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What are Neurotransmitters and How do they Influence the development of Eating Disorders?

June 8, 2009 – 1:58 pm

What are Neurotransmitters and How do they Influence the development of Eating Disorders?

Neurotransmitters are chemicals which facilitate the transmission of signal from one neuron to another. Neurotransmitters are released in synapses (or where the ending of one neuron connects to the endings of another neuron).

There are different types of neurotransmitters. Here we will look at the most important ones.

Acetylcholine:  Acetylcholine is a chemical which are involved in memory, learning and attention. When you learn something and pay attention to it – you stimulate the production of acetylcholine.

To maintain this chemical at a certain level you must keep your brain busy with attention requiring work. Study, read books, create something, solve puzzles, get a job where you can use your brain. Just do something that can stimulate the production of acetylcholine in the brain.

Eating disorder sufferers have often a very low acetylcholine level especially when they give up their studies, job and other productive activities for the sake of their eating disorder. They normally explain this quitting as the inability to concentrate, being too weak and etc.

This all happens because the level of acetylcholine in their brain is low. But they can improve it by exercising their own will, going back to study  and beginning to  learn again and paying attention to something more useful and constructive than their eating disorder.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which produces a sense of well-being calm and satisfaction. Many scientists blame the lack of this chemical for eating disorder problems. Serotonin has a broad function in the brain. It regulates and moderates anger, aggression, body temperature, mood, sleep, human sexuality, appetite, and metabolism, as well as stimulating vomiting.

It is still not clear what exactly happens with serotonin in the brain of eating disorder sufferers, as it is difficult to measure. But we know there are many genetic variations in the serotonin receptors and the serotonin transporters in the brain.
It is most likely that a serotonin abnormality in the brain affects each person differently. Serotonin levels can be increased naturally by taking tryptophan rich foods found in meats and proteins.

Dopamine: Dopamine is a chemical associated with pleasurable activity. It is released when people do naturally rewarding activities like having sex or enjoying food. Some drugs such as nicotine, cocaine and amphetamines can influence the level of dopamine in the brain.

Dopamine is actually the culprit in many addictions such as drugs, food, and sex addictions. Dopamine also has other functions in the brain, including important roles in behaviour and cognition, motor activity, motivation and reward, inhibition of prolactin production which is involved in lactation, sleep, mood, attention, and learning.

Recent research has suggested that dopamine is also released in reward-anticipation activities and when people are motivated to do something. If you have ever wondered why you feel great after doing aerobics or playing sport, this is the brain producing dopamine. Just thinking about doing something pleasurable can produce a chemical ‘reward’ of dopamine being released in your brain.

Enjoyable learning and focusing on something you really like doing will stimulate dopamine production in your brain.
The release of dopamine triggers the desire to eat certain foods. The dopamine does not increase the pleasure of actually eating food but is released when the person sees, smells, thinks or dreams about food. Tasting enjoyable food also provokes the release of dopamine.

Dopamine plays an important role in bulimia and binge eating because these people often dream and think about food. And it is why when a bulimic or binge eater sees food she/he goes on a binge losing all sense of control.

Glutamate –it is believed that glutamate (or glutamic acid) is involved in cognitive functions like learning and memory. Many foods contain glutamate, including cheese, soy sauce, fish, eggs, poultry etc.

GABA is a neurotransmitter which is responsible for muscle tones. GABA regulates the growth embryonic and neural stem cells. Abnormal levels of GABA have been found in people with mood disorders.

Substance P is an important chemical which involves pain perception. It also participates in regulation of mood disorders, anxiety, stress, reinforcement, neurogenesis, nausea and vomiting. The vomiting centre in the brain contains high concentrations of Substance P. Activation of Substance P stimulates vomiting. People who use vomiting as a way of purging have abnormalities in the levels of Substance P.

Conclusion:  Neurotransmitters play an important role in the biochemistry of eating disorders. But… The level of most of these neurotransmitters can be moderated by performing or not-performing certain actions and behaviours. Replacing one behaviour with another can change the level of neurotransmitters in the brain.

Wilful action can produce extraordinary changes in the level of these chemicals.  For instance, if you wilfully stop your binging or purging episodes for at least 2-3 weeks and replace this behaviour with more productive ones, the level of neurotransmitters in your brain will change significantly and can become completely normal again. This works on the use it or lose it principle.

Always remember: your behaviour will change your biology. If you behave better – your biology improves, if you behave worse – your biology becomes worse.

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