Stress Part 3: The Neurotransmitter Effect

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Like the crazy impact chronic stress has on the body, it has an equally disturbing effect on brain function. Specifically, regarding neurotransmitters. It’s no wonder anxiety, depression, mood swings, and all that goes with it are so prevalent in our society…. a 2016 study reported that 1 in 6 Americans were on a prescription antidepressant or antianxiety medication.

To be honest, I really struggled with what to title this post. Is it the “psychological effect”, “neurological effect”, “brain-health effect”? In the end, I decided on “The Neurotransmitter Effect” because really, neurotransmitters are tied to all three.

So, what is the neurotransmitter effect of chronic stress? Well, it starts with our old friend cortisol.

Cortisol creates an uptick in glutamate production and a downregulation of GABA, both key neurotransmitters. These two are supposed to work in concert to support brain function, but can be tipped out of balance with increased stress levels. Now, let me be fair here and say that there are other contributing factors to this (leaky gut, candida, vitamin deficiency, mineral imbalance…). But cortisol is the usual suspect in this case.

Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter, and if levels get too high, it overstimulates brain cells resulting in inflammation and potentially even cell death. If you’re like me, YOU NEED ALL THE BRAIN CELLS YOU HAVE (because you may have killed off a few too many early in life!). Excess glutamate has been linked to neurological disorders including schizophrenia, migraines, insomnia, bipolar disorder, autism, fibromyalgia, and MS.

GABA, on the other hand, is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. It’s the “Yin” to Glutamate’s “yang” (or do I have that backwards 😊). It’s supposed to RELAX you! It has a huge impact on communication and even tells our brain when and where to pause between words in our sentences. Without it, we would speak in streams-of-consciousness.

GABA directly influences the hypothalamus, which requires it for sleep regulation, appetite control, libido, and balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. It also impacts our immune system by regulating antibodies that protect our gut mucosal lining. Reduced levels of GABA have been shown to cause panic disorders, aggression, anxiety, ADD, adrenal fatigue, insomnia, and even contribute to increased sugar cravings and GERD.

Cortisol also interrupts the function of other neurotransmitters, like serotonin, a key neurotransmitter that’s been shown to maintain mood balance.

Like so many things with the body, this subject is nearly a rabbit trail of information. If you struggle with depression, anxiety, or mood disorders, I encourage you to speak to a counselor or your medical practitioner. Life is just too precious to spend it stressed-out, anxious and not living it to its fullest.

Thriving with You,