You may be one of the millions of Americans who has longstanding problems with mood, sleep, concentration or weight. Or you may have a medical condition that seems difficult to diagnose or treat, such as brain fog, fibromyalgia or panic attacks. If any of the preceding applies to you, consider testing your neurotransmitters to determine if a biochemical imbalance underlies your symptoms.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that relay signals between nerves and convert electrical impulses into action. They are produced from amino acids and work widely throughout the body, affecting processes such as pain perception, appetite and heart rate. When out of balance, symptoms can occur, ranging from mild forgetfulness to serious illnesses such as epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease.
Neurotransmitters can be divided into two types – excitatory and inhibitory. Excitatory neurotransmitters stimulate the brain and other organs. They include epinephrine, noradrenaline and glutamate. When these neurotransmitters dominate, they can cause anxiety, ADHD and high blood pressure. Inhibitory neurotransmitters are calming. Some examples are serotonin, GABA and glycine. When they are low, depression, carbohydrate craving and addiction may result.
The anti-depressant medications Prozac and Zoloft work to maintain the level of serotonin available to receptor nerve cells. These drugs are successful in treating the symptoms of depression in some people, but not in others. If an individual has dysfunction utilizing serotonin, the drug is more likely to be effective than if the symptoms arise from a different chemical pathway. Checking neurotransmitter levels allows your health care practitioner to personalize a plan that corrects your specific imbalances.
Medication is not always necessary for treatment. Since neurotransmitters can be depleted by stress, poor diet, high sodium intake, alcohol consumption and caffeine use, addressing these contributory factors is of utmost importance. Nutritional supplements also play a role by providing your body with the raw materials it needs to produce neurotransmitters, such as vitamin C to support the adrenal glands and vitamin B6 for making melatonin.
Neurotransmitters are tested using a urine sample. You will be given the supplies you need to collect the sample at home and mail it to the lab for analysis. The results will be sent to your doctor, who can then devise a plan to address the root cause of your discomfort rather than masking the symptoms.
Dr. Jessica Needle is a naturopathic doctor practicing at Optimal Health Center in Palm Desert and can be reached at (760) 568.2598.