Plenty of people with ADHD are able to overcome these struggles, so if you're dealing with the same types of issues, you shouldn't lose hope. In order to protect your mental health, however, it helps to be proactive and educate yourself about how the brain works.
In this article, we'll explain how certain brain chemicals affect your mental health — and some of the ways you can improve your mental health based on this knowledge.
Understanding Chemical Imbalances
Before diving deeper into the specific brain chemicals involved in mental health, it's important to understand the role that these chemicals play. When the neurotransmitters in the brain are out of balance, it can contribute to a number of symptoms associated with issues like depression and anxiety.
Some of the symptoms of chemical imbalances in the brain may include:
- Extreme mood swings
- Loss of energy
- Loss of appetite or overeating
- Feeling numb, empty, or lacking empathy
- Feelings of impending danger
- Thoughts of hurting others or oneself
However, it's important to note that chemical imbalances alone may not be responsible for mental health problems. Family history and genetics can also play a role, as can the struggles or environmental factors that a person faces.
For people with ADHD, having to manage the symptoms of that condition on a daily basis can be very stressful. ADHD behaviors can also potentially cause issues in personal relationships and lead to feelings of low self-esteem. These types of challenges could also trigger symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health struggles.
Important Brain Chemicals to Know
The following are some of the key brain chemicals that play a role in mental health:
The brain releases dopamine when you do something that gives you a pleasurable feeling, like your body's natural reward system that keeps you feeling motivated. People with ADHD generally have lower dopamine levels compared to people without the disorder, which can contribute to lower levels of focus and motivation.
Serotonin is released when you experience feelings of satisfaction, and it can help regulate your mood, appetite, and sleep. Some antidepressant medications are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which means that they are designed to raise serotonin levels in the brain.
Oxytocin is closely linked to love, bonding, and attachment. It makes you feel good and can lower stress and anxiety.
Endorphins act like a natural pain reliever, and can help to relieve stress or discomfort.
Glutamate is closely associated with learning and memory. Problems producing or utilizing glutamate have been associated with mental health conditions like anxiety disorders, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia. Some studies have found that people with ADHD have lower levels of glutamate.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
GABA helps to calm the body and mind by regulating relaxation, anxiety, sleep, stress, and muscle function. Low levels of GABA are associated with a number of mental health conditions.
Norepinephrine is directly involved in the body's "fight or flight" response. It's produced in response to stressful situations. ADHD and depression are both associated with low levels of norepinephrine.
Adrenaline is another chemical related to the "fight or flight" response. It's produced not only in moments of danger or fear, but also in response to excitement and thrills. When the body releases excess adrenaline, it can cause irritability, sleep problems, difficulty concentrating, and other symptoms which are associated with anxiety disorders.
Cortisol can have a significant impact on mood, sleep, and energy. It's also associated with the "fight or flight" response and is closely linked with stress and anxiety.
Acetylcholine is involved in executive sensory gating (filtering out background noise) and executive functions like learning and memory. Increased levels of acetylcholine appear to be linked to depression and other mood disorders, and symptoms of ADHD may be linked to acetylcholine disturbances.
Melatonin helps to regulate the body's circadian rhythms. When levels are balanced, it helps you fall and stay asleep. People with depression or anxiety may benefit from taking melatonin supplements.
Can You Change the Chemicals in Your Brain?
Medication can be one of the best treatment options for both ADHD and mental health disorders. That's because many of these meds are designed to increase the levels of brain chemicals which play a role in these conditions, thereby relieving symptoms.
But there are other ways you can have an influence on the chemicals in your brain. In addition to making sure you’re getting the right treatment, try to incorporate activities into your life which help to boost "feel-good" brain chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins, such as:
- Spending time outside
- Eating healthy foods
- Listening to music
- Getting a massage