Naturally balancing neurotransmitters usually involves amino acid precursor supplementation. (see Amino Acids) When the issue is generalized anxiety, food cravings, hyperactivity, aggression, or addiction, Dopamine deficiency is usually the culprit. L-tyrosine, an amino acid commonly found in most meat, seafood, green leafy vegetables, and abundantly in seaweed is the ingredient that stimulates Dopamine production.
Dopamine directly stimulates the reward system in the brain, but there is an entire cascade of neurochemical reactions that occur before the reward system is actually triggered. Those reactions start with serotonin which depends on the presence of tryptophan, its amino acid precursor, for an adequate supply.
The reward system diminishes anxiety and allows us to feel pleasure, confidence, enthusiasm, and a generalized sense of well-being. When something goes haywire – either dopamine or serotonin levels decrease, or it’s receptors aren’t responding – we feel stressed, depressed, and flat. Our brains scream for relief in the form of cravings for sugar, drugs, alcohol, or nicotine – the substances known to directly and temporarily flood the brain with serotonin, dopamine, and their pleasant effects. Nicotine actually works more indirectly, but its effects are similar.
I’ve been interested in amino acids and their power to correct the brain’s dysfunctional reward system for many years. I’ve observed their ability to reduce cravings through my work as an addictions nurse, but as an herbalist, I’m excited as well about the potential of the herb Rhodiola Rosea.
One of Rhodiola’s main actions is to inhibit catechol-O-methyl transferase (COMT). This is critical because COMT is the enzyme that breaks down dopamine and serotonin which can cause severe cravings, depression and high anxiety if those neurotransmitter levels are already low. Research is showing that Rhodiola Rosea reduces COMT activity by 60% and increases neurotransmitter levels by 30%.
DHA, a component of fish oil, has been shown to increase the sensitivity of Dopamine receptors. When DHA is deficient, depression is common. Receptor impairment of the reward system can be hereditary and fairly common. If addiction or depression problems exist within your family, you are predisposed.
The healthy functioning of the brain’s reward system is very complex, but basically dopamine and serotonin levels, the speed at which those are broken down, and the sensitivity and availability of dopamine receptors define the mechanisms involved.
When depression, anxiety, and cravings are an issue it seems that some combination of tryptophan and L-tyrosine supplementation, Rhodiola Rosea, and fish oil, together with a B complex vitamin can make the difference between struggling from day to day and enthusiastically living your life. Julia Ross provides specific recommendations, particularly regarding amino acid supplementation, in her book “The Mood Cure.” My favorite place to purchase herbs is Mountain Rose Herbs.
Make sure you check with your doctor before taking any medication