What Are Neurotransmitters?

What Are Neurotransmitters?

Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD

Whether you're learning a new language, going for a walk with your pooch, or reading this article, billions of neurotransmitters are constantly working to relay signals between your nerve cells (neurons) and other cells throughout your body about the world around you. In other words, neurotransmitters are how your neurons "talk" to one another, helping you interpret and interact with the outside world.

But what exactly are these chemical messengers and why are they so important? Here's everything you need to know.

Neurotransmitters definition

Woman playing guitar to stimulate neurons

Your brain is a collection of nerve cells or neurons that relay and receive signals to and from the body; neurotransmitters are the language with which your brain cells communicate with one another and other cells.

So much back-and-forth between neurons might sound like a lot of work, but our conscious minds aren't aware of it; we simply reach for our glasses, prepare for bed, or enjoy family time around a home-cooked meal.

Meanwhile, those neurotransmitters are keeping things moving behind the scenes!

What do neurotransmitters do?

Woman with a finger on her chin thinking

If you think neurotransmitters are involved when you're playing the piano or decide to take on a 1000-word essay, you're correct! Neurotransmitters participate in learning, memorizing, planning and reasoning.

But your brain also uses neurotransmitters to support many biological functions that keep you healthy.

  • Breathing

  • Heart rate

  • Sleep cycles

  • Digestion

  • Concentration

  • Mood

  • Appetite

  • Muscle movement

How do neurotransmitters work?

Older woman excercising on the floor

Whether they're impacting how you think or how you blink, neurotransmitters are released by neurons that receive electrical stimulus (known as action potentials). Upon being released, neurotransmitters attach themselves to the receptors on neurons or cells, kind of like two puzzle pieces fitting together. Once they've attached to the receptors, the neurotransmitters can begin to relay their message.

So, what do those neurotransmitters have to "say"? Depending upon what kind of neurotransmitter it is, the message might be excitatory ("let's do this!"), inhibitory ("stop!") or modulatory, a more complicated message that triggers additional neurotransmitters or other processes. The result? The neurotransmitter tells you to scratch your arm, hold your breath when you pass something stinky, or have a witty comeback when talking with your friends.

What are the different neurotransmitters?

Woman using a tablet and influances different neurotransmitters

Of the more than 100 different neurotransmitters that have been identified, the following are the most significant neurotransmitters, which influence how we think, feel and behave, every single day.

1. Dopamine

This chemical messenger is well-known for its role in how we experience pleasure. Eager anticipation of a delicious meal, having sex, and getting positive comments on social media all involve the release of dopamine in specific areas of your brain. It's also essential to how you think, plan and focus.

2. Serotonin

Involved in digesting food, sexual health, bone metabolism. Serotonin is responsible for processing emotions. It's also a precursor for melatonin, so it's associated with that "sleepy" feeling we get when it's bedtime.

3. GABA

The neurotransmitter GABA is associated with that calming effect that slows us down; without GABA, we'd "stay on" all the time. It's the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain.

4. Glutamate

The brain uses glutamate to support pathways and connections between neurons, reinforcing learning and memory. It's the main excitatory neurotransmitter.

5. Oxytocin

You may know it as the "love hormone," but this peptide is responsible for a lot more. It's associated with contractions during childbirth, breastfeeding, and forming that mother-child bond. Oxytocin isn't just for moms, though! It's been shown to help the brain form strong connections of loyalty and trust.

6. Histamine

This neurotransmitter is associated with your metabolism, temperature control, hormone balance, and the sleep/wake cycle.

7. Epinephrine

This chemical messenger plays a vital role in your "fight or flight" response. You know it as adrenaline. It acts as both a neurotransmitter (in the brain) and a hormone (throughout your body).

8. Norepinephrine

The function of different organs in the body depends upon norepinephrine, which supports already-healthy blood pressure, heart rate, liver function (and more).

9. Acetylcholine

Acts as an excitatory or inhibitory neurotransmitter, and triggers muscle contractions, heartbeat, and stimulates secretion of some hormones.

Where are neurotransmitters stored?

Key features of a cholinergic synapse

Your neurons store these chemical messengers in small sac-like containers called vesicles. When neurons are ready to communicate, they trigger their vesicles to release their contents (they are packed with neurotransmitters). It's like opening the lid to a puzzle box and pouring the pieces onto a table.

Do neurotransmitters die?

So, what happens to neurotransmitters once they've fulfilled their role and are no longer needed? Their activity stops in several different ways.

  1. The neurotransmitter can drift out of the synaptic cleft or away from the receptor.
  2. An enzyme in the synaptic cleft will break it down into its components so they can be recycled and make more neurotransmitters.
  3. The neuron that released the neurotransmitters will reabsorb and recycle them.

Why it’s important to maintain healthy neurotransmitter activity

Happy woman sitting on the floor and enjoying a healthy drink

Since neurotransmitters play such a vital role in everything we do, it's important to follow a lifestyle that keeps these messengers in tip-top shape. Let's face it: without adequate levels of the "feel good" neurotransmitters, we wouldn't, well, feel very good! Caring for your brain cells and their health is really the same thing as caring for your entire body; after all, what's good for the brain is good for your gut (and the rest of your body, really).

It's never too early to be proactive about keeping your brain sharp. Eating nutrient-rich foods that support cognitive health, staying active, and getting restful sleep are all the cornerstones of staying young at heart (and mind) and maintaining healthy neurotransmitters.

And having a strategic brain supplement plan also goes a long way. Adding pregnenolone and nootropics, for example, has been shown to positively impact mood, memory, and sleep.

 

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