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Neurotransmitter 101

The brain’s 100 billion neurons connect the various organs and brain regions into a complex network of circuits that control specific functions within the body.  Simply speaking, these circuits serve as on/off switches for the millions of messages and processes carried out on a daily basis.  For example, the perception of danger “turns on” circuits in the brain that induce a fear response, which may communicate to the body different messages such as “tense up muscles”, “palms sweat”, “increase heart rate”, and “breathe faster”.

Neurotransmitters control the on/off switches of the nervous system, but the concept is not quite that simple. Some neurotransmitters are more likely to facilitate the transmission of certain messages and are considered “excitatory”.  Likewise, some neurotransmitters are more likely to impede the transmission of certain messages and are considered “inhibitory”.  The concept of excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmission is central to understanding and successfully incorporating neurotransmitter assessment and correction into your practice.

Excitatory neurotransmitters increase the likelihood that a neuron’s signals are sent. Activation of excitatory neurotransmitter receptor sites causes a chemical change within the neuron that generates an electrical message.  If sufficiently strong, the message travels through the neuron to the end of the axon, where it causes the release of neurotransmitters, thus continuing the signal.  From a clinical standpoint, excitatory neurotransmitters are responsible for providing energy, motivation, mental cognition, and other activities that require brain and body activity.

On the other hand, inhibitory neurotransmitters decrease the likelihood that a neuron’s signals are sent.  Activation of inhibitory neurotransmitter receptor sites causes a chemical change within the neuron that opposes the effects of excitatory receptor activation.  From a clinical standpoint, they are generally responsible for calming the mind and body, inducing sleep, and filtering out unnecessary excitatory signals. 

Neurotransmitters define our moods, actions, and health. The importance of neurotransmitters transcends their role in the brain.  Organs throughout the body are connected to the brain via a vast network of neurons.  The brain uses neurotransmitters to tell the heart to beat, the lungs to breathe, and the intestines to digest.  This is known as the autonomic nervous system.  Nowhere in nature does there exist another class of molecules with such importance and biological influence as the neurotransmitters. To reiterate, basic knowledge of the excitatory vs. inhibitory concept of neurotransmission is key to understanding the nervous system. A balance between the levels of inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitters is necessary for optimal health. The list of clinical problems associated with neurotransmitters is long and continues to grow as researchers establish important links between the scientific and clinical effects of neurotransmitters.  Some of the most significant clinical issues linked to neurotransmitter imbalances are:  anxiousness, appetite control, attention issues, developmental delays, behavioral problems, low mood, fatigue, libido, women's issues, headaches, mood disorders, sleep disorders, weight issues, and many more.  Testing is available for these and other conditions.


A balanced nervous system is necessary to maintain optimal health.  When the critical balance between the excitatory and inhibitory systems is lost, it creates a situation that increases the likelihood of a neurotransmitter-related condition developing.   A healthy nervous system is characterized bymeeting two basic criteria.  Number one, it must have sufficient supplies of the necessary neurotransmitters.  Secondly, the excitatory and inhibitory systems must work together in a manner that delivers signals appropriately.  The second criterion is quite dependent upon the first, in that the supply of neurotransmitters primarily dictates excitatory/inhibitory balance. Many neurotransmitter-related conditions are believed to be the result of insufficient neurotransmitter supplies. 

The fear response in humans is controlled in an area of the brain called the amygdala.  An individual who visually interprets a somewhat stressful, but non-threatening situation sends an excitatory neurotransmitter signal from the eyes to the amygdala.  If this individual has a healthy nervous system, inhibitory neurotransmitters will filter out the excitatory message, thereby preventing an unnecessary fearful response to the non-threatening situation.  If the individual has a compromised inhibitory system, the excitatory stimulus will override the weak inhibitory message, thereby activating an unnecessary fear response.


Contact Dr. Wendy Wells who treats patients with anxiety, depression in Scottsdale, Arizona, as well as many other brain chemistry imbalances.  Contact her office for information on testing. 

From Neuroscience