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So what are neurotransmitters and what do they do?

gut health mental health nervous system neurotransmitters Oct 16, 2023

Last week we talked about food and mood, with some reference to how food effects certain neurotransmitters. Today I'm going into a bit more depth about what neurotransmitters are, and what they do. 

A neurotransmitter is a type of chemical messenger that plays a pivotal role in communication between nerve cells, or neurons, in the nervous system. These molecules transmit signals from one neuron to another, enabling the transmission of information throughout the brain and the entire nervous system.

Neurotransmitters are essential for various physiological and cognitive functions, including regulating mood, controlling muscle movements, maintaining wakefulness, and facilitating learning and memory. They work by transmitting electrical signals from one neuron to another across small gaps known as synapses. These synapses are the junctions where one neuron releases neurotransmitters, which then bind to receptors on the neighboring neuron, allowing the signal to continue its journey.

Neurotransmitters come in many types, each with specific functions. They influence our emotions, thoughts, and physical activities, making them essential components of the intricate neural network that governs human behavior and physiological processes.

Dopamine: Dopamine is primarily known for its role in the brain's reward system. It is associated with feelings of pleasure and motivation. It plays a key role in regulating mood, and imbalances in dopamine levels have been linked to various mental health conditions. Too much or too little dopamine can contribute to disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, and addiction.

Serotonin: Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood and emotions. It also plays a role in reducing anxiety and depression, making it a target for many antidepressant medications. Beyond mood, serotonin has an impact on sleep, appetite, and other physiological functions, and disturbances in serotonin levels are associated with various mood disorders.

Norepinephrine/ Adrenaline: Adrenaline is a neurotransmitter that acts as a stress hormone during the body's "fight or flight" response. It increases heart rate, raises alertness, and prepares the body to deal with a perceived threat. In the brain, norepinephrine also plays a role in mood regulation, and disruptions in its levels have been linked to conditions like anxiety and depression.

Glutamate: Glutamate is the most prevalent excitatory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. It serves as the primary mediator for communication between nerve cells. Excitatory neurotransmitters like glutamate stimulate nerve cells to send signals. While glutamate is essential for learning and memory, excessive glutamate activity can lead to conditions like epilepsy and contribute to neurodegenerative disorders.

Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA): GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. Its main role is to counteract the effects of excitatory neurotransmitters, calming neural activity and preventing overstimulation. GABA is crucial for maintaining a balanced and calm mental state and is often a target for medications used to treat anxiety disorders and epilepsy.

Endorphins: Endorphins are the body's natural painkillers, released in response to stress, pain, or physical activity. They help alleviate discomfort and create a sense of euphoria, often referred to as a "runner's high." Endorphins contribute to the body's ability to cope with pain and stress, promoting a sense of well-being. 

Oxytocin: Oxytocin is often dubbed the "love hormone" because of its role in social bonding and emotional attachment. It's released during activities like hugging, kissing, and childbirth and promotes trust and emotional closeness. Oxytocin is a key player in maternal-infant bonding and facilitates social connections and empathy.

Histamine: Histamine serves as an important signaling molecule in the body, with functions in both the immune response and the nervous system. It is known for its role in allergic reactions, where it triggers symptoms like sneezing, itching, and inflammation. In the nervous system, histamine influences the sleep-wake cycle. Medications that block histamine receptors are often used to alleviate allergy symptoms but can also lead to drowsiness due to their impact on the sleep-wake cycle.

Acetylcholine: Acetylcholine is a critical neurotransmitter involved in both the central and peripheral nervous systems. In the central nervous system, it is responsible for cognitive functions, particularly learning and memory. Decreased acetylcholine levels are associated with memory deficits, which are characteristic of conditions like Alzheimer's disease. In the peripheral nervous system, acetylcholine facilitates the transmission of signals from nerve cells to muscles, allowing for muscle contractions. This is essential for all voluntary muscle movements. 

So neurotransmitters are integral to our mental and physical well-being, regulating a wide range of functions. Understanding their functions and the consequences of imbalances is crucial for unraveling the complex interactions that govern the human brain and nervous system. In optimising your emotional wellbeing, its important to optimise the body's ability to produce the neurotransmitters it needs to function and to feel good. And this mostly comes down to looking after your gut health, getting enough protein, veggies and healthy fats, exercising, relaxing and having fun.

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