Influencing Neurotransmitters (And Other Important Brain Molecules) Part 1: Acetylcholine
Why should we care about neurotransmitters?
Neurotransmitters are tiny molecules that can be either produced in our bodies or ingested, inhaled, or absorbed by some other means. These molecules relay nerve signals via a network of neurons which coordinate biological functions to numerous organs, bodily tissues, and neuromuscular junctions. These molecules are involved in almost every process that takes place in the human body. Neurotransmitters are responsible for the body’s inflammatory and immune responses. They are also responsible for feelings of repulsion, reward, elation, depression, etc., and are essential in regulation of sleep, memory, heart-rate, and breathing. Most of these molecules are unconsciously controlled by the autonomic nervous system; however, some can be influenced by conscious actions including breathing exercises, physical exercise, meditation, and healthful diet. When in balance, these factors have the potential to impact the brain for the better by allowing bodily systems to function properly. A practical understanding of various neurotransmitters, what influences them, and their effects on the brain and body has the potential to help many people living with diseases, disorders, and dysfunctions. It has been this understanding that has propelled me into a healthful and mindful lifestyle in aim of balancing my own brain chemistry. In my pursuit of information, I have come to believe there is the potential to take conscious control of certain autonomic processes in the body to create balanced neurochemistry and in turn, optimally functioning bodily systems. It is with this new perspective I have chosen to undertake the exciting task of writing this series detailing some of the more thoroughly researched brain molecules and how they can be influenced by thoughtful, conscious actions.
What is Acetylcholine (ACh)?
Acetylcholine (ACh) is the first neurotransmitter to be discovered and researched. It specifically plays a role in memory formation, learning, focus, attention, and muscle contraction and relaxation. It is the only neurotransmitter involved in the Somatic Nervous System, which is the system involved in our conscious muscular movements; and one of a collection of molecules that play a role in our Autonomic Nervous System, responsible for controlling our heart rate, breathing, etc (Williams College Neuroscience, 1998). Lowered levels of ACh can result in creative block, anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, and other similar symptoms, while balanced or slightly elevated levels of ACh work conversely to ease many of these symptoms (Blesching, 2015). Acetylcholine, although well understood, could potentially play roles in many diseases that are still being researched.
What types of factors influence Acetylcholine?
A wide host of factors can cause changes in neurotransmitters. For example, toxins such as botulism prevent the release of ACh, eventually locking up respiratory muscles and causing suffocation (Myers, 2006). Some types of toxins, such as black widow spider venom have the opposite effect, causing blockage by overflowing the synapses with ACh and other neurotransmitters. There are even similarly shaped molecules, such as nicotine, that can alter ACh levels by attaching to the same receptors and producing similar effects. Nicotine, however, also increases dopamine levels, which is responsible for feelings of pleasure and also the addictive nature of nicotine and many other drugs (“How Does Nicotine Act in the Brain?”, 2017).
However, aside from some of the more deadly and dangerous factors associated with changes in ACh, there are ways to influence your own ACh levels beneficially and naturally. In fact, learning new vocabulary words daily and using them in conversation is one very easy method. Another method involves exercising your memory with brain games like crossword puzzles and riddles (Blesching, 2015). Additionally, it is important to consume foods containing choline, one of the precursors to ACh. According to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, the richest sources are beef liver and hard boiled eggs, while smaller amounts can be found in a wide variety of other foods (see chart).
Another, perhaps more challenging, method of balancing ACh is meditation. Meditation is a process by which the participant actively suppresses the activity of the left hemisphere and allows the right hemisphere to take a more prominent place in cognitive processing. In most people, the right hemisphere is going to be more active when engaging in activities like listening to music, or imagining a three-dimensional shape, or using your left hand for a task instead of your right. Conversely, the left hemisphere is usually responsible for analyzing mathematical concepts, or thinking logically about how you are going to solve a problem. During meditation, levels of serotonin and glutamate become elevated. This in turn causes stimulation to the nucleus basalis, which is responsible for releasing ACh (Newberg, 2003). It is this release that has been shown to enhance attention and orienting, two notable symptoms of meditation. For many, meditation is a prescription and a preventative and has been shown to be beneficial to one’s mental and physical state; this can also be said of another well-known ACh booster. Cannabis can be eaten, smoked, absorbed sublingually in a tincture, or applied topically in a lotion or balm, which makes it a very versatile herb for creating neurochemical balance. Cannabis, and its multifarious cannabinoids and terpenes, has been shown to influence a number of neurotransmitters, including ACh (Blesching, 2015). By inhibiting the agent that breaks down ACh, Acetylcholinesterase, THC and other cannabinoids that activate CB1 receptors allow ACh more time to be absorbed (Eubanks, et al., 2006). As mentioned before, cannabis does not only influence ACh. It also influences multitudinous systems, tissues, and other brain molecules. One of these molecules is an endocannabinoid (cannabinoid produced in the body) called Anandamide. This molecule, also commonly known as “The bliss molecule”, will be further examined in Part 2.
Written by Sara K
Front Office - Health For Life North Mesa
Contributing editor Christian B
Patient Consultant - Health For Life North
“Acetylcholine: A Representative Small Molecule Neurotransmitter.” Williams College Neuroscience, 1998, web.williams.edu/imput/synapse/pages/IA1.htm. Accessed 24 Sept. 2017.
Blesching, Uwe. The cannabis health index: combining the science of medical marijuana with mindfulness techniques to heal 100 chronic symptoms and diseases. Berkeley, CA, North Atlantic Books, 2015.
Eubanks, L. M., Rogers, C. J., Beuscher, A. E., Koob, G. F., Olson, A. J., Dickerson, T. J., & Janda, K. D. (2006). A Molecular Link Between the Active Component of Marijuana and Alzheimer’s Disease Pathology. Molecular Pharmaceutics, 3(6), 773–777. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2562334/.
“How Does Nicotine Act in the Brain?” NIDA for Teens, National Institute of Heath, 16 Sept. 2017, teens.drugabuse.gov/teachers/mind-over-matter/nicotine/how-does-nicotine-act-brain. Accessed 24 Sept. 2017.
Myers, C. E. (2006). Memory Loss and the Brain. Retrieved September 24, 2017, from http://www.memorylossonline.com/glossary/acetylcholine.html
Newberg, A.b, and J Iversen. “The neural basis of the complex mental task of meditation: neurotransmitter and neurochemical considerations.” Medical Hypotheses, vol. 61, no. 2, 2003, pp. 282–291., doi:10.1016/s0306-9877(03)00175-0.
“Office of Dietary Supplements - Choline.” NIH Office of Dietary Supplements, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Choline-HealthProfessional/. Accessed 24 Sept. 2017.