Mood Enhancers: Part 1

“…one pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small and the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all…”    White Rabbit: Jefferson Airplane

Actually the “ones that mother gives you”, if they are medically endorsed, are more likely to speed your demise than most of the illegal drugs, as recent statistics indicate. But we are not here to talk about legalizing street drugs nor about making pharmaceutical drugs illegal: though the combination of approaches would save a lot of lives.

Our topic today is about a major error in the pharmaceutical approach to depression. And to understand that error we will begin with a basic primer on neurotransmitters. These are the chemicals that transmit signals from one neuron to the next, across the synapses of the brain. Neurons are the electrically excitable nerve cells found in the nervous system that process and transmit information. They are the core components of the brain and spinal cord, and are also found at the endings of motor neurons where they stimulate the muscle fibers to contract. Neurotransmitters are also produced in the glands, including the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands.

The major neurotransmitter systems are the norepinephrine system (wakefulness or arousal), the dopamine system (voluntary movement and motivation, pleasure, addiction, love), the serotonin system (memory, emotion, sleep and temperature regulation) and the cholinergic system (voluntary movement of the skeletal muscles, learning, memory and adrenaline production).

There are two main classes of neurotransmitters: excitory (“makes you larger”) and inhibitory (“makes you small”). Excitory neurotransmitters include acetylcholine (the cholinergic system), dopamine and norepinephrine, while the inhibitory neurotransmitters are GABA and serotonin.

Dopamine is the big boy, though. Dopamine is your number one evolutionary reward mechanism. It is especially released when we learn something new, that is when we make the connections that give the “a-ha!” experience, and when we fall in love. While testosterone is the lust or desire component in a relationship, dopamine is the nesting or “love” feeling, and the reason why love and addiction are so related. In fact almost all drugs from coffee to heroin run on the dopamine pathway (except psychedelics).

The smart monkey has learned to reward itself outside of the paradigm of evolution. The problem is that constant dopamine stimulation in excess (such as with cocaine) will destroy dopamine receptors. This leaves the addict needing more and more to get the same feeling, until so many receptors are fried that one can no longer get high on life, and needs the drug just to maintain the most basic level of mood.

Serotonin and GABA can be thought of as relaxing and inhibiting of anxiety. Drugs like Valium work on GABA pathways and, of course, we are familiar with the SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), a class of drugs commonly prescribed as anti-depressants (eg. Prozac). And this is where the problem occurs.

It is normal for all of us to need and use both classes of neurotransmitters. Historically we would get up with the sun and retire not long after it set. This would keep our circadian rhythms balanced. The body’s primary timekeeper, the circadian rhythms control the cycles of body metabolism and behavior. The cycle of sleep and wakefulness are part of its job as well as synchronizing the nervous system and secretion of hormones.

Our day would begin with the excitory neurotransmitters giving us “get-up-and-go” vibes. Later, as the day declined, dusk would trigger the release of serotonin and melatonin and we would begin to shut systems down as we moved toward sleep mode. (As a related aside it is my belief that sunglasses keep people mellow, or “cool”, by mimicking sunset and initiating some inhibitory neurotransmitter release.) Now, however, we work late under artificial lights, do night shifts, fly across time zones, try to sleep in rooms lit by street lights, pump coffee and stimulants in the evening, and so on. Divorced from the cycles of nature it is no wonder that our brains get confused.

There are two kinds of people in the world (here we go again): those who prefer stimulants (“uppers” or “larger”) and those who prefer sedatives (“downers” or “small”). This tends to be based on whether one is “sympathetic-dominant” or “parasympathetic- dominant”. We all have both aspects in our autonomic nervous systems (the things that go on in our bodies that we don’t consciously do) and for ease of understanding we can think of the sympathetic nervous system as the gas and the parasympathetic nervous system as the brake, and they use the neurotransmitters that we are discussing.

Our sympathetic nervous system deals with stress and the “fight-or-flight” response and those whose system is dominated by this branch of the autonomic nervous system tend to be thin and highly-strung. Our parasympathetic nervous system is involved in the functions that do not require immediate attention (survival issues) and have been categorized as “rest and repose” responses. It allows for normal, calm behaviors to occur (as well as performing many other functions including digestion, salivation and excretion of bodily wastes). Those who are parasympathetic-dominant tend to be heavy-set and of a slower disposition.

Next we’ll take a look at the two main nervous system aberrations: anxiety and depression, the big mistake that the medical profession makes when treating depression, and the proper way to treat them naturally.

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