In my practice the most common patient concerns are fatigue, trouble with sleep, and anxiety. It is actually rare for a patient to complain about depression, but many of these patients are offered anti-depressants by their physicians. They often ask me if there are alternatives to these and other medications. Fortunately there are approaches designed to restore the balance of brain chemistry with targeted nutritional supplementation which has sound scientific evidence to support both its effectiveness and safety.
One way to understand how this works is to imagine the physiology underlying the chemistry of our moods as a kind of symphony. In this analogy, the different sections of the symphony are the different neurotransmitters that both activate and modulate our emotions and attention. A healthy symphony has the ability to play music that produces many kinds of mood – from loud and activating to soft and meditative. This is true of a brain that is producing abundant levels of well-functioning neurotransmitters as well: many moods, concentration and activity levels. About half of our neurotransmitters are activating and about half are modulating.
Neurotransmitters are quite simple molecules biochemically speaking. Almost all are synthesized in the brain from amino acids – the building blocks of proteins. Many of the supplements used to help with mood, sleep, and attention use the amino acid precursors for these neurotransmitters. The theory is that if the body has more of the raw materials to produce deficient neurotransmitters it will be able to refill the reservoir.
In a symphony, if one of the sections is missing most of its members, that symphony will be compromised in its ability to make certain kinds of music. Imagine a symphony trying to play a march with a one-person percussion section. Imagine another symphony trying to play a lullaby with its string section missing. Not only will the symphony be compromised immediately, it may not be long before a strain appears in other sections of the orchestra. In the brain, I suspect single neurotransmitter depletion occurs infrequently. This accounts for the common practice in functional medicine of attempting to balance rather than just replace deficient neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters are produced (and broken down) from the precursors with the aid of enzymes that are genetically determined. Interestingly, this may account for some mood and attention disorders that run in families.
There is a good body of information available to help those who feel their internal symphony is not in harmonious balance. Physicians Mark Hyman and Daniel Amen are among those who have published well-researched books to help people understand how to support their neurotransmitter function though nutritional supplementation. In my opinion two good sources of supplements in our community are Whole Foods and Weaver Street Market. Both of these stores are also often staffed by well informed personnel.
Lastly, the nutrients used in neurotransmitter support supplements are by and large quite safe. In my experience they have side effects a fraction as frequently as medications used to modify the same symptoms. Still, caution should be exercised in beginning them and especially when combining them with medications.
To your health,