Healing Your Brain – Your Personal NeuroChemistry

The chemicals which run your brain, and ultimately determine your mood, your personality and your ability to learn and remember, are called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are built in the body from the amino acids found in proteins. Deficiencies of neurotransmitters cause many symptoms including depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, panic, phobias, Alzheimers and obsessive compulsive disorder. The drugs which correct neurotransmitter deficiencies are usually called antidepressants and antianxiety agents, and are the largest class of drugs prescribed in America. More than 170 million prescriptions for antidepressants alone were written in 2005. However these drugs are not without risks. Weight gain and sexual dysfunction are some of the most common. A recent study of women found heart disease greatly increased in those on antidepressants. Suicide is also listed as a black box warning meaning that people already being treated for depression are considered by the FDA to be put at an even greater risk for suicide when given antidepressants. Given this long list of side effects it seems that the prudent person would look for alternatives for treatment of depression.

If depression is understood as a symptom, not as a disease, it becomes easier to look for its causes. Causes of depression can be nutrient deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, digestive dysfunction, allergies, heavy metal toxicity and emotional trauma and stress. Toxic metals such as mercury, cadmium and lead , PCBs, fertilizers and pesticides, electromagnetic fields (EMF),microwave radiation, and violent films and loud music, assault our brain health every day , damage neurons and decrease our neurotransmitter levels. Any one of these causes can contribute to a lowering of the neurotransmitters the brain needs to function properly leading to such symptoms as depression, anxiety and obsessional thinking.

There are four main neurotransmitter groups – dopamine, serotonin, GABA and acetylcholine . Amino acids are the raw material precursors to the neurotransmitters. The dopamine system facilitates attention, focus and pleasure. Tyrosine, phenylalanine and dopa, all amino acids, are transformed into the neurotransmitter dopamine. Needing caffeine to focus and finish tasks may indicate a need for dopamine. Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and self destruction can also be associated with dopamine deficiency. Wellbutrin and Ritalin increase dopamine. Cocaine also increases dopamine. Seratonin relates to our ability to experience joy and to sleep restfully. Tryptophan and 5-HTP are the amino acid precursors of serotonin. Lose of enjoyment of usual activities, irritability and even rage as well as difficulty sleeping can all be related to serotonin deficiency. Prozac, Zoloft and LexaPro are some of the antidepressants used to increase serotonin. Acetylcholine comes from choline, phosphatidylserine and n-acetyl carnitine. The acetylcholine group has to do with both verbal and visual memory as well as ability to process numbers and is decreased in dementia. Glutamine converts to GABA. The GABA system has to do with panic and anxiety. Inability to make everyday decisions and knots in the stomach are related to deficiencies of GABA or to too much glutamate. Klonapin, Xanex and Ambiens are typical pharmacological drugs which increase GABA in the brain.

There are other ways to increase neurotransmitters other than antidepressants. In fact, antidepressants don’t actually increase the neurotransmitters in your brain, they merely recycle what is already there. That is one reason why people on long term antidepressants often need to switch to another after several years. It would seem that a better way to increase the neurotransmitters in the brain would be to feed the body the protein and minerals it needs to make neurotransmitters. Diet is a good foundation to support brain. Exercise is a proven brain chemical booster, as are stress reduction, meditation, and prayer.

By supplying the right balance of amino acid precursors and cofactors we can increase the available pool of neurotransmitters. This has been studied and a database of over 1.5 million patient hours has shown that the proper combination of these amino acids can lead to significant relief of symptoms in patients suffering from depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity and obsessive compulsive disease. For some people diet, exercise and stress reduction will be enough to treat their mood disorder. For others targeted amino acid therapy along with nutritional supplementation and hormone balancing will be needed. If the side effects of antidepressants seem depressing it is worth exploring these other alternatives.


Mary Ackerley MD, MDH, ABIHM is a board certified psychiatrist specializing in hormone replacement, depression, anxiety and natural weight loss.

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