As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is becoming apparent that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of the impact the pandemic has had on our health. For example, a recent study has suggested that up to 740,000 potential cancer cases have gone undiagnosed as a result of the pandemic and the British Medical Journal’s has published findings that show COVID-19 has significantly worsened the obesity epidemic in the UK
But what about our mental health? It will come as a surprise to none that the pandemic caused widespread anxiety and isolation in the UK, with young people being hit the hardest. The mental health charity Mind reports that 9 in 10 young people reported worse mental health as a result of the pandemic. Further studies of mental health have also shown a 20% increase in under 18s seeking emergency mental health care.
It seems that the UK mental health crisis is reaching an unprecedented level.
In this blog, we will be delving into the brain to better understand the surprising chemistry of your mental health.
The common disorders
Some of the most common mental health disorders, and those most often referred to by the term ‘mental health’, are anxiety and depression. Symptoms vary between individuals but are generally categorised in the following way:
Anxiety is what we feel when we are worried, tense or afraid – particularly about things that are about to happen, or which we think could happen in the future.
Depression is a low mood that lasts for a long time and affects your everyday life.
In most individuals, the root cause of either condition is generally unknown. Nevertheless, environmental and situational factors such as loneliness, money worries and bereavement can often act as a trigger for these conditions. Humans are not built equal, however: researchers and medical professionals have recently identified certain brain structures that leave individuals more susceptible to developing mental health conditions.
What are neurotransmitters?
Before we talk about the chemistry, we need to understand what neurotransmitters are and why they are so important in our brain. Every human body contains a nervous system, a vast network of 7 trillion nerves stretching from your brain to your toes, controlling your movement and balance. Inside each of these nerves, we have a collection of neurons, sometimes called nerve cells. Neurons can be thought of as our body’s communication network, passing messages to each other across your entire body. The messages that neurons carry are actually chemicals called neurotransmitters.
The messages your neurons send can be broken into three categories: excitatory, inhibitory and modulatory.
- Excitatory neurotransmitters generate a signal in the next neuron and can be thought of as a fire spreading through the chain of neurons.
A great example of these neurotransmitters is adrenaline. Adrenaline is an electrical signal that triggers your flight or fight response, causing your body to be on high alert.
- Inhibitory neurotransmitters block signals in the next neuron and, to use the fire analogy, cause all neurons in the chain to put up firewalls, blocking the fire from spreading.
You can see this in action after a long run when neurotransmitters called endorphins are generated. These neurotransmitters cause your neurons to block pain signals giving you a ‘runner’s high’.
- Modulatory neurotransmitters are a little different and don’t just affect the chain of neurons, but rather all neurons. By regulating the messages neurons are receiving, these neurotransmitters allow us to relax or can cause us to feel stress.
Serotonin is a good example of a modulatory neurotransmitter. It helps us feel happier and aids restful sleep.
Do they have chemistry?
In recent years, researchers have begun to observe that too little or too much of certain neurotransmitters can cause depression and anxiety in individuals. A lack of serotonin and dopamine, the ‘feel good’ and ‘reward’’ hormones, has long been attributed to depression, but recently, has also been linked to anxiety. When we lack these regulatory hormones, we feel higher levels of stress and anxiety, as these impulses are not being regulated by those neurotransmitters.
Sometimes it is not quite as simple as lacking neurotransmitters; adrenaline, for example, is actually far more complicated. Too much adrenaline causes our fight or flight to be overstimulated, leaving us in a permanently anxious state, while too little is thought to cause depression.
Researchers still have a long way to go in understanding neurotransmitters and are continually surprised by new findings. We know very little about some of the most intriguing neurotransmitters; a good example of this is GABA, which is another neurotransmitter linked to both depression and anxiety. Scientists are still very unsure about the precise mechanism and how this affects brain function.
How is my mind made up?
So, what causes differing levels of neurotransmitters, and why do some people seem more susceptible to mental health disorders? Current research suggests that the leading cause of neurotransmitter disparity is individual biology. Some scientists have theorised that this could be a reason for familial mental health disorders, with the irregular neurotransmitter levels being inherited between generations. Fluctuating hormones, for example during the menstrual cycle or menopause, and high stress, like the kind experienced in a pandemic, can also be triggers for anxiety and depression.
It is important to reinforce that in many cases, depression and anxiety have no distinguishable root and instead may be an accumulation of things, including but not limited to neurotransmitter levels.
Head in the clouds, eyes on the future
Thankfully, even for those suffering from neurotransmitter imbalances, there are a range of ways to conquer your mental health.
One of the most tried and tested methods of relieving mental health symptoms is talk therapy and other conventional therapies. Other steps you can take to overcome neurotransmitter imbalances include exercise, which naturally increases the level of endorphins to help stabilise your mood. These methods have been shown to increase the natural flow of serotonin, helping to regulate mood and anxiety. Stress management can also be used to increase the level of some neurotransmitters and reduce adrenaline production.
The future is looking bright for improving mental health care. As researchers learn more about the role neurotransmitters play in our mental health, they continue to pave the way toward more effective treatments and therapies for people with these conditions.
While this detailed look at neurotransmitters might feel a little alien, the important takeaway message is that feelings of depression and anxiety are never your fault. Although talking about your problems may not seem helpful at the time, the chemistry of neurotransmitters proves that talking is a scientific way to feel better.
Flo Sinkinson is a scientific writer at Notch Communications, with previous experience in scientific publishing. Flo holds a first degree in Chemistry from the University of Southampton, where she concentrated her studies on quantum and biological chemistry.
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