I have been open about my own struggles with anxiety and depression, and now I want to share with you the next step I’m taking to reverse these mood issues so that you can understand that there are natural treatments. I have written before about how to address both depression and anxiety naturally, but this article will focus on a more targeted approach: neurotransmitter balance, a key factor in overcoming anxiety, depression, and binge behavior.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the brain that transmit signals from a neuron to a target cell across a synapse, potentiating some kind of action, whether it be inhibitory or excitatory. Serotonin and dopamine are your 2 main neurotransmitters, responsible for regulating mood, sex drive, sleep, cravings, muscle movement and concentration. Dopamine is responsible for the rush and pleasurable high involved in falling in love. Serotonin maintains mood balance and digestive function (to a certain extent). Low serotonin levels are associated with depression predominantly. GABA is another important neurotransmitter necessary for feeling calm.
Low neurotransmitters levels can cause
- Lack of focus, motivation, poor concentration, and ADD/ADHD
- Anxiety, panic attacks
- Hyperactivity and ADHD for both children and adults
- Insomnia (fatigue, problems falling asleep, tossing and turning, etc.)
- Menopause related issues (hot flashes, mood swings, night sweats)
- PMS and mood changes: mood swings, aggressiveness, irritability, sadness, lack of libido
- Weight issues and appetite control (cravings, overwhelming hunger, binging, etc.)
- Depression (sadness, lack of motivation, mood swings)
- Alcohol and drug cravings or addiction
- Migraine headaches
- Anxiety (irritability, nervous, obsessive-compulsive, insecurity, racing thoughts, restlessness)
- Libido (lack of sex drive for women and men, orgasm issues, erectile dysfunction, etc
What Causes Messed Up Brain Chemistry?
Neurotransmitter-related disorders can occur from the following:
- deficiencies: when the current levels of neurotransmitters are unable to properly relay the electrical signal from one nerve cell (neuron) to the next. Can be caused by dietary deficiencies or low protein diets (your body uses amino acids from protein to make neurotransmitters)
- trauma or brain injury that damaged neuron bundles; toxicity from heavy metals or chemicals that cross the blood-brain barrier and cause neuron bundle damage
- a genetic issue: if you’re born with a predisposition to low brain chemicals.
For me personally, I have 2 out of these 3 factors: deficiency and genetic predisposition. And now that I think about it, there was that time I got kicked in the head by a horse! Maybe I have all 3 factors working against me.
In my quest to balance my thyroid, adrenals, and female hormones, I’ve done the same saliva testing and protocols that I recommend to my clients. But something still wasn’t right. Then I realized I hadn’t addressed an important piece of the endocrine system: the neurological component!
Your endocrine system is a collection of glands that’s responsible for hormone balance: your adrenals, thyroid, and ovaries, most notably. Your brain is an important part of this picture: your hypothalamus and pituitary in the brain give your endocrine system signals to release hormones. The neuroendocrine system exists in a feedback loop, and when that loop gets frayed and stops communicating properly (typically as a result of high cortisol/chronic stress), hormone imbalance and low brain chemicals are the result.
For me, this frayed feedback loop resulted in hypothyroidism, female hormone imbalance, burnout, periodic depression, anxiety, low mood, bad PMS symptoms, and lack of motivation. I worked on the hormone balance piece, but as I mentioned, I didn’t get the results I wanted because I was missing the brain chemistry piece.
So, I tested my main neurotransmitters, a simple urine test.
My eyes almost popped out of my head when I got the results back. Every single neurotransmitter tested was abysmally low. They should be in the 80 percentile range, and mine are mostly all around the 5% range. Finally, this explained it! I felt so relieved but knew I had a lot of work to do to repair the deficiencies.
So. How Did I Get Here?
Depression, addiction, anxiety, ADD, and the conditions mentioned above can result from genetics or from exposure to toxins, poor lifestyle choices, brain trauma, or poor diet. In my case, there was a genetic component and also poor self care in my 20s: staying up all night partying, drinking to excess, missing sleep, burning the candle at both ends. To add insult to injury, I was a vegetarian for 13 years during my teens and 20s, so I lacked the essential amino acids from proteins needed to make neurotransmitters. AND I took hormonal birth control for 10 years, which no doubt contributed to further deficiency and hormone imbalance. I have depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and hypothyroidism all over my family, so certainly there was a genetic component too.
I’ve always been prone to sugar binge behavior since I can remember, mostly fighting it with sheer willpower and a great diet that provided me with enough nutrients to ward off cravings for the most part. However, with addiction in particular, if one is predisposed to food or substance abuse, that substance (food, alcohol, drugs, nicotine) actually makes the person feel normal and balanced. The person craves the substance on a physiological level to achieve homeostasis because the body isn’t producing the proper amounts of its own feel-good neurotransmitters, so the person seeks feel-good chemicals from outside sources. Alcohol, food, or drugs actually plug up the receptors in our brains that should be filled by neurotransmitters to make us feel good. Then the person craves these substances to feel normal. This is not an issue of willpower, folks–it is a physiological, biochemical issue.
What I’m Doing to Restore Neurotransmitter Balance
Please note that you must work with a practitioner to determine the proper protocol for you, based on your results.
I’m taking 2 amino acid formulas, Kavinace and Travagen, to restore GABA and promote calmness and restful sleep. They’re formulated with B vitamin co-factors and nutrients so they work properly. Then I’ll add in Travacor (for serotonin balance), DopaBoost to boost dopamine, and Adrecore for adrenal balance.
I’m also taking Thyroxal, a compounded thyroid hormone support supplement, dessicated liver (because I loathe liver but love the benefits!), trace minerals to boost adrenal and thyroid function, and a multi.
I’m boosting protein and good fats for neurotransmitter and hormone balance, getting plenty of leafy greens, and lots of broth for gut health. After all, if you’re not absorbing what you’re eating, what good will it do?
I’m really focusing on lifestyle: getting 8-9 hours sleep (been sleeping like a baby thanks to Kavinace!), managing stress (read about the meditation practice I started), and my usual exercise program.
How Do I Prevent This from Happening Again?
When I work with clients to help them restore balance, one of the most frequent questions I get is, “How do I prevent this from happening again?” Once you’ve followed your protocol, taken the supplements, and worked hard to make lifestyle adjustments, how do you maintain benefits?
Focusing on healthy lifestyle habits is THE most important factor. We’re all going to go through stressful periods, but there are ways you can deal with stress so your health stays intact. Read how here. Make sure you’re sleeping well and exercising.
Gut health is also very important. There is a strong connection between the health of the gut and the health of the brain, and 80-90 percent of your serotonin is produced in your gut! If you experience bloating, gas, belching, heartburn, constipation, frequent diarrhea, or indigestion, work on healing your gut so you absorb everything you’re eating, reduce inflammation, and ensure you have proper amounts of good bacteria. Here are more posts on healing leaky gut, treating parasites, SIBO, and candida. Read more here about the gut-brain connection.
Diet is also key: get enough high quality protein, good fats, and plenty of veggies, bone broth, and probiotic foods. Watch sugar and booze intake.
Finally, this stuff is really complicated, so don’t go it alone. Find a naturopath and a nutritionist to help you put the pieces together. I have over 10 years of experience with this stuff, and I still needed help!
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.