amino acid that activates GABA receptors in the brain and encourages the formation of GABA. (39)
Probiotic supplements that contain Lactobacillus rhamnosus markedly improve GABA levels. (40)
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. (41)
Picamilon is considered a smart drug among college students who use it to boost memory, focus, and overall mental function.
In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration decided it was more drug-like than supplement-like and pulled it from store shelves, so it is no longer readily available in the US. (42)
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%. (43)
Should You Get Your Neurotransmitter Levels Tested?
It may seem like a good idea to get your neurotransmitter levels tested so that you know where you stand.
You could work with a doctor who believes in the value of neurotransmitter testing.
Or you can order do-it-yourself neurotransmitter tests online that measure levels of neurotransmitters in your saliva or urine.
But be forewarned that a comprehensive analysis of neurotransmitter testing concluded that there is no connection between the levels of neurotransmitters found in the urine and those found in the brain.
Currently, the scientific consensus is that these tests are a waste since there is no proven correlation between the levels of neurotransmitters found circulating throughout the body 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.
For example, 95% of your body’s serotonin is produced in your intestines — and that’s where it stays. (44)
For all of these reasons, assessing symptoms is still the best way to determine the status of neurotransmitter levels.
Use Symptom-Based Neurotransmitter Questionnaires Instead
Symptom-based questionnaires have been used for years to determine neurotransmitter deficiencies quite effectively.
Hopefully, what you’ve read in this article has helped you determine which neurotransmitter imbalances pertain to you.
But if you are still unsure, here are a few more reputable places to get help.
Harvard researcher Datis Kharrazian, PhD, DHSc, has summarized the symptoms of poor neurotransmitter activity for the four main neurotransmitters on his website DrKNews.com.
If you really want to dig deep into understanding the role of neurotransmitters and how to optimize brain health and function, I highly recommend his book Why Isn’t My Brain Working?.
Mark Hyman, MD, is the Director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine.
His The UltraMind Solution Companion Guide contains quizzes for serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and acetylcholine and is available as a PDF.
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, talk to an appropriate health care professional right away.
Balancing Neurotransmitters: Take the Next Step
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 abnormal activity of the most influential neurotransmitters, you can take appropriate steps to bring your brain chemicals — and your life — back into balance.
Fortunately, there are many natural ways to balance neurotransmitter levels with food, supplements, exercise, meditation, and other healthy lifestyle adjustments.