Is peace on earth evading you this Christmas season?

Last week’s blog post discussed fatigue during the holidays.  While some people can be worn out by the whirlwind of holiday activities, others can become overstimulated or anxious. The difference in response is due to neurotransmitters.

Figure 1. Stimulating neurotransmitters (e.g. norepinephrine, glutamate, and epinephrine) increase in response to stress.  In a healthy response, compensatory neurotransmitters (e.g. GABA, serotonin, and glycine) should increase to compensate for the increase in stimulating neurotransmitters.

Figure 1. Stimulating neurotransmitters (e.g. norepinephrine, glutamate, and epinephrine) increase in response to stress. In a healthy response, compensatory neurotransmitters (e.g. GABA, serotonin, and glycine) should increase to compensate for the increase in stimulating neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters are generally categorized as excitatory or compensatory.  Excitatory neurotransmitters include epinephrine, norepinephrine, and glutamate.  They stimulate the nervous system and are important for focus, energy, and mood.  However, an excess of these neurotransmitters can lead to anxiousness and overstimulation.  Compensatory neurotransmitters, like serotonin and GABA, calm the nervous system down by suppressing the activity of excitatory neurotransmitters.  Metaphorically, an increase in excitatory neurotransmitters causes stimulation, like stepping on the gas pedal in a car.  Compensatory neurotransmitters slow the nervous system, like the brakes of a car.

Ideally, excitatory and compensatory neurotransmitter activity would be balanced.  However, during times of stress, excitatory neurotransmitter activity increases (Figure 1).  If the nervous system is functioning properly, compensatory neurotransmitter activity should also increase in order to reduce excitatory activity.  The body uses this mechanism to restore balance.

Problems can occur when compensatory neurotransmitters aren’t able to compensate for the rise in excitatory neurotransmitters.  As the excitatory and compensatory systems become dysregulated due to chronic stress, many symptoms can begin to occur.  Anxiousness and overstimulation are two common symptoms resulting from the excess of stimulating neurotransmitters compared to compensatory neurotransmitters.

If anxiousness or overstimulation is a problem, neurotransmitter assessment can provide insight into which neurotransmitter imbalances may be contributing to clinical symptoms as well as help determine an individualized therapy program.

References:
Cryan, JF, et al. (2005). Don’t worry ‘B’ happy!: a role for GABAb receptors in anxiety and depression. TRENDS in Pharmacological Sciences, 26(1): 36-43.
Nikolaus, S, et al. (2010). Cortical gaba, striatal dopamine and midbrain serotonin as the key players in compulsive and anxiety disorders-results from in vivo imaging studies. Reviews in the neurosciences, 21(2): 119-39.
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