While we as humans are clearly more than the sum of our neurotransmitters, this group of chemicals do play a significant role in our experience of life, running feelings, thoughts, and actions, the stuff make us who we are. Have you ever pondered where these little chemical influencers come from? No, I am not talking right now about whether they evolved from primordial bacteria or were created by God in His wisdom. No, I am still not referring to the specific biochemical pathways by which one chemical is transformed into an active neurotransmitter and used to pass on a message along a brain pathway. And last but not least, I am not offering anyone a path to peaceful joy and bliss by knowing which foods or herbs to ingest for balancing your neurotransmitters. I am looking past all that. I am asking what causes us to produce one neurotransmitter and not another in daily life, why we feel peace at one time, worry at another, a third emotion at another. Further, in order to understand this, we must answer the question of why different people are different from each other- assuming the same process underlies their neurotransmitters and emotions.
As the theological and the biochemical questions do intrigue me, this question of what drives us to produce neurotransmitters crossed my mind recently and prompted this blog. Before delving into this practical question of daily life, let me back up for a moment to discuss a little of the function of a few neurotransmitters so that the primary focus of today will make more sense. Each neurotransmitter exerts a general effect in relaying messages from one nerve cell to another, such as turning the potential for the next nerve cell to fire its own signal up or down, even changing what kind of signal it relays.
Despite each neurotransmitter type’s general tendency to act in a certain way, the same neurotransmitters can act differently in different parts of the brain. Norepinephrine in the brain is a great example of this. In most brain regions, norepinephrine, a very close cousin of what we know as adrenaline (also known as epinephrine), produces stimulatory effects. However, for children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, this same stimulatory neurotransmitters has a seemingly paradoxical calming effect. It can exert such an effect because when it affects a specific part of their brain, it stimulates a braking mechanism, causing them to slow down their hyperactive thinking. As we study the cross between neuroanatomy and neurochemistry, we find many other examples like this.
Despite these location differences, we can make some generalized statements about some neurotransmitters. Dopamine increases are generally related to levels of pleasure in several areas of the brain. This is why cocaine can make someone feel really good: it elevates dopamine levels. Serotonin levels generally correlate with levels of peace and enjoyment. While the connections between serotonin levels and absence of depression or anxiety are being challenged, the connection remains well-documented, albeit not as substantial or certain as once believed. GABA, gamma amino butyric acid, similarly tend to calm both our mood and activity. Benzodiazepine drugs like Ativan and Valium work by binding the same receptors. These are just generalizations, but they do play a role in how we support patients nutritionally or pharmacologically for mental health conditions.
With this background insight in mind, we return to the original question, though now we phrase it a little differently. Why do “YOU” produce the levels of neurotransmitters that “YOU” do in response to different experiences of “YOUR” life while the other guy responds differently, sometimes very differently, to the same stimulus? In case this question does not make sense, consider this comparison. John, a peaceful man, finds great joy and pleasure from sitting on his back patio reading a book on a cool afternoon in autumn; cousin Xavier, meanwhile, gets his exhilaration from skydiving off the side of a mountain. If you are like me, that first scenario sounds lovely; if you are like me, that second scenario does give you a shot of adrenaline, but your dopamine and serotonin levels have no impetus to change. We have different responses to different things, even though our bodies are using the same basic processes.
This leads us to the “why” that I mentioned earlier. Why do we all react so differently to different life experiences, whether in anticipation or actuality? What is the practical difference in our beings that causes differing neurotransmitter responses to the exact same life experiences? We could fall back on the standard answer that genetics plays a major role, and we’d be partially right. We can see tendencies for identical twins to prefer similar experiences, and even siblings to share many preferences. However, this does not explain everything.
Genetics explains tendencies towards different experiences as we seek higher levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, but there is clearly more to the equation than just genetics. The very life in which we live and learn and develop shapes us, pushing those genetic tendencies in different directions. From infancy, our early life experiences change how we view others, how we view the events of life, and thus how we respond to them in terms of not only actions but also thoughts and feelings directed by our neurotransmitters. For those who lived through early life trauma, loud voices will tend towards different neurotransmitter responses than for those whose childhood was serene. Our relationships during different parts of our life also have a great effect. A calming hand in troubled times can make the trouble seem much less terrible, both at the time and in how it affects us later.
Do not sigh at this point and resign yourself to being the simple product of genetics plus life experiences however. We play an active role in this process as we mature and can learn to reflect upon both the life experiences and our emotions coming from them. Our reflection upon these aspects is then shaped by what we believe about the nature of ourselves and of reality. A whole person view of mankind as body and spirit, a physical and a spiritual combination dynamically interacting with others through relationships, will serve us best as we evaluate our lives and ‘feel’ our neurotransmitters, and this view works because it’s the truth.
Our approach to our own lives, whether ones filled with peace or turmoil, will then be shapeable within the genetic tendencies given us by our Creator. We can influence the practical production of desirable neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin not only through good nutrition but through approaching life as a physical and spiritual whole, seeing the physical through the spiritual lens of seeking good and truth in each of our daily life choices. By seeing the practical source of our neurotransmitters as depending on our view of reality and then arising from our correct response to that reality, we can optimize the dopamine and serotonin and other neurotransmitters which lead to the peace described through the Old Testament known as ‘shalom’. This wholeness of life lived according to both our genetic nature and our spiritual nature will more likely create the levels of neurotransmitters we hope for.
The conscious daily pattern of seeing life as carrying out the stewardship of a great gift for which we are accountable to our Creator then becomes our opportunity to pursue the neurotransmitters which give us peace, joy, and pleasure. In that work of stewardship, we can seek to understand what practical experiences of life both should bring joy and do bring joy according to how we are designed. While this requires acknowledgment of our genetics and understanding of life’s experiences as they impact our personality, it still lies in the realm of our responsibility to thoughtfully pursue the fruits of neurotransmitters which we enjoy in a healthier more abundant life.
Have you stopped today to ask yourself what raises your dopamine and serotonin?
Sanctuary Functional Medicine, under the direction of Dr Eric Potter, IFMCP MD, provides functional medicine services to Nashville, Middle Tennessee and beyond. We frequently treat patients from Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, and more... offering the hope of healthier more abundant lives to those with chronic illness.