Understanding Neurotransmitters and Their Role in Brain Health

Structure of a typical chemical synapse. neurotransmitter release mechanisms. Neurotransmitters are packaged into synaptic vesicles transmit signals from a neuron to a target cell across a synapse.
Domonique D. Hargrove B.A., M.S., NCEP Certified Trainer, Founder& President of "Slight Edge Performance Program" LLC
Domonique D. Hargrove B.A., M.S., NCEP Certified Trainer, Founder& President of “Slight Edge Performance Program” LLC

What Is A Neurotransmitter?

Neurotransmitters are often referred to as the body’s chemical messengers. They are the molecules used by the nervous system to transmit messages between neurons, or from neurons to muscles.

Neurotransmitters work with receptors in the brain to influence and regulate a wide range of processes such as mental performance, emotions, pain response and energy levels. Numerous clinical studies have shown that inadequate neurotransmitter function has a profound influence on overall health and well-being.

A neurotransmitter is a chemical substance that is released at the end of a nerve fiber by the arrival of a nerve impulse and, by diffusing across the synapse or junction, causes the transfer of the impulse to another nerve fiber, a muscle fiber, or some other structure.

What is the Role of Neurotransmitters?

Functioning primarily in the Central Nervous System neurotransmitters are the brain’s chemical messengers, facilitating communication among the body’s glands, organs, and muscles. Neurotransmitters work with receptors in the brain to influence and regulate a wide range of processes such as mental performance, emotions, pain response and energy levels. Numerous clinical studies have shown that inadequate neurotransmitter function has a profound influence on overall health and well-being. In fact, imbalances in certain neurotransmitters are associated with most of these prevalent symptoms and health conditions:

  • Mood disorders; depression, anxiety
  • Adrenal dysfunction; fatigue, insomnia
  • Loss of mental focus; ADD, ADHD, cognitive fog
  • Addiction and dependency
  • Hormonal imbalances; E2 dominance, E2 deficiency, low androgens
  • Loss of appetite control; insulin resistance

Neurotransmitter, also called chemical transmitter or chemical messenger, any of a group of chemical agents released by neurons (nerve cells) to stimulate neighboring neurons or muscle or gland cells, thus allowing impulses to be passed from one cell to the next throughout the nervous system.

Neurotransmitters are endogenous chemicals acting as signaling molecules that enable neurotransmission. They are a type of chemical messenger which transmits signals across a chemical synapse from one neuron to another ‘target’ neuron, to a muscle cell, or to a gland cell.

Billions of neurotransmitter molecules work constantly to keep our brains functioning, managing everything from our breathing to our heartbeat to our learning and concentration levels. They can also affect a variety of psychological functions such as fear, mood, pleasure, and joy.

How Neurotransmitters Work

In order for neurons to send messages throughout the body, they need to be able to communicate with one another to transmit signals. However, neurons are not simply connected to one another. At the end of each neuron is a tiny gap called a synapse and in order to communicate with the next cell, the signal needs to be able to cross this small space. This occurs through a process known as neurotransmission.

In most cases, a neurotransmitter is released from what’s known as the axon terminal after an action potential has reached the synapse, a place where neurons can transmit signals to each other.

When an electrical signal reaches the end of a neuron, it triggers the release of small sacs called vesicles that contain the neurotransmitters. These sacs spill their contents into the synapse, where the neurotransmitters then move across the gap toward the neighboring cells. These cells contain receptors where the neurotransmitters can bind and trigger changes in the cells.

After release, the neurotransmitter crosses the synaptic gap and attaches to the receptor site on the other neuron, either exciting or inhibiting the receiving neuron depending on what the neurotransmitter is.

Receptors and neurotransmitters act like a lock-and-key system. Just as it takes the right key to open a specific lock, a neurotransmitter (the key) will only bind to a specific receptor (the lock). If the neurotransmitter is able to work on the receptor site, it triggers changes in the receiving cell.

Sometimes neurotransmitters can bind to receptors and cause an electrical signal to be transmitted down the cell (excitatory). In other cases, the neurotransmitter can actually block the signal from continuing, preventing the message from being carried on (inhibitory).

Neurotransmitters are the brains chemical that communicate information throughout your brain and body. They relay information between neuron to neuron. Without neurotransmitters your brain would fail to utilize serotonin, dopemine, norepinephrine and much more needed chemicals that is vital to both your brain and body.

Types Of Neurotransmitters

There are more than 40 neurotransmitters in the human nervous system; some of the most important are acetylcholine, norepinephrine, dopamine, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), glutamate, serotonin, and histamine.

1. Acetylcholine:

Acetylcholine is an organic chemical that functions in the brain and body of many types of animals as a neurotransmitter—a chemical message released by nerve cells to send signals to other cells, such as neurons, muscle cells and gland cells.

Acetylcholine is the chief neurotransmitter of the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the autonomic nervous system (a branch of the peripheral nervous system) that contracts smooth muscles, dilates blood vessels, increases bodily secretions, and slows heart rate.

2. Norepinephrine:

Norepinephrine is a naturally occurring chemical in the body that acts as both a stress hormone and neurotransmitter (a substance that sends signals between nerve cells). It’s released into the blood as a stress hormone when the brain perceives that a stressful event has occurred.

Norepinephrine also called noradrenaline is both a hormone, produced by the adrenal glands, and a neurotransmitter, a chemical messenger which transmits signals across nerve endings in the body. Together with other hormones, norepinephrine helps the body respond to stress and exercise.

3. Dopamine:

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, one of those chemicals that is responsible for transmitting signals between the nerve cells (neurons) of the brain. Some, in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra, are the cells that die during Parkinson’s disease.

Dopamine is known as the feel-good neurotransmitter—a chemical that ferries information between neurons. The brain releases it when we eat food that we crave or while we have sex, contributing to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction as part of the reward system.

Dopamine released during pleasurable situations and stimulates one to seek out the pleasurable activity or occupation. This means food, sex, and several drugs of abuse are also stimulants of dopamine release in the brain, particularly in areas such as the nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex.

4. Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid:

Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a naturally occurring amino acid that works as a neurotransmitter in your brain. Neurotransmitters function as chemical messengers. GABA is considered an inhibitory neurotransmitter because it blocks, or inhibits, certain brain signals and decreases activity in your nervous system.

Gamma-Aminobutyric acid, or γ-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, is the chief inhibitory neurotransmitter in the developmentally mature mammalian central nervous system. Its principal role is reducing neuronal excitability throughout the nervous system.

5. Glutamate:

In neuroscience, glutamate refers to the anion of glutamic acid in its role as a neurotransmitter: a chemical that nerve cells use to send signals to other cells. It is by a wide margin the most abundant excitatory neurotransmitter in the vertebrate nervous system.

Glutamate is a powerful excitatory neurotransmitter that is released by nerve cells in the brain. It is responsible for sending signals between nerve cells, and under normal conditions it plays an important role in learning and memory.

Glutamate is the major excitatory neurotransmitter in the nervous system. Glutamate pathways are linked to many other neurotransmitter pathways, and glutamate receptors are found throughout the brain and spinal cord in neurons and glia.

6. Serotonin:

Serotonin is a chemical nerve cells produce. It sends signals between your nerve cells. Serotonin is found mostly in the digestive system, although it’s also in blood platelets and throughout the central nervous system. Serotonin is made from the essential amino acid tryptophan.

In the brain, serotonin helps with mood regulation and memory, but the neurotransmitter also has important jobs in other parts of the body. In fact, most of the serotonin in your body is found in your gut, not your brain. Not only do the intestines produce almost all of the body’s serotonin supply, but serotonin is required there to promote healthy digestion.

Elsewhere in the body, serotonin also helps with sleep, sexual function, bone health, and blood clotting.

7. Histamine:

Histamine is an organic nitrogenous compound involved in local immune responses, as well as regulating physiological function in the gut and acting as a neurotransmitter for the brain, spinal cord, and uterus. Histamine is involved in the inflammatory response and has a central role as a mediator of itching.

Histamine is found in nearly all tissues of the body, where it is stored primarily in the granules of tissue mast cells. The blood cells called basophils also harbour histamine-containing granules. Once released from its granules, histamine produces many varied effects within the body, including the contraction of smooth muscle tissues of the lungs, uterus, and stomach; the dilation of blood vessels, which increases permeability and lowers blood pressure; the stimulation of gastric acid secretion in the stomach; and the acceleration of heart rate. Histamine also serves as a neurotransmitter, carrying chemical messages between nerve cells.

Neurotransmitters work with receptors in the brain to influence and regulate a wide range of processes such as mental performance, emotions, pain response and energy levels. Numerous clinical studies have shown that inadequate neurotransmitter function has a profound influence on overall health and well-being.

Nutrients to Build Neurotransmitters

Consuming adequate levels of the basic nutrients for neurotransmitters through select foods including protein for the amino acids, vitamin C, the B-vitamins and iron, may help to bring body levels of neurotransmitters in balance.

What you eat has the potential to impact your mood and improve your cognitive function. Research as shown eating a diet high in sodium, saturated fat, and calories correlated to a negative mood. However a dietary pattern corresponding with a more positive mood included consuming fewer calories, less saturated fat, and reduced sodium.

This food-mood connection likely comes from the effects of certain nutrients and foods on neurotransmitters, including consuming the neurotransmitters themselves. There are also important precursors to neurotransmitters you must ensure you have in sufficient amounts for a healthy brain and communication throughout your body.

There are many nutrients essential to the synthesis and regulation of neurotransmitters, including amino acids (especially the precursors tryptophan and tyrosine), choline, vitamin C, B-vitamins (especially B6, B12, and folate), large amino acids (i.e., valine, leucine, isoleucine, phenylalanine), zinc, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin D. There are certain foods known for their overall benefits for the brain. One example is tea, most likely due in part because theanine increases serotonin, dopamine, and GABA levels in the brain.

Consuming adequate levels of the basic nutrients for neurotransmitters, including protein for the amino acids, vitamin C, the B-vitamins, and iron, can go a long way to a healthy brain and more balanced neurotransmitter levels.

The brain requires a constant supply of micronutrients for energy metabolism of neurons and glial cells, neurotransmitter synthesis and action, nerve impulse propagation, and homocysteine metabolism.

Good nutritional status is important for proper brain development and maintenance of normal cognitive function. Through unique biological functions, various micronutrients affect brain function.

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References:https://www.marlenesmarket-deli.com/nutrition-for-neurotransmitters, https://www.britannica.com/science/histamine, https://www.deannaminich.com/eating-for-your-neurotransmitters/, https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/health-disease/cognitive-function, https://www.kenhub.com/en/library/anatomy/neurotransmitters, https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-neurotransmitter-2795394, https://qbi.uq.edu.au/brain/brain-physiology/what-are-neurotransmitters

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