Neurotransmitters, chemicals in our brains that work as messengers between brain cells, are responsible for most of what goes on in our bodies. They regulate our behavior, our emotions, our ability to learn, and the way we sleep. When these chemicals are not present in the proper balance, it can affect everything from our energy levels to our ability to focus to how we feel.
Studies have shown that neurotransmitters have a tremendous influence on our mood, and insufficient levels of certain neurotransmitters have been identified in patients with emotional disorders and mental illness.
Our brain contains specialized nerve cells, called neurons, which are responsible for receiving information, processing it, and transmitting it to other cells. Neurons are not in direct contact with one another; in order for neurons to pass messages to each other, they rely on highly specialized chemicals called neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters are made out of amino acids, which come from proteins - you will see why this is important further on. The neurotransmitters essentially bridge the "gaps" (called synapses) between neurons to relay their messages. When these neurotransmitters exist at insufficient levels, important information may not be passed along correctly.
Some of the important neurotransmitters that affect our moods are described here.
- Acetylcholine -regulates voluntary movement, sleep, memory, and learning. Too much acetylcholine is present with depression, and too little is present in patients with dementia.
- Serotonin - helps to regulate appetite, sleep, impulsive behavior, aggression, and mood. Too little serotonin is present in cases of depression and anxiety disorder, in particular obsessive-compulsive disorder.
- Dopamine - helps to regulate learning, focus and movement. Excessive levels of dopamine are present in patients with schizophrenia; too little dopamine is associated with depression, as well as the tremors exhibited by patients with Parkinson's disease.
- Epinephrine (adrenaline) - this neurotransmitter regulates glucose metabolism and energy levels; low levels are linked to depression.
- Norepinephrine (noradrenalin) - helps to regulate appetite and alertness; low levels are found in patients with depression, while excessive norepinephrine has been found in patients with schizophrenia.
- GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid) - GABA is known to inhibit anxiety and excitation. Too little GABA is associated with anxiety disorders.
- Endorphins - These are the "happy" neurotransmitters that promote feelings of contentment and pleasure; they are also involved in pain relief.
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