What is a chemical imbalance in the brain?
Chemical imbalances occur in the brain when a person has either too little or too much of a certain neurotransmitter.
Neurotransmitters include serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine which people will sometimes refer to as the “happy hormones” due to the role they have in regulating mode and emotions.
One of the most popular hypotheses in mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety and mood disorders, is that they develop as a result of chemical imbalances in the brain.
While this theory may be the main contributor to some individual’s mental health issues, it also runs the risk of oversimplifying mental health illnesses. In reality, mood disorders and depression are much more complex than that, with over 46.6 million adults living with a mental illness in the United States alone.
In this post, we will cover what conditions may contribute to chemical imbalances as well as the types of depression that exist. We will also cover myths and treatment options that are currently available.
One of the biggest myths surrounding chemical imbalances is that they are solely to blame for mental health conditions.
Chemical imbalances do seem to be associated with mood disorders and mental illness, but researchers have yet to be able to prove that chemical imbalances are the initial cause of these conditions.
Factors that may contribute to mental health conditions:
- genetics/family history
- illicit drug use, including Alcohol
- life experiences such as the history of abuse
Some of these studies have found links between specific chemical imbalances and a specific mental health condition, researches do not know how or why people develop the chemical imbalance in the first place.
Our current technology cannot reliably verify a mental health condition via biological testing. Therefore, doctors do not diagnose mental health conditions by testing for chemical imbalances in the brain. Instead, they will diagnose conditions based on a person’s symptoms.
Research has shown these mental health conditions could be contributed to imbalances:
Depression, also known as clinical depression, is considered a mood disorder and can range wildly in severity, from mild to severe and nonstop depression. This more severe type of depression is clinically known as major depression or major depressive disorder.
Some research has linked depression to chemical imbalances. Scientists argue that the majority of the doctors are not looking at the whole picture.
In this study, researchers focus on how if depression was only caused by chemical imbalances. IF this was the case, prescription medications, such as serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) should work fast and efficiently. With most forms of depression, this is unfortunately not the case.
Symptoms of depression may vary widely, some of these symptoms include:
- loss of interest hobbies or activities that are normally enjoyed
- troubles concentrating, indecisiveness and memory issues
- constant feelings of sadness, hopelessness or anxiety
- anger, restlessness or hyperactivity
- Inability to sleep or sleeping too much
- weight & appetite changes
- physical aches, cramps, or digestive problems
- suicidal thoughts
Depression can develop at any age, but most people start seeing symptoms within their teenage years to early 20s. Studies also find that women are more susceptible to develop depression than men1Prevalence of Depression Among Adults Aged 20 and Over: United States, 2013–2016.
Types of depression:
- seasonal affective disorder or SAD
- persistent depressive disorder
- major depressive disorder or MDD
- postpartum depression
- psychotic depression
Dramatic hormonal changes can be a huge cause of depression and are the main cause in post postpartum depression. After a woman gives birth, their risk of postpartum depression increases due to the fluctuation in hormones. The National Institute of Mental health estimates 10-15% of women experience postpartum depression.
Bipolar disorder is considered a mood disorder that includes periods of mania and depression. These periods can last from two days to over two years.
So what is mania? Mania means what you have abnormally high energy and sometimes a euphoric type of mood.
Some mania characteristics include:
- high levels of energy
- leaving tasks unfinished
- talking fast
- engaging in conflict with others
- risky behavior, like gambling or drinking excessive amounts of alcohol
- elation or euphoria
- agitation or being irritable
- multitasking or working on several activities at once
Some severe episodes of depression or mania may even cause delusions or hallucinations. These symptoms usually mirror a person’s mood.
Individuals living with bipolar disorder will see a distinct change in mood and levels of energy. Many will also see an increased risk of substance abuse and will be more likely to develop medical conditions such as:
- obesity or excessive weight loss
- thyroid disease
- heart disease
Researchers still do not know the exact cause of bipolar disorder but believe that it has to do with changes in dopamine receptors2The dopamine hypothesis of bipolar affective disorder: the state of the art and implications for treatment. This results in the levels of dopamine in the brain which causes similar symptoms to that of bipolar disorder.
Anxiety is a normal response to any stressful situations, work-related issues, or significant life changes.
People who have an anxiety disorder often experience constant anxiety or excessive worrying. This baseline worrying will worsen their response to actual stressful situations.
In a 2015 article, the authors provided evidence that suggests that gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), may play a huge role in many anxiety disorders.
GABA is a crucial neurotransmitter in the brain, that reduces neuronal activity in the amygdala. The amygdala is what stores and handles emotional information.
Other neurotransmitters may have an effect on anxiety, those include:
There are a handful of medications that can be prescribed for chemical imbalances. The most popular class if medications are called psychotropics. Psychotropics can alter and possibly balance the neurotransmitters in the brain.
These drugs can be prescribed to treat a range of mental illnesses including Bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety.
Psychotropic drugs include:
- Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs): amitriptyline (Elavil), desipramine (Norpramin), and nortriptyline (Pamelor).
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs): fluoxetine (Prozac), citalopram (Celexa), and sertraline (Zoloft).
- Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs): venlafaxine (Effexor XR), duloxetine (Cymbalta), and desvenlafaxine (Pristiq).
- Benzodiazepines: clonazepam (Klonopin) and lorazepam (Ativan).
According to research published in 2017, antidepressants had improved depression symptoms in an estimated 40-60% of individuals, within 6-8 weeks.
Normally individuals will see depression symptoms reduce within a few weeks, but it can vary from a few weeks to a couple of months.
Depending on the psychotropic, you can see different side effects and these risks can differ from person to person.
Some side effects of Psychotropic medications include:
- dry mouth
- worsening symptoms
- suicidal thoughts
- Loss of sexual interest and decreased libido
- Weight gain
- Disinterest in hobbies/activities
When should you see a doctor?
It’s normal to experience anxiety and mood changes. Everyone will see this throughout their life as things change and they age.
Although, individuals may want to think about speaking with a mental health professional if they see physical, emotional or cognitive symptoms every day for more than 2 weeks.
Mental health is complicated and multifaceted, and various elements can impact an individual’s psychological well-being.
Despite the fact that chemical imbalances within the brain might not exclusively cause mental health disorders, medicines that impact the density of neurotransmitters may possibly offer symptom alleviation.
People who suffer from symptoms and signs of a mental health problem in excess of 2 weeks may decide to speak to a physician.