Did you know that your body is equipped with everything it needs to make good mood chemicals and keep you happy? If you are feeling overly sad, anxious, angry, violent, or like you need to escape with drugs or even suicide, then your brain is telling you it needs help. Your brain may be starving for nutrition, your immune system may be on the attack, or your hormones may be out of balance. Addressing these eight areas of brain biochemistry can help to relieve anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, substance addiction, aggressive behavior, and more- without medication.
Does it seem too good to be true? Yes, it does. But it brings amazing results to people on a daily basis. It’s an approach called integrative and functional medicine that seeks to address root causes of illness, underlying biochemical imbalances, that once corrected can resolve a broad spectrum of symptoms.
Why? The same underlying imbalance can show itself in many different ways in different people. For example, if you have an imbalance with your fight-or-flight hormone cortisol, you might feel extreme fatigue in the afternoons. But another person with a cortisol imbalance could suffer with depression and suicidal thoughts. Yet another may experience extreme anxiety or poor memory. By addressing the root causes, we can cure a number of symptoms, for the long-term, without medications.
Conditions that can benefit from addressing these 8 areas of brain biochemistry:
- ADD or ADHD
- Behavioral problems
- Bipolar disease
- Drug addiction
- Eating disorders
- Migraine headaches
- Poor attention or focus
- Suicidal thoughts
- Violence and aggression
Prior to our historic pandemic and lockdowns, approximately 13% of American adults were taking antidepressants. Teenagers were also taking antidepressants: 11% of girls and nearly 6% of boys ages 13-19. But after the pandemic began, 26% of Americans felt their mental health suffering. Antidepressant prescriptions went up 8% in 2020. We have seen spikes in suicide attempts by teenage girls, ICU COVID survivors, and black youths. Things may seem quite grim. While we cannot immediately change certain external factors, we can change internal factors, which can dramatically improve brain health and make modern life easier to deal with.
Prominent researchers argue that antidepressants can do more harm than good. While they may be urgently needed for a short-term period, they have drawbacks and long-term use may be harmful. After taking antidepressants, it is harder to come off of them and more likely to relapse with depression.
Paul Andrews and colleagues wrote,
“Our review supports the conclusion that antidepressants generally do more harm than good by disrupting a number of adaptive processes regulated by serotonin.”
If you are taking antidepressants, remember that your body has the capability to make healthy levels of the brain chemicals you need to feel happy, mentally stable, calm, and resilient. You and your healthcare team just need to look for the root causes of your unhappy brain.
These are the 8 key areas of brain biochemistry that you and your healthcare practitioner should investigate to get to the root causes of mental illness:
- Plasma amino acids
- Serotonin (urinary 5-hydroxyindoleacetate)
- Norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine (urinary vanilmandelate and homovanillate)
- IgG4 food antibodies
- Gut dysbiosis
- B vitamins
Amino Acids are the Building Blocks for A Healthy Brain
Most people aren’t aware of the profound effects amino acids have on their overall health. Maybe they learned about them briefly in a biology or biochemistry or nutrition class. They are the building blocks of proteins. These tiny molecules build muscles, make enzymes, help you detoxify, fuel your cells to make energy, but most importantly for our discussion, they are critical for brain health. Amino acids themselves act as important brain chemicals influencing your memory, your feelings, your cravings, your appetite, your sexual desire, and more. They control your memory and how well and quickly you react to things. They also serve as the precursors of vital neurotransmitters: serotonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine (discussed later).
Given the fundamental god-given role amino acids naturally play in brain health, wouldn’t it make sense to test their levels in someone who is suffering with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or who has suicidal tendencies? Of course so. It would be Nutrition 101. But are our medical professionals doing that? Not at all.
Testing and Treatments
I like the plasma amino acids test from Genova Diagnostics. Treatments to correct low amino acid problems are dietary protein, digestive support, and/or an essential amino acid powder from a company like Metabolic Maintenance. Keep in mind that you must take additional tryptophan to make this powder a complete essential amino acid formula.
Tryptophan and Serotonin (5-Hydroxyindoleacetate)
The evidence is beyond overwhelming for the role of tryptophan and serotonin imbalances in mental illness. In fact, antidepressants target this biochemical process. Tryptophan is an amino acid that comes from your diet and your body uses it to make- you guessed it- serotonin! Serotonin is a feel-good neurotransmitter that helps regulate your sleep, your mood, and even your gut motility. People who have low serotonin may have depression, insomnia, migraine headache, or alcoholism. They might be prone to acts of aggression or violence as well as suicidal thoughts. If serotonin is low, its “mother” amino acid tryptophan, is probably low also.
Testing and Treatments
You can test tryptophan in a plasma amino acids test (above) and serotonin break down in an organic acids urine test. I like the Genova test, Organix, which is from the Metametrix line of tests. Treatments include tryptophan, amino acid powder, vitamin B6, niacin, folate, and iron.
Norepinephrine and Epinephrine
These are neurotransmitters that have also been called noradrenaline and adrenaline. They are made from an amino acid that you get in your food called tyrosine. They are involved in your stress response and are important brain chemicals. If your body isn’t making enough of these neurotransmitters, you may feel depressed, fatigued, and you may have problems sleeping. They are measured in urine as their breakdown product, vanilmandelic acid. Look for a urinary organic acids test to measure these. A plasma amino acid test will tell you your levels of tyrosine.
Treatments include phenylalanine, tyrosine, amino acid powder, vitamin B6, niacin, folate, iron, vitamin C, copper, and SAMe or methylation factors.
This is another critical brain chemical that influences pleasure, motivation, appetite, movement, and hormone balance. Dopamine is especially important in substance abuse and addiction, as these drugs increase a person’s brain dopamine. Your body makes dopamine from the amino acid tyrosine and testing the levels in blood can help predict if a person can make healthy levels of dopamine. A person’s dopamine levels can also be estimated by looking at how much dopamine they break down and excrete, an organic acid called homovanillic acid.
Treatments include phenylalanine, tyrosine, amino acid powder, vitamin B6, niacin, folate, vitamin C, and iron.
Food Antibodies Cause Headaches, Poor Attention, and Fatigue
Certain foods can drain your brain. It’s surprising how many people have food sensitivities and how much better they feel when they stay away from them. Food sensitivities are reactions to food that are caused by an abnormal immune response to the food. They aren’t severe or life-threatening like food allergies, but they can be very uncomfortable and inconvenient. Common culprits of food sensitivities include wheat, dairy, eggs, soy, and corn. The tricky thing about these foods is that you can find them in just about everything Americans eat every day.
Over many years I have seen food sensitivities cause constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease. I have seen them cause migraine headaches, eczema, and rashes. I’ve seen people with crippling fatigue that resolved when they got problem foods out of the diet.
Food sensitivities can wreak havoc on the brain. They can cause poor attention, brain fog, and harm memory. They can contribute to depression, anxiety, and anger management problems. Getting rid of food sensitivities can make all the difference for someone to sharpen their memory, clear their mind, and lift their mood. It’s especially important for kids or adults with ADHD.
Testing and Treatments
I like Cyrex for food sensitivity testing. Genova has an IgG4 panel and US Biotek is another good company for food sensitivity testing. Treatment involves an elimination diet that may last 3 – 12 months. Other treatments for repairing the gut lining are important (aloe, glutamine, zinc carnosine) and treating any infections or imbalances that may be brewing in the gut, which leads us to…
Mind Your Second Brain- The Gut
When optimizing someone’s brain health, we have to remember the gut. It’s the second brain after all. That’s because it is second only to the brain in terms of neuronal networks and neurotransmitters. It has been estimated that 95% of the body’s serotonin is in the gut!
If you have bacterial imbalance, fungal overgrowth, or pathogenic infections in the gut, it can contribute to poor brain functioning. This could show up as depression, anxiety, fatigue, behavioral problems, poor attention and focus, and weak memory. Microbes make toxins that can harm the brain and stop it from working at its best.
Testing and Treatments
The GI-MAP is the best stool test I know for detecting infections, maldigestion, poor immune function, and more. Treatments may include antimicrobial herbs, digestive enzymes, probiotics, prebiotics, dietary changes, and gut lining support.
B Vitamins Boost Mood and Energy
The most impressive instance of B vitamins beating back depression is the use of folate (sometimes called folic acid) for depression. Very high doses of methylfolate (15 mg) may be effective for difficult-to-treat depression and these supplements are now available to consumers. B vitamins are well known for their role in energy and good mood and a healthy stress response. Vitamin B6 has been used to treat neuropsychiatric complaints, including schizophrenia. These nutrients are required by every cell in the human body. B vitamins are needed to make energy, make neurotransmitters, get rid of waste products, and carry out critical brain processes such as methylation. Our modern day diet is devoid in these critical nutrients so most people are not getting enough.
Testing and Treatments
The best way to find out about your B vitamin levels is a urine organic acids test with B vitamin markers. I discuss folate tests in, “The Folate Tests You Need to Know About for Your Heart, Brain, and Reproductive Health.” Treatments of course are activated B vitamins. Look for ingredients denoting an active form of the vitamin such as methylfolate, methylcobalamin, or pyridoxal-5-phosphate.
Cortisol for Stress Response, Energy, and a Healthy Sleep-Wake Cycle
When it comes to brainpower and emotional health, cortisol levels need to be healthy. You can thank cortisol for your daily sleep-wake cycle, or your circadian rhythm. This hormone tells you when to wake up and when to go to sleep. It also tells you to run like crazy if you see an oncoming tiger. 😊
Cortisol is made by the adrenal glands so you will often hear functional medicine providers talk about adrenal health, “adrenal fatigue,” or adrenal dysfunction. Cortisol imbalances are very common yet are missed by mainstream doctors because they often test blood cortisol, which is not a sensitive test for fluctuations of daily cortisol. If you are exhausted, grumpy, having difficulty coping, and if you have trouble getting through your day, you probably have a cortisol imbalance. If you wake up tired but you get an energy burst at night, or if you can’t sleep at night, you need to check your adrenal health.
Testing and Treatments
I like the Dutch Adrenal test from Precision Analytical. Treatments include adaptogenic herbs for adrenal health such as Rhodiola and ashwagandha. Sometimes adrenal concentrates are given to boost cortisol levels temporarily. Nutrients for the adrenals include B vitamins and zinc. Behavioral changes are also important if cortisol levels are depleted. These include resting, relaxing, meditation, and vacations.
Testing and treating these eight areas of brain biochemistry can make a world of difference for people with depression, anxiety, substance addiction, suicidal thoughts, or aggressive or violent outbursts. These eight natural treatments can be used as part of a comprehensive plan to successfully address nagging mental health conditions. Other natural treatments that are important for mental health conditions include psychotherapy, exercise, diet, having a supportive community, light therapy, and more. When you pinpoint the root causes of psychiatric symptoms, you walk away with real solutions that have lasting health benefits, not just a Band-Aid over a symptom. Integrative and functional medicine providers use lab testing data to build a personalized protocol. That means patients don’t have to put up with anxiety, depression, or mental illness for the rest of their lives. People suffering with suicidal thoughts or violent tendencies can get help so that they don’t hurt themselves or those they love. This natural and science-based approach can reduce patient symptoms for the long term, without side effects.
Find an integrative and functional medicine clinician near you to feel happier, emotionally balanced, and to think more clearly.
- Institute for Functional Medicine– “Find a Practitioner”
- Diagnostic Solutions Laboratory– ask for a clinician in your zip code
- Genova Diagnostics– ask for a clinician in your zip code
- Doctor’s Data– ask for a clinician in your zip code
- Kresser Institute Directory– practitioners who have completed ADAPT training