Hypothalamus and Pituitary, Neurotransmitters, Acetylcholine, Dopamine, GABA, and Serotonin


How can you optimize brain function?  Seems to be a pretty popular question these days.  Maybe you are experiencing (or know someone who is) gaps or lapses in memory?  Or maybe you know someone with dementia?  This Brain Health Series will discuss how brain health is linked with so many other processes/functions in the body, including food and supplement recommendations to help prevent neurodegeneration.

In his book, The UltraMind Solution, Dr. Mark Hyman outlines the 7 Keys to Optimizing Brain Health:

  1. Optimize nutrition
  2. Balance hormones
  3. Decrease inflammation
  4. Support digestion
  5. Properly detoxify
  6. Boost energy metabolism
  7. Calm the mind

Brain function support is extremely complex, and there are many factors to consider.  The brain can malfunction because of adrenal insufficiency, blood sugar imbalances, inflammation and several other factors.

Hypothalamus and Pituitary

The hypothalamus is part of the limbic system and is 4% of the brain’s total mass.  It links the nervous system to the endocrine system via the pituitary gland, coordinates messages from all areas of the body and is responsible for neuroendocrine and immune coordination.

It also influences hunger and satiety, blood pressure, bladder control, thirst, heart rate, feeding reflexes, oxytocin, vasopressin, water conservation and temperature.

The hypothalamus is most quickly satisfied by carbohydrates.  Consuming excess carbohydrates leads to blood sugar issues, inflammation, more weight gain, changes in mood, decreased energy and frustration.

The pituitary gland secretes hormones (ACTH, TSH, Prolactin, GH, FSH, LH, oxytocin, vasopressin) as instructed by the hypothalamus.  It also has a profound influence on the endocrine system, namely reproduction, thyroid function and stress response.


Neurotransmitters are chemicals that relay, inhibit, amplify and/or modulate signals between a neuron and other cells.  Neurotransmitters are made from protein, so it is vital for all patients suffering from neurological symptoms to consume adequate protein.  There are hundreds of different neurotransmitters, each with specific functions.  We will focus on the four major neurotransmitters that influence metabolism:  acetylcholine, dopamine, GABA and serotonin.


Acetylcholine is involved with cognition and memory.  It impacts all spectrum disorders and plays a significant role in conditions such as Alzheimer’s, dementia and myasthenia gravis.  Symptoms of acetylcholine imbalance include:

  • Poor memory (visual/verbal)
  • Math difficulty
  • Poor creativity
  • Poor comprehension
  • Difficulty recognizing objects/faces
  • Excessive urination
  • Slow mental responsiveness
  • Impaired judgment


Dopamine promotes sympathetic nervous system response and is related to motor coordination, cognition, mood, attention, mental clarity, energy, motivation, learning and pleasure.  High dopamine can contribute to conditions such as increased libido, psychosis and schizophrenia.  Low dopamine can contribute to conditions such as depression, social anxiety, decreased libido, addiction, Parkinson’s, heavy menstrual cycles, learning disorders, anhedonia (the inability to experience pleasure), male hypogonadism and ADD/ADHD (more common in males).  Men are governed by dopamine.

Dopamine levels can be raised by solving problems, taking risks, keeping score, being efficient, being right, having special skills, protecting or saving others, success, making money, watching action movies, and watching or playing sports.  Symptoms of dopamine imbalance include:

  • Feeling worthless, hopeless
  • Tired even after good sleep
  • Craving stimulants
  • Inability to finish tasks, inattentive, inconsistent, easily distracted
  • Emotionally unavailable
  • Self-destructive thoughts
  • Desire to isolate, need for space/distance
  • Decreased energy at home; less able to communicate, contribute or be available after a long workday (often the opposite at work)
  • Impatient, impulsive, solution/oriented
  • Forgetful
  • Prone to boredom
  • Angry/aggressive under stress
  • Lack of concern for family/friends
  • Decreased interest/passion, loss of attraction


GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that blocks impulses between nerve cells in the brain.  It promotes relaxation and plays a role in conditions such as anxiety, depression and insomnia.  Symptoms of GABA imbalance include:

  • Feeling anxious or overwhelmed for no apparent reason (knot in stomach)
  • Feeling guilty about decisions
  • Restless mind (can’t turn off)
  • Inner tension/excitability
  • Disorganized attention

GABA is the only neurotransmitter that is available in supplement form.  However, taking GABA supplements will not correct deficiency and can actually worsen symptoms.  Taking precursors to GABA is the only way to correct the condition.  GABA precursors include L-Taurine, L-theanine, magnesium and vitamin B6.


Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that gives comfort, contentment and optimism and is stimulated by quality of relationships.  It is produced primarily in the morning.  Then, when the sun sets, the pineal gland converts the remaining serotonin into melatonin to aid sleep.  Serotonin is actually synthesized in the GI tract.  It cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, and it influences the majority of the nervous system except brain function.  In fact, 90% of the body’s serotonin remains in the gut, which is why antidepressants are now prescribed for conditions like IBS.  Women are governed by serotonin.

Imbalanced serotonin can contribute to conditions such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, SAD, IBS, migraines, OCD, bipolar disorder and fibromyalgia (more common in females).  These conditions and the following symptoms are worsened by low blood sugar.  Serotonin can be raised by morning exercise, eating protein (especially in the morning, as it balances blood sugar and helps control weight, especially in menopausal women), and serving/caring for others.

Symptoms of serotonin imbalance include:

  • Sudden mood changes, depression on overcast days
  • Feeling easily overwhelmed
  • Inner rage and paranoia
  • Resentment (giving without getting back), unrealistic expectations
  • Sabotaging relationships
  • Overeating (leading to obesity)
  • Increased neediness, dependency on others
  • Decreased interest in hobbies/life in general
  • Decreased interest in food/friends/activities
  • Temporary amnesia (tied to hypoglycemia)
  • Excessive caring/giving
  • Increased need for home improvement
  • Shyness (high only)
  • Increased vulnerability to criticism (high only)
  • Nervous (high only)
  • Desire for social contact, but frightened by it (high only)
  • Inferiority complex (high only)
  • Increased anger (low only)

More about food for your brain, brain boosters, and how to prevent or reduce inflammation in the brain in this series. 


PART 1: Brain Health | PART 2: Food for the Brain | PART 3: Brain Boosters

References:  PTG:  Dr. Todd Frisch