Revivelife Clinic I Naturopath in Ottawa

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What are neurotransmitters?

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that carry, boost and balance signals between neurons (nerve cells) and target cells throughout the body. These target cells may be other neurons, glands or muscles. Your brain’s billions of nerve cells make trillions of back-and-forth transmissions with each other. Neurotransmitters help regulate breathing, heartbeat, mental performance, mood, motivation, focus, energy levels, immunity, sleep, pain response and ability to respond to stressful situations. Neurotransmitters help the brain balance the highs and lows of feelings and manage the hormonal signals that are sent to other organs in the body.

In order for neurons to send messages throughout the body, they need to be able to communicate with one another to transmit signals. However, neurons are not simply connected to one another. At the end of each neuron is a tiny gap called a synapse and in order to communicate with the next cell, the signal needs to be able to cross this small space. This occurs through a process known as neurotransmission.

What are common health concerns linked to neurotransmitter imbalances?

  • Migraines
  • Brain Fog (loss of focus)
  • Insomnia
  • Fibromyalgia (localized pain)
  • Diabetes and Pre-Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Mood Disorders
  • Anxiety
  • PTSD
  • Hormone Imbalances

Which neurotransmitters are linked to common mood disorders?

  • Anxiety & Depression: Neurotransmitter imbalances are often associated with anxiety and depression, specifically Glutamate (panic attacks), PEA, Histamine, Serotonin, as well as Epinephrine & Norepinephrine.
  • Behavioural Addictions (binge eating, gambling, etc.) Dopamine imbalances are most often associated with additions.
  • Chronic Fatigue: An imbalance between excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters can lead to persistent fatigue.
  • Impulsivity: GABA, Dopamine and Serotonin are three chemical messengers commonly linked to disorders like ADD, ADHD & OCD.
  • Insomnia: Imbalances in Glutamate, Histamine, Dopamine, GABA and Serotonin are often linked to sleep disturbances and insomnia.
  • PMS or PMDD: Imbalances in Serotonin, Dopamine, Norepinephrine and GABA are often involved in cases of PMDD (pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder) and severe PMS.

To understand more in detail let’s take a look at neurotransmitters. Key neurotransmitters and their actions include:1


A hormone and neurotransmitter, serotonin regulates sleep, appetite, mood , sexuality and aggression. High stress, insufficient nutrients, fluctuating hormones and the use of stimulant medications or caffeine can contribute to the depletion of serotonin over time. Mood medications often target elevating serotonin levels. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a type of antidepressant medication commonly prescribed to treat depression, anxiety, panic disorder, and panic attacks. SSRIs work to balance serotonin levels by blocking the reuptake of serotonin in the brain, which can help improve mood and reduce feelings of anxiety.2

  • Low Serotonin Symptoms: When serotonin is out of range, depression, anxiety, worry, obsessive thoughts and behaviors, carbohydrate cravings, PMS, difficulty with pain control, and sleep cycle disturbances can result.
  • High Serotonin Symptoms: (Serotonin Syndrome – often caused by overmedication): agitation or restlessness, confusion, rapid heart rate and high blood pressure, dilated pupils, loss of muscle coordination or twitching muscles, muscle rigidity, heavy sweating and or diarrhea.

Commonly known as the feel-good neurotransmitter, dopamine is largely responsible for regulating the pleasure reward pathway, motivation, memory and coordination of body movements.3 It can be both inhibitory and excitatory. Memory issues are common with both elevations and depressions in dopamine levels. Several types of addictive drugs increase dopamine levels in the brain. Caffeine and other stimulants, such as medications for ADD/ADHD, often improve focus by increasing dopamine release, although continual stimulation of this release can deplete dopamine over time. Parkinson’s disease, which is a degenerative disease that results in tremors and motor movement impairments, is caused by the loss of dopamine-generating neurons in the brain.

  • Low Dopamine Symptoms: Common symptoms associated with low dopamine levels include loss of motor control, cravings, compulsions, loss of satisfaction and addictive behaviors (in an unconscious attempt to self-medicate) including: drug and alcohol use, smoking cigarettes, gambling, over-exercising and overeating. Parkinson’s disease, which is a degenerative disease that results in tremors and motor movement impairments, is caused by the loss of dopamine-generating neurons in the brain.
  • High Dopamine Symptoms: Hyperactivity or anxiety and have been observed in patients with schizophrenia. High dopamine may also be related to autism, mood swings, psychosis and attention disorders. L-DOPA is a precursor to dopamine and is used therapeutically for low dopamine conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. These medications can cause elevations in dopamine.

This naturally occurring amino acid helps to calm the body and balances the excitatory action of other neurotransmitters. GABA contributes to vision, motor control, and plays a role in the regulation of anxiety. The anxiety drugs such as the Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Librium, Klonopin, Tranxene, Valium, Prosom, Dalmane, Ativan) function by increasing the efficiency of GABA neurotransmitters, to promote a state of relaxation and calmness. Natural ways to increase GABA include vigorous exercise.4 Other benefits of exercise include switching on a regenerative substance in the brain called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) – helping to create new and healthy brain cells and increases neuroplasticity, which helps prevent anxiety and depression.4 Magnesium, Vitamin B6 (also boosts serotonin), and mind-body movements are additional ways to increase GABA naturally.5-7

  • High GABA Symptoms: sluggish energy, feelings of sedation, and foggy thinking.
  • Low GABA Symptoms: dysregulation of the adrenal stress response, impulsivity, anxiety, and even seizure disorders. Alcohol as well as benzodiazepine drugs act on GABA receptors and imitate the effects of GABA. Though these substances don’t cause an increase in GABA levels, understanding their mechanism can give us additional insight into the effects of GABA.

Also known as adrenaline, epinephrine is considered both a hormone and a neurotransmitter. It is synthesized from norepinephrine in both the CNS and the adrenal medulla. Much like norepinephrine, this excitatory neurotransmitter helps regulate muscle contraction, heart rate, glycogen breakdown, blood pressure and more, and is heavily involved in a stress response.8

  • Low Epinephrine Symptoms: anxiety, depression, fibromyalgia, hypoglycemia, migraine headaches, restless leg syndrome and or sleep disorders
  • High Epinephrine Symptoms: hyperactivity, ADHD, anxiety, sleep issues, and low adrenal function. Over time, chronic stress and stimulation can deplete epinephrine stores leading to difficulty concentrating, fatigue, depression, insufficient cortisol production, chronic stress, poor recovery from illness, dizziness and more.

This naturally occurring chemical is also called noradrenaline. It is an excitatory neurotransmitter produced in the CNS, as well as a stress hormone produced in the adrenal medulla. Norepinephrine is involved in a wide variety of actions including playing a key role in alertness, focus, regulating heart rate, affecting blood flow, and suppressing inflammation. Involved in arousal, it prepares the body for action by relaying messages in the sympathetic nervous system as part of the autonomic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response. Its role is to help mobilize the body and brain to respond during times of stress. Levels of this neurotransmitter are typically lowest during sleep and highest during times of stress.

  • Low Norepinephrine Symptoms: lack of energy, focus and motivation
  • High Norepinephrine Symptoms: anxiety, stress, elevated blood pressure, and hyperactivity, whereas low levels are associated with lack of energy, focus, and motivation

Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter and is considered to be the most abundant neurotransmitter in the nervous system. Glutamate enhances neuroplasticity – the brain’s capacity to change and grow.9 Glutamate is involved in most aspects of normal brain function including cognition, memory and learning, although high levels of glutamate can cause excitotoxicity, a process where nerve cells are damaged by excessive stimulation. Glutamate is critical for human brain development and thus is present in high concentrations in human breast milk.10 Glutamate and GABA play opposite balancing roles of each other with glutamate being stimulatory and GABA being relaxing. Glutamate is converted into GABA triggered by an enzyme called glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD). Conversely, GABA can turn back to glutamate as needed.11

  • Low Glutamate Symptoms: agitation, memory loss, sleeplessness, low energy levels and depression.
  • High Glutamate Symptoms & Conditions: panic attacks, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, obsessive –compulsive disorder (OCD), headaches, insomnia, autism, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Alzheimer’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, Huntington ‘s disease, Parkinson ‘s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), psychosis, restless leg syndrome, schizophrenia, traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), migraines, multiple sclerosis (MS), stroke and seizure disorders.12-18

Glycine: is inhibitory and plays dual roles as both a neurotransmitter and an amino acid that serves as a building block of proteins. Glycine improves sleep quality, calms aggression, and serves as an anti-inflammatory agent. Glycine has been shown to boost mental performance and memory.

  • Low Glycine Symptoms: poor sleep, poor cognitive function, and issues with memory.
  • High Glycine Symptoms: compromised cognitive processing.

This is an excitatory neurotransmitter involved in the sleep/wake cycle and inflammatory response. Histamine plays a dual role in the body as both a neurotransmitter and immunomodulator increasing metabolism, promoting wakefulness, attention, circadian rhythms, learning, and memory. It plays a role in allergic reactions and is produced as part of the immune systems response to pathogens.19

  • High Histamine Symptoms: allergy-like symptoms, gastro-intestinal concerns, and inflammation. Elevated histamine can interfere with sleep, contributing to insomnia.
  • Low Histamine Symptoms: difficulties in digestion and appetite control, learning, memory, and mood, and drowsiness.

PEA (Phenethylamine) promotes energy, elevates mood, regulates attention and aggression, and serves as a biomarker for ADHD.

  • Low PEA Symptoms: ADHD, depression, Parkinson’s disease and bipolar disorder.
  • High PEA Symptoms: anxiety, with very high levels having amphetamine-like effects and may associated with higher cortisol levels.

What is the link between neurotransmitters and hormones?

Adrenal hormones, sex hormones, and neurotransmitters are functionally interrelated. Changes in sex hormones and adrenal hormones can lead to neurotransmitter imbalances. In turn, neurotransmitter imbalances can affect hormone function.

For example: Estrogen is a serotonin agonist (helps to increase production of serotonin, and promotes positive serotonin receptor activity). Low estrogen combined with low serotonin can exacerbate the symptoms of poor mood and physical discomfort.

The neurotransmitters norepinephrine and epinephrine work collaboratively with cortisol to manage the physical reactions to either chronic or acute stress such as blood circulation, muscle reaction, and mental sharpness. As adrenal dysfunction develops neurotransmitter depletion usually results, along with the associated symptoms of fatigue, agitation, and stress.

Including hormone testing with neurotransmitters provides a more comprehensive view of the body’s functional neuroendocrine status and the associated factors that may be contributing to symptoms.

How do I test for neurotransmitter imbalances?

The two main neurotransmitter tests used at Revivelife include:

  • Neurobasic Urine Test – A test to assess the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, GABA, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and glutamate. Because neurotransmitters are linked to sex and adrenal hormones for optimal care we recommend partnering this test with our Hormone 1-Blood Test. This test may be recommended if you have energy, mood, or brain health concerns including attention deficit, traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) or a concussion. Note – a referral will be made to one of our nurse practitioners to order this test.
  • OATS Test – A comprehensive general health urine test measuring organic acids (also linked to inborn errors in metabolism) that offers a metabolic snapshot of overall health with 75 markers of Digestion, Detoxification, Longevity, Nutrients, and the Neurotransmitters that regulate mood and behavior– epinephrine, norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine. May be recommended if you experience any of the following concerns: Digestive – bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation, Sensitivities – foods, environmental; Detoxification – liver health, hormone imbalances, Longevity – overall health, Immunity – colds, flus, allergies; Nutrient Deficiencies – fatigue, brain fog, skin concerns; Stress & Brain Function – anxiety, depression, insomnia and or Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) – weak memory, concentration, mood changes; Weight Concerns
  • My Favourite Neurotransmitter Test for Mood: is the OATS test because it evaluates other factors also that may be linked to mood.

To find out more great ways to enhance your health Book an Appointment.

For More Fun Health Tips Follow Me on IG @DrJoelND

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  3. Arias-Carrión O, Stamelou M, Murillo-Rodríguez E, Menéndez-González M, Pöppel E. Dopaminergic reward system: a short integrative reviewInt Arch Med. 2010;3:24. doi:10.1186/1755-7682-3-24
  4. Exercise Promotes Neuroplasticity in Both Healthy and Depressed Brains: An fMRI Pilot Study, Gourgourvelis J, Yielder P, and Murphy B, Neural Plast. 2017;830587
  5. The Effects of Magnesium Supplementation on Subjective Anxiety and Stress – A Systematic Review, Boyle NB, Lawton C and Dye L, Nutrients. 2017 May; 9(5):429.
  6. Vitamin B6: Effects of Deficiency, and Metabolic and Therapeutic Functions, Dakshinamurti K, Dakshinamurti, and Czubryt MP, Handbook of Famine, Starvation, and Nutrient Deprivation P 1-23
  7. Effects of Yoga Versus Walking on Mood, Anxiety, and Brain GABA Levels: A Randomized Controlled MRS Study, Streeter CC, Whitfield TH, et al, J Altern Complement Med. 2010 Nov; 16(11):1145-1152
  8. Tank AW, Lee wong D. Peripheral and central effects of circulating catecholaminesCompr Physiol. 2015;5(1):1-15. doi:10.1002/cphy.c140007
  9. McEntee WJ, Crook TH, Glutamate: its role in learning, memory, and the aging brain. Psychopharmacology. 111 (4):391-401.
  10. Free amino acids in milks of human subjects, other primates and non-primates, Sarwar G et al. Br J Nutr. 1998 Feb.
  11. GABA Synthesis, Uptake and Release, Olsen RW and DeLorey TM, Brain Neurochemistry: Molecular, Cellular and Medical Aspects. 6th Edition , 1999.
  12. Balanced translocation linked to psychiatric disorder, glutamate, and cortical structure/function, Thompson PA, Duff B, Blackwood DHR, et al, NPJ Schizophr. 2016; 2:16024
  13. Glutamate as a neurotransmitter in the brain: review of physiology and pathology, Meldrum BS, J Nutr. 2000 Apr.
  14. The role of glutamate in anxiety and related disorders, Cortese BM et al. CNS Spectr. 2005 Oct.
  15. Postmortem brain abnormalities of the glutamate neurotransmitter system in autism, Purcell AE et al. Neurology. 2001
  16. About Glutamate Toxicity , June 26, 2011,, retrieved 1,27,21
  17. The role of Glutamate and its receptors in migraine, Vikelis M et al, CNS Neurol Disord Drug Targets. 2007 Aug. CNS Neurol Disord Drug Targets. 2007 Aug;6(4):251-7.
  18. Relationship between Glutamate Dysfunction and Symptoms and Cognitive Function in Psychosis, Merritt K, McGuire P, and Egerton A, Front Psychiatry. 2013; 4:151.
  19. Nuutinen S, Panula P. Histamine in neurotransmission and brain diseasesAdv Exp Med Biol. 2010;709:95-107. doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-8056-4_10

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