When most people think of metabolism they don’t usually think of the brain. One of the major differences between fat loss and weight loss has to do with the brain hormones and how they impact hunger, mood, cravings, energy, motivation, and focus. Weight loss methods focus on calories completely ignoring the dramatic impact the brain has on body change. Fat loss on the other hand focuses on hormones and therefore seeks to address all the hormones responsible for body composition including the brain hormones or neurohormones (AKA neurotransmitters).
The 4 Major Neurotransmitters
There are four major neurohormones fat loss seekers need to understand. These are dopamine (DOPE-AH-MEAN), Acetylcholine (AH-SETTLE-COE-LEAN), GABA (GAH-BAH), and Serotonin (SARAH-TONE-IN). Together these four brain chemicals interact to influence personality traits, energy, and fat burning. Dopamine and Acetylcholine can be thought of as stimulating/energizing chemicals while GABA and serotonin are more relaxing. Here is a brief primer on these key brain chemicals and how they may impact your fat burning efforts.
Dopamine is perhaps the most important neurohormone related to your ability to burn fat. Dopamine energizes the brain and is key in allowing us to experience pleasure. Dopamine allows us to stay focused, energized, and motivated. It keeps us from procrastinating and allows us to feel enjoyment from the world around us. People with healthy dopamine signaling tend to be focused, hardworking overachievers who seem to be able to eat whatever they want and not put on much weight. However, too much or too little dopamine can cause problems. Those with too little dopamine have lower energy levels, poor focus, and find it difficult to stick to a schedule. Because of this they will use food and stimulants to self medicate themselves. Sugar in the form of candy or chocolate and stimulants in the form of colas and coffee are frequent cravings of those with low dopamine function. They crave the brain stimulation these things provide. Unfortunately the stimulation is short-lived leading to repeated cravings and overindulgence. Over time though the use of these compounds causes dopamine signaling to get weaker and weaker leading to a vicious cycle of uncontrollable cravings. Those with higher than normal dopamine signaling also suffer and may be overly focused to the point of compulsion. They to will seek out stimulants to jolt them up even further. The goal for fat loss is to have a dopamine signaling system that regulates and balances the system with sustained energy, focus and motivation. What many people fail to realize is that brain chemistry is not about total levels of one neurohormone. Instead, it is how the brain hormones relate to one another that makes a difference. The balance of chemistry is key.
Acetylcholine is another energy producing brain chemical. It is mainly involved in processing speed of the brain and manifests itself in the ability to recall events, numbers, and names, as well as quickly solve problems, and a capacity to resist brain fatigue. Those with low acetylcholine function will frequently forget numbers, be unable to recall a name despite knowing a face, and may often forget where they left their keys or wallet. These individuals will often crave fat since fat is a rich source of choline, one of the building blocks of acetylcholine. A craving for fried foods, hamburgers, and pizza, as well as a love of creamy desserts like cheesecake and ice cream may be a sign of low acetylcholine. Eggs, Avocado, and nuts and seeds are good acetylcholine foods.
Serotonin is one of the relaxing chemicals in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that impacts how we feel about ourselves and the world. People who have balanced serotonin function wake up, look into the mirror and like who they see. They look outside and appreciate the day. Serotonin gives us a sense of well-being and confidence in the world. Low serotonin can cause insomnia, depression, and low self-esteem. Low serotonin often manifests as cravings for starches and salt like bread, pasta, chips, and pretzels. Often those with very low levels have difficulty tasting food at all and may pile more salt on a piece of pizza or potato chips. These cravings are usually strongest at night with some low serotonin people claiming they cannot sleep without something to eat. They often feel unsatisfied if starch is not part of the meal and struggle more than others if they attempt a low carbohydrate diet. Low serotonin people are the constant pessimists and are unable to take coaching or feedback from anyone. Nothing and no one is ever good enough for those with low serotonin function. Low serotonin equals depression, overweight, insatiable craving for carbs and generally an untrusting, skeptical, paranoid type disposition.
GABA is another relaxing brain chemical. It gives us the ability to quickly shut down and relax. Those with a strong GABA personality don’t seem to stress much, tend to be more care free, and often seem content and relaxed compared to others. These are frequently the people who sleep as soon as their head hits the pillow. They rarely if ever feel anxious and usually feel little need to overindulge. Valium is a drug that works on GABA. Those who have low GABA function feel an inability to shut down and often suffer from anxiety. They tend to be shy and unsure individuals who play it safe. They also tend to eat way too much and way too fast. GABA is also involved in pain management so those with low GABA function may be sensitive to pain and often deal with conditions brought on by stress or anxiety. Stress headaches, irritable bowel, and heartburn can frequently be an issue. People low in GABA frequently seek out starch but are really content eating anything as long as there is a lot of it to fill them up. Low GABA people are emotional eaters in the truest sense of the word.
If you want to know what neurotrasmitter you may be low in, take this brief 5-question quiz. Choose the one letter in each question that best describes you. If none describe you than leave the question blank. If more than one describes you choose them all.
1) I crave:
a. Chocolate and/or coffee and/or sugar
b. I love fatty things like cream cheese, guacamole, and chocolate mousse
c. I love bread, pasta, and salty snacks
d. I don’t care what it is, I just want enough of it to make me feel full
2) At work or school:
a. I find it difficult to stay focused, have drops in energy, and procrastinate
b. I can never remember what I just did, I may have to redial the phone multiple times, and can be slow to catch on.
c. People can easily annoy me, I usually trust my ideas over others and sometimes feel others are out to get me.
d. I get anxious and worry about every little thing so much so that I sometimes have trouble getting things done.
3) Exercise makes me feel:
a. More energized and powerful
b. Smarter and more creative
c. Happier and more attractive
d. More calm with less worries
4) If I feel depressed it is most likely to be:
a. A feeling of frustration that I cant ever stick to a plan or schedule or fulfill promises to myself
b. A feeling of mental slowness, mental frustration, or feelings that I am just not as smart as others
c. I am just sad without any good reason. I often wish I looked different or was someone sexier, smarter, and more likable
d. An anxious worrying type depression. Anxiety rather than depression more defines me.
Now total up your answers. If any letter was chosen 2 or more times, then there is a good chance you have a deficiency in that neurotransmitter. Keep in mind you can often have more than one deficiency and also may have none. Here is how the letters break down.
Obviously, a questionnaire such as this has some weaknesses because of its subjective nature. Unfortunately, unless you are willing to get a spinal tap or have access to complex brain imagery there is no great scientific test for brain neurotransmitters. Many holistic practitioners like myself prefer to use a questionnaire, much more in depth than this one, to determine where the issues may lie. The important things to understand is that the brain chemicals have a direct impact on mood, cravings, motivation, hunger, energy, focus, self-esteem, problem solving, sleep and more. Those in the alternative medicine community often refer to these chemicals as the molecules of emotion because they impact so much of what we do, who we are, and how we feel.
For participants of the fat loss lifestyle it is hormones like these neurotransmitters that hold the key to true body change. Imagine being able to take a completely safe natural substance to help enhance full body function and allow you to have more motivation, sleep better, and rid yourself of cravings. Believe it or not you can. In my clinical practice after pinpointing the specific neurohormones that may be involved, I will prescribe amino acid precursors to bolster function. Unlike a reuptake inhibitor drug like Lexipro, Prozac, Wellbutrin, or others, these natural amino acids deal with the real issue many people are suffering from. Most people are not making enough of these neurotransmitters. This is why SSRI or SNRI (reuptake drugs) work only for a short time and most be switched, increased, or doubled up over time. If you are low in a neurotransmitter, then these drugs will work inconsistently or for a finite period of time. This is because in the long run there will be no neurotransmitter left to “reuptake”. In order to improve function you need to increase the amount you make. Stress, intense exercise, emotional trauma, coffee, sugar, salt, toxins, and genetic susceptibilities can all impact your neurotransmitter function.
At Metabolic Effect we use a natural neurotransmitter supplement that helps restore the balance in the brain and allows willpower to be on your side instead of against you. It uses a special 10:1 ratio of tyrosine and 5HTP to bolster dopamine and serotonin the two most common brain chemistry imbalances. The product is called CraveControl. Here are some other natural agents that may help restore your neurotransmitter function.
Dopamine- Supplemental tyrosine, adequate protein intake from meats.
Acetycholine- Supplemental lecithin (phospatidylcholine), and healthy fats like fish oil, egg yolks, olives, nuts and avocado.
Serotonin- Supplemental tryptophan, 5-HTP or SAM-e, and foods rich in Tryptophan like turkey, cocoa, pork, duck, chicken.
GABA- Supplemental glutamine, theanine, leucine, inositol, taurine and foods like shell fish, broccoli, brown rice and banana.
We all know that even the best diet and most scientifically based exercise program in the world only works if you can actually stick to it. By understanding what is going on in your brain and working to adjust its chemistry you can actually impact your ability to sustain a program long enough to see results. What you may not realize is those “crazy” people you see who actually love exercise and have no problem sticking to a diet are not so special after all. They just probably have a better-balanced brain then you. These people are usually dopamine dominant (in case you were wondering). However, with a smart approach that looks at hormones (including brain hormones) rather than calories you can finally begin to realize some real success in body change.
If you feel neurotransmitter balance is a major issue keeping you from your goal please contact us at our clinic. We work with people all over the the US and world via distance consulting. www.nhcnc.com