• Dr. Benton

Neurotransmitters, Attention, and Learning

We hear about neurotransmitters and SSRIs on a daily basis, but what are they, exactly? Neurotransmitters are important in our brain because higher amounts of them speed up, slow down, and intensify or decrease the intensity of a message being sent within your brain. Some of the most important are not only serotonin, but dopamine and GABA, too.

SSRI is an abbreviation for serotonin selective reuptake inhibitor. It basically means that the medication you’re taking is going to increase the serotonin levels in your brain. For some people, this is a good thing because they’re running a little low on that precious neurotransmitter. This happens for a variety of reasons. Some people are genetically wired for a little less serotonin to begin with (not fair, but you can work through it), and other people run low due to chronic stress, medications, poor diet, poor sleep quality, and even low vitamin B levels (because Vitamin B is necessary for synthesizing serotonin).

Understanding the basic relationship between neurotransmitters and mood is simple. Consider a light switch with a dimmer. Turn the dimmer up (neurotransmitters) and the light (neurotransmission) brightens. Higher levels of neurotransmitters increase the intensity and speed of the message. Running low on neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine is like sitting in a dim room. Those messages travel slowly with less intensity. Turn the dimmer up to brighten the light, and neurotransmission improves. What does this mean for you?

It really depends on what, exactly, is happening for you. We are all genetically wired to have our own optimal balance of neurotransmitters. Some of us run a little low in dopamine while others run lower in serotonin. Some people run low in both while others have the perfect balance. Some of us do better when we’re a little more serotonin dominant (relative to dopamine) while others do better with higher dopamine levels. Current genetic testing available (23andme) can yield interesting information on your own personal genetic predisposition towards neurotransmitter balance. For example, those of us who have very fast COMT genes burn through neurotransmitters quickly, which causes a tendency to run low on both neurotransmitters. People who have fast MAOI genes run a little lower in serotonin and may benefit from a boost. You can learn more about this fascinating glimpse into your own genetic inclinations in the book, Dirty Genes by Dr. Ben Lynch.

Here is more information on serotonin and dopamine, and a few ways to familiarize yourself with your own neurotransmission inclinations.

Serotonin keeps us feeling happy, safe, sleeping, content, relaxed, satiated neurotransmitter. It’s kind of like the brake pedal in your car-it slows you down. We sometimes run low on serotonin due to chronic stress, hormonal interactions, lifestyle factors, and seasonal fluctuation. Low levels of serotonin in the middle of winter are the reason you may find yourself doing a face plant in the potato chips. Carbs provide an immediate increase in serotonin! You can even run low on this puppy when you have low Vitamin D3 levels. We increase serotonin levels with carbs, alcohol, exercise, sex, fun, sunshine, sleep, and meditation. Too much serotonin isn't good, either-that makes us feel irritable, tired, groggy, and can cause sexual dysfunction.

Dopamine increases energy, creativity, focus and attention, and risk seeking behavior. This neurotransmitter is like the gas pedal because it speeds you up! If it gets too high, dopamine is associated with temper and anger problems. People who run too low on dopamine in general typically have symptoms of ADHD, and they become hyperactive to stimulate dopamine levels. Caffeine increases dopamine (and therefore, focus or anxiety) quickly. Other ways to increase dopamine include eating protein in the absence of carbs, high intensity exercise(HIIT, CrossFit), sex, prescription stimulants like Ritalin, street drugs like cocaine), adrenaline based behaviors, and even heavy metal or high intensity music.

People with dopamine levels that run a too high in relation to serotonin levels can experience nervous anxiety. When dopamine runs a little high and serotonin a little low, this can cause anxious depression. Chocolate is an interesting substance because it gives us a little serotonin and dopamine boost, plus some caffeine. No wonder it’s so great!

We all have an individual, optimal balance that we seek to create with our behaviors and choices. You don’t want to fiddle around with the wrong neurotransmitters because this can make you feel a little haywire. If you are very caffeine sensitive, you’re probably sensitive to higher levels of dopamine.

Serotonin people are easy to spot. Do you see yourself in these behaviors?

  • You love reading, vacationing in the mountains or other quiet places, snuggling up to watch a movie, taking long walks, talking with friends, relaxing

  • You love carbs and might feel a little blue in the winter

  • You have no problem focusing when necessary, like to stay organized, and make plans

  • You like yoga, Pilates, tai chai, or other slower forms of exercise

On the other hand, dopamine dominant people prefer the opposite type of activities. Maybe these sound more like you:

  • you’d vacation in Manhattan over a quiet retreat any day

  • You love a fast pace, have trouble paying attention and staying focused at times, and feel energized by chaos

  • Caffeine is irresistable

  • Smoking (tobacco) is a gift from Heaven and though you have tried, it’s nearly impossible to quit

  • You may have been diagnosed with ADHD or have a substance abuse problem in the past (and you may not)

  • You love hugs!!!

  • High intensity exercise over long runs or cycling any day

  • You’re creative, energetic, charismatic, and people find you very entertaining.

You can’t put people in a box, and some are balanced combinations of these types. If you want to know more about this, read Natural Prozac by Joel Robertson. He documents the empirical evidence surrounding the topic of neurotransmission and behaviors very well in this book.

The take home message is this-our behaviors are often chemically driven from the most basic level. We do most things in our life because they make us feel a certain way. We can alter our neurotransmitter levels, mood, and focus with our behaviors and healthy choices just as effectively as we can with pharmaceutical medications. This is empowering information to have in your pocket in case you have some of the problems I’ve mentioned above, and you can always try to change your mood with some of these suggestions.

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