Our brain is the most important organ in our body that helps us interact with the world around us. Everything we know about ourselves is stored in our brain. How our brain works in terms of optimal versus sub-optimal can determine our mental health, our ability to learn, the type of emotions we feel, how we catalog life, interpersonal and other types of experiences, and our physiology.
The aging brain
We all know the brain appears to suffer aging problems that contribute to memory loss. Most people who have moved into middle age often notice that their brain does not seem to work as fast as it was when they were in their early twenties. A degenerating brain is the result of losing more and more neurons as a consequence of normal aging. This process is called “neural degeneration” or “neurodegeneration.”
The process of neural degeneration is different for everyone because our brains, and neurons can be challenged by a number of factors which are different for each of us and can occur in different combinations. Our brains are constantly dealing with inflammation, overproduction of cortisol (the stress hormone), high homocysteine, improper immune responses, irregular blood sugar, nutrient deficiency and a lack of oxygen and proper stimulation. One might infer that when we have headaches, it is because our brain hurts. You may be surprised to know that our brain cannot directly sense pain. Surgeons can cut into it without anesthesia, but the scalp and other surrounding tissues need anesthesia. Blood vessels within the brain experience innervation (stimulation) that can cause it to expand and contract, and thus transmit pain throughout our head.
Neurotransmitters for brain and overall health
Our brain and nervous system is comprised of neurons that electrically talk to each other. This brain and nervous system communication requires chemicals called neurotransmitters. Our neurotransmitters are used to relay, amplify and modulate signals between a neuron and another cell. Neurotransmitters are largely responsible for how good we feel.
Neurotransmitters are not just important to the brain but have a profound impact on our entire body. Neurotransmitters are made in the brain, as well as in our organs and glands throughout our body. If we truly want good health, then we must have good brain and body health. Because our brain health affects our emotional view of the world and our sense of well-being, it follows that poor brain health will generally reflect itself in kind. The main neurotransmitters are serotonin, melatonin, GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid), acetylcholine. dopamine and norepinephrine/epinephrine.
Key Neurotransmitters needed for an optimum functioning brain
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter produced in the brain and gastrointestinal tract that is also called 5-hydroxytryptamine, or 5 HTP. When our Serotonin levels are optimal, we are upbeat, calm, peaceful, and can maintain interest in daily living activities, even during periods of low sunlight. Optimal serotonin levels allow us to enjoy hobbies, have interests, have non-repetitive thoughts, have fewer extreme fluctuations of “highs” and “lows”, enjoy life, experience restful sleep, maintain enthusiasm for favorite activities, have regular bowel activity, and feel more calm or centered when juggling life’s many emotional challenges. Normal amounts of serotonin are associated with a decrease in headaches. Additionally, an area of the brain called the pineal gland requires sufficient amounts of serotonin to make another type of neurotransmitter called melatonin.
Melatonin is required for regulating sleep patterns and the behavioral changes. When our bodies are under excessive stress from too much caffeine, nicotine, work deadlines, overtraining and poor diet, we experience adrenal overload and levels of a hormone called cortisol elevates (also known as the stress hormone). High amounts of cortisol decreases the amount of melatonin in our body, making restful sleep more difficult.
GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid) is a neurotransmitter that our body makes in our pancreas, kidneys and several areas of our brain. Optimal amounts of GABA are associated with feeling calm, focused, and relaxed without fidgeting or excessive body movement, and able to turn your mind off when you want to relax. Healthy GABA levels can help us feel less anxious and to feel calmer in most situations. Because GABA relaxes, it decreases uncontrolled muscle contractions. Oral GABA supplements are too big to cross the blood brain barrier (BBB) therefore approaches which focus on improving the body’s GABA synthesis show the greatest promise.
Acetylcholine is made in the areas of our brain and spinal cord. This neurotransmitter is responsible for memory and cognition. Optimal amounts acetylcholine is associated with memory recall, quick mental response and processing, creativity, accurate mental calculations and good judgment. More specifically acetylcholine is responsible for recognition such as visual memory (remembering faces, pictures, places and events) and verbal memory (recollecting sounds, voices).
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is mostly made by our brain, as well as our adrenal glands and kidneys. Dopamine is associated with feeling pleasure, increased libido and reward. Optimal levels of dopamine help us experience pleasure in life, manage stressful situations, gives us a feeling of worthiness and importance, stay focused on tasks, helps us stay on task to completion, stay alert, feel comfortable in social situations, and remain flexible and more relaxed during stressful moments. If we have sufficient nutrients in the body to make dopamine, exercise, yoga and meditation may naturally elevate this neurotransmitter and is responsible for the “euphoria” or “natural high” we experience.
Norepinephrine/Epinephrine (Adrenaline) functions as both a hormone and neurotransmitter and is made by our adrenal glands. Optimal levels of this neurotransmitter allows us to experience feeling rewarded. This also helps us to maintain a state of physical and mental alertness. Additionally, proper levels help us experience a normal heartbeat and blood pressure. Norepinephrine is required to make melatonin, required for healthy sleep.
Low transmitter levels can translate o mental difficulty and challenges
Having a healthy brain requires having a healthy body because healthy adrenal glands, thyroid, gastrointestinal tract, blood sugar metabolism, sufficient enzymes, hormone levels and an efficient immune system all impact the health of our brain and its synthesis of neurotransmitters. Our neurotransmitters also need specific amino acids, vitamins, minerals herbs and fatty acids for their synthesis in order to be effective. Compromised digestion or a nutritionally deficient diet may mean that we are not absorbing the needed nutrients even though we are consuming them. Having low transmitter levels often translates to mental difficulty and challenges.
How brain function begins to deteriorate
Everyone knows the brain is important, but we rarely make an effort to keep it healthy until problems become serious. A healthy brain has an intact blood brain barrier (BBB) which serves as a first line of defense preventing the entry of harmful substances. When this layer is compromised, your second line of defense rests with your brain’s immune cells. In people exhibiting brain degeneration, both of these defense mechanisms are not working properly. A healthy brain is a well nourished and stimulated brain, one that has the ability to heal and repair itself in order to deliver optimal output.
When patients come to us with brain clarity and memory issues, we will conduct a thorough assessment along with appropriate tests. Brain clarity and memory issues can be related to a number of health challenges, which can include:
- Inflammation and oxidative stress
- System wide toxicity which includes liver and bowel
- Subluxation throughout the neck vertebrae
- Subtle Energy Blockages that may not appear on an MRI or CT
- Residual trauma from injuries that can include whiplash, concussion or other brain trauma
- Physical issues resulting from severe muscle contraction in the occipital region (often related to stress)
- Allergic reactions to environmental or food
- Nutritional depletion of certain enzymes, vitamins, minerals or other substances
- Or other causes…
It is important to be aware that oxidative stress, inflammation and autoimmunity can contribute materially to brain issues. For example, recent research demonstrates autoimmunity plays a major role in Parkinson’s. In addition to specific brain boosting nutrients, the importance of reducing inflammation and oxidative stress are crucial places to start when recovering the health of your brain, and yourself.
Because these issues can be related to a variety of triggers, a throughout patient history, interview and assessment are always the best starting point.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3215724 (5-20-2012): Autoantibodies associated with Parkinsons
http://www.jneuroinflammation.com/content/3/1/1 (5-20-2012): Antibodies formed against dopamine secreting cells (Parkinsons is a disease of low dopamine; low dopamine is associated with tremors, poor movement patterns, depression and poor cognition;
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1502878 (5-20-2012): Complement pathway (part of the autoimmune process) with Parkinsons;