Brain Chemicals and Modern Life
It all comes down to our chemistry. Fidgeting, concentration, sleep, energy levels, mood swings, even the ability to sweat are controlled by the chemicals lurking about our bodies. Serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, melatonin, insulin, and prostaglandins are some of the more important ones…and these in turn are influenced strongly by stress, diet, exercise, sunlight, sleep and other life style factors. Of course the life style of today is radically different than it was 20,000 years ago. Consider how these factors from modern life commonly influence us:
- Being indoors (lack of sunlight): Reduced melatonin
- Stress: Reduced serotonin Modern food processing: Fatty acid imbalances and chemical sensitivities
- High sugar/carbohydrate and low-fat diet: More insulin; prostaglandin imbalance
- Lack of exercise: Decreased serotonin and dopamine
- Lack of sleep: Reduced serotonin
- Poor nutrition: Reduced serotonin
- Boring classes/job, lack of activity: Reduced dopamine & norepinephrine.
- Deionized air: Reduced serotonin
Reduced serotonin levels from stress, lack of sleep & exercise, poor nutrition, and lack of sunlight are connected with ADD, irritability, depression, aggression, anxiety, lack of concentration, chronic pain, restlessness or fatigue, nausea, obsessive-compulsive disorder, weight gain or loss, fibromyalgia, arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, heat intolerance and other syndromes. Fluctuating serotonin levels are connected with bipolar disorder (manic depression) and hypomania. You don’t have to feel depressed or anxious; symptoms may be purely physical.
Reduced dopamine/norepinephrine caused by boring surroundings and lack of exercise may manifest as ADD, impulsivity, lack of concentration, restlessness, and depression or loss of pleasure. Dopamine is the “feel good” chemical which illegal drugs mimic (such as cocaine, heroin, marijuana) as well as cigarettes, coffee and alcohol. Ritalin and other ADD drugs are thought to increase dopamine activity.
Modern food processing has completely altered the types of fatty acids we consume. Since our brain is composed largely of fatty acids, we are missing the “bricks” needed for normal brain development and repair. In addition, we are eating lots of man-made chemicals. Food colors, for example, are mostly made from petroleum.
Reduced melatonin from lack of sunlight may disturb the sleep cycle and cause seasonal depression (called SAD).
Lots of sugars and carbohydrates lead to increased insulin levels. High insulin tells the body to store what you just ate as fat, thereby dropping your blood sugar concentration. Your brain can burn only sugar, so it is deprived of food. Poor concentration and depression can result. Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) can lead to diabetes. Also, the low blood sugar make you hungry, which causes you to eat more sugar or carbohydrates, and the cycle is repeated. Finally, insulin levels affect serotonin levels and many systems throughout the body.
Poor nutrition can result in lower levels of chemicals like serotonin. Vitamins B6, C and E (the stress vitamins) are especially important.
ADDers, as a group, seems to be more sensitive in general and may therefore be more sensitive to the effects of modern lifestyles. Some people, for example, may be born with inherently lower serotonin levels, which causes the neuroreceptors to become more sensitive. This in turns may result in higher highs and lower lows, and an increased vulnerability to depression and other related syndromes. The same may be true of dopamine, insulin and other chemicals.
The Good News
There are actions you can take to restore the imbalance that modern lifestyles tend to cause:
- Make lifestyles changes to decrease stress
- Try meditation or Yoga
- Try stress reduction courses.
- Change your diet to restore fatty acid balance
- Go to bed on time (have a slow-down period each evening before bed), and wake up at the same time each day. Those all-night sessions on the Internet put a strain on your serotonin system. Although you may feel good while you’re “wired”, you’ll probably experience the fogs once you’ve had a good night of sleep.
- Expose yourself to early morning sunlight, or buy a specially designed light unit and use it each morning. Avoid bright light later in the day. Morning sunlight increases the level of melatonin in your bloodstream at night, which induces sleep, and also increases the level of serotonin (Sunshine _ on my shoulders _ makes me happy….)
- Try the 30-30-40 alternative dietary guidelines: 30% protein, 30% fat and 40% carbohydrates at each meal, especially if you often crave food or experience sugar drops. This is what people ate 20,000 years ago. High carbohydrate diets result in higher insulin, lower blood sugar, and more cravings. Several published studies have shown that athletes perform better and diabetics improve when some of the carbohydrate calories of the average diet are replaced with fat calories. Most people should also reduce total calories. (For more info, read “Enter the Zone” by Barry Sears, 1995). Carbohydrates temporarily raise serotonin levels, but apparently at a price.
- Take stress vitamins: the B vitamins (especially B6), E, and C. B6 is used to create serotonin. Chromium is important for lowering insulin levels. Minerals important in serotonin production are magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese, and iron; people are often deficient in magnesium. Don’t take iron supplements unless you know you’re anemic (typically women). Excess iron has been implicated in heart disease and other conditions.
- Keep cool. Heat dramatically lowers serotonin levels because serotonin is used up trying to cool down the body. That’s why everyone gets so cranky when they’re hot. People with low serotonin levels have trouble sweating and staying cool.
- Exercise! Regular exercise increases both serotonin and dopamine, and affects other important systems as well. Generally speaking, the more the better (unless you spend all day at the gym). The role of exercise for both physical and mental health has been well established.
- Buy an air ionizer. Yes, it sounds weird, but air with negatively charged particles appears to help out serotonin in the brain. Pollution and the modern world have nearly eliminated naturally charged air in urban areas. You can feel the pleasant effect of negative ions wherever there is running water, like an ocean beach or near a waterfall. The opposite – positive ions – are generated by warm winds moving over dry land, like the Santa Ana winds of California, which are known to increase irritability, suicide, violence and accidents.