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How Neurotransmitters Affect our Physical and Emotional Well-Being

Has anyone ever told you how electrifying you are? Well, they may not be that far from the truth! Every aspect of our being is interconnected by a communication system compromised of neurons (nerve cells), which communicate with each other via electrical impulses and chemicals known as neurotransmitters. The chemical firing that controls our body begins when a neuron creates an electrical discharge that moves down its length. At the far end of the neuron, the electrical pulse stimulates the nerve ending to release chemicals known as neurotransmitters. These messenger chemicals travel through a calcium channel known as a synapse to the next nerve. There, they bind to receptor sites, which either stimulate or inhibit the next nerve from firing another electrical impulse.

The discovery of neurotransmitters has greatly altered our understanding of mental illnesses and other disorders of the brain. We now know that sleep; mood, appetite and behavior are influenced by the different types of transmitter chemicals being released in our brain.

Depression, addiction, mania, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson's disease and ADHD are some of the major disorders now known to involve imbalances in neurotransmitters. Understanding these chemical messengers has also given us new insights into how nutrition and herbs affect both our mind and our body. So, in this issue we shall introduce the major neurotransmitters and discuss some of the herbs, supplements and natural therapies that can help them to work properly.

Introducing Neurotransmitters

Otto Loewi, an Austrian scientist, found the first neurotransmitter in 1921. He utilized two frog hearts in which one remained connected to the Vagus nerve and was placed in a chamber of saline and the other was placed in a connected chamber that allowed the fluid from the first chamber to flow into the other as well. Electrical stimulation of the Vagus nerve slowed processes in both of the hearts with a slower reaction time on the second heart. Loewi then hypothesized that stimulation of the Vagus nerve released a chemical into the first heart that then flowed into the second heart. Today we know this chemical as acetylcholine.


Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that is involved in memory and muscle movement. Alzheimer's disease is now believed to be caused by a destruction of the neurotransmitters in the brain, which produce acetylcholine. These nerve cells are probably destroyed by free radical damage. Chemicals that block the proper function of acetylcholine will dilate pupils and the respiratory system as well as decrease muscle tone and mobility. The toxic herb, belladonna, blocks acetylcholine receptors and has these effects.

Receptor sites for acetylcholine are called cholinergic receptors. There are two types of cholinergic receptors. The first are called nicotinic receptors because nicotine, an alkaloid found in tobacco will bind to these sites and stimulate them. When acetylcholine binds to these sites, it increases the heart rate, blood pressure and improves muscle tone. An individual with a habit of smoking may be lacking acetylcholine or otherwise have an imbalance with this neurotransmitter.

Lobelia, an herb that has been used to reduce cravings for tobacco, contains an alkaloid called lobeline, which also binds to these receptor sites, but inhibits rather than stimulates them. This is partly why lobelia relaxes the heart rate and muscle tone, reducing blood pressure.

The other types of cholinergic receptors are called muscarinic receptors. They are found in the brain, sweat glands and blood vessels. Found to be essential in learning and retention, these sites when stimulated also increase sweating, salivation, and body temperature.

Sage is an herb with cholinergic properties that has a reputation for enhancing memory (hence a wise person is considered a "sage"). This herb also has been used to decrease sweating (especially night sweats), excessive alleviation and reduce body temperature in fevers.

Rosemary essential oil is also cholinergic. Ophelia, of Shakespeare's Hamlet, remarked as she handled rosemary, "and that is for remembrance." The nutrient choline, found in egg yolks, green leafy vegetables and legumes, is the building block for acetylcholine. A special form of choline called phosphatidylcholine crosses the blood brain barrier better than choline. It is a component of Lecithin a nutrient used to help memory and concentration.

The Nature's Sunshine formula Brain Protex was designed to enhance the production of acetylcholine and prevent free radical destruction of the neurons that produce it. It contains choline and antioxidants that help to protect the brain from free radical damage. Another ingredient in this formula is phospatidyl serine, which acts as a precursor to acetylcholine. Research has shown that this nutrient enhances cognitive functions like attention and short-term recall.

It also lowers stress hormones and helps alleviate sleep problems. Brain Protex also contains huperizine alkaloids, which inhibit an enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine. These alkaloids are derived from Chinese club moss, an herb that has been used in Chinese medicine to treat schizophrenia and mental confusion.

Epinephrine and Norepinephrine

A group of neurotransmitters referred to as "catecholamines" include dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine. Norepinephrine and epinephrine, are produced by both the nerves and the adrenal glands. They are also known by the names noradrenalin and adrenaline. They are formed from the amino acids phenylalanine and tyrosine.
Catecholamines are responsible for peripheral nervous system effects (elevated blood pressure and blood sugar, muscular contraction and the release of a thyroid stimulating hormone from the pituitary) as well as central nervous system responses involving respiration and psychomotor activity. They also control the flow of blood to the skin, skeletal system and mucous membranes as well as controlling heart and gastrointestinal functions.

Norepinephrine and epinephrine influence metabolism. Receptor sites for these hormones are called adrenergic receptors and come in two types-Alpha and Beta. The Alpha Adrenergic receptors decrease digestive activity while contracting the blood vessels and the uterus. Beta-receptors contract the blood vessels and the uterus muscles as well as stimulating the heart.

The term "Beta Blockers" refers to a class of drugs that inhibit these receptors. Lobelia also inhibits them. Drugs, which attach to these receptor sites and stimulate them, are called amphetamines or "uppers." These include cocaine, diet pills and the popular drug, Ritalin. Ritalin helps control hyperactivity in children that are deficient in the neurotransmitter norepinephrine.

Amphetamines have also been used for dieting, because they reduce appetite while speeding up metabolism. Ephedrine, an alkaloid found in the herb Ma Huang or Chinese ephedra, also binds to these same receptor sites and stimulates them. These formulas have also been used as natural "diet pills" to increase metabolism and reduce appetite.

Dopamine, another catecholamine, responsible for sexual arousal and muscular coordination. It is the neurotransmitter that is deficient in those who suffer from Parkinson's disease. Again, destruction of the brain cells that produce this neurotransmitter is thought to be responsible. Where there are low levels of glutathione (an intracellular antioxidant) or there is an excess amount of iron, dopamine degrades into free radicals. Dopamine levels can be enhanced by supplementation with phenylalanine.

The amino acid tyrosine causes a release of dopa, which also stimulates dopamine production. Good sources of tyrosine include red meat, Spirulina and Super Algae.


Serotonin is probably the most famous of the neurotransmitters because of its association with drugs that affect it. Although most commonly associated with alleviating depression, serotonin receptors have been found to control hunger, sleep, pain response, seizure, and peristalsis as well as function of the limbic system and brain. Individuals with low serotonin levels may notice cravings for carbohydrates. A meal high in carbohydrates increases serotonin production in the brain. This is part of the reason why we tend to crave sweets when we are feeling "down."

Protein, on the other hand, stimulates production of catecholamines. Eating meals with a healthy balance of protein and carbohydrates helps to keep the brain stable. Monoamine Oxidase (MAO) inhibitors were the first class of drugs developed in an attempt to regulate serotonin in the brain. These drugs inhibit an enzyme called monoamine Oxidase, which breaks down serotonin. It breaks down other neurotransmitters as well, including epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine and melatonin. Several herbs appear to work in a similar manner, but with fewer side effects.

St. John's Wort helps increase serotonin levels and has been helpful with mild to moderate depression associated with anxiety.
Ginkgo helps to prevent breakdown of the serotonin receptor sites as we age. Traditional medicine has long associated depression with poor digestive function. Recent research has shown that serotonin is found in the highest concentrations in the intestinal tract, suggesting that this link is scientifically valid.

Chinese Mood Elevator works by helping the liver and digestive tract, and has proven helpful in many cases of severe depression. It is a good natural alternative to another class of serotonin altering drugs-SSRIs. Drugs noted as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), including Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft, block the reuptake of serotonin. Thus, SSRIs create a false sense of detachment and the excess serotonin creates an elevation of mood. There is even some evidence to suggest that they are linked with extremely violent and antisocial behavior. Fortunately, it is easy to increase serotonin levels with nutrition.

Serotonin production is directly linked to levels of 1-tryptophan, an amino acid, in the brain. Eating complex carbohydrates, whole fruits, vegetables and whole grains, helps to stabilize 1-tryptophan levels in the brain. Refined carbohydrates and simple sugars give a quick fix. They lift the mood temporarily, but result in a "letdown" later.

5-HTP Power contains a form of l-tryptophan (5-HTP), which is converted directly to serotonin in the brain. It also contains herbs and nutrients that help with the production of this neurotransmitter. This formula may be helpful where a lack of serotonin production is causing insomnia, depression and carbohydrate cravings.


GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid) is best known as an inhibitor of presynaptic transmission, or it keeps the brain from being “trigger happy”. When in balance, GABA prevents anxiety and increases mental clarity. Anxiolytic drugs of the benzodiazepine family (Valium, Xanax) work off of the soothing effects of GABA receptor response. All three herbs in HVP (hops, valerian and passion flower) are known to bind to GABA receptor sites, making this an excellent formula.

The formula GABA Plus combines GABA with the amino acid glutamine (which is used to create another inhibitory neurotransmitter called glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is also the precursor to GABA. In addition to passion flower and Spirulina, GABA Plus helps calm overactive nerve functions and may be useful for reducing hyperactivity, seizures and nervous tics.

L-Glutamine is also found in Focus Attention. This formula may be helpful in ADHD. It contains lemon balm, which calms the mind and reduces anxiety, along with ginkgo and grapeseed extract, which help protect the brain from damage. Another nutrient in Focus Attention is DNME (dimethylaminoethanol), a naturally occurring nutrient found in quantity in various fish such as sardines and anchovies.
This substance enhances acetylcholine and has been shown to improve sleep, depression, mental energy, attention span and concentration while studying or writing.

Thus, Focus Attention can be used to boost mood and memory, enhance learning and improve concentration.

It is also available in a powered form to make it easier to administer to children who can't swallow capsules.

Other Neurotransmitters

There are many other neurotransmitters including histamine, endorphins, enkephalins, substance P, and nitric acid.

* Histamine is the substance that creates inflammation, but in the brain it helps stimulate the release of enkephalins.
* Enkephalins and endorphins elevate mood and ease pain. The receptor sites associated with these transmitters are called opiate receptors.
* Substance P is found within the brain as well as sensory neurons. It is used to signal pain and is blocked by substances like capsaicin in capsicum and compounds in clove and nutmeg oil.
* Nitric acid, recently discovered, sends messages to various organs including the colon. It has many functions such as erectile function, lowering of blood pressure, formation of synaptic junctions and inhibits bacterial growth. It is formed from the amino acid arginine, which then creates the enzyme called nitric oxide synthease (NOS). Arginine is found in NSP's formula Blood Pressurex, along with an herb called Coleus that aids GMP production.

As one can see, research in to neurotransmitters is helping us understand better why herbs and good nutrition work to sustain not only good physical health, but mental and emotional health as well.


Basic Nutrients to feed the brain

There are some basic nutrients all of us need to produce adequate amounts of neurotransmitters. Since all of our neurotransmitters are made of amino acids, adequate intake of vitalized protein is essential to proper brain function. Well-done meat is a poor source of vitalized protein, so unless you like Sushi, and rare meat, you should consider some supplementation with a good source of amino acids.

SuperAlgae and Spirulina are great sources for your aminos. Both help to reduce food cravings, and maintain stable blood sugar levels. They are helpful for mental concentration and mood balancing, too.

Ultimate Green Zone is a great source of amino acids and makes, a healthy “fast food” meal. Just add a scoop of the powder to your favorite juice (pineapple, etc.) and enjoy a quick mental and physical pick-me-up.

For those, who have difficulty digesting and assimilating protein, taking Free Amino Acids may also be helpful. Free Amino Acids contains 19 amino acids essentially-a form of predigested protein that can also aid in the production of neurotransmitters. Besides amino acids, the body needs B-vitamins to synthesize neurotransmitters. This is one of the reasons that B-complex vitamin supplement can be so good for your nerves! Since Vitamin C is also essential to the production of several neurotransmitters, including epinephrine and norephinephrine, Nutri-Calm, is another good choice for your brain and nerves. Lastly, since the brain is composed mainly of fat (we're all "fat-heads" after all), a good source of essential fatty acids is also essential to a healthy brain. Hence, flax seed oil, which is rich in essential fatty acids, has helped many people keep their mind in top shape.


As cell phones become increasingly popular, it is wise to examine research showing that cell phones may cause damage to the brain. Cell phone usage has been associated with an increased risk for Alzheimer's disease, brain cancer and depression. Low-level electromagnetic fields are known to have an effect on calcium ions (which are responsible for intracellular communication, such as the transportation of neurotransmitters). In 1999, research concluded that disruptions in calcium ion reactions caused damaged cells to accumulate, increasing mutations and tumors. Ailments such as brain abnormalities, sleep disruption, altered immune systems, cancer and neurological diseases can all be initiated by altered cellular calcium from various forms of electromagnetic radiation, including cell phones. Calcium ion tests show that some cell phones may cause no damage and others may prove detrimental. The most consistent damage was noted at a carrier frequency of 954 megahertz.
Cellular usage has become an integral part of our society. And even though the evidence is inconclusive, one would be wise to use caution when employing these of such devices. Some World Health Organization officials and scientists agree that there is ample evidence to utilize caution when exposing one self to cellular or other electromagnetic sites.

Earpieces and shortened exposure can all help to protect the communication going on inside our brain, while we are communicating with the outside world on our cell phones.

Activating the Healing Response: An In Depth Look at the Nervous and Glandular Systems, correspondence course by Steven H. Horne, Tree of Light Institute.
Live Right for Your Type by Dr. Peter D'Adamo
Food and Mood by Elizabeth Somer.

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