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Brain Chemistry 101

Monday, March 18, 2019

It is a part and parcel of who we are to go through periods of sadness or depression. But for some people, the struggles often don’t end with the event that triggered the sadness. Nowadays, more and more people are suffering from depression and other mental ailments, and the explanation goes well beyond a single reason, or an individual's inability to be happy or find strength in everyday life.  In fact, many mental health problems that we face can be understood from a chemical standpoint.

The brain is essentially the chemical factory of the body, producing the hormones that keep our bodies growing and sending out all the messages to keep our limbs moving. So it’s to be expected that in some cases, this factory might face some difficulties while doing its job. After all, we are beings of flesh, blood and imperfection, not machines. But those imperfections are what give us the endurance and the passion to persevere against all odds and struggle even through the toughest of times.

With that, let’s get back to the topic at hand. What are some of the mental health problems that are now becoming more common and the chemicals involved?

Well, there’s depression of various types. One of the more severe ailments that some people face is Bipolar Disorder, usually marked by intense and often uncontrollable, periodic mood swings and personality shifts. Anxiety and frequent panic attacks can also be extremely disruptive, and can affect a person’s ability to function normally and interact with other people.

There are also a large number of people who suffer from memory loss, both long and short term, which can also be caused by an irregular production of chemicals in the brain (when not caused by head injuries or drugs, pharmaceutical or other). Even addiction has been linked to altered brain chemistry. These problems can affect people of all ages, races and backgrounds, particularly older people. 

So when we talk about brain chemistry we are basically talking about hormones, and neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters are the messengers of the body, letting the various organs know how the brain wants them to act through nerve impulses. These neurotransmitters can be huge determinants in our emotions. The following are a few of the main hormones our brains produce that affect our emotional state: 

Dopamine: This hormone is the communicator between neurons and nerve cells. It is also the chemical that controls our motor function and drive. It is the hormone that keeps you motivated, active and focused on the task at hand and the world around you. Needless to say, it is a very important neurotransmitter, and lower levels of dopamine can result in depression, fatigue and anxiety. High levels of dopamine, on the other hand, can result in addiction, largely because most addictive substances, from video games and coffee, to alcohol and narcotics, are usually designed to increase dopamine levels drastically. 

MelatoninThis is the hormone that helps you sleep at night. It is produced by the pineal gland located in the center of the brain. Our sleep cycles in general are regulated by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), a center in the hypothalamus that sends signals to other parts of the brain. On exposure to darkness, the pineal gland receives a signal from the SCN and begins to actively produce melatonin. As the melatonin levels in your blood stream increase, you steadily become drowsier. And the internal clock of the human body is usually pretty strict, as melatonin normally stays in the body all night. Irregular production of melatonin can result in insomnia, fatigue and even depression in cases of excessive sleeping.

OxytocinThis is another hormone from the hypothalamus with the assistance of the pituitary gland. It plays a major role in how we interact with people and react to sexual arousal, giving it the name “the love hormone”. It can also affect our ability to trust and high amounts can lead to anxiety and even addictive tendencies. It also has gender specific effects, affecting the production of testosterone in the testes, as well as playing a large role in the process of labor and childbirth.  

EndorphinThis is a chemical group the body produces to give you an almost morphine-like rush. That is why many athletes often experience what is called the “runner’s high”, a sense of euphoria caused by increased production of endorphins due to vigorous exercise. This hormone affects the way the human body perceives pain and can act as an analgesic and a natural pain reliever.  In some cases, it even works as a sedative, allowing the body to rest after completion of a strenuous activity. 

Adrenaline:  Also known as epinephrine, this hormone is produced in the center of the adrenal glands known as the medulla. Adrenaline can also be produced by certain neurons in the central nervous system. Once in the bloodstream, it can have varying effects on different organs, usually activating the “fight or flight” instinct in the body. Adrenaline can affect the body in numerous different ways, from enlarging of the pupils to increasing the heart rate and blood flow to different areas of the body. As you can guess, low levels of this hormone could make your lethargic, while too much can make your body and mind go into overdrive.

 Acetylcholine:  This is one very important neurotransmitter, and in fact, was among the first neurotransmitters discovered by scientists. Found commonly in both the central and peripheral nervous system, what makes this chemical of such importance is that it stimulates the contraction of our muscles. Essentially all behavior and almost all movement results from how this particular neurotransmitter sends its message, and what that message is. Naturally, if this hormone is in large or short supply, it can lead to some strange and almost unexplainable behavior. 

Gamma- Aminobutryic Acid (GABA)This neurotransmitter plays the very important role of a neural inhibitor and regulator, reducing, where possible, the activities of nerve cells and neurons.  In that way Gamma-Aminobutryic Acid is an essential determinant of our cognitive abilities and behavior. They work to keep neurons from becoming overexcited, which could potentially reduce anxiety and panic.  A low-level of this neurotransmitter can cause disorders ranging from insomnia, to depression and even schizophrenia. 

Putting it all together:   Most chemicals produced by the brain are also found in numerous foods, and when deficient in foods, in nutritional supplements, so it's important to eat carefully and healthily. 

Spencer Thornton, MD, and the Biosyntrx staff