“There’s no joy in my life.”
“I just feel… flat.”
“I don’t have the zest I used to have.”
Any of that sound familiar? You’re not depressed, and you’re not anxious, you just feel sort of “blah?” If that’s you, you may be deficient in the collection of excitatory neurotransmitters in the brain called the catecholamines: dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine.
Dopamine: The Pleasure Center
Dopamine has different jobs depending on which part of the brain we’re talking about. In some cases, too much dopamine can mean a certain brand of anxiety. But dopamine is also the currency in the part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, associated with pleasure and reward. Too little dopamine = lack of excitement.
Norepinephrine and Epinephrine (Adrenaline): Energy and Drive
You know how you feel when you drink your coffee (or alternative caffeine stimulant?) Indirectly, that pick-me-up is due to the release of adrenaline. Too much unopposed adrenaline will certainly wear out your adrenals, but you want to have some of it in order to contribute to your sense of vim and vigor.
How You Get Depleted
- Stress. Your catecholamines can bottom out as a result of too much stress, just like your cortisol levels. If you’re in this category, you might find that you’ve got emergency reserves (like when you’re working against a deadline, or you see an oncoming truck headed your way)… but beyond that, you’re only half alive.
- Eating Crappy. The precursors for your catecholamines are two amino acids: phenylalanine and tyrosine. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, so you get them by eating animal protein. (You can get some from vegetarian sources, but only about 17-40% by comparison.) If you aren’t eating enough protein with the right components in it, you can’t make those neurotransmitters. Worse, if you’re eating a diet high in sugar and white carbs, you’re forcing your body to pump out a corresponding amount of insulin… which means the sugar and the amino acids leave the bloodstream and enter the cells together. This means they do your brain no good.
- Not exercising. Exercise is a form of stress, and it does force the body to release adrenaline. This is definitely a good thing, as long as you’re not already in adrenal fatigue.
- Hypothyroidism. Thyroid hormone is basically a tyrosine (the amino acid precursor of your catecholamines) with some iodines attached to it (either three or four, depending on which hormone it is). So one potential issue may be scarcity (if you can only make thyroid or catecholamines, who’s going to win?). But since thyroid is also responsible for metabolism and production, thyroid hormone is a necessary trigger to produce catecholamines in the brain as well. Either way, you wind up with not enough.
What You Do About It
The quick rescue approach is to supplement your catecholamine stores with their precursors: tyrosine, or phenylalanine (which is one step higher on the biochemical pathway). A good dose of phenylalanine or tyrosine is 500 mg three times daily, but no later than 3 pm (since it can be somewhat stimulating). Note: unless you have supervision, do not take L-Tyrosine if you have manic-depression, Hashimoto’s, hyperthyroidism, or melanoma, and don’t take phenylalanine if you have the previous conditions or phenylketonuria.
How’s your thyroid? If you haven’t had a full thyroid blood panel done, put that on your to-do list.
Make sure you’re eating a protein-rich diet following these guidelines:
- Choose foods that will spoil, and eat them before they do. Foods without a lot of preservatives most likely haven’t been processed very much.
- If you must choose something that has been pre-packaged, read labels. If there are any added sugars, High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), or ingredients you don’t recognize on the list, don’t eat it.
- Eat a rainbow. Get as many naturally occurring colors in there as you can. This will most likely cause you to consume the daily recommended servings of fruits and vegetables without even trying.
- Have some protein with every meal, including every snack. This will help to keep blood sugar stable. Protein doesn’t necessarily mean meat; there are lots of forms, including beans, soy, yogurt, cheese, nuts, quinoa, etc. When you do choose animal-based proteins, go for organic if you can (WAY less toxic). When you can’t, choose mostly plant-based proteins. On that note…
- If organic food is available and affordable, buy it. Organic animal products are produced from animals fed a natural diet, and therefore the products they produce contain the proper, anti-inflammatory balance of fats (higher omega 3 and lower omega 6). Additionally, organic foods in general are prepared without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or preservatives. For a list of those fruits and veggies that should be purchased organically (the “Dirty Dozen”) and those for which organic is less important (the “Clean 15”), see this list by the Environmental Working Group.
- Drink at least half your body weight in ounces of water every day. If you have a choice, make sure you water is also as free from contaminants as you can get.
Finally, pay attention to how you’re thinking. Thoughts certainly have an effect on our hormones and our neurotransmitters, as well as the other way around. If you believe your thoughts are playing a role in your moods, it’s time to reprogram them.
For more on this topic, I recommend “The Mood Cure” by Julia Ross.