It can be easy to take the magical workings of our bodies for granted. There are so many complex interactions happening below the surface, many of them much more intricate than anything we learn about in health class. Neurotransmitters fall into this category, and they have a far greater impact than you might imagine. From the gut to the brain, neurotransmitters impact the function of the entire body, but especially how we feel emotionally and mentally.
In a nutshell, neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that are released from one neuron (nerve cell) that crosses over a tiny gap called a synapse to another neuron, then binds onto a receptor. Neurotransmitters can either excite or inhibit the neurons they bind to, which communicates important information throughout the brain and the body. We rely on this communication every second of every day to stay alive and function optimally. These reactions are responsible for keeping your lungs breathing, stomach digesting and heart beating. They affect things such as sleep, mood, and feelings.
Key Neurotransmitters To Know
There are many types of neurotransmitters and they all serve a different and important function. Here are some of the neurotransmitters you’re most likely to hear about:
GAMMA-AMINOBUTYRIC ACID (GABA) is the amino acid that can increase feelings of calm and relaxation by inhibiting or reducing the activity of neurons. Low levels of GABA in the system can lead to feelings of anxiety and chronic stress.
DOPAMINE plays a vital role in body coordination and pleasurable feelings related to reward and motivation. Many addictive drugs increase dopamine levels in the brain, while certain degenerative diseases (such as Parkinson’s) are caused by the loss of dopamine-generating neurons.
SEROTONIN is found almost entirely in the gut. In fact, ninety percent of the serotonin in the body is produced by gut bacteria, which is one of the many reasons why fermented foods are so good for you. It works to regulate appetite, sleep, memory, learning, anxiety, sexuality, temperature, muscle contraction, and function. Low levels of serotonin can correlate with depression and other mood imbalances.
ACETYLCHOLINE is in a class all its own and is located in the central and peripheral nervous systems. This neurotransmitter activates the skeletal muscle, playing a role in muscle movement, memory, and learning.
NOREPINEPHRINE gets the body moving in times of danger by regulating the fight-or-flight response. It is lowest when the body is sleeping. It is highest when a person is experiencing some form of stress, which in our day and age is happening more often than it should, thanks to too many emails, never-ending meetings and appointments, and the slew of extra responsibilities that most of us take on every day.
The Gut Microbiome + NeurotransmittersThe gut microbiome refers to the collective community of microbes and their DNA that resides within the gastrointestinal tract. If you gathered all of the microbes in your gut, they would weigh about the same as a human brain, around two to three pounds! Although the brain and the gut may seem separate, these two vital organs are dependent on each other and communicate constantly. The vagus nerve serves as a pathway between the brain and the gut, forming a system we refer to as the gut-brain axis in functional medicine.
Think of the vagus nerve as a bidirectional highway that starts at the base of your brain and travels all the way down to your colon. In place of cars, these highways are filled with neurotransmitters including dopamine, GABA, serotonin and more. This makes it easy to see how neurotransmitters can impact gut health and vice versa. It’s not just the brain sending signals to the gut. One way the gut may be influencing the brain is through the microbe’s production of neurotransmitters. See the chart below for a list of bacteria and neurotransmitters they produce:
BACILLUS: Dopamine, norepinephrine
BIFIDOBACTERIUM: Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
ESCHERICHIA: Norepinephrine, serotonin
LACTOBACILLUS: Acetylcholine, GABA
If you have low levels of healthy bacteria such as those listed above, the low overall diversity of gut microbes or high levels of pathogenic microbes (those that can cause problems), you may be sending faulty signals to your brain. However, there are still many unanswered questions. Research needs to uncover more about the link between gut bacteria and brain function. But research does show that bacterial dysbiosis (meaning an imbalance of gut bacteria) has been linked to anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and other forms of mental illness. So, one of the most important ways to support brain health and neurotransmitter production is to tend to the health of your gut.
How To Support A Healthy Gut Microbiome STOP FEEDING THE WRONG BUGS. Added sugar, refined/white flour (bread, crackers, cereal, pasta, pastries, etc.), and processed meats are among the worst offenders. Some foods may cause inflammation in the form of food sensitivities, which can negatively impact your gut and gut microbiome. In our practice, an elimination diet is a key to identifying potential triggers. Each body’s response is different, but major culprits include gluten, dairy, corn, soy, and eggs.
EAT FERMENTED FOODS. Before probiotic supplements were developed, people consumed healthy bacteria from the food they ate. It is best to expose your gut microbiome to a variety of beneficial bacteria found in foods you can easily incorporate in your daily diet. This can work wonders for whole-body health. Some of the best options include sauerkraut, kimchi, miso (be sure it is gluten-free if you are sensitive) and kefir (if sensitive to dairy, opt for the many non-dairy kefir alternatives).
ADD MORE PREBIOTICS. How do we stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria in our gut? Prebiotics, which act as food for the probiotics. Prebiotics are naturally occurring in many foods including raw onions, asparagus, leeks, chicory root, Jerusalem artichokes, green/under ripe banana and oats. Prebiotic fibers are not digested. Instead, they are fermented in the colon into short-chain fatty acids, which provide energy and repair the cells that line your gut. Note: If you have small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or FODMAP intolerance, prebiotics can make your symptoms worse and are not recommended.
DIVERSIFY, DIVERSIFY. Research shows that the types of food you eat can change your microbiome within just a few days. One study done with the elderly found that the strongest influencing factor on the health of the gut microbiome was a diverse diet. By eating a wide range of plant-based foods, you are feeding a wider range of bacteria. A diverse gut microbiome is associated with stronger immune function and improved overall health. Plus, the more diverse your diet, the wider the range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients you will consume and the more interesting your meals will be. Try one new food per week and see if you can get all the colors of the rainbow into your meals throughout the week.
We’ve come a long way in understanding the complexities of the body. And by understanding the massive role neurotransmitters have in our overall well-being, we’re able to support them in a balanced and approachable way through everyday dietary choices. The added bonus? Eating for healthy neurotransmitters means eating for a healthy body, so you’ll reap the benefits of these nutritious foods in more ways than one.