Brain chemistry and the gut:
I have written before about the gut-brain connection when it comes to mood disorders, and much exciting research is being done today about the complex web of brain chemistry relating to human psychology and health. Mood disorders such as chronic depression, anxiety and phobias all reflect the delicate balance of chemicals and pathways in the brain and central nervous system. This balance involves neurotransmitters, most of which are manufactured in the GI (gastrointestinal) tract, liver and skin. Neurotransmitters have roles not only in mood, but also sleep and immune function, among others. This is why GI distress and mood disorders seem to go hand in hand with each other. They are intimately connected.
Where do neurotransmitters come from anyway?
Synthesis of neurotransmitters requires specific nutrients, in particular, amino acids. These are the building blocks, typically coming from proteins in the diet, which are then broken down in the GI tract during digestion. Problems can occur when the diet is deficient or the digestive system is compromised in some way. The GI tract can become dysfunctional for many reasons, including lack of sufficient enzymes for proper digestion or by inflammatory processes that damage the cells in the mucosal lining. In many cases, both occur. Most people in our culture simply don’t eat enough whole raw organic foods (with all the enzymes intact), to meet the needs of the body. As a result, the pancreas has to produce more enzymes for digestion. This can lead to an improper response to inflammation as the pancreas struggles to make enough enzymes for both digestion and inflammatory processes. The cycle of inflammation and deficiency of amino acids and enzymes can be difficult to break. When the pancreas cannot keep up, and/or the GI tract is inflamed, proper supplementation can be useful, but should be managed by a doctor who is skilled in this therapy.
How do neurotransmitters become deficient?
Even with a healthy diet, excessive neurotransmitter loss can occur as a result of food and chemical sensitivities, and also lack of sunlight. Exposure to UV rays is important for neurotransmitter production in several ways. For example, during daylight hours, the body manufactures serotonin from amino acids in the gut. The amount produced is directly related to the amount of UV light penetrating the retina in direct sun exposure. In short, more sun exposure means more serotonin production. (Serotonin synthesis also correlates with Vitamin D production, which occurs in the skin during UV light exposure.)
In dark hours serotonin is broken down into melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep cycle. If serotonin is deficient or if the brain steals serotonin stores to increase melatonin production (as may happen with sleep deprivation), a self-perpetuating cycle can occur in which depression and insomnia worsen until balance is restored.
What can be done to balance neurotransmitters in the brain?
The four major neurotransmitters used by the brain are serotonin, epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine. There are different philosophical approaches to treating neurotransmitter imbalances. Pharmaceutical medicines function by blocking uptake of one or more, causing the body to recycle its own stores, eventually causing a functional deficiency. This is why the effects of anti-depressant drugs often diminish over time. Another approach, the one utilized most often in our clinic, is to test for neurotransmitter deficiencies and then supplement the appropriate amino acids and enzymes as needed. A diet aimed at healing the mucosal lining of the GI tract is essential. We often use botanicals to enhance this process. Finally, as in all things, proper exercise and stress management are needed to allow for and maintain healing. Using this approach, which is both nourishing and restorative, I have seen many patients recover from insomnia, depression, anxiety and other mood disorders. If you would like more information about this subject, please contact us; we will be happy to supply you with resources.
Dr. Ellen Sauter is a naturopathic physician practicing general family medicine at The Benchmark Clinic of Integrative Medicine in NW Portland. She specializes in chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, digestive disorders and balancing brain chemistry. She can be reached at 503-223-7067 or contact us here.