I know, a brain isn’t quite like a car engine, but stick with me on this one. I learned the hard way what happens when you run your car engine when it’s low on oil. Years ago I somehow ignored that little red light on the dashboard and I managed to fry the engine on my beloved Jeep Wagoneer. As they say, live and learn.
Neurotransmitters—Your Brain’s Natural Oil
Of course your brain doesn’t run on oil. Nerve cells communicate with each other using chemicals called neurotransmitters. You are probably familiar with some of the more important ones like dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. These chemical messengers are stored in small sacks called vesicles located at the end of a long arm of the cell called the axon. When the cell is stimulated the neurotransmitters are released into the synapse, the narrow space between cells. These chemicals can then attach to receptors on the tree-like protrusions on adjoining cells called dendrites. The stimulated receptors then create an electrical action potential in the new cell. Of course this is a simplification of a very complex biological system.
When you don’t have enough of these important chemicals, your brain cells can no longer talk to each other as intended and you get pesky neurotransmitter deficiency symptoms that interfere with your ability to function. If your serotonin is low you likely feel anxious and depressed, you don’t sleep very well, you are moody and irritable and you crave sweet and starchy foods. If your dopamine and norepinephrine levels are low, you will likely have problems concentrating and focusing, you will have poor impulse control, you will lack physical and mental energy and you will be more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Just as your car engine needs oil to run properly, your brain needs a full complement of neurotransmitters to function as intended.
There’s a lot of Brain Dashboard Red Lights Out There
As an experienced clinician, it’s obvious to me that there certainly seems to be a lot of people running around a few quarts low when it comes to brain neurotransmitters. These folks have across the board brain dysfunction symptoms that will qualify them to be diagnosed with multiple brain disorders. If we hope to help these people with low levels of neurotransmitters, it would be useful to know the reasons why these levels are low.
There is a long list of hereditary disorders that seem to be characterized by low levels of these important chemicals. Conditions like major depression, ADHD, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are characterized by symptoms reflecting abnormal functioning of these neurotransmitter systems. For reasons that aren’t always clear, the cells can’t produce enough of these chemicals or there aren’t enough receptors on the adjoining cells. Although we don’t fully understand how all this plays out at a cellular level, we do know that poor functioning of these neurotransmitters systems is a core feature of these conditions and hereditary factors seem to play a key role in the pathology.
An Epidemic of Brain Disorders
Adding to the confusion is the fact that over the past few decades many common brain disorders seem to be increasing at an epidemic rate for no apparent reason. The genes obviously haven’t changed so other factors must be in play. Nutritional factors top the list when it comes to non-hereditary factors driving these illnesses and several papers have been published outlining how diet and brain disorders might be connected. I recently contributed to this dialogue when I published a paper on the connection between autism and diet.
One of the ways diet can adversely affect brain function is by influencing the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin. Years ago Richard and Judith Wurtman from MIT showed that consumption of carbohydrates leads to an immediate release of serotonin. That’s because a carbohydrate load increases the passage of the amino acid tryptophan into the brain and the brain converts tryptophan into serotonin. That’s why people get hooked on carbohydrate loaded “comfort” foods because they cause an immediate release of the calming neurotransmitter serotonin. This is the “Twinkie high” you experience before you crash and burn.
The Wurtmans thought this was a normal physiological response, but we now believe it is pathological. The blast of glucose that occurs when you eat that Twinkie seems to cause neurotransmitter dumping where too many neurotransmitters are released at one time. These neurotransmitters are normally recycled by a reuptake system but when too many are released, the reuptake system can’t reabsorb the load and thus the neurotransmitters can’t be recycled for future use. Over time this leads to neurotransmitter depletion where the cells don’t have enough of these chemicals to function normally. This leads to neurotransmitter deficiency symptoms that overlap with the symptoms of classic hereditary brain disorders.
Sugar also seems to play a role in this pathological process. Sucrose and HFCS contain approximately equal amounts of glucose and fructose. Excessive fructose is known to play a key role in driving insulin resistance where cells no longer respond properly to insulin. When you have insulin resistance and consume high glycemic carbohydrates, your brain is subjected to frequent glucose spikes, leading to more neurotransmitter dumping and depletion. Excessive omega 6 fatty acids from vegetable oils and not enough omega 3 fatty acids also seems to play a role in this process, likely by altering the cell membranes of neurons.
CARB Syndrome—This is Your Brain on Processed Foods
These three dietary elements form the core of modern processed foods. When you consume this food over a long period of time, you can end up with a brain depleted of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine leading to bothersome brain dysfunction symptoms. We now call this form of food-induced brain dysfunction Carbohydrate Associated Reversible Brain disorder or CARB syndrome. Because these symptoms overlap with traditional hereditary brain disorders, people with CARB syndrome are often misdiagnosed with one of these traditional disorders.
An example might be helpful. Years ago virtually all depressed patients lost their appetite and lost weight—it was a defining symptom of the illness. In recent years many depressed patients have an increased appetite and weight gain. How is it possible to have two opposite symptoms with the same disease? It isn’t. We believe that the weight gain type of depression is CARB syndrome, not true major depression.
Check Your Brain Dipstick
How can your tell the difference between CARB syndrome and hereditary brain disorders? Go through the 22 symptoms of CARB syndrome and see if they fit. Unlike a car engine you don’t have a brain dipstick to tell you whether you are a few quarts low on neurotransmitters. These symptoms serve the same purpose as a dipstick because they give you an approximate measure of your brain neurotransmitters.
The treatment for true major depression is high dose SSRI medications but this won’t work very well for CARB syndrome depression. The treatment for CARB syndrome is to eliminate the triggers of the disease by changing your diet. For most people I recommend following a Paleo style diet. Loren Cordain and Robb Wolf have a lot of information about the Paleo diet on their web sites. For those who are already metabolically damaged with insulin resistance and diabetes, sometimes a ketogenic diet is the best way to go. The well-known low-carb blogger Jimmy Moore is the master of ketogenic diets.
Fill ‘Er Up with Precursors
Some people with CARB syndrome have a hard time implementing any treatment plan because their brain function is so severely impaired because they are two quarts low of neurotransmitters. If you have strong cravings for sweet and starchy foods, physical and mental fatigue, anxiety, mood swings, depression, difficulty concentrating and focusing, poor impulse control and mild cognitive impairment, trying to stick to a healthy eating and exercise plan can be next to impossible. It’s like trying to climb Mount Everest in your bare feet!
That’s where neurotransmitter precursors come into play. If you have low levels of neurotransmitters, what can you do to increase these levels? One simple approach is to provide more of the amino acid building blocks that your brain needs to make neurotransmitters. L-tyrosine is the precursor of dopamine and norepinephrine and L-tryptophan is the precursor of serotonin. Although both come from the food you eat, you really can’t increase your level of neurotransmitters by eating a particular food because amino acids are competitively absorbed from your intestines. That means when you eat a food high in tryptophan like turkey, your body won’t absorb extra tryptophan because it also has to absorb all the other amino acids in the turkey. If you take these precursor amino acids out of the food and take them on an empty stomach, you actually can raise the levels of these neurotransmitters.
The Magic Ratio
For years I have used a combination of L-tyrosine and 5-htp in a ratio of 10 to 1 to help relieve neurotransmitter depletion symptoms in patients with CARB syndrome. 5-htp is the intermediate chemical between L-tryptophan and serotonin and in my opinion it is more effective than using L-tryptophan. If you only take L-tryptophan or 5-htp to raise your serotonin levels, your dopamine levels will drop. If you just take L-tyrosine to raise dopamine and norepinephrine levels, your serotonin levels will drop. For some reason these two important systems seem to be tied together like a teeter-totter where they need to be in balance for the brain to work as intended. It took years to figure out the right balance so that all neurotransmitters rise together, the key to controlling all the symptoms of CARB syndrome.
I have developed a product called CARB-22 that has this critical balance of precursors. When taken on an empty stomach, over time CARB-22 can be very effective at restoring all of the neurotransmitter levels. It also helps to relieve a broad range of brain dysfunction symptoms making it much easier to comply with the necessary dietary changes. Fix the brain and then tackle the lifestyle issues—it works every time. You wouldn’t want to enter the Indy 500 a few quarts low on oil and you don’t want it tackle life a few quarts low of neurotransmitters!
So check your brain dipstick by reviewing the 22 symptoms of CARB syndrome. If you have some of these symptoms, consider taking a precursor supplement like CARB-22. Then move on to change your diet. If you decide to do so, I think you will find that your brain engine will hum along like a top finisher at the Indy 500!