The ADHD Brain and Neurotransmitters
What Are Neurotransmitters?
To learn more about how our ADHD brain operates, we need to understand the importance of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are the nervous system’s chemical ‘messengers,’ the communicators transmitting information between nerve, muscle, organ and other tissue cells.
Neurotransmitters are present throughout the body and are required for ALL its voluntary and involuntary actions: digestion, body temperature, respiration, heartbeat, mood, attention, learning, memory, etc.
Because they are essential to internal communication within the body, depletion of certain neurotransmitters can lead to physical and mental health problems like depression, anxiety, dizziness and restlessness. Moreover, research suggests that the ADHD brain is affected by insufficient levels of certain neurotransmitters.
Excitatory and Inhibitory Neurotransmitters
There are two types of neurotransmitters. Excitatory neurotransmitters help stimulate the mind and body to get into action while the inhibitory neurotransmitters do the opposite, helping the brain calm down and stabilizing our mood. Both are needed to create a balance within the body.
Chronic or long term physical, mental or emotional stress can deplete inhibitory transmitter levels, since their presence is connected to self-soothing and relaxation of both the body and mind. Some neurotransmitters – dopamine, for instance – are both excitatory and inhibitory.
ADHD brain research has revealed a strong connection between hyperactivity and low dopamine levels, a combination usually linked with Type 1 ADHD. Serotonin, on the other hand, relates to attention difficulties and is associated with Type 2 ADHD. More on the different Types of ADHD.
Neurotransmitters and the ADHD brain?
ADHD symptoms have long been associated with neurotransmitter levels in the brain. Genetic research is getting closer to identifying the exact connection between neurotransmitter levels in the ADHD brain and the transporter genes for these neurotransmitters. The following are some of the most important neurotransmitters currently associated with ADHD.
Dopamine is both an excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitter. In healthy levels it helps us:
- Focus and stay on task
- Regulate our drive (the desire to get things done)
- Stay motivated
- Regulate sensory input and reaction ability
- Be creative, imaginative and inspired
Serotonin is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. In healthy levels it helps us:
- Stay positive, happy and content
- Regulate our mood
- Balance out excessive stimulation in the brain
- Regulate our sleep cycle
- Manage emotional and physical pain
- Regulate memory and learning
- Maintain a healthy blood pressure and body temperature
- Regulate appetite and digestion
Norepinephrine and Epinephrine
Norepinephrine and epinephrine, also known as noradrenalin and adrenalin, are produced by the adrenal glands and are commonly referred to as ‘stress hormones.’ These neurotransmitters are excitatory – we are all familiar with an ‘adrenaline rush’ and how stress can heighten alertness. These neurotransmitters engage the sympathetic nervous system, the central figure activating our fight or flight response. In adequate levels they help us:
- Stay motivated and alert
- Keep focused
- Deal efficiently with immediate danger
- Learn from past mistakes
- Integrate new information into our long term memory
Because of modern social and financial pressures, many people deal with heightened stress levels on a daily basis. Chronic stress depletes the adrenal glands and causes anxiety, inattentiveness as well as a myriad of other ADHD symptoms.
In situations such as this, giving oneself time to relax is an absolute necessity for both mind and body. Consequently, the ADHD brain benefits tremendously from practices like mindfulness and meditation.
Acetylcholine is an excitatory neurotransmitter and acts as an essential chemical carrier for thought and memory. It is absolutely vital for an efficient and healthy nervous system – think of it as a fatty lubricant for mind and body! Healthy levels of this neurotransmitter help us:
- Memorize and store information
- Retrieve and implement information quickly and efficiently
- Have good muscle coordination and contraction
- Pay attention
- Communicate ideas and concepts
- Have healthy social interactions
- Have an open mind and a flexible attitude
When there is not enough acetylcholine in the body, one is often prone to mood swings. Other problems with depletion of this transmitter are dry mouth, eyes and skin. ADHD symptoms such as difficulty with attention, concentration, memory as well as carelessness may also surface with acetylcholine deficiency.
GABA or gamma-aminobutyric acid is considered to be THE primary inhibitory neurotransmitter – to such an extent that it is referred to as the body’s natural valium. Its basic function is to help relax and calm the system. GABA helps us:
- Feel relaxed
- Remain calm in stressful situations
- Stay organized and maintain a balanced lifestyle
- Work within a team
- Maintain healthy muscle tone
GABA deficiencies cause anxiety, restlessness and irritability. Other physical symptoms include dizziness, headaches, insomnia and mood disorders.
Give your ADHD brain a Neurotransmitter boost!