The Unspoken Keys To Unlock Our Brain’s Full Potential
According to the World Health Organization (aka: WHO), brain health is the state of brain functioning across cognitive, sensory, social-emotional, behavioral, and motor domains, allowing a person to realize their full potential throughout their lifetime.
Realizing our full potential is something we all should strive for. All human beings are supposed to function at the top of their game. And their brains should be firing on all cylinders.
There are many elements that can affect brain function; but today we will focus on neurotransmitters. In particular, the four that have the most effect on your memory are focus, drive, resilience, and joy. They are Acetylcholine, Dopamine, GABA, and Serotonin.
Think of neurotransmitters as pigeons. Back in the day, if you wanted to send a message to a distant relative, you would use a pigeon to carry that message to its destination. In your body, neurotransmitters have that same function. They are chemical messengers that carry messages from one nerve cell to the next nerve, muscle, or organ cell. These chemicals shape everyday life and influence all functions. These messages help you to speak, jump, feel the touch of a loved one, and keep your heart beating (among many other abilities). Most importantly, they help your brain to thrive.
Needless to say, for your body to have all of these different functions optimized; and to allow your brain to reach its full potential; you need to have the proper levels of neurotransmitters. If they are not present in the right quantity, neural messages won’t get delivered, and your cells won’t do their jobs. That’s what we are going to discuss today.
Acetylcholine (aka: ACh) is involved in many bodily functions. However, one of the roles it’s most well-known for is the stimulation of motor neurons. In other words, it helps transmit the signals that lead to muscle contraction. From moving your limbs, to the motility of your intestines, and to the blinking of your eyes. All of the body’s movements involve the presence of this important neurotransmitter.
Another place where you can find acetylcholine is in the brain. Here, it plays a vital role in transmitting neural signals that allow proper brain activity to occur. Acetylcholine is needed for optimal memory, motivation, attention, arousal, brain repair, and even REM sleep (essential for dreaming, processing memories and emotions, and brain recovery).
Besides affecting all of the functions above mentioned, inadequate levels of acetylcholine may be associated with conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.
For our physiology to be optimized, we need to have all the raw materials (and exclude the harmful toxins) in our blood. If the biochemistry is optimized, the physiology will follow.
So, how can we make sure we have enough of this neurotransmitter?
First, we need to have the necessary raw materials. In this case, choline is a crucial nutrient to make acetylcholine. When people don’t consume enough choline, their bodies cannot produce enough acetylcholine; and they may experience various negative health effects.
The best sources of choline are meat, fish, dairy, eggs, and some cruciferous vegetables (i.e. cabbage and broccoli). You can also find choline in whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. However, it’s not as bioavailable in these foods since they have antinutrients that block their absorption. This is especially important for those who follow vegetarian or vegan diets (since they may have a greater risk for choline deficiency).
Choline is such an important raw material for the brain that studies have concluded that children and adults with insufficient choline in their diet may have impairments in mental function and cognitive performance.
After ensuring that we give our bodies enough raw materials, we must also reduce exposure to the toxins that can harm our acetylcholine function. Pesticides, environmental toxins, and drugs can disrupt the way we interact with acetylcholine. This not only can trigger the issues mentioned before, but it can even lead to death.
Dopamine is often called the “pleasure chemical”. However, this neurotransmitter does not actually produce pleasure. That is the specialty of another molecule we will discuss soon which is serotonin. Instead, dopamine acts more as a reinforcer of these feelings of pleasure by connecting these sensations with the behaviors that produced them. Dopamine is like the carrot on a stick designed to give us a reward to continue chasing life-sustaining activities like eating, hydrating, exercising, bonding, and having sex.
Unfortunately, dopamine also has a dark side. It’s also produced when people browse social media, buy things, or take drugs, for example. And this can cause an addiction to these unhealthy behaviors.
Besides being an integral part of our brain’s reward system, dopamine is also involved in attention and learning; blood vessel function; heart rate; kidney function; lactation; mood; movement; pain processing; and sleep.
Impaired dopamine metabolism is one of the most well-studied causes of Parkinson’s Disease. Research has also associated it with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and even Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). Although depression is more frequently associated with serotonin deficits, researchers have concluded that low dopamine levels also contribute to a lack of motivation; loss of energy; and the inability to feel pleasure.
Changes in dopamine levels may also trigger age-related deficits in cognitive flexibility. In other words, it ages your brain faster. That’s a no bueno!
In order to optimize this neurotransmitter within us, once again, we must focus on the raw materials. Research has shown that two of dopamine’s major building blocks are tyrosine and phenylalanine. You can find these amino acids in almonds, avocados, bananas, eggs, meat, poultry, fish, pumpkin, and sesame seeds.
Additionally, we can also consider supplements to balance our dopamine levels (under medical supervision, of course). Here are some of the supplements that studies suggest may improve our dopamine levels: Vitamin B6; Mucuna Pruriens; Chromium; Berberine; Vitamin D; Magnesium; Ginkgo Biloba; and Ginseng.
Finally, it is essential to detox our “dopamine addictions”. There are many resources online on dopamine detoxification. The key is to replace these bad triggers with healthier ones (i.e. taking a short walk, practicing yoga, working out, and improving sleep habits).
Gamma-aminobutyric Acid (aka: GABA) is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. This means that it blocks certain nerve transmissions that are already overstimulated, such as in the case of stress, anxiety, and fear. GABA is then essential to regulate our mood. With inadequate levels, we may experience difficulty relaxing, irritability, heart palpitations, anxiety, and insomnia.
Improper balance of this neurotransmitter has also been associated with Schizophrenia; Hallucinations; Cognitive Impairment; Major Depressive Disorder; Epilepsy; and Parkinson’s disease.
In terms of optimizing GABA production through our diet, we should focus on foods rich in Glutamine, such as bone broth, meat, eggs, cabbage, asparagus, and broccoli. Supplementing with Vitamin B6, Taurine, and Zinc may also further improve GABA’s synthesis in the body.
Serotonin, also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine (aka: 5-HTP), is often recognized as the natural “feel good” chemical. When serotonin is at normal levels, it reduces feelings of depression and anxiety; making us feel more focused, emotionally stable, happier, and calmer.
Low serotonin levels have been associated with memory deficits, aggression, poor impulse control, insomnia, irritability, and low self-esteem.
While the relationship between serotonin and mental health is incredibly important, this neurotransmitter is also essential for our digestive health, optimal sleep, blood clotting, and sex drive.
Contrary to the other neurotransmitters, most serotonin (about 90%) is produced in the digestive system and not in the brain. This only reinforces the importance of a healthy diet in order to achieve optimal levels of this important neurotransmitter.
Serotonin is made from tryptophan. We can get this amino acid through foods such as meat, dairy products, eggs, and nuts. Besides tryptophan, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D are also essential to produce serotonin. The best food sources for these nutrients are small fatty fish. Supplementing with S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe), 5-HTP and Probiotics is also frequently advised by functional medicine practitioners.
Besides nutritional deficiencies, low serotonin can also be caused by chronic stress, digestion issues, hormonal changes, and certain drugs.
As you can see, the “health” of these four neurotransmitters is crucial to unlocking our brain, and our full human potential. And, while following a healthy diet is essential, we have to base our approach on data. To do that, we need to get our neurotransmitters checked; review our genetic profile; and assess our blood for potential biochemistry deficiencies. Additionally, it’s important to notice that many of the medications prescribed by traditional doctors can have substantial effects on these neurotransmitters.
To learn more about how to optimize your neurotransmitters and your cognitive and mental health, please watch this week’s video lecture.
As you can imagine, there is only so much we can present in these articles and video lectures. If you want to dig even further into how you can optimize your health and performance, please contact us. We would love to help you achieve your goals.
Marcos de Andrade MD, MBA
Chief Executive Officer