Neurotransmitters communicate neurologic information to other cells throughout the brain and the body. These specialized brain messenger biochemical substances released by nerve cells, or neurons, shape everyday life and functioning. Human behavior and emotions are all modulated by neurotransmitters. The central nervous system manages and orchestrates thousands of signals every second, twenty-four hours a day. The more than 60 identified neurotransmitters affect sleep, mood and behavior, motor coordination and physiological activities such as heart beat, respiration, appetite and digestion. Many factors can contribute to suboptimal neurotransmitter levels including cortisol and hormonal imbalance, chronic stress, poor diet, inactivity, neurotoxins, pharmaceutical and recreational drugs and alcohol. In fact, many medications work by altering or blocking neurotransmissions.
Neurotransmitters are categorized as “excitatory,” which stimulate the brain, and “inhibitory” which calm the brain and create balanced moods. Excitatory neurotransmitters increase the chances that a neuron will fire an action potential, a process that causes a rapid increase in the positive charge of a nerve fiber, basically resulting in an electrical impulse. Inhibitory neurotransmitters decrease the likelihood for an action potential.
The Excitatory Neurotransmitters include:
Dopamine – As what has become known as the reward motivator, the chemical dopamine controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers and, as such, plays a complex role in dependencies. Dopamine helps us to focus and stay on task and is involved in many important functions including motivation, decision making, attention, cognition, movement, memory, sleep and emotional responses. A deficit of dopamine may trigger poor impulse control and is a contributing factor in Parkinson’s disease, as dopamine is involved in controlling fine muscle movements
Norepinephrine – Considered both a neurotransmitter and a stress hormone, norepinephrine is released in response to a stressful situation, commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” response. When facing a potentially perilous or unsafe situation, norepinephrine helps the body function as efficiently as possible by increasing heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and blood sugar, and by shutting down metabolic processes like digestion or insulin release. Within the brain, norepinephrine is believed to be involved in functions such as attention, alertness, focus and arousal. Low levels of norepinephrine are associated with sleep problems, low energy and decreased ability to focus.
Epinephrine – Also known as adrenaline, epinephrine, as a precursor to norepinephrine, provides immediate strength and single focused concentration to prepare the body for swift action or strenuous activity. As a powerful vasopressor, epinephrine overrides inhibitory neurotransmitters and increases cardiac output, blood pressure and blood flow in response to strong emotions such as fear or anger. Chronic stress and insomnia can deplete levels of epinephrine, which can result in low energy levels, depression and muscle weakness.
Glutamate – Considered to be the main excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate works in conjunction with GABA and is essential to memory, learning, alertness and wakefulness. Glutamate is synthesized by the body and is necessary for brain function and metabolism. An overabundance of glutamate is associated with disorders such as Alzheimer’s, ALS, Huntington’s, MS and many others. A lack of glutamate results in decreased mental focus and inability to synthesize GABA. Adequate GABA is necessary to keep glutamate and the constant barrage of stimuli in balance.
Acetylcholine – A widely distributed excitatory neurotransmitter, acetylcholine triggers muscle contraction and stimulates hormone secretion. It plays a role in wakefulness, attentiveness, energy conservation, anger, aggression and sexuality. Lack of acetylcholine is associated with Alzheimer’s disease, manic behavior and poor recent memory.
The Inhibitory Neurotransmitters include:
GABA – As a critical and primary neurotransmitter, GABA’s natural function is to reduce nerve excitation and stimulation, and lessen aggression, fear and anxiety. Synthesized in the brain, GABA is widely distributed among brain neurons and contributes to motor control, vision and neurological development. Stress tolerance, sleep patterns, behavioral disorders and mood all improve with adequate levels of GABA. Stress management and nutritional support for GABA production can have a huge positive influence on daily life. Nutritional support for GABA production can include glycine, magnesium and L-theanine.
Serotonin – Synthesized from the amino acid tryptophan, serotonin plays an important role in a wide range of brain functions, including sleep regulation, body temperature, hormonal activity and pain perception. As an inhibitory neurotransmitter, serotonin does not stimulate the brain but helps to balance an over-release of excitatory neurotransmitters, reducing aggression and stabilizing mood. Depression, impulsive behavior, sleep disturbance and irritability is associated with imbalances in serotonin.
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