Posted On May 04, 2011
There is no greater fear for baby boomers than the fear of becoming demented. Indeed, much of aging has to do with the brain, and with our basic abilities to process data, reason and remember. The loss of brain vitality is key to the aging process, and the ability to reverse this through restoring neurotransmitters is the final leg of anti-aging.
Neurotransmitters? Brain cells communicate with each other by firing off electrical discharges, which travel along what is called the axon of the cell. The next cell picks up this spark, with tiny receptors called dendrites. The places where the brain cells’ branching networks of axons and dendrites connect to each other are called the synapses, and what actually crosses the ‘synaptic gap’ between the cells are chemicals known as neurotransmitters.
There are more than 50 neurotransmitters that have been identified, but for anti-aging purposes we are concerned with the four dominant ones. Each of these is important for a type of neural activity that is relevant to our experience and functionality as humans.
Dopamine is all about energy and motivation. It’s the get up and go transmitter, the one that makes you feel like you’ve got the mental energy to do what you need to do. People who have high dopamine have good brain energy. People with low dopamine are tired and lethargic and moody. They are frequently overweight because they have a tendency to use sugar and simple carbohydrates to get energy. For the same reason they have a tendency to use more stimulants, such as caffeine, and they have a tendency to abuse drugs and alcohol a little more.
Dopamine also plays a big role in behavior, especially in the areas of motivation, punishment and reward. Dopamine is believed to contribute to learning by linking behavior to reward. Basically, dopamine provides those feelings of enjoyment and reinforcement that motivate a person to perform certain activities. In terms of the more obvious pleasures in life, it is released by such experiences as eating food, having sex, and taking drugs.
For the most part, when you’ve got low dopamine you’ve got no energy, no motivation, no creativity, and you sleep poorly. The typical story is a person who is tired, has no sex drive, has carbohydrate cravings, and has a poor diet. Indeed, most of the negative things that happen to people with low dopamine are connected with being generally overweight—high cholesterol, high blood pressure, insulin insensitivity, etc.
GABA, short for gamma-aminobutyric acid, is the neurotransmitter that controls your brain rhythms and your levels of neuronal excitability throughout the central nervous system. It acts like a modulator and a balancer; it basically makes people calm. It also acts like a traffic cop that helps control the overall biochemistry of the brain.
Increased levels of GABA typically have a relaxing, anti-anxiety effect. People with high levels of GABA feel peaceful. Those with low levels tend to feel more anxiety, and also have lower pain thresholds, so tend to experience chronic bone or back pain. People who have a GABA deficiency are typically quite irritable. They don’t sleep well, they can’t make decisions, and they have somatic complaints of body pains. Because their brain waves are not in balance, they can have other imbalances, such as irregular heartbeat. Mostly they just can’t get things in order or balance, they generally have trouble with relationships, they often can’t keep a job and they can’t make decisions.
The main thing is that GABA reduces the neural excitation that is associated with restlessness, irritability, insomnia and even seizures. (Barbiturates, for example, induce relaxation by stimulating GABA receptors in neurons.) The downside of low GABA is the bundle of ill effects associated with stress and anxiety—excessive worry, panic, poor sleep, high cortisol levels, mood swings, strained personal relationships and self-medication to avoid stress.
Whereas dopamine was the neurotransmitter for brain energy, acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter for brain speed. It’s like the RAM in a computer. It’s all about memory access, cognition, speed of processing, and improving your IQ. If you want to improve your ability to learn or how fast you can read, acetylcholine is what you need.
Assuming a basic balance, it’s acetylcholine that gives us a faster brain. It affects the plasticity of our brains, which really means our ability to learn and create new memories. It also influences our state of arousal and enhances our sensory perception, which means our ability to sustain attention and process the input once we wake up and are alert. In essence, it enhances the amplitude of synaptic transmissions, and its absence is associated with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Acetylcholine has other functions, too. It plays an important role in producing REM sleep, and it affects the cardiovascular system (it acts as a vasodilator), the gastrointestinal system, the urinary tracts and the respiratory system. But its main role in anti-aging is in cognition, and low levels of acetylcholine lead to all the symptoms that baby boomers fear most as they age: forgetfulness, difficulty finding the right word to say, difficulty paying attention, difficulty thinking, short term memory loss, disorientation, etc.
Serotonin is known as the ‘happiness hormone,’ even though it is not a hormone, because people who have high serotonin levels are happy. People who have less serotonin are less happy. This includes all the manifestations of unhappiness, from being grumpy and agitated to having headaches, a stiff neck and clinical depression.
In addition to the brain, serotonin is found in the gastrointestinal tract, and plays a role in appetite and our perception of available resources. In response to the perception of abundance—meaning food—it can elevate mood; in response to scarcity, it can depress mood. It is thus associated with depression on a gut level.
Serotonin has other functions as well, and is associated with cognitive functions, including memory and learning, as well as with sleep, growth factors for some cells, and cellular healing. Due to its association with food, interestingly enough, serotonin is also associated with social rank; animals injected with serotonin act like dominant animals in a social setting, which may allow them to take food from weaker individuals.
For our purposes, however, the main thing about serotonin is that higher levels lead to a feeling of happiness and help keep our moods under control by helping with sleep, by calming anxiety and by relieving depression. Low levels lead to mild to moderate depression, anxiety, apathy, fear, feelings of worthlessness, insomnia and fatigue. Most anti-depressant drugs prevent the breakdown of serotonin.
DIETARY SOLUTIONS FOR NEUROTRANSMITTER REPLACEMENT
The average person would be amazed at the number of drugs that are used to treat neurotransmitter deficiencies, or any of the depressions that result. The problem with these drugs is that they don’t really replenish the neurotransmitter. They treat the symptoms of the deficiencies.
Much better is to help your brain replenish its neurotransmitters naturally, through diet, supplements or hormones.
Serotonin is manufactured in your body using the amino acid tryptophan. So certain foods high in tryptophan increase serotonin. These include:
Turkey (remember those happy Thanksgivings).
There are also supplements you can use to increase serotonin, including melatonin (technically a hormone), inositol and five hydroxytryptophan. These include:
St. John’s Wort
Finally, there are hormones that help to boost serotonin levels. These include:
Human Growth Hormone
Oats, whole grain
Oranges, citrus fruits
Whole Wheat (& other whole grains)
Fish (cod, salmon, tilpia)
Liver (beef, turkey, chicken)
Soy Protein Powder
Human Growth Hormone
Oat Flakes or Rolled Oats
Human Growth Hormone