Health Issues: Neurotransmitters, Emotions and Expressions

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By Dr. Michael Miles

Ever notice that you can be happy just because you are smiling?  Even if it’s a forced smile, or an unintentional smile.

There are interesting connections in the brain that may help explain some of our mood swings.  Part of the system involves neurotransmitters.  These are chemical structures that influence the transmission of signals down nerves.

The signaling of nerves is not as simple as turning on a light.  Any one signal is the result of millions of neurotransmitters competing to “throw the switch.”  There are millions of excitatory neurotransmitters trying to send the signal, and there are millions of inhibitory neurotransmitters trying to hold back the signal.  Whichever group of neurotransmitters reaches the magic threshold criteria wins.

Stress is an interesting phenomenon that triggers a response of high alertness.  Excitatory neurotransmitters are delivered in abundance to facilitate an emergency response that is designed to last twenty to thirty minutes – enough time to figure out a management strategy for most situations.  These excitatory neurotransmitters dominate the internal “chemical soup” and control most of the signaling that takes place during that period.

Unfortunately, in today’s stressful world it has become increasingly common to see this internal “soup” over-saturated with excitatory neurotransmitters.  It never returns to its normal balance of excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters.  This imbalance is a strong contributor to one’s emotional state and is sometimes labeled “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

On the biochemical level it is often found that the excitatory neurotransmitters far outnumber the inhibitory ones.  This state can last months and years, rather than its designed twenty to thirty minutes.  How this translates into daily life is that the person perceives the world in an excitatory state.  Simple actions are perceived as exciting.  The mind translates this to mean that there is something threatening.  So, the person looks for something to attach this threatening feeling to.  They are always on edge … in the “fight or flight” mode.

This understanding of the chemical terrain inside the body influences strategies that are considered when trying to rebalance an individual.

Counseling is very helpful in managing this phenomenon.  However, a more direct strategy that is often used is to rebalance the chemical soup.

The most abundant inhibitory neurotransmitter in the body, and thus the best one to use for rebalancing, is serotonin.  If one can raise the level of serotonin to even out the excitatory neurotransmitters, then that person’s perception of the world can be more balanced, more rational and more effective.

Some strategies use medications that control the flow of serotonin in the body, thus making it more available (e.g. anti-depressants).  Another strategy to raise serotonin to the level of the excitatory neurotransmitters is to add more tryptophan to the system.  Tryptophan is the amino acid that is the building block, or precursor, to serotonin.

A balanced signaling system can make all the difference in the world for a person.  No longer will they perceive the world in an unrealistic, overly tense way.  They will be balanced enough to react excitedly when it is appropriate and otherwise be relaxed when it is appropriate.

It is like “putting” a smile on your face.  It creates an environment that is conducive to a more congenial, interactive and productive life.  “Smile and the whole world smiles with you.”

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