Brain Chemistry

Brain Chemistry: The Reasons We Feel Like We Do

When we think a thought, or feel a sensation from the outside world, it's the result of major chemical reactions in our brain. Billions of messages are sent throughout the body on a regular basis because of these chemicals in the brain. Some of the important chemicals are called neurotransmitters.

In the brain, different neurotransmitters make us feel different ways: high, low, sleepy, awake, happy, sad, etc. Sometimes the brain may have too many of one type of chemical or not enough of another. As a result, we may feel too high or low, or too sleepy. Certain antidepressant drugs, such as prozac and imipramine, are sometimes used to manipulate brain chemistry in the hopes of creating a balance of neurotransmitters. The diet and nutritional state can also have a profound effect on the brain's chemistry. In other words, what we eat (and how well it is digested and absorbed) can have a significant effect upon our brain chemistry. What we eat for dinner can influence our sleeping, our dreaming, and how we feel upon waking.

The three most important neurotransmitters are serotonin, norepinephrine and acetylcholine. Most of the 35 or more neurotransmitters are made from amino acids derived from dietary protein. In addition, certain vitamins and minerals are required for their production. Some of the more common ones include vitamin B-6, folic acid, niacin, iron and vitamin C.

Serotonin is produced with the help of the amino acid tryptophan. This neurotransmitter has a calming effect in the brain. A high carbohydrate meal, such as pasta or oatmeal, will provide the brain with more tryptophan. So, the individual who is easily agitated, or overactive could benefit from a high carbohydrate meal.

Norepinephrine is produced from the conversion of the dietary amino acid tyrosine. A high protein meal will provide a high amount of tyrosine and can increase norepinephrine levels. This neurotransmitter has a stimulating effect on the brain. The person who needs a "pick-up" or who sleeps all the time could benefit from a high protein meal, without carbohydrate.

Acetylcholine is produced from the vitamin choline. Egg yolks are one of the best dietary sources of choline. Acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter used more when the person is under greater stress.

As mentioned, drugs have also been used to balance brain chemistry. For example, depressed patients are sometimes given medication to enhance or block certain neurotransmitters. Prozac, Elavil , Aventyl , Tofranil and Norparmin are anti depressants which affect the balance of serotonin and norepinephrine. (Certain tranquilizers, such as Valium and Ativan, affect other neurotransmitters.) Fortunately, most people do not need medication. But many are too overactive, too sluggish or are not handling stress very well. They may benefit by simply altering their diets to modify their brain chemistry and improve their health.

Nutrition and the Brain

The brain's 200 billion cells have numerous nutritional requirements for good function. These include not only proteins and carbohydrates (amino acids and glucose), but also a number of different vitamins and minerals, and water. Fats are also important for good brain function, especially cholesterol (the brain contains more cholesterol than any other area of the body). Any dietary inadequacy can potentially have a dramatic impact on brain function. Of utmost importance is the availability of these nutrients for the fetus during pregnancy, making the diet of the mother important for infant nutrition.

Numerous symptoms have been associated with a faulty diet's influence on the brain. These include aggression, learning disabilities, crime, depression, hyperactivity and various behavioral problems.


  • The minerals sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium are all important for sending messages through the brain.
  • Iodine has an important role in brain maturation, beginning in the fetus soon after conception.
  • In children, a strong association has been made between iron deficiency and attention deficit disorder (ADD). This was first recognized almost 75 years ago when hookworm infections (which causes significant blood loss) was closely related to impaired behavioral performance in school children.
  • Zinc is important for growth and maturation of the brain. Equally important is the fact that zinc is an important mineral for many chemical reactions in the brain, especially those related to behavior.
  • Copper is also related to growth and maturation of the brain. Copper deficiency and excess has been associated with deterioration of mental function and physical coordination.
  • Manganese, like copper, is both important for proper brain function and has potential for excess, adversely affecting the brain.
  • Lead and mercury are both significant because they are toxic to the brain and pose real health problems in the general population throughout the world. Lead poisoning has been known for centuries. For years the scientific literature has described mercury poisoning, including contamination of fish (accumulated methyl mercury from the food chain originating from industrial waste) to consumption of grain treated with mercury fungicide. Also, the debate over dental fillings is still a concern to many in the scientific community.


  • Numerous vitamins affect brain function. Two important ones include choline and vitamin B-6.
  • Choline was mentioned above as an important nutrient for the production of acetylcholine, and for communication within the brain.
  • Vitamin B-6 is another necessary nutrient used in the regulation of other neurotransmitters. Because estrogen inhibits vitamin B-6, this may be important for some women, especially those taking estrogen containing birth control pills.


Although caffeine is not considered a nutrient, its use has a significant effect on the brain. This is obvious to those who regularly consume caffeine in coffee, and to a lesser degree from tea, cola and chocolate. The most obvious effect shown by most studies is increased mental performance and alertness.

Finally, dietary and nutritional factors throughout the body may indirectly play a major role in brain function. The blood sugar mechanism, for example, can have powerful control over brain activity. The ability to absorb nutrients from the diet is also a significant item when considering brain function. And certainly the mind is another powerful factor in brain function.

Editors Note: For some people dependent on caffeine for "alertness" there exists the risk of addiction. Others may find caffeine consumption comes with side effects: jitteriness and hyperactivity. This may cancel the clear alert state they seek. For them, cutting down, or avoiding caffeine altogether may be the ideal way to be alert. In general, it's best to rely on your own mind and body for improved function.

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