What Are Neurotransmitters and How Do They Work?
The brain. Certainly one of our most fascinating organs and as you definitely know, one of the most complex. In fact, it’s always amazed me that there is still so much about the brain that we don’t yet fully understand!
Your brain is your most powerful and important organ. It's a complex machine (or just gooey grey mush if you prefer) made up of neuronal cells, blood vessels, nerves, tissues and so-called grey matter.
There has been extensive research on the brain, but what has been receiving a lot of attention of late is neurotransmitters. I bet you’ve heard of some of them – dopamine, serotonin, GABA? People hear the words “happy hormones” and what that is referring to is nothing other than neurotransmitters!
Do you sometimes shake your head and just wonder, “What was my brain thinking?!" How did you miss something, or why didn’t you absorb something you just heard or read? Why are you struggling with anxiety despite your best efforts to calm yourself and whyyyyy can’t you resist a slice of cheesecake, and then blame yourself afterwards for indulging? And why, oh why, won’t your brain let you sleep sometimes, regardless of how tired you are?! Turns out all of these actions are influenced by our neurotransmitters.
OK, so it sounds pretty complex when you research neurotransmitters. And to be fair, it kinda is. Our brains and bodies are wonderfully complex and they truly have superpowers. I’m often in awe of what the human body does every second of every day in the background to keep our machinery running.
So let me break it down as simplistically as I can, because it is important to have a basic understanding of neurons and neurontransmitters to fully understand how important it is to support your brain health. In addition, it’ll help you understand some characteristics of your own personality, because fascinating research is showing that we are all dominant in one or more specific neurotransmitters and that deficiencies in these neurontransmitters can impact our behaviour and health (I’ll get into the free online test which you can take in a bit).
So What Exactly is a Neurotransmitter?!
A neuron (or nerve cell) is an electrically “excitable” cell that basically communicates with other cells and tells them to do things. This means a neuron can be spurred into action because it has a message which it needs to relay to another cell (and that cell must act on that message).
As you can see in the picture below, each neuron has dendrites at its head and axons at its end.
A neuron will send its message from a dendrite to an axon by means of what is called an “action potential”, which is nothing other than an electrical charge imbalance. How does it send this message? With a “chemical messenger”, the neurotransmitter. Think of them as your brain’s friendly courier guy or a chemical version of the old-school postman.
Until recently, scientists believed that communication between cells was an electrical function.
It was only in the early 1900’s that it was discovered that there is a gap between neurons (the synaptic cleft) and in 1921, Otto Loewe was able to show that neurons communicate by releasing chemical messengers, the neurotransmitters.
If enough messages are received, the receiving cell jumps into action and makes the magic happen! This has implications for pharmaceutical and recreational drugs.
Drugs (think antidepressants) influences behaviour by blocking or stimulating the release of specific neurotransmitters. Cocaine, for example, blocks the re-uptake of dopamine back into a neuron, so the dopamine is left in the synaptic cleft for a longer time, eliciting a pleasurable emotional response, which could result in addiction and an eventual down-regulation of the re-uptake ability of your neurons. Once the drug wears off, you become depressed due to the decreased probability of neurotransmitters binding to a receptor.
Why are Neurotransmitters Important?
Brain hygiene is another buzz word that I hear a lot lately and it really is important to care for our brains, especially when it comes to longevity and quality of life.
We want to optimise our neurotransmitters so that they can communicate efficiently and process information in the way that you intend them to. But sadly, we often end up with inflammation in our brains that suffer decline or just feel kind of…broken. Even the best machines sometimes require some maintenance to function at their optimal best.
From a neurotransmitter perspective, we could develop a deficiency in one or a number of neurotransmitters. As an example, a deficiency in dopamine results in fatigue, memory loss, joint pain or thyroid problems, to list a few. Similarly, a serotonin deficiency could result in insomnia, brain fog, anxiety and migraines.
It’s important that we address these because we might be treating the above symptoms with all kinds of medications that will mask the symptoms but not rectify the neurotransmitter deficiency at the heart of the symptom.
The exact number of neurotransmitters in the human body are unknown, but more than 500 have been identified already. However, the most important neurotransmitters are glutamate, acetylcholine (the first neurotransmitter to be discovered), GABA, dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine and histamine.
Each neurotransmitter is associated with different functions. When we have either an excess or a deficit of either of these neurotransmitters, there are certain behavioural and physical implications. Luckily there are a number of interventions and natural products that have been shown to be able to boost neurotransmitter functioning in our brains.
- Sexual Function
- Preference for strength training over cardio
In Excess: Excessive risk-taking, Violence, Tendency to over-control
In Deficit: Fatigue, Memory Loss, Blood Sugar, Instability, Joint Pain, Depression
Products that support Dopamine: Gingko Biloba, SAMe, Rhodiola Rosea, B-Complex, Tyrosine.
- Stable nature
- Corcern for others
In Excess: People-pleaser to the extreme, crave authority, over-reliance on others
In Deficit: Anxiety, insomnia, restlessness, excessive worrying, learning disorders
Products that support GABA: Magnesium glycinate, Melatonin, L-theanine, Inositol, Niacinamide, Valerian root
- Thrive on change
- Life of the Party
In Excess: Nervousness, become hesitant, distracted, fear of interaction with others
In Deficit: Poor sleep, sadness, obsessiveness, carb cravings, brain fog
Products that support Serotonin: Magnesium glycinate, SAMe, Calcium, Fish Oil, St John’s Wort, Tryptophan, Zinc
- Information Processing
- Creative openminded
In Excess: Give too much of yourself and then feeling isolated, becoming paranoid
In Deficit: Memory loss, agitation, loss of creativity, learning disorders, anxiety
Products that support Acetylcholine: Krill oil, Acetyl-L-Carnitine, Gingko Biloba, Taurine, L-Theanine, DHA, Vitamin B12, Ginseng, Alpha GPC, CDP Choline
- Fight or Flight
In Excess: High blood pressure, excessive sweating, anxiety
In Deficit: Inability to cope with stress, low energy, abnormal temperature regulation
Products that support Noradrenaline: L-Phenylalanine, SAMe
Testing Your Neurotransmitters
There are blood tests, urine tests and spinal fluid tests for determining neurotransmitter levels. Unfortunately, these tests have a number of shortcomings. While doctors do use them for treating brain-related disorders like Alzheimer’s, ADHD, autism, depression or anxiety, it’s important to keep in mind that there are a significant amounts of neurotransmitters circulating in the body that are produced outside of the brain (eg. 95% of serotonin is produced in the gut and cannot even enter the brain) and these tests therefore cannot reflect an accurate level. Testing has been scandalised by fraud over years as testing companies were found to be manipulating test results to sell certain products.
In addition, neurotransmitters are in constant flux – some last minutes and some only for parts of a second, so any test will only show you a moment in time. There is only one recent and more accurate test of neurotransmitters, namely a DUTCH Complete panel which aims to take a number of moments in time into account and is therefore more reliable.
The Better Option?
Aside from the DUTCH test, there are self-assessments based on symptoms that have been used for decades to identify neurotransmitter imbalances.
In Why Isn’t My Brain Working, Dr Datis Kharrazian states “There is no scientifically validated way to test neurotransmitter levels through lab testing. The best way is to assess your symptoms”.
While you can have neurotransmitter imbalances and deficiencies, it should be noted that you most likely also have a neurotransmitter dominance (personality), i.e. we all naturally have higher levels of certain neurotransmitters. One of the free online tests that you can take to determine your personal dominance is at www.bravermantest.com and even answering the questions will give you good insight into the types of behaviours that are regulated by our neurotransmitters. The Braverman test is a subjective analysis of neurotransmitters and provides a snapshot of your dominant or deficient areas. It generates results on an approximation of your brain chemistry and while there is subjectivity involved, it has been shown to be a very helpful tool.
For example, if you are dopamine dominant, you’re likely a self-confident person, inventive and driven by ambition and problem-solving. Lifting weights and cross-fit will energise you far more than cardio, which you might find boring. On the flip side, you probably sleep less than you should, take overly impulsive actions and if you have a dopamine deficiency, you’ll suffer from fatigue, memory loss and even depression.
Personally, I discovered that I’m GABA dominant and also appear to have a GABA deficiency. This means I stay calm in challenging situations but that I’m also drawn to certainty and stability. A deficiency could be a contributing factor to anxiety. So it’s super interesting to take a test like this, understand yourself a bit better and consider what you can do to optimise your brain’s functioning.
Of course, these tests aren’t definitive and any recommendation for supplements or treatment should be discussed with a medical professional with due regard to any other medical conditions and/or treatments which you may already be receiving.
The Final Word
Being aware of how important it is to support our brain health is already a massive step towards investing in your future self. Alzheimer’s is being referred to as Diabetes Type III with good reason: our daily lifestyle decisions impact our future brain health in massive ways. Neurotransmitters can become damaged through poor diet and lifestyle factors (like deficient sleep).
The best way to look after our neurotransmitters is through a healthy lifestyle and smart supplementation. This includes avoiding excessive stimulants like caffeine (which is healthy in the right amounts), avoiding toxins and incorporating adequate protein and healthy fats like oleic acids and DHA into our diets.
If you look after your neurotransmitters, they’ll look after you in future!
Shop our range of premium products below, to help you support your Neurotransmitters:
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- Thea is the founder of Neolaia – Biohacking SA and passionate about all things biohacking, functional medicine, holistic and ancestral wellness. She enjoys the occasional triathlon, is fanatic about yoga and the gym and loves n=1 biohacking experiments more than anything else! Learning about the latest in scientific research for health and wellness and applying this knowledge is what makes her happiest!