What is a Chemical Imbalance?
We’ve heard a lot about “chemical imbalance” as the cause of emotional distress and disturbances. Researchers have spent decades trying to get to the bottom of what causes common disorders such as anxiety, depression and ADHD, and they believe that some form of chemical imbalance is involved in some way. While the exact link between chemical imbalance and emotional disorders has not been found, clinical studies and medical observations have been able to identify a number of chemical inconsistencies that occur in individuals who report experiencing symptoms related to these disorders.
Common chemical imbalances related to emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression include:
- Reduced availability neurotransmitters like Serotonin, Dopamine, Norepinephrine, GABA and Acetylcholine.
- Increased levels of toxic neurochemicals such as Homocysteine
- Lower levels of serum Magnesium, Zinc or Potassium
- Unhealthy, or deficient levels of essential vitamins like B6, B9, B12 and Vitamin-C
- Undersupply of key cofactors like amino acids that are used to help transport neurotransmitter precursors into the blood-brain barrier.
- Increased cortisol stress hormone levels
What causes chemical imbalance?
If we take a look at the research and conclusions of clinical study after clinical study, not even doctors, scientists or clinical researchers know exactly what causes a chemical imbalance. In fact, it was virtually impossible to come up with conclusive evidence.
If you ask a medical professional the reasons and causes for anxiety or depression, their answer would most likely be “A chemical imbalance.” It is because of this “chemical imbalance that the first impulse for most medical professionals treating someone with anxiety or depression is to prescribe an SSRI, MAOIor similar “chemical balancer” to treat the condition.
But in the majority of cases, the most important question has not yet been addressed:
What’s causing the chemical imbalance?
Over the years, researchers have noted a handful of possible underlying reasons for a chemical imbalance, from genetic factors to irregular brain development.
The most promising is the theory that chemical imbalance actually stems from our own thoughts and actions.
Thoughts, behaviors and chemical imbalance
You might be asking yourself, “How can my own thoughts and behaviors affect the balance of brain chemicals?”
Everything we do and every thought that goes through our minds happens as a result of the production, release and absorption of naturally occurring chemicals in our brain like hormones, neurotransmitters and amino acids.
Imagine you are driving along the highway at 55 mph. The car in front of you slams on its brakes— as a result, your brain immediately responds with a command for your foot to hit the brake peddle too. At the same time, your brain may begin rapidly releasing neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, which, in this situation, may lead to the production of adrenaline. Your awareness immediately increases. And in what feels like a split-second, you feel nervous; an immediate tenseness falls across your entire body. Your eyes widen, your palms begin to sweat. Your heart is pounding.
Your car comes to a stop and you realize the accident has been avoided.
However, your body still feels a little tense, nervous of what could have happened. You take a deep breath, and then exhale. As traffic starts moving, the chemicals in your brain slowly begin to re-balance, and your thoughts and bodily responses eventually return to a normal state.
In this example, we were presented with a stressor. The body’s fight-or-flight response interpreted the brake lights ahead of us as imminent danger and responded by releasing neurotransmitters to tell the brain what actions to take. More often than not, our immediate interpretation of a stressor and the behaviors that follow as a result commonly stem from fear, which can be either rational or irrational.
The complex sets of chemicals in the brain are designed to process incoming information and create a response. All of these processes happen extremely quickly in the brain. And, though the effects of chemical imbalance may lead to undue stress, nervousness and worry, they are an important part of being human. Without an ‘imbalance’ of chemicals in the brain, we would never know laughter, sadness, worry, nervousness or love. Chemical imbalances, or fluctuations, cannot be avoided because we are supposed to interpret and react to situations, whether they are stressful or joyful; this is simply human nature.
Managing Chemical Imbalance
Prescription medication has been the main course of treatment for chemical imbalance tied to emotional disorders. Prescription drugs, however, have failed to be the silver bullet that the drug manufacturers have hoped they would be. Synthetic drugs have been reported to work only about 50% to 60% of the time, while individuals have reported negative side effects that far outweigh any benefit. Additionally, prescription drugs only target the chemical imbalance. Medication cannot treat the underlying cognitive and behavioral roots of the problem.
Though they are not approved to treat anxiety or depression, natural alternatives may provide some relief for chemical imbalance. Natural supplements like St. Johns Wort, 5-HTP and SAM-e are believed to directly affect the availability of neurotransmitters in the brain. Clinical studies have shown that, over periods of 7 days to 12 weeks, individuals taking natural reuptake inhibitors saw significant clinical benefit. Moreover, botanical sedatives like Valerian Root, Kava Kava, Passion Flower and Ashwagandha root have been shown to quickly act on and relax the central nervous system, helping to reduce stress and symptomatic anxiety.
Clinical research into other, non-synthetic methods of coping with chemical imbalance have come to light in recent years and have shown very positive responses from patients. The theory behind these coping techniques is that chemical fluctuations are actually caused by our own thoughts and behaviors. One such treatment, cognitive-behavior therapy, focuses on addressing the thinking patterns that we have when faced with stressful or depressing situations. CBT helps one to provide evidence for creating new thought patterns, and, when these new thought patterns are applied during certain situations, they help to trigger completely different behavioral responses to the stress.
In theory, cognitive-behavioral therapy actually targets the underlying causes of chemical imbalance. When we are able to control our thought patterns and understand why we feel the way we feel, our brain begins to respond differently when faced with anxious or depressive situations. Just as the anxiety and depression we may experience now took many months or years to develop, reversing the hard-wired thought patterns may take some time to take effect.
Learning about the specific thought patterns that trigger our stress, anxiety or depression is one of the most important steps for coping with chemical imbalance. Once we identify the negative interpretations and thoughts we have in these situations, we can begin to develop and apply positive thinking patterns and behaviors that can help us to manage chemical fluctuations.