Life Extension Magazine®

Running man feeling good from balanced neurotransmitters

Neurotransmitter Testing: A Window to the Brain

Dr. Shanti Albani explains how testing for neurotransmitters, neurotransmitter precursors and metabolites provides a window into the brain and allows individuals to take steps to rebalance their brain chemistry.

Scientifically reviewed by Dr. Gary Gonzalez, MD, in August 2023. Written by: Dr. Shanti Albani, ND, Physician.

Dr. Shanti Albani
Dr. Shanti Albani

People suffering from problems like anxiety, depression, fatigue, and insomnia often struggle to figure out what's behind those issues. But now, Dr. Shanti Albani explains, there's an innovative neurotransmitter test that can identify imbalances in the body and brain that may be to blame—and that can provide you with the next steps to help get back on the path to optimal health.

LE: Back in 2016, Life Extension® made neurotransmitter testing available to our customers. This test was, and has continued to be a popular test. What accounts for the popularity of the Neurotransmitter Panel?

Dr. Albani: Neurotransmitter testing provides insight into imbalances that may be occurring in the body and brain and can shed light on related symptoms. Basic blood work is great for evaluating blood sugar, cholesterol, and organ function, but often turns up little when individuals are trying to determine why they have symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, depression, or poor cognition. Neurotransmitter testing is a window to our brain function that no other testing can provide. Ideally, people would also test their hormones along with their neurotransmitters, since hormones are also key players in mood and energy.

What you need to know

An innovative neurotransmitter test can help identify imbalances in the body and brain that may assist with treating a variety of issues. Find out how neurotransmitter test can provide insights into the inner workings of the brain.

LE: It's fascinating that we can measure neurotransmitters in the urine. Could you explain how this works?

Serotonin Pathway

Dr. Albani: Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that facilitate the transmission of signals from one neuron to the next across a synapse, or from a neuron to target cells such as muscles or glands. They are produced in the brain, but also in other areas of the body. For example, our intestines have a vast neural network and produce neurotransmitters to help coordinate digestion and intestinal motility. The urinary Neurotransmitter Panel provides a measurement of whole-body neurotransmitter production. Studies and clinical experience have also established that the levels measured in urine correlate with both mental and physical symptoms.

LE: You mentioned testing hormones. How are hormones and neurotransmitters related?

Dr. Albani: Both hormones and neurotransmitters powerfully influence mood and energy, so I encourage people to have their hormones and neurotransmitters tested together. Hormones can also influence neurotransmitters, and vice versa. For example, the hormone estrogen can increase activity of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, while the hormone progesterone increases the calming action of the neurotransmitter GABA. For their part, neurotransmitters can influence hormone production via their communication with the pituitary gland in the brain, which in turn controls hormone production.

When functioning properly, neurotransmitters and hormones work in harmony to sustain good mental and physical health. However, alterations in neurotransmitters and hormones can play a significant role in contributing to symptoms such as cognitive disorders, depression, anxiety, diminished drive, fatigue and sleep difficulties, cravings, addictions, and pain.

LE: Once people test their neurotransmitters and identify imbalances, how does this information assist them on the path to health?

Dr. Albani: This is the exciting part! Fortunately, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, hormones, and botanical medicine can be used to rebalance our brain chemistry. Our understanding of neurotransmitters has advanced so much that we know which nutrients are needed as cofactors for the enzymes that create, or break down, each neurotransmitter. Vitamin B6, for instance, is needed for the conversion of the amino acid 5-HTP into serotonin, so individuals who have low serotonin should ensure they are getting enough B6. And since we know that neurotransmitters are created from amino acids, we can use amino acid therapy to support neurotransmitter production in a targeted way. For example, we know that tryptophan is the amino acid precursor to serotonin. Therefore, taking tryptophan supports serotonin production. Our understanding of how hormones and botanical medicines influence brain biochemistry can also help us to balance neurotransmitters.

LE: Have there been any upgrades to the Neurotransmitter Panel?

Dr. Albani: Yes. There's a Basic Neurotransmitter Panel, which tests for nine neurotransmitters: PEA (phenylethylamine), dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, serotonin, glutamate, GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), glycine, and histamine. But we now also offer a Comprehensive Neurotransmitter Panel. The Comprehensive Neurotransmitter Panel tests for the nine neurotransmitters I mentioned, along with the neuroactive amino acid taurine and several neurotransmitter precursors and metabolites, namely, tyrosine, tyramine, DOPAC, 3-MT, normetanephrine, metanephrine, tryptamine, and 5-HIAA.

Neurotransmitter Panel – Comprehensive

Lab testing

LE: What is the advantage of the Comprehensive Neurotransmitter Panel? How does measuring taurine and the additional neurotransmitter precursors and metabolites provide further benefits?

Dr. Albani: The Comprehensive Neurotransmitter Panel provides significantly greater detail on where in the creation or metabolism of our neurotransmitters there may be an imbalance. For example, the Basic Neurotransmitter Panel may identify that an individual has low dopamine. But the Comprehensive Neurotransmitter Panel can help identify if that is because of low levels of the amino acid tyrosine, because of over-activity of the MAO or COMT enzymes (which break down dopamine), or because of some other factor (see dopamine pathway figure on the next page). This level of detail can allow us to be even more targeted with our therapeutic suggestions for neurotransmitter balance.

Ultimately, both neurotransmitter tests are extremely valuable, but the Comprehensive Panel provides more detail for those who want or need it.

LE: Who should have this test done?

Dr. Albani: This test is especially valuable for individuals who have mental and emotional symptoms that evade identification with conventional testing. Some examples of symptoms which can indicate neurotransmitter imbalances are:

  • Depressed mood
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Poor sleep
  • Loss of mental focus
  • Attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention- deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Addiction or dependency
  • Loss of appetite control
  • Compulsive behavior
  • Cravings
  • Low libido
  • Altered pain response
  • Poor mental performance

Many individuals who suffer from these symptoms may compound their health issues by using food, caffeine, chocolate, alcohol, nicotine, medications, and other neuroactive substances to try to obtain relief from their symptoms. When functioning properly, there is a balance between the excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters. Restoring this balance can help individuals enjoy life again and feel less dependent on the substances I just mentioned to maintain daily function.

Neurotransmitter Panel - Comprehensive

LE: If people are interested in testing their neurotransmitters, how should they proceed?

Dr. Albani: Many conventional doctors are not familiar with urinary neurotransmitter testing. Some innovative, forward-thinking physicians may offer the test through specialty labs. For customers who are unable to obtain the test through their doctor, Life Extension has partnered with a lab that uses the gold standard testing method of liquid chromatography combined with tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) to provide neurotransmitter testing.

LE: How is the test collection done?

Dr. Albani: Collection is easy and requires only a single, morning urine sample. The test comes in the form of a home collection kit, so the urine collection is non-invasive and can be done in the comfort of your own home. Once the collection is complete, it is sent to the lab using the pre-paid shipping label provided.

LE: Once someone has the test results, how can they be used to effect health improvements?

Dopamine Pathway

Dr. Albani: All test results come with an explanation of what the results may mean, along with nutrient suggestions to balance neurotransmitters. In addition to the useful information provided with the results, individuals can work directly with their doctors or call to speak with one of our trained Life Extension Wellness Specialists. Our team of wellness specialists can provide individualized suggestions to people for nutrients to balance neurotransmitters, based on their test results and on how they feel. The information they provide also helps people have more detailed conversations with their own doctors.

If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension Wellness Specialist at 1-866-864-3027.

Dr. Shanti Albani obtained her medical degree in Naturopathic Medicine in 2003 from the National University of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon. She practiced medicine for many years in central Mexico specializing in gastrointestinal disorders and hormone balance. During this time, she also owned a nutrition store and taught courses in bioidentical hormone replacement therapy for physicians. She has worked at Life Extension since 2010 and is currently the Manager of Clinical Information.