Your Brain Chemical Romance
We assure you, this has nothing to do with the rock band but everything to do with your brain and the chemicals within it. The brain is a highly sophisticated muscle, consisting of 1.5kg of white and grey matter. Many of our feelings, decisions and actions are influenced by chemicals such as neurotransmitters, neuropeptides and psychopharmaceuticals that whizz around, controlling and influencing our nervous system.
Dr Gary L. Wenk, author of Your Brain On Food highlights how the brain is often compared to a machine, in the same way you might connect your laptop to your camera to send photos from one device to another; instead of wires, the human brain uses cells and neurons to process information.
Around 100 billion neurons make an estimated “0.15 quadrillion connections with each other.” To send messages, “these billions of neurons release unique chemicals called neurotransmitters on to each other” (Healthline, 2019). The brain contains more than 100 known neurotransmitters and scientists are certain they will discover more soon.
Why Should You Care?
The important thing to note about brain chemicals is that they are vital to your brain’s functioning and as Healthline notes: “help facilitate communication between your nerve cells.” What you consume, food, alcohol and drug wise, has a significant impact on your brain’s behaviour and function. Chemical imbalances in the brain can also occur, this is when there is either “too much or too little” of a neurotransmitter. Scientists hypothesise that these can lead to mental disorders (Healthline, 2019).
As we’ve already established above, there are over 100 different chemicals in the brain. To make your understanding of the brain as simple as possible, we’ve compiled a list of five chemicals we think you should know about, so you can understand more of what’s going on inside your cranium.
According to PubChem, serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates and impacts:
- Sexual desire
- Motor, cognitive and autonomic functions.
It is sometimes known as the “happy chemical” because it provides feelings of happiness, positivity and wellbeing (MedicalNewsToday, 2018). Several studies have been conducted over the years which suggest serotonin increase can help to treat and prevent symptoms of depression. It is believed that levels of serotonin can be increased through exercise, a balanced diet and introducing more bright natural lighting.
Dopamine is a pretty dope chemical as it plays a role in “how we feel pleasure” (WebMD, 2019). It helps you to focus when studying or working, strive for the things you want in life and enables you to find things interesting. Also, it plays a pretty significant part in thinking and planning as human beings.
Drugs such as cocaine can cause a big increase in dopamine and make the user feel “confident, happy, excited and on top of their game” (TalktoFrank, 2019). But, it is not recommended to use recreational drugs as they have negative long term effects, such as: addiction, heart attacks and they can surface mental health problems.
Another role dopamine plays is in physical functions and behaviour such as:
- Heart rate
- Pain processing.
You may not have heard of oxytocin, but you’ll have felt the effects of this neurotransmitter at least once in your lifetime. Oxytocin is another chemical which is referred to as a “happy chemical,” it plays a “critical role in human social behaviour and cognition” (Grace et al., 2018). Furthermore, oxytocin is also present in reproduction and is “related to the maternal functions, e.g. labour and lactation” (Cohen, Maroun and Wagner, 2018). The release of oxytocin is known to create a warm and fuzzy feeling, due to the fact it is important to sexual activities, orgasms and is heavily present for couples in the first stages of their relationship. A 2013 review noted all the “possible relationship-enhancing effects, such as:
- Positive communication
- Processing of bonding cues.
4. Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA)
Not only is it a mouthful to say but it is also a naturally occurring amino acid that works as a neurotransmitter in the brain. “GABA is considered to be an inhibitory neurotransmitter because it blocks or inhibits certain brain signals and decreases activity in your nervous systems”. When it attaches itself to a GABA receptor, it produces a calming effect in your brain, when your neurons and cells get overexcited (WebMD, 2019). GABA is also available in the form of a food supplement and is thought to:
- Improve mood
- Relieve anxiety
- Improve sleep
- Lower blood pressure
- Burn fat
- Relieve pain
- Increase the growth of lean muscle mass.
Norepinephrine is a naturally occurring hormone that functions as a neurotransmitter in the nervous system. Everyday Health observes it is released into the body when “the brain perceives that a stressful event has occurred”, it can also increase alertness, arousal and reaction time in response to a stress-inducing situation. Furthermore, it can help you to focus on daily activities like checking your email, concentration levels at work, and has an effect on your overall mood. Low levels of the hormone can potentially cause:
- Attention Deficit Hyper Disorder (ADHD)
There you have it, five brain chemicals that rule your emotions and actions. Even though we have only covered five chemicals, there are hundreds of others which inhabit your brain. The human brain is a weird and wonderful thing; understanding and maintaining the chemicals in your brain can help to level your mood, appetite, sexual drive and health.
Why not try one of our science backed games such as Decoder, which has been backed by scientific research and can help stimulate brain chemicals and may improve memory function. Or if you’re looking to increase some dopamine then take a look at our article Dopamine, The Brain And Your Sex Drive, it might just be the boost you need.
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Grace, S., Rossell, S., Heinrichs, M., Kordsachia, C. and Labuschagne, I. (2018). Oxytocin and brain activity in humans: A systematic review and coordinate-based meta-analysis of functional MRI studies. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 96, pp.6-24.
Cohen, L., Maroun, M. and Wagner, S. (2018). Behavior: Oxytocin Promotes Fearless Motherhood. Current Biology, 28(8), pp.R359-R361.
Wenk, G. (2019). Your Brain on Food. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press.