Could neurotransmitters be the solution to your insomnia?
Neurotransmitters strongly influence your sleep duration and quality and hence can be a possible solution for your insomnia issues. Some of the main neurotransmitters that affect your sleep are gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, hypocretin, histamine, and glutamate1. Many of the medications used for sleep affect in one way or another some of these neurotransmitters.
GABA – the mellow neurotransmitter
GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter; if there are low levels of GABA, nerve activities are heightened, so having enough GABA will dampen these signals and allow you to sleep better. Research shows that GABA levels were in average 30% lower in patients with insomnia2. One of the most common drugs used for insomnia Zolpidem (ambien), acts on the GABA receptors. However, the drug itself doesn’t contain any GABA.
What are the causes of low GABA?
Vitamin B6 is a necessary cofactor for the production of GABA3. Therefore diets that lack enough B6 may be a contributor. Research also shows that cannabis4 use can cause low GABA. In addition, high glutamate levels can be correlated to low GABA levels and can be common when you feel the mind is stuck on “on” when you are trying to sleep.
Serotonin’s link to insomnia
Serotonin is also an inhibitory neurotransmitter and is well known to be linked to mood problems. Insomnia is a symptom that is common in people with low serotonin5. Many antidepressants such as Prozac, Zoloft and Lexapro are aimed at keeping the serotonin longer in your brain. In fact, insomnia is often associated with depression. Serotonin is also a precursor to melatonin, a hormone that is crucial for sleep.
What causes serotonin deficiency?
Stress is an every day struggle for many people and unfortunately it can deplete serotonin levels6. The production of serotonin is closely linked to many different proteins and vitamins, therefore diet can affect its levels7. The gut health is crucial in serotonin’s function, since many of its messengers and receptors are found in the gut8. Another factor that may affect neurotransmitters such as serotonin is heavy metal toxicity9. In addition, genetic factors, stress and fluctuations in hormones can affect serotonin levels.
Dopamine – the inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitter
GABA and serotonin are both inhibitory neurotransmitters which means that they tend to calm the brain. Excitatory neurotransmitters activate the brain. Dopamine is special because it considered both inhibitory and excitatory. Dopamine is involved in melatonin synthesis and its release from the pineal gland. High levels of dopamine can inhibit the melatonin production which is needed at night10.
What drives the body to produce too much dopamine?
Certain foods may increase dopamine levels, along with certain foods, such as beans and bananas. Interestingly, it has been shown that falling in love tends to also increase dopamine levels. That may make sense, we all know the moment we fell in love, sleep is the last thing we have in mind. In addition, risk takers and thrilling looking individuals may have elevated levels.
Additional neurotransmitters that can influence your sleep is glutamate, which is an excitatory neurotransmitter that is also involved in the sleep-wake cycles and the circadian rhythm11; norepinephrine which is the fight and flight response neurotransmitter, epinephrine and histamines. Lastly, the more popular melatonin may also be related to your sleep issues, though as you can see, it make be just the partial answer.
How do I test my neurotransmitters?
Urine analysis offers the most accurate results that may give you some insight about why you can’t sleep well12. Testing your blood is not as accurate, as the levels may vary widely from minute to minute. Just imagine you are afraid of needles and someone is about to draw blood with a needle – your stress response will kick in instantly and change the levels of your neurotransmitters.
Where do I test my neurotransmitters?
Neurotransmitter testing can be done through an urine test. After the initial session, I will have the lab mail you a kit. Once received and sample collected, you send it back to the lab to be analyzed. Once I receive the results we review them and make a treatment plan so you can sleep well again.
1 Siegel, JM. (2004). The neurotransmitters of sleep. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15575797
2 Winkelman, J. W., Buxton, O. M., Jensen, J. E., Benson, K. L., O’Connor, S. P., Wang, W., & Renshaw, P. F. (2008). Reduced brain GABA in primary insomnia: preliminary data from 4T proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H-MRS). Sleep, 31(11), 1499-506. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2579978/
3 Kennedy D. O. (2016). B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy–A Review. Nutrients, 8(2), 68. doi:10.3390/nu8020068. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4772032/
4 Leslie Iversen; Cannabis and the brain, Brain, Volume 126, Issue 6, 1 June 2003, Pages 1252–1270, https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awg143
5 Vashadze ShV. (2007). Insomnia, serotonin and depression. Georgian Med News. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17984558
6 Kumar, A., Rinwa, P., Kaur, G., & Machawal, L. (2013). Stress: Neurobiology, consequences and management. Journal of pharmacy & bioallied sciences, 5(2), 91-7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3697199/?report=reader
7 Rao, T. S., Asha, M. R., Ramesh, B. N., & Rao, K. S. (2008). Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian journal of psychiatry, 50(2), 77-82.
8 Mittal, R., Debs, L. H., Patel, A. P., Nguyen, D., Patel, K., O’Connor, G., Grati, M., Mittal, J., Yan, D., Eshraghi, A. A., Deo, S. K., Daunert, S., … Liu, X. Z. (2017). Neurotransmitters: The Critical Modulators Regulating Gut-Brain Axis. Journal of cellular physiology, 232(9), 2359-2372. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5772764/
9 Sharma, B., Singh, S., & Siddiqi, N. J. (2014). Biomedical implications of heavy metals induced imbalances in redox systems. BioMed research international, 2014, 640754.
10 González S, et al. Circadian-related heteromerization of adrenergic and dopamine D4 receptors modulates melatonin synthesis and release in the pineal gland. PLoS Biol 2012 10 (6) e1001347. (doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001347).
11 Watson, C. J., Lydic, R., & Baghdoyan, H. A. (2011). Sleep duration varies as a function of glutamate and GABA in rat pontine reticular formation. Journal of neurochemistry, 118(4), 571-80.