By Dr. Shawn VanWinkle

So far in this amazing series on brain health we have explored such topics as plasticity, what a healthy neuron needs and how the brain degenerates. We have also discussed how leaky gut, inflammation, gluten sensitivity and autoimmunity can negatively impact brain health. In this issue, we will explore the different chemicals your brain uses to in order to make the magic happen that keeps your brain healthy. Specifically, we will discuss neurotransmitters, hormones and essential fatty acids (EFA’s).

The chemical soup that makes up the brain is so complicated that researchers have literally dedicated the last two decades towards understanding this intricate system. Every day as new discoveries are made we get one step closer to understanding this system, and more importantly, how to appropriately impact the health of your brain! If you have feelings of depression, anxiety, compulsivity, memory loss, foggy brain, moodiness, change in libido, difficulty losing weight or just general sluggishness, it may be because the chemical soup that makes up your brain is out of balance.

The Brain Runs on Electricity!

Perhaps the most important of these chemicals in your brain are neurotransmitters (NT). Think of all the things in your life that run on electricity (house, car, cell phone, computer, etc). The brain is no different. It uses electrical currents that are generated in a nerve cell. This then causes NT to be released from that cell into a space called a synapse. It travels across that space to land on a receptor on the cell. In the synapse there are also chemicals that break down or recycle the NT so the right amount of message is received. This is how messages travel in the nervous system.

Most models in current health care assume there is either too much or not enough NT that is being made. They will either result to synthetic versions of the chemical or chemicals that block the ability of the neuron to use the natural NT. In reality, anything that affects this process can lead to faulty communication in the nervous system. Unfortunately, not many health care models exist that embrace the understanding there are often natural methods that can be applied to help the brain balance this system naturally.

The major NT’s of the brain are epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine and GABA. The main role of GABA is to inhibit or calm down activity in the brain. All other NT’s excite or increase activity in the brain. Each of these NT’s and their receptors are involved in specific functions in the brain and nervous system. For the system to be healthy there has to be perfect amounts of NT released and utilized by the next neuron. The key to this is to have the right amount of stimulation for each neuron. When neurons become under stimulated they become unhealthy and will fatigue very easily. Other factors that have a negative impact on nerve health include inflammation, poor blood sugar and autoimmunity. Hormones are another key player for healthy NT function.

Your Brain on Hormones…

The main job of most hormones in the brain is to influence receptor activity. In fact, hormones are very potent modulators of receptor activity. Much like the temperature of the porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, if there is too much or too little hormone, optimal NT function at the receptor site can be altered. The messages of the nervous system can then become too loud, quiet, or too distorted.

In general the female brain needs more estrogen and the male brain needs more testosterone to stay healthy. Progesterone has also been shown to both calm down inflammation and assist in the repair process after a stroke or head injury has occurred. The role of thyroid hormone should also be considered. Not only does it impact the function of all NT’s, it also impacts the metabolic activity of every single cell in the brain. It is very common to see neurological findings similar to those found in head injuries in patients with thyroid dysfunction.

In men that have hormone imbalances, it is common to see decreased libido, loss of muscle mass and sweating attacks (or hot flashes, yes men can get them too!). Perimenopause women will often notice hot flashes and altering length of their menstrual cycle. Menopausal women will usually suffer from vaginal dryness, itching, pain, decreased bone density and brain fog. In both men and women of any age, hormone imbalances can result in changes in mood and brain function/focus


The Brain and Essential Fatty Acids:

Essential fatty acids (EFA’s) are considered essential because the body cannot make them. Therefore it is necessary to get them from your diet. The brain itself is composed of 60% fat. The types of fat consumed in your diet will determine how healthy the membranes of your neurons are. Diets high in processed foods, vegetable oils and hydrogenated fats lead to nerve membranes that are rigid and unresponsive to stimulus. The two main types of EFA’s are omega 3 and omega 6. Also of importance is the ratio of intake of these two fats. It should not exceed a 1:1 ratio but unfortunately in the American diet, we often consume as much as 25 times more omega 6 than we do omega 3. High ratios of omega 6 are known to cause inflammation.

The three main types of omega 3 are ALA, EPA and DHA. A healthy person can convert ALA to EPA and DHA unless there is a blood sugar issue or some other metabolic problem. ALA is found in walnuts and flax whereas EPA and DHA are found in fish. EPA is important for lowering inflammation and DHA supports healthy membranes in neurons, growth of neurons and improving NT function! Finding fish oil with a 10:1 or even 20:1 DHA to EPA ratio is a beneficial way to support a healthy brain that has suffered injury.

A Healthy Brain = A Healthy Mind & Body!

By now you should be able to recognize some of the elements of a healthy brain and an unhealthy brain. You should also be able to take note that there are many factors that impact brain health. Keep in mind that if you are looking for ways to recover from declining brain function or simply want to optimize the health of your brain that it is very important you add someone trained in functional neurology and function nutrition/medicine to your team of experts. Additional information can be found in Datis Kharrazian’s new book, “Why Isn’t My Brain Working? A revolutionary understanding of brain decline and effective strategies to recover your brain’s health.” Thank you all for tuning in to this three part series. Be on the lookout for future writings that explore these concepts with more depth and remember, YOUR BRAIN HEALTH MATTERS!

Copyright © 2013 Integrated Health Systems. All Rights Reserved. Dr. Shawn VanWinkle is an Associate Doctor at Integrated Health Systems. To learn more about how we can help you with your health goals visit our website at or email us at A free initial consultation can be scheduled by calling our office at 303-781-5617.