The body is a very complex system. As doctors, we're often faced with the unknown. And we have to do a bit of guesswork to figure out what's going on. This is especially true for hormones. The lab tests often tell us that hormone levels are normal, but all the symptoms suggest the levels are low. In these cases, we have to go with the symptoms, not the lab results. The same can be true of neurotransmitters.
We often don't know the full extent of what neurotransmitters do in the body. But researchers are conducting studies every day that get us closer to a full understanding of how the body and its many, many systems function. One such model was recently completed by researchers at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. They figured out how to map serotonin's function in the brain. Serotonin, as you may know, is a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in both brain development and nerve circuits.
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In the study, the researchers created a mouse model of serotonin deficiency and used high-density multi-electrode arrays to find out how the neurons responded to the deficiency. They were able to determine serotonin's role in helping neurons, synapses, and networks work properly in the brain's cortex. And it's an important role. Research has linked issues with serotonin activity to autism, epilepsy, depression, and anxiety. Now that we have a model of how serotonin functions, researchers will be better prepared to address and investigate those issues. Lead researcher Dr. Roberto Fernández Galán explained, "By looking at the circuit level of the brain, we now have new insight into how the brain becomes wired and sensitive to changing serotonin levels."
I've seen how addressing serotonin levels work wonders for patients suffering from depression. This is particularly true in those who are taking antidepressants with horrible side effects. For example, taking the amino acids 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) or l-tryptophan, which you can find at any health food store, can help. The body converts tryptophan into serotonin naturally, and you don't have to deal with any of the side effects a drug like Prozac can cause. Cutting back on carbohydrates, particularly sugar, can also help, as sugar lowers serotonin levels.
Now that we have this new model to work with, I'm hopeful that we'll be able to understand how sugar affects the brain and how to get to the root of depression even better. While we investigate, just make sure you don't discontinue any prescription medicine you're on without discussing it with your doctor.
Yours for better health,
Frank Shallenberger, MD