What are those neurotransmitter results REALLY telling you?

In the six years that I’ve been doing consults about NeuroScience‘s urinary neurotransmitter testing, I often hear healthcare practitioners state that their patient has a “nervous system imbalance”. Most believe that the “imbalance” is due to a disparity between excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters. This may superficially seem to be the case, but at a deeper level, nervous system imbalances reflect abnormalities in the tone, or activity level, of the various branches of the nervous system – specifically the autonomic nervous system.

The nervous system

The autonomic nervous system is comprised of two branches – the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS). In stress situations, it is the SNS that is primarily active and results in a “fight or flight” response. The PNS is more active in non-stress settings, and controls “rest and digest” functions. It is the balance between the two branches of the autonomic nervous system – the SNS and PNS – that is crucial for maintaining homeostasis and overall good health.

More than Just Numbers

The regular idling activity of the SNS and/or PNS has a major impact on organ system activity, and is reflected in the peripheral neurotransmitters which we can measure as biomarkers of nervous system health. Simply put, if a person’s SNS is operating at a suboptimal activity level, it is common to see a corresponding reduced level of certain peripheral neurotransmitters. Likewise, an increase in sympathetic activity results in elevated levels of these peripheral neurotransmitters.

In complex cases, we may observe a multitude of neurotransmitter biomarkers having an abnormal signature; addressing each individual neurotransmitter singly would require a treatment protocol consisting of five or more different interventions. Doesn’t sound too fun (or affordable) for the patient, does it?

Autonomic nervous system balance

Autonomic nervous system balance is important for overall health.

On the other hand, by appreciating neurocircuitry, we realize that while many of the symptoms are caused by a dysregulated autonomic nervous system, the issue goes deeper (and higher) than that. That’s because the dysregulation can often be traced to alterations in the central nervous system, particularly key areas of the brain critical for keeping the SNS and PNS tone in balance.

This insight helps us understand that our patients’ symptoms may not always respond to interventions that merely increase a depleted neurotransmitter or lower an elevated neurotransmitter. Those approaches may end up being merely band-aids that don’t address the root cause. In other words, peripheral neurotransmitter biomarkers collectively report dysregulation in the central control mechanisms that keep the PNS and SNS in balance.

Consequently, we are better off employing a “top-down” approach directed at the central control. This is likely to resolve multiple symptoms that all had a shared root cause, and therefore reduce the number of interventions while improving response rates.

It’s a Balancing Act

Neurotransmitter excesses and depletions may very well be driving patient symptoms, but autonomic nervous system balance is what is truly vital for long-term positive health outcomes. Homeostasis can only be achieved if the branches of the autonomic nervous system have a healthy tone. So, when you find yourself telling a patient that their nervous system is out of balance, keep in mind that the imbalance may go deeper – and higher – than simply a high or low neurotransmitter test result.

About Bradley Bush, N.D.

Dr. Bradley Bush received a N.D. degree from National College of Naturopathic Medicine in 2000 and is currently the Director of Clinician Affairs for NeuroScience, Inc. and oversees their NEI Nutrition division. Dr. Bush specializes in neuro-endo-immune health, nutrition and infusion therapies. His focus is on addressing gastrointestinal and HPA axis disturbances in addition to nutritional deficiencies as a cornerstone of patient care. He is co-author of the ND: Notes Science Board Review and ND Notes: Clinical Board Review books. Dr. Bush has worked for years for manufacturers of nutritional supplements, is a founder and past-organizer of the annual Pharmaceutical Perspectives conference, and currently sits on the board of the Naturopathic Education and Research Consortium (NERC).
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