What is a Neurotransmitter?
Neurotransmitters are molecules that carry signals between nerve cells in the brain called neurons. Simply put, they are signaling mechanisms that tell our brains how to respond to certain stimuli, which may include our own internal thought patterns or circumstances in the environment around us. When we respond to situations around us, neurotransmitters are the catalyst for those responses. Essentially, neurotransmitters are responsible for the feelings we experience, such as happiness, sadness, anxiety and fear.
Though researchers are not yet sure exactly how neurotransmitters affect our feelings, clinical studies show that proper balance of neurotransmitters is critical to overall emotional well being. Emotional disorders like anxiety, depression, and ADHD have all been linked to chemical imbalance of specific neurotransmitters. This chemical imbalance can be caused by either an excess of neurotransmitter activity, or more commonly, may occur as a result of a deficiency of neurotransmitter availability.
Neurotransmitters are believed to have two states; excitatory or inhibitory:
- Excitatory – In this state, neurotransmitters promote the initiation of nerve impulses in the receiving neuron.
- Inhibitory – Neurotransmitters in this state inhibit the initiation of nerve impulses.
To understand how neurotransmitters work and why prescription drugs or alternative medicines are sometimes prescribed to help relieve anxiety or depression, it is important to understand the process of reuptake.
Reuptake, or uptake, is a chemical process that occurs in the brain. It is defined as the reabsorption of a neurotransmitter after it has performed its function of transmitting a neural impulse. In effect, what happens is that the neurotransmitter, once reabsorbed, is no longer available to the active synapses of the brain. Problems arise when neurons reabsorb neurotransmitters before they’ve had a chance to serve their function. A lack of availability of serotonin, for example, is believed to be responsible for feelings of anxiousness.
Modern medications and alternatives like St. Johns Wort, 5-HTP, and SAM-e work by inhibiting, or restricting, the reuptake of these neurotransmitters. This makes for greater availability of the neurotransmitter in the synapses of the brain. Those who take synthetic reuptake inhibitors or natural reuptake inhibitors often report feeling better over a period of one week to three months.