The brain is a very complicated organ that rules over our lives engendering how we move, think, and feel. The way our brain cells (neurons) communicate with one another is by the use of chemicals known as neurotransmitters which they pass from one to the other.
We have briefly discussed in a previous article about neurotransmitters and a little of their vital functions. In this article, we shall explore them deeper and see how neurotransmitters can be our friend or foe when it comes to expressing the pain of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD).
A Recap on the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
We cannot go any further into our discussion about neurotransmitters and the brain until we recap the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder as stated on our first post on this subject.
Seasonal affective disorder is a form of major depression that affects an estimated 10 million Americans with another 10-20% having a milder form. SAD is four times more common in women than men.
SAD doesn’t only occur in winter as it can also form in the summertime, but that is much rarer.
The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder in winter are as follows:
- Tendency to oversleep
- Weight gain
- Weight loss
- A drop in energy levels
- Feelings of hopelessness and sadness
- Decreased physical activity
- Difficulty concentrating
- Avoidance of social situations
- Suicidal thoughts or actions
People who suffer from serious bouts of seasonal affective disorder become incapacitated and often unable to work until the sun rises higher in the sky and the warm weather creeps back in.
Researchers believe that all these effects from seasonal affective disorder are closely related if not directly caused by changes in the way our body makes and uses neurotransmitters.
What are Neurotransmitters?
Neurotransmitters are chemical substances that brain cells use to communicate with one another through neurotransmission. These chemicals are synthesized in and released from the end of one brain cell to another and cause one of two affects, excitatory (winds you up) or inhibitory (slows you down). To be clear, some neurotransmitters can do both.
There are more than 40 known neurotransmitters in the human nervous system, but the ones we shall be interested in for this piece are Dopamine, Serotonin, and Norepinephrine.
Dopamine (the motivational transmitter). Dopamine is secreted by neurons in the substantia nigra a region in the midbrain and its effects are both excitatory and inhibitory (revving up and calming down). Dopamine affects mood and motivation plus the desire to finish tasks. Dopamine also regulates eating patterns which are disturbed with the onset of SAD causing the person to either over, or more rarely, undereat causing weight gain or loss.
Dopamine is involved in the reward reaction of the brain and this is why some chemical agents, such as drugs, become addictive because they raise the levels of dopamine in the brain.
Serotonin (the happiness transmitter). Serotonin acts as a booster for mood and happiness when released in sufficient quantities in the brain. When a person has low brain serotonin levels they are at a high risk for more violent and successful attempts to die by suicide and the formation of SAD. Sunlight keeps serotonin levels high by decreasing the chemical activity that inhibits the formation of serotonin or the use of it.
Serotonin also regulates sleep, anxiety, sexuality, and appetite and drugs that work to balance Serotonin are often prescribed to treat depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and panic disorders.
Norepinephrine. Norepinephrine does double duty as a hormone produced by the adrenal glands and as a neurotransmitter in the brain. Norepinephrine is made by the same chemical factory as adrenaline and aids in our ability to concentrate, a role in our mood control, and our bodies respond to stress.
Norepinephrine also plays an important role in our ability to remain alert and is deeply involved with the body’s flight or flight response. The role of norepinephrine is to mobilize the body and brain to act in times of danger, real or perceived. Levels of this brain chemical are lowest during sleep and highest during stressful events.
Obviously, all three chemicals play vital roles in how we are able to think and feel plus our motivation to carry on with our plans.
The Signs and Symptoms of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) is a devastating mental health condition that affects millions of people around the world. The disorder is brought on by experiencing extreme and repetitive trauma normally in childhood, but it can affect adults as well.
CPTSD has a long list of symptoms that one can recognize in oneself to determine if we have the disorder including the following as outlined in a previous post on the subject:
- Feelings of shame
- Feelings of guilt
- Difficulty controlling emotions
- Losing attention and concentration
- Physical symptoms such as headaches
- Chest pain
- Isolating away from friends and family
- Relationship difficulties
- Destructive or risky behavior
- Substance abuse
- Suicidal actions or thoughts including passive suicidal behaviors
The above is only a short list of the hundreds of life-altering symptoms a person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder can experience.
The reason I bothered to list the symptoms of CPTSD on a piece primarily about seasonal affective disorder is because the two have much in common when it comes to neurotransmitter malfunctions in the brain. It is the same neuro chemicals in CPTSD that cause different behaviors as cause depressed and down moods in SAD.
Two Treatments that Definitely Work for Both CPTSD and SAD
Although we think and reason with our brain it is truly the final frontier of discovery for mankind. Our brain makes up only a small percentage of our body per weight, yet it is a powerhouse guiding what the rest of the body does. We ponder at why neurotransmitters cause the effects they do but we do not truly understand thoroughly how and why they do so.
Every year we learn more and more about how to treat mental health disorders and know now they are treatable brain disorders that need treatment.
There are two tried and found effective treatments that seem to help both complex post-traumatic stress disorder and seasonal affective disorder, sunlight, and exercise.
Sunlight causes our brain to regulate neurotransmitters better allowing for us to feel more awake in the daytime and more positive. Light stimulates the production of cholecalciferol which is transformed by the human body into vitamin D. The vitamin D helps the body maintain higher levels of serotonin during the darkness of winter.
Exercise creates a chemical cocktail that boosts the level of serotonin in the brain and helps to regulate levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It also releases feel-good endorphins into the bloodstream.
Both these treatments are free for all and easy to carry out. On the warmer sunny days in winter bundle up and sit in the sun for at least twenty minutes. Then, afterwards, take a brisk walk in the winter breezes and enjoy the sounds of the wintertime season.
“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” ~ John Steinbeck
“Snow was falling,
so much like stars
filling the dark trees
that one could easily imagine
its reason for being was nothing more
than prettiness.” ~ Mary Oliver