Dr. Doni Wilson explains the science of serotonin, why anti-depressant drugs often make depression worse, and natural alternatives to prescription medications.
We have long been told by television advertising and conventional medicine that depression, anxiety, and difficulties with mental focus are caused by low serotonin levels, and that the only way to address these problems is to take anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication. Then, if one pill fails to work, we can add another, and another after that. Even when we don’t feel any better – and even when we experience some pretty scary side effects – we persist with the medication, because we have been told we will get worse without it. Essentially, the message we have been told is that having mental health problems means our bodies are “broken.”
But as someone who has studied science from a young age – including the science of food nutrients, biochemistry, and psychoneuroimmunology – I can tell you that prescription medications do not cure depression, reduce anxiety, or “fix” anything. In fact, they often make a condition worse. What’s more, depression is not always caused by low serotonin levels.
There is far more to the story of mental health than what we have been led to believe. To see the full picture, we need to understand the science behind neurotransmitters – how they work in our bodies, how they influence our mood and mental focus, and how we can bring them into balance naturally.
In this article, I’ll cover…
- What are neurotransmitters?
- Calming versus stimulating neurotransmitters
- How the body makes neurotransmitters
- How neurotransmitters affect mental health
- How neurotransmitters get out of balance
- How prescription drugs affect neurotransmitters
- 4 key ways to rebalance neurotransmitters naturally
SIDE NOTE: After you read this article, if you’d like to learn more about neurotransmitters, I recommend downloading my 35-page Adrenal Recovery Guide. It’s free when you sign up for my Weekly Wellness Wisdom newsletter.
What Are Neurotransmitters?
Neurotransmitters are naturally produced chemicals that our bodies use to send messages between nerves. That’s why I like to call them “messengers.” Our moods are profoundly affected by how efficiently these messengers communicate throughout our nervous system.
Other messengers in the body include hormones (which communicate messages between organs), and cytokines (which communicate messages within the immune system). Some messengers fall into more than one category, as they communicate across more than system of the body. Histamine is one example: its primary function is to act as messenger in the immune system, but it also communicates with the nervous system. That’s why allergies can sometimes make you feel irritable. I mention this to illustrate how the systems in our bodies are interconnected, and how what goes on in one system can affect another.
Calming vs. Stimulating Neurotransmitters
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of neurotransmitter: Those that calm, and those that stimulate. Ideally, we want a balance of the two. During the day, we want our bodies to produce more stimulating neurotransmitters than calming. Conversely, we want our bodies to produce more calming neurotransmitters at night, so we can sleep soundly. When we are under stress, however, we want our bodies to make both: stimulating neurotransmitters to help us think quickly, and calming neurotransmitter to help us recover from the stress.
All neurotransmitters – whether calming or stimulating – affect our mood, energy, focus, sleep, and memory. Too much or too little of ANY neurotransmitter can lead to health issues. Some of the most important are:
- Serotonin is a calming neurotransmitter. Best known for how it affects mood, serotonin is also essential for thought processes, dreaming, and appetite. In fact, most of your serotonin is made in the gut; so, if you have chronic digestive problems, it is likely to affect your serotonin levels.
- GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is also a calming neurotransmitter. I call GABA our “stress buffer,” as it helps counter our exposure to stress with calmness. When we are exposed to chronic stress, GABA can become depleted, which makes it more difficult to recover from the negative effects of stress, and more prone to feeling out of balance overall.
- Glutamate is an extremely stimulatory neurotransmitter that helps us think, learn, and remember. Think of it as the opposite of GABA. In fact, our bodies can convert GABA to glutamate, and vice versa, working hard to attain an optimal balance of stimulation and calmness. When glutamate becomes out of balance and elevated, it is considered a “neurotoxin,” leading to such negative effects as seizures, migraines, and insomnia.
- Dopamine is also stimulating, and known mainly for its role in our ability to experience pleasure. But dopamine is also active in determining mood, movement, and mental processing. Dopamine is converted into adrenaline, in amounts determined by stress exposure, nutrient levels, methylation function, and our overall genetics. Low levels of dopamine are associated with conditions such as Tourette’s Syndrome and Parkinson’s disease.
- Adrenaline (which includes norepinephrine and epinephrine) is a stimulatory neurotransmitter. Adrenaline kicks in when we need a burst of energy, strength, and power, causing our hearts to beat faster and our bodies to sweat, as well as affecting mood and mental focus. Adrenaline is produced by both the nervous system and the adrenal glands, as part of our stress response. With exposure to long-term stress, adrenaline can become depleted, which can lead to chronic fatigue.
As you can see, there are many other neurotransmitters besides serotonin that influence our mood. Depression and other mood-related issues could be the result of an imbalance of any one of these. Moreover, as all our bodily systems communicate with one another, they could also be affected by an imbalance in our hormones (such as cortisol and thyroid hormones), internal inflammation, digestive issues, and/or blood sugar irregularities.
How Does the Body Make Neurotransmitters?
I really want to emphasize one thing:
Our bodies MAKE neurotransmitters.
They don’t come from pills.
However, to help our bodies make all the neurotransmitters we need for optimal mood and overall health, we need to ensure we give them the necessary nutrients from our diet, including:
- Protein (whether animal or vegetarian) is the first ingredient our body needs to make neurotransmitters is protein. Protein contains amino acids. Two examples of amino acids are tryptophan (one of the building blocks of serotonin) and tyrosine (one of the building blocks of dopamine and adrenaline). Thus, if we don’t eat enough protein, with a wide variety of amino acids, our bodies won’t have what they need to make neurotransmitters.
- For the body to convert amino acids into neurotransmitters, it needs specific nutrients. Minerals like magnesium, zinc, and iron are all integral to the process.
- B-vitamins. B-vitamins play many roles in neurotransmitter production, as well as in helping to break them down. Vitamin B6, for example, is essential in the production of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. To break down neurotransmitters so they do not become toxic, our bodies use the “methylation cycle,” which brings folate and B12 together to make SAM (S-adenosyl methionine).
The bottom line is this: By giving our bodies what they need, they are more able to produce (and break down) the neurotransmitters we need for optimal mood, energy, sleep, memory, and mental focus. I know that, after all we’ve been told by the pharmaceutical industries, it might seem unimaginable that FOOD holds the key to resolving so many mental health problems. But I assure you, every one of our physical processes – including mental health – rests upon a foundation of proper nutrition.
How Do Neurotransmitters Get Out of Balance?
Stress is the most critical factor in neurotransmitter balance. This is because our bodies are designed to modify the production of neurotransmitters whenever we are exposed to any kind of stress.
“Stress” can be caused by any number of things, including:
- Emotional and/or physical abuse or trauma
- Life changes, such as deaths in the family or divorce
- Financial and work stress
- Consuming unhealthy food substances, such as high fructose corn syrup, MSG, and food additives
- Substance abuse and/or excess consumption of alcohol, caffeine, or sugar
- Gluten, which is known to trigger an inflammatory response in the body that leads to imbalanced neurotransmitters
- Exposure to pesticides, herbicides, pollution, chemicals (such as in personal care and cleaning products), or heavy metals – all of these can impair the proper production and breakdown of neurotransmitters
- Oxidative stress, due to chronic infection, inflammation, and insufficient anti-oxidants
- Digestive issues, including imbalanced bacteria in the intestines (known as dysbiosis), leaky gut (intestinal permeability), poor digestion, and malabsorption (inability to absorb nutrients well)
As it is impossible to be alive without encountering some form of stress, our neurotransmitters are part of a continual balancing act. This means that all of us are at risk of developing a neurotransmitter imbalance at some point in our lives. Some people may also have genetic tendencies that can cause their neurotransmitters to become imbalanced more easily. Our chances of developing an imbalance increase if we are exposed to multiple forms of stress and/or our stress continues for a prolonged period. In such scenarios, the systems of the body struggle to recover until the stress triggers are eliminated.
How Prescription Drugs Affect Neurotransmitters
Many people are under the impression that anti-depressant prescription medications increase serotonin levels, but this is not actually the case. To understand why, we need to look at how neurotransmitters function in the nervous system.
When neurotransmitters go between one nerve and the next, they connect via “receptors” and “transport proteins.” There are specific receptors/proteins for each type of neurotransmitter, and for moving neurotransmitters in and out of nerve cells, and our bodies can modify the amount of each type of receptor.
Prescription medications work by binding to the receptors/proteins. For example, SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) work by preventing serotonin from binding to a protein, which stops it from sending messages. By preventing its “reuptake,” SSRIs leave more serotonin to be active. This means, while it keeps your serotonin around longer, it does nothing to PRODUCE more serotonin, if your levels happen to be too low. Eventually, the increased concentration of serotonin will affect other receptors, which can, in turn, further influence serotonin signals in the brain.
This means, as SSRIs influence your nerve receptors, they can cause many long-lasting, negative effects, including drug dependency and withdrawal symptoms, if/when you stop (or decrease the dose of) your medication. Other known side effects include weight gain and change in libido. Ironically (and tragically), they can also cause decreased memory, increased anxiety and depression, and even suicidal thoughts – symptoms people had hoped to eliminate by taking these medications in the first place. Sadly, when one medication fails to give patients the hoped-for relief from their symptoms, most conventional doctors will simply prescribe another to take its place, which only perpetuates the problem, sometimes for many years.
It is easy to understand how, when given no other option, patients often end up feeling stuck, dependent, and afraid to come off their prescription meds. Furthermore, because these medications actually alter the chemistry of your brain, stopping “cold turkey” is not recommended, as it is likely to result in severe withdrawal symptoms. Coming off the meds should only be done under the guidance of a qualified, experienced health practitioner – preferably a naturopathic physician who can support you with an alternative, natural health regimen. If you don’t have a naturopathic doctor, and you are seeking help in getting off SSRIs and/or other prescription drugs, you are welcome to book an appointment with me at https://doctordoni.com/make-appointment/.
Depression Is Not Always the Result of Low Serotonin
It is not a foregone conclusion that someone experiencing depression or mood issues has low serotonin, or that low serotonin levels are the ONLY issue causing these problems. A patient might have problems in the production and/or metabolism (breakdown) of other neurotransmitters, as well. Depression can also be caused by high or low cortisol levels. Irregular cortisol can, in turn, increase the likelihood of digestive issues and inflammation in the digestive tract, which can also trigger depressive symptoms.
Because it would be wrong to assume serotonin is the problem, even if you, as a patient, were taking prescription medication for depression, I would run a full range of diagnostic tests to get a comprehensive picture of what is really going on, including:
- A blood test to check for anemia and low thyroid function, as well as B-vitamin levels, methylation (homocysteine), blood sugar levels (HbgA1c), iron levels (ferritin), and possibly other things, depending on your case.
- A saliva test (or, in some cases, a urine test) to measure your cortisol levels throughout the day. This way, we can determine the best approach to optimize your cortisol.
- A urine test, which can tell us which neurotransmitters are too low or too high, and where your metabolism is getting stuck.
- An IgA and IgG food sensitivity panel, to determine whether you have a gluten sensitivity, dairy protein sensitivity, or reactions to other foods you eat, as well as to identify the severity of leaky gut. Any these factors can contribute to inflammation, which may be affecting your neurotransmitter balance.
- A full genetic panel, which I run through a software program that enables me to analyze the neurotransmitter processes and how your body responds to stress.
- A nutrient test, to see if there are any deficiencies that may be impairing proper neurotransmitter function.
- I also often recommend doing a urine test for organic acids, which are metabolites that tell us about mitochondrial function, oxidative stress, methylation, and nutrient use in your cells.
4 Key Ways to Rebalance Neurotransmitters Naturally
With the information gathered from testing, you and your health practitioner can create a plan for dietary and lifestyle changes that can help get your body back to optimal production and breakdown of neurotransmitters, and hopefully get you to the point where you and your doctor feel you are ready to wean yourself away from anti-depressants or other prescription medications.
The natural approach to restoring optimal neurotransmitter production and processing can be summed up in four strategies:
- DIETARY CHANGES – based on the results we get from tests for food sensitivities and blood sugar.
- NUTRITIONAL SUPPLEMENTS* – vitamins, minerals, amino acids, etc., depending on what we discover from your lab tests.
- BETTER SLEEP – sleep is when your body recovers from any kind of imbalance. Depression and anxiety often come with disrupted sleep. Making sure you sleep better is an essential part of the healing equation. With or without depression, if sleep is an issue for you, you might wish to have a look at my book Insomnia: A Natural Guide to Better Sleep.
- STRESS REMEDIES – such as meditation, mindfulness, journaling, exercise, yoga, and connecting with friends and family. Helping patients heal from any kind of stress is the major focus of my work because, after nearly two decades in practice as a naturopathic doctor, I am convinced it is the biggest factor in our overall wellness. My 300-page book, The Stress Remedy, is a comprehensive guide on how to deal with – and heal from – stress, and restore optimal health. I also offer my Stress Remedy Programs, which help you master diet changes, attain optimal sleep, and implement daily stress remedies.
Perhaps you chose to read this article because you have reached the point of being sick and tired of taking anti-depressants or other medication, without getting any permanent relief from them. Or perhaps you (or someone you care about) have been struggling with depression or other mood challenges, without a clear idea of why it is happening or what you can do about it.
I want to close this article by assuring you that it is possible to recover from depression and neurotransmitter imbalances. However, full recovery can be a long, gradual process, and will require patience and full commitment to your own needs. Many of us have been taught to put ourselves last in life, and are not used to making ourselves our top priority, so even this can shift in mindset can be a challenge. The road back to health can also entail a significant learning curve, as you reeducate yourself on how food, nutrients, and stress impact your health.
But I also want to assure you that you don’t need to walk this path alone – nor should you. You will need friends, family, and at least one experienced and trusted practitioner to support you as you create change in your life. NEVER stop your prescription medication without the guidance of your health professional. Get all the care and support you need as you go through this process. You might not feel it now, but:
You are worth it.
Most of my patients who have suffered from depression tell me the journey back from it is a profound experience – one where they learned many wonderful things about themselves along the way. My best wishes to you as you begin your own journey. Perhaps we will meet along the way.
19th June 2017
*Please keep in mind that any and all supplements—nutrients, herbs, enzymes, or other—should be used with caution. My recommendation is that you seek the care of a naturopathic doctor (with a doctorate degree from a federally-accredited program) and that you have a primary care physician or practitioner whom you can contact to help you with individual dosing and protocols. If you ever experience negative symptoms after taking a product, stop taking it immediately and contact your doctor right away.