Sunday, October 26, 2014

What's a Neurotransmitter Anyway?

by Glen Depke, Traditional Naturopath

I am sure that you've heard of neurotransmitters but this is a likelihood that this are some missing pieces to understanding these in a simple yet productive manner.

To understand neurotransmitters let's first understand neurons. Neurons are actually the most significant players in the brain and they are cells that utilize electrical charges to transmit information and they are the worker bees of the nervous system. Neurons are composed of the soma, dendrites and an axon. To understand this simply:
  • The soma is the hub of the neuron and this contains the nucleus which is the control center
  • Dendrites are extensions of the neuron that are similar to branches of a tree that receives input from other neurons
  • The axon is the projection that sends signals to other neurons or cells
So in essence every neuron is a one way street with information entering in through the dendrites and exiting through the axons. When you have healthy and active neurons these electrical charges are occurring on a regular basis throughout your life.

Your neurons communicate by discharging a small messenger called a neurotransmitter which in turn is received by another target neuron. A neurotransmitter is a chemical messenger that carries, boosts and modulates signals between neurons and other cells in the body. In most cases, a neurotransmitter is released from the axon terminal after an action potential has reached the synapse. The neurotransmitter then crosses the synaptic gap to reach the receptor site of the other cell or neuron. Then, in a process known as reuptake, the neurotransmitter attaches to the receptor site and is reabsorbed by the neuron.

Neurotransmitters play a major role in everyday life and functioning. Scientists do not yet know exactly how many neurotransmitters exist, but more than 100 chemical messengers have been identified.

While there are so many neurotransmitters to concern, here at Depke Wellness be are mainly looking at four neurotransmitters and for a very important reason. These four neurotransmitters are serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine and GABA. The reason we focus on these particular neurotransmitters is due to the fact that when these are balanced it is typically recognized that the other neurotransmitters will balance also. Even a step further, one of my mentors for years, Dr Danial Kalish, shared that if you can balance serotonin and dopamine the rest will fall into line. Dr Kalish is a wealth of knowledge in the area of neurotransmitters and more with his book "The Kalish Method: Healing the Body, Mapping the Mind." Another significant mentor of mine in functional health and specifically brain health is Dr Datis Kharrazian and I will share that his book, "Why Isn't my Brain Working" is my personal encyclopedia for brain health. For anyone that is interested in understanding this area with a very deep level of comprehension, these books will definitely provide this for you.

In studying Dr Kharrazian's work, I recognized the need to look at the four neurotransmitters listed in the paragraph above. Taking this a bit further, let's place these neurotransmitters into some necessary categories as either excitatory or inhibitory type neurotransmitters. Of the four mentioned already dopamine, serotinin and acetylcholine are excitatory and GABA is inhibitory. Let's look at them individually.
  • Serotonin is your happy neurotransmitter that is commonly associated with feeling calm or relaxed even though it is an excitatory neurotransmitter.
  • Dopamine is the pleasure and reward neurotransmitter which is produced on large amounts when you fall in love or first engage in some type of addictive behavior such as smoking, amphetamine use or gambling. This is also an excitatory neurotransmitter.
  • Another excitatory neurotransmitter is acetylcholine, which is your learning and memory neurotransmitter.
  • The inhibibtory neurotransmitter is GABA or gamma-amminobutyric acid, which is known as the anti-anxiety neurotransmitter.
There is also a key note to make and that is that even though an excitatory neurotransmitter such as dopamine is always excitatory and GABA is always inhibitory, they can still have an opposite effect depending on the neuron pathways of which they synapse. In a very basic definition, the synapse is the complete process of communication between neurons.

Let's also look into the comment above a bit deeper. So an excitatory neurotransmitter does not always excite and an inhibitory neurotransmitter does not always does not always inhibit or relax? I know it sounds confusing but this is why neurology and neurotransmitters are not as easy as many would have you believe.

Another key factor in neurotransmitters is tied into what is referred to as the neurons resting potential. When a neuron is at rest, which is not often, it has a resting potential that will basically tell you how much stimulation is needed to make that neuron fire. If a neuron's resting potential is close, very little input is needed to fire but if the potential is far, then a higher input is needed to fire. And in the neuron world, it is all or nothing. If a neuron if far from its threshold it may never get enough stimulation to fire or if your potential is close the neurons fire to easily and are touchy. An example of a far potential is someone that has to turn up the volume on their TV because the neurons responsible for sound are far from the threshold, thus lessening the ability to hear properly . An example of a close potential is tinnitus, you know, that annoying ringing in your ears for many. This is due to a potential that is too close and easily overstimulated. Another example of could be someone that overreacts to certain aromas such as perfume, paint, new carpet, ect.. This close potential can lead to migraines, fatigue and many other symptoms in the body.

The main point to make her is that both the close and far potentials are challenges because they are both symptoms of a degenerating brain.

So what is a person to do if their neurotransmitter function is off? First off we'll look at the common challenges as listed below:
  • Poor blood flow to the brain
  • Poor blood flow leading to poor oxygen and nutrition levels to the brain
  • Poor blood sugar stability
  • Too close or far of potentials
  • Poor adrenal function
  • Chronic high levels of stress
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Food sensitivity 
  • Lack of brain stimulation
Taking care of these areas first is always a key when addressing neurotransmitter imbalances. For those that have followed Depke Wellness for some time, you will recognize that these are all consistent focuses of ours on a regular basis.

I have a special gift for you today also. Below I have a link for the new client forms for the Depke Wellness new clients and one of these forms is a complimentary neurotransmitter assessment. Click on this assessment and complete at your convenience. Pay special attention to sections where you have more than half of your responses as 2's or 3's. If you want our opinion on these assessments feel free to email them to and we will provide our input for you. This is our gift to you!

Hopefully today you have learned a bit about neurotransmitters, neurons and resting potential. Remember to email your neurotransmitter assessment to the Depke Wellness team if you have any questions. I have also attached an invite below to a complimentary workshop for the Orange County Alzheimer's Association. If you are in the SoCal area and are looking for information on Alzheimer's, dementia or brain disorders, this is a must attend event.

If you have any comments or questions, feel free to leave these below and we will respond personally. Thank you!



  1. Does this have anything to do with the vagus nerve? I had my gallbladder out over a year ago, and have had major issues since then. I was told my vagus nerve was damaged during surgery. I have yet to find any resources or help from western docs on this, and am basically on my own trying to heal myself. thanks

    1. Yes it does Donna. The Vagus nerve will attach at the base of the brain stem and is basically and extension of your brain. If there is brain degeneration, neurotransmitter dysfunction or damage to the Vagus nerve, this can lead to challlenges in any area of the gastro intestinal tract. I include liver, gall bladder and pancreas in this grouping. I would suggest taking the neurotransmitter assessment on my website and forwarding this to me at

    2. The link at the bottom is to the assessment.