In some ways, the one organ that sets us apart from all other species on the planet--our incredible human brain--is the least understood organ with regard to human health. Dementia, Alzheimer's, Parkinson’s, and other neuro-degenerative conditions have no known cure, and patients are often simply provided with palliative care as the condition advances. While Alzheimer’s and dementia collectively afflict nearly 100 million people worldwide, depression has become the number one disability, affecting over 350 million people. What about insomnia, another common brain imbalance with debilitating side effects? An estimated thirty to fifty percent of the general population experience a period of insomnia, and ten percent become chronic.
More recent research into the biochemistry of brain neurotransmitters, however, has yielded some exciting new approaches with considerable potential to aid in preventing and treating brain-related symptoms or illness. These involve balancing the four main brain neurotransmitters in an effort to mitigate physical, emotional, and temperamental (personality-based) symptoms. Common brain-related symptoms range from insomnia, anxiety and depression, to social phobia, rage, attention deficit and memory loss, and can often be significantly helped.
Ultimately your brain chemistry influences the four major domains of health: memory, attention, temperament and personality, and physical well-being. Four chemicals or brain neurotransmitters make up the brain’s code, much like the four base chemicals found in pairs on a strand of DNA. Each biochemical creates unique electrical patterns that are transferred as brain waves. Each individual, based on genetics and experience, produces unique amounts of each neurotransmitter, and is usually dominant in one and deficient in one or more. It is when individuals start to overly produce too much of one, or not enough of another, that symptoms start to appear.
So what are these four neurotransmitters? I’ll briefly go over each of the four brain neurotransmitters, including predominant personality features and issues with both excess and deficiency. You might recognize yourself or a loved one. The important thing to realize is that you can treat these imbalances and bring your symptoms back under control with natural substances, appropriate medications, and with targeted treatments.
Dopamine. Dopamine generates beta waves, which stimulate alertness, and is most prevalent in the frontal lobe of the brain. If your brain is dopamine dominant you will be strong-willed, self-confident, and very motivated to achieve goals. You function well under stress, and are good at problem solving and strategic thinking. People who have an excess of dopamine may be overly intense, driven, prone to rage, and too impulsive. People who are deficient in dopamine will notice a loss of energy, mental sluggishness, and may be prone to procrastination, low self esteem, mood swings, and a general inability to handle stress.
In terms of diet, neurotransmitters are composed of amino acids, or protein building blocks, and tyrosine is the dominant amino acid in dopamine. Foods high in tyrosine include chicken, duck, and cottage cheese.
Acetylcholine. Acetylcholine generates alpha waves, stimulates creativity, and is most prevalent in the parietal lobe of the brain. If your brain is acetylcholine dominant, you are highly creative and open to new ideas. Flexibility, spontaneity, and innovation are your hallmarks. People who have an excess of acetylcholine might become perfectionists to the point of masochism, or find themselves over-giving to those around them, and may eventually withdraw into isolation. Acetylcholine controls brain speed and the rate at which electrical signals are processed, connecting physical experiences to memories and thoughts. People who are deficient in acetylcholine will not be able to connect all the new stimuli with previously stored information, and so their recall becomes spotty. They become memory-impaired, and can have attention problems and difficulty concentrating.
In terms of diet, acetylcholine is made from choline, an essential macronutrient that is water-soluble but found in the form of phosphatidylcholine in certain fats. Choline is essential for normal brain development, nerve signaling, and methylation (used to create DNA). Foods high in choline include liver, avocado, bacon, egg yolk, cream and high fat cheeses.
GABA. While the other three neurotransmitters are dominant in about seventeen percent of the population (each), almost fifty percent of people in the world are GABA dominant. GABA generates theta waves, inducing feelings of drowsiness, serenity or calm, and is located in the temporal lobe of the brain. If you have a GABA nature, you tend to be stable, consistent, social, and express concern for others. You remain calm while chaos swirls around you. Characteristics of objectivity, level-headedness, confidence, and practicality all come naturally to you. If you are GABA excess, you may find yourself over-nurturing to the point of ignoring your own needs or getting hurt. You may find yourself in a codependent relationship where you rely too heavily on your mate, or you may look too much to authority for advice. A person deficient in GABA will tend to be nervous, anxious or irritable, and have restless sleep.
GABA supplements have become very popular for people with anxiety or insomnia. As it is difficult for GABA to cross the blood brain barrier when taken orally, GABA will often be combined with L-Theanine, and less commonly with L-Citrulline, Rosmarinic Acid or Grape Seed Extract to increase GABA’s transport into the brain. In terms of diet, glutamine is the predominant amino acid in GABA, and is found in high amounts in bananas, broccoli, brown rice, citrus fruits, potato, and spinach.
Serotonin. Serotonin generates delta waves, inducing deeper states of sleep, and is most prevalent in the occipital lobe of the brain. Serotonin re-synchronizes your brain while you sleep so you wake refreshed in the morning; serotonin affects our ability to rest, regenerate and find security. If you are serotonin dominant, you will tend to live in the moment, and love to participate in activities because you love to, not as a means to an end. You are very sensory-oriented, kinesthetic or responsive to touch, physically coordinated, and resourceful. People who have an excess of serotonin can be extremely nervous and painfully shy, often plagued by feelings of inadequacy. You may long for interpersonal interaction, but be too fearful to attempt it. If you are serotonin deficient, you will suffer from restless sleep or insomnia, feel overtired or out of control, or suffer from emotional or physical exhaustion (burn out).
In terms of diet, tryptophan is the dominant amino acid in serotonin. Commonly supplemented as either tryptophan or 5 HTP (tryptophan precursor) and found in sleep aids, this amino acid is high in turkey, avocado, cheese, eggs, and pork.
Curious to find out what neurotransmitters you are dominant or deficient in? You can take the Braverman Assessment available in pdf format online and find out for yourself! At DCA we are now stocking natural supplements that will target the neurotransmitter(s) that you are deficient in. From Natural Stacks, this includes Dopamine Brain Food, Acetylcholine Brain Food, GABA Brain Food and Serotonin Brain Food. But supplements (or medications) and diet aren’t the only tools available!
Can acupuncture help to balance neurotransmitters? Yes! Through electrical impulses that directly regulate and affect our brain neurotransmitters! Our DNA is only as good as the transport system it creates for the transmission of information: this transport system relies on electricity. Just as you need a battery to start your car, the human body relies on electricity to stay alive. Electricity in the brain can be seen in the form of brain waves: beta, alpha, theta, and delta. Synchronicity occurs when the four brain waves are balanced throughout the day. When your brain waves are out of sync, you might feel like you are not yourself--not getting restful sleep, your mind may wander, or your personality may feel out of control.
Acupuncture needles affect the collagen tissue of the body, which sends a piezo electrical signal to the nervous system and brain. This helps to synchronize brain waves and often to assist the brain to a calmer, theta or even delta wave state. The more often stimulation from acupuncture is provided to the brain, the more it can balance itself. This is why patients often remark after several weeks of weekly acupuncture feeling calmer, more rested and with improved sleep, and overall reduced levels of stress and anxiety.
Not only that, but acupuncture can target areas of the brain through ear acupuncture, that can be more specific in addressing a patient’s brain-related symptoms. The frontal lobe can be targeted for excess or deficient dopamine, the parietal lobe for excess or deficient acetylcholine, the temporal lobe for excess or deficient GABA, or the occipital lobe for excess or deficient serotonin. Specific points exist that help to reduce or increase excitatory brain neurotransmitter levels, helping with either too much nervous energy, or too little motivation/lethargy. Use of ear points will effectively but slowly help with sleep patterns, anxiety or depressive patterns, and memory or attention deficit patterns. .
Finally, much of the content of this article was borrowed from The Edge Effect: Achieve Total Health and Longevity with the Balanced Brain Advantage by Eric R. Braverman, M.D. If you wish to delve deeply into the subject, this book would be a great place to start.