H1: Neurotransmitters in Your Body, What Are They All About?
You have probably heard of neurotransmitters, maybe in a science class or in reference to hormonal processes in your body, but you might not be sure what are they all about. Let’s explore these essential chemicals to have a better understanding of their functions and importance.
H2: What Are Neurotransmitters?
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that facilitate communication between certain cells, namely between nerve cells in the brain and from nerve cells to muscle cells. They are molecules that are released from the end of one cell to alert a neighboring cell that a message is coming, thus prompting the next cell to receive the message and respond. The message is sent down the chain of cells in this way often in a matter of milliseconds (Purves et. al. 2001).
It’s analogous to running to your next-door neighbor’s house to deliver an important notice. You knock on the door, pass it to him when he opens, he then runs the message to the next house down the block. And so on. To get a little more technical, it would be more similar to dialing a specific code into an intercom at your neighbor’s door to request permission to be let in, as neurotransmitters actually bond to receptors on the surface of their neighboring cells before they can pass the message or stimulus into that cell to be transmitted onward.
H2: What Do They Do?
Neurotransmitters allow communication between two nerve cells and between nerve cells and muscle cells. They facilitate the essential functions of the brain by transmitting signals from one cell to the next, and they are responsible for the movement of your body by delivering messages from your brain to your muscles. In other words, they are essential for all your thoughts and physical actions, including actions you don’t think about, like the muscular walls of your intestines contracting to help move food through the digestive system.
You might have heard of some examples of neurotransmitters in popular health resources. One of the things that’s amazing about these messengers (besides the fact that they allow us to function as living beings) is that some of them can also function as hormones, such as vasopressin, which regulates blood pressure and water retention in the body, and oxytocin, important during and immediately following child birth (Magon 2011). As you can see, neurotransmitters are pretty complex.
H2: Here are a few common neurotransmitters and some of their functions:
Acetylcholine or ACh (the first neurotransmitter to be discovered in 1921): involved in muscle stimulation and REM sleep. Certain poisons, such as curare and botulin, work by preventing the transfer of Acetylcholine. In cases of Alzheimer’s, levels of this chemical are found to be drastically decreased.
Serotonin: involved with emotion and mood. An imbalance in serotonin levels has been shown to affect sleep patterns and food cravings, cause migraines, and has been linked to irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia.
Dopamine: This chemical is linked to the brain’s rewards mechanisms. Dopamine levels are increased by various drugs including heroin and alcohol. Imbalances in dopamine levels are associated with schizophrenia, social anxiety, and Parkinson’s disease.
Norepinephrine: involved in the body’s “fight or flight” mechanism when the nervous system prepares to deal with alarming situations. It is released by the adrenal gland, part of the body’s hormone-releasing endocrine system. Ongoing stress depletes the body’s norepinephrine supply.
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid): associated with anxiety and epilepsy. GABA is influenced by a variety of drugs including Valium and alcohol (Riddle et al. 1997; Beoree 2017).
H2: What You Should Know
Neurotransmitters are part of delicate and complex physiological systems of the body. Follow the general rule of living a healthy lifestyle which includes eating a balanced diet, getting plenty of sleep, regular exercise, and keeping stress levels low. If you have any concerning symptoms, consult your healthcare practitioner to learn more.
There are tests available on the market that claim to test the levels of neurotransmitters in your system. These are slightly controversial as assessing neurotransmitter levels is not always possible through saliva or urine, which are the common methods used. Be sure to seek out professional advice before considering a neurotransmitter test (Hinz et al. 2010).
Beoree, Dr. C. George. General Psychology, Neurotransmitters. Shippensburg University. April, 2017. http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/genpsyneurotransmitters.html
Hinz M, Stein A, Trachte G, Uncini T. Open Access J Urol. 2010; 2: 177–183. Published online 2010 Oct 7. Neurotransmitter Testing of the Urine: A Comprehensive Analysis. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3818889/
Lodish H, Berk A, Zipursky SL, et al. New York: W. H. Freeman; 2000. Molecular Cell Biology. 4th Edition. Neurotransmitters, Synapses, and Impulse Transmission. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK21521/
Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001. Neuroscience. 2nd Edition. What Defines a Neurotransmitter? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK10957/
Magon N, Kalra S. Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism; 2011. The Orgasmic History of Oxytocin: Love, Lust, and Labor. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3183515/
Riddle DL, Blumenthal T, Meyer BJ, et al., editors. Cold Spring Harbor (NY): Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press; 1997. C. elegans II. 2nd Edition. Neurotransmitter Metabolism and Function. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK20199/
Waxham, Ph.D., M. Neal. Neuroscience Online. McGovern Medical School, University of Texas. April, 2017. Amino Acid Neurotransmitters. http://neuroscience.uth.tmc.edu/s1/chapter13.html