Feeling Depressed? It Could All Be In Your Head
With summertime slowly fading, many of us move back into mayhem trying to manage endless work demands, school and sports schedules, family obligations, community commitments, sleep deprivation, and so much more. Although we all deal with some stress some of the time, a lot of stress much of the time or a significantly stressful event can take a huge toll on your mental and physical health—leading you right down the path to depression. Why? Because when you are stressed, your body burns through brain neurotransmitters at an accelerated rate, depleting you of the critical neurochemicals required to metabolize fat, modulate mood, manage stress, and feel well. As we fall into autumn, if you’re feeling stressed and depressed, it could be due to the neurotransmitters in your head.
What are Neurotransmitters?
Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers in the brain that control how you think and feel. They directly affect your mood, how you make decisions, and your ability to handle stress. These naturally occurring chemicals include serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and histamine. Each chemical, manufactured from amino acids in food, has a different effect on behavior and makes us to feel happy or sad, anxious or calm, and emotionally balanced or imbalanced.
Generally speaking, neurotransmitters are categorized as either excitatory or inhibitory. Excitatory neurotransmitters stimulate the brain, while inhibitory neurotransmitters are calming and help regulate mood. Together, excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters perform an intricate balancing act to give your body the right amount of energy and solace when you need it.
When your neurotransmitters are in balance, you typically feel good and tend to respond appropriately to life situations. When imbalanced, you typically feel bad and tend to feel emotionally unbalanced and respond inappropriately to life situations, such as over-reacting, under-reacting, or feeling a sense of numbness with no response at all. Following are the primary neurotransmitters, their functions in the body, and typical results of imbalance.
|Neurotransmitter||Type & Function||Results of Imbalance|
|Serotonin||Inhibitory; Stabilizes mood, helps control appetite, and balances excessive levels of excitatory neurotransmitters.||Depression, anxiety, carbohydrate cravings, over-eating, obsessive thoughts and behaviors, difficulty sleeping.|
|Dopamine (Precursor to epinephrine & norepinephrine)||Excitatory; Affects satiety, behavior, motor activity, cognition, and emotional response, and plays important role in the ability to experience pleasure (reward) and pain.||Memory issues, problems staying focused, lack of motivation or zest for life, depression, extreme behaviors, over-eating, weight issues, and addictions.|
|Epinephrine||Excitatory; Manages body’s fight or flight response, regulates metabolism, heart rate, and blood pressure.||Anxiety, hyperactivity, and difficulty losing weight.|
|Norepinephrine||Excitatory; Manages body’s stimulatory processes and converts epinephrine.||Anxiety, moodiness, low energy, problems with concentration/focus issues, difficulty losing weight.|
|Histamine||Excitatory; Controls sleep cycles and energy levels.||Sleep disturbances, inflammation, and allergies.|
Causes of Neurotransmitter Imbalance
So how do we get out of neurotransmitter balance in the first place? In our fast-paced society there are two primary paths to neurotransmitter deficiency: chronic stress and a poor diet. Those who tend to live in the fast lane—too much work, too much stress, and too little sleep—burn through neurotransmitters faster than their bodies can replenish them. This can signal the body to over-produce or under-produce levels of the various neurotransmitters. Either way, the result is usually the same: the body’s inability to maintain a healthy emotional state.
Eating nutritionally depleted foods (think processed) and not getting enough quality protein also affect your body’s ability to produce and maintain appropriate neurotransmitter levels. Regular calorie cutting, meal skipping, and emotional eating can also lead to neurotransmitter deficiencies. Just like chronic stress, a poor diet starves your body of the nutrients and amino acids essential for optimal health and emotional well-being.
In addition to these two primary causes of neurotransmitter imbalance, genetics and pharmaceutical drugs also affect neurochemical balance. Have you ever noticed how emotional traits seem to run in families? Your genes determine your body’s ability to produce certain mood-enhancing chemicals. And certain medications can deplete your body’s nutritional reserves, causing chemical imbalances that affect all metabolic functions of the body. Be aware that some medications can cause depression, such as antihistamines, anti-hypertensives, anti-inflammatory agents, birth control pills, corticosteroids, tranquilizers, and sedatives.
Neurotransmitters and Weight Loss
Neurotransmitters play a significant role in metabolism and weight loss by monitoring energy levels, energy expenditure, and current energy supplies. Because the brain doesn’t store energy, it must rely on energy stores from the body. When your body’s energy needs are sufficient, your brain stimulates the neurotransmitters that create satiety and help you feel full.
When your body’s energy needs are not sufficient, your brain stimulates the neurotransmitters that increase appetite. In a perfectly balanced body these neurochemicals orchestrate hunger and satiety like a harmonious symphony. Imbalance, on the other hand, leads to mis-signaling and causes inappropriate hunger, cravings, and over-eating. When this happens, calorie consumption can easily exceed your body’s energy demands, and the excess will be stored as body fat. Over a prolonged period, this brain neurochemistry imbalance will cause obesity.
One of the fastest ways to get a “mood lift” from imbalanced neurotransmitters is to feed your mood with food. Carbohydrates and refined sugars create an almost instantaneous boost of energy and make you feel happy and relaxed. Unfortunately, the effects are short-lived (sugar crash!) and the long-term results often lead to severe food cravings, eating disorders, and significant weight gain. The good news is eating a healthy, balanced diet supported by an optimal supplement program, will help fuel your body with the energy it needs and feed your brain with appropriate signaling for satiety and metabolism, as well as overall well-being.
Preventing or recovering from depression involves taking care of yourself and finding ways to successfully manage stress and provide neurotransmitter support. To help alleviate stress and alleviate symptoms of depression, Dr. Harper recommends integrating the following tenets to your daily routine:
- • Get eight or more hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.
- • Remove toxic chemicals like caffeine, alcohol, artificial sweeteners, and sugar from your diet.
- • Eat a balanced diet of optimal protein, healthy fats, high fiber carbs, and non-starchy veggies in small meals and snacks every 3-4 hours to give your body the building blocks to rebuild neurotransmitters.
- • Build in downtime and fun activities to your routine.
- • Do appropriate cross-training exercise and not excessive cardiovascular exercise. (Outdoor exercise is great for increasing serotonin levels!)
- • Give your body the nutrients it needs to rebuild neurotransmitters and keep the stress hormones from going too high, including Omega 3 Fatty Acids, Phosphatidyl Serine, B Vitamins, and Vitamin C.
To treat neurotransmitter imbalance successfully, it is essential to test the various neurotransmitter levels and hormone levels because correlations between them are numerous and complex. Dr. Harper has developed a comprehensive program for assessing each patient’s individual levels, identifying areas of metabolic deficiency and imbalance, and then prescribing a customized plan for restoring mental and physical health. If you would like to learn more about neurotransmitter testing or schedule an appointment, please call our office at 512.343.9355.
10 Easy Ways to Burn Calories
With our fast-paced lives and hectic schedules, it can be challenging to work in a daily workout. When you can’t carve out time for a full-length session of crunches, cardio, or kick-boxing, consider incorporating a few of these 20-minute, calorie-consuming activities into your daily routine. Get your body moving and you’ll be surprised how the results can add up!
- 1. Use the stairs.
- 2. Mow the lawn.
- 3. Ride a bike.
- 4. Vacuum the house.
- 5. Go for a walk.
- 6. Work in the garden.
- 7. Go dancing.
- 8. Have sex.
- 9. Wash the car.
- 10. Play video games (think Wii™ Sports!).
Do you feel like you’re stuck in a rut and want to add some spice to your life? Now more than ever is the best time to get your creative juices flowing. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin say that adding creativity to your daily activities may help you live longer and stay healthier. Doing creative work that’s challenging and out of your ordinary routine exercises your brain through learning and problem solving, and these activities are shown to benefit your health in a way that’s equivalent to being seven years younger. So if you’re contemplating an interesting job change or wanting to embark on an exciting new hobby, then go for it! You just might feel younger and add seven years to your life!
Did You Know?
You can add an average of 14 years to your life by adopting four health-benefiting behaviors. A recent study conducted by the University of Cambridge and the Medical Research Council surveyed a group of 20,000 men and women to determine the effects of implementing the following four healthy lifestyle habits:
- • Regular exercise
- • Eating five daily servings of fruits and vegetables
- • Drinking alcohol in moderation
- • No smoking
Between 1993 and 1997, participants reported their progress implementing and adhering to these behaviors and were scored accordingly. Researchers then tracked deaths among participants through 2006 and concluded that those who implemented these four healthy habits lived an average of 14 years longer than those who didn’t. In fact, those participants who adopted none of the behaviors were four times more likely to have died than those who made healthier lifestyle choices. Other individual factors most certainly affect our overall health, but these findings do indicate that making a few small lifestyle changes can have a big impact on your health and longevity.
So how do you manage making one or two of these changes—let alone three or four? Don’t get discouraged—any one change will certainly improve your health! Making the first step is the key and taking small steps, one day at a time, will get you moving quickly on the right track for living longer and healthier!
Ruthie Harper, MD
Dr. Harper founded Ruthie Harper MD, her internationally recognized practice in Austin, Texas, in 1999. Since that time, she has consulted with more than 10,000 patients and offers the latest services and techniques in health and wellness in the medical division of her practice, as well as non-surgical rejuvenation and skincare in the cosmetic portion of her practice. Her ongoing success serving the health and beauty industries is based primarily on her innovative integration of research, nutritional science, advanced functional testing, and advanced aesthetics.