THE ISLAND SYNDROME
Part 1: Understanding the Island Syndrome
(August 12, 2010)
Neurotransmitters are molecules used within the nervous system to bridge the gap between cells, thereby creating inter-cellular connections. When the supply of a specific neurotransmitter is changed or disrupted, the related cell-to-cell messaging system is affected. Depending on the situation, the symptoms can range from subtle (coffee) to catastrophic (nerve gas). For our purposes, the most important neurotransmitters are the ones that are active within our brain, because they are the chemicals that most affect our moods, our feelings, and our thoughts.
There are four main families of neurotransmitters to consider: serotonin, the catecholamines, GABA, and the endorphins. When any of these are in short supply, we suffer from a variety of symptoms, both mental and physical. What is fascinating is that many of these symptoms dovetail nicely with the observed characteristics of the Island Syndrome. To understand the importance of these chemicals, consider the following summary (based on principles discussed in the book The Mood Cure by psychologist Julia Ross):
• When our serotonin levels are high, we feel positive, confident, flexible, and easy-going. When serotonin is low, we feel negative, obsessive, worried, irritable, and have trouble sleeping.
• When our catecholamines (dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine) are high, we feel energized, upbeat, and alert. When catecholamines are low, we feel lethargic, flat, sometimes to the point of "crashing".
• When GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is high, we are relaxed and stress-free. When GABA is low, we are wired, stressed, and overwhelmed.
• When endorphins are high, we feel comfortable, resilient, even euphoric. When endorphins are low, we feel uncomfortable and overly sensitive.
Are you starting to see Dave somewhere in this picture? Perhaps these descriptions remind you of yourself or of people you know.
To be mentally healthy and resilient, we need to ensure that our brains are well-stocked with the right raw materials.
In order to manufacture adequate amounts of neurotransmitters, our bodies require abundant supplies of certain nutrients. We need specific amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. For example, to make serotonin, we need an amino acid called tryptophan; to make the catecholamines, we need the amino acid tyrosine.
Thus, to be mentally healthy and resilient, we need to ensure that our brains are well-stocked with the right raw materials. At the same time, it helps to minimize the consumption of foods, stimulants, and intoxicants that tend to deplete our nutritional stores. Into this category fall, not only the so-called "comfort foods" (especially sugar and refined carbohydrates), but coffee, cola drinks, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and a variety prescription drugs.
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