Neurotransmitter deficiencies have multifactorial origins. Genetic predispositions do play a role. For example, some people inherently produce less serotonin than others. Other people inherently have weaker production of epinephrine or other excitatory signals. But by far the most common factor is stress.
Sympathetic nervous system overdrive, widely prevalent in our society, exhausts multiple neurotransmitter systems. Long periods of chronic stress gradually deplete serotonin, as the body tries to downregulate excitatory signals. Once serotonin is depleted, the excitatory arm of the nervous system has free rein, creating prolonged states of anxiety and agitation. “Many people just cannot relax any more. The inhibitory neurotransmitters are totally burned out,” explained Dr. Gottfried Kellermann, founder of NeuroScience, a laboratory that offers well-validated tests of neurotransmitter function.
Eventually, excitatory neurotransmitters are also depleted. Many adults with depression and chronic fatigue have low serotonin, GABA and also epinephrine and norepinephrine.
The problem is exacerbated by poor diet. “Carbohydrates cannot be made into neurotransmitters. They’re made out of amino acids, so you need to have good protein in the diet,” said Dr. Kellermann. A diet high in refined carbs provides plenty of glucose for the overdriven sympathetic nervous system to burn, but nothing to replenish exhausted neurotransmitter supplies. However, carbs do stimulate endorphin release, which is why people like carb-rich “comfort” foods.
Coffee, being a strong adrenal stimulant, contributes to the depletion of epinephrine. Chronic coffee drinking is detrimental to neurotransmitter balance. On the other side, alcohol adversely affects GABA production. While moderate drinking helps people relax, it promotes long-term neurotransmitter imbalance.
Exercise can induce large increases in neurotransmitter levels, but the effect is transient. The problem is that a lot of patients are so depleted it is difficult to get them to exercise at all. Over-exercise can be depleting. Triathletes are often extremely low in key neurotransmitters. “This can be very dangerous.”
Dr. Kellermann has a strong interest in the role of parental nurturing on the ability to produce serotonin. It seems that in young children, nurturing strengthens serotonin production. Children who lack adequate nurturing tend to have lower serotonin levels. “I am trying to find the equivalent of nurture in chemistry. When we’re really balanced and happy, there is a particular neuro-chemical balance, and I’m trying to understand that.”