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The Brain Blog

Bliss is a Brain in Balance

You wake up energized. You’re crushing your to-do list and it’s not even 10am. You’ve got so much work done, you can take that hour lunch to get a workout in. 5 mile run? Easy. Laundry? Done. New ideas to pitch the boss? All amazing. You’ve got dinner prepped by 4pm. You are a goddess of cool, calm, collectedness.

We all know what it is like to have those days; engaged, relaxed, focused, calm, just on it. This is when the brain is balanced, and for many people, is the definition of bliss. It’s not just a feeling, science says there’s some chemicals involved too…

The Brain Basics

Neurons are the nerve cells that create a giant communication network in our nervous system. There are two major types of neurons, motor neurons and sensory neurons. Motor neurons govern movement and sensory neurons allow us to feel things.

Neurons never touch each other, so for information to get from one neuron to another, a messenger is needed. This is where neurotransmitters come into play. A neurotransmitter is a chemical messenger inside the body. Neurotransmitters carry messages between neurons across a small gap called the synapse. Neurotransmitters are released from one neuron and picked up by the next neuron and so on and so on in a chain. So that’s how the neurons use neurotransmitters to send messages to, and within, the brain.

Neurotransmitters are produced only in these neurons, and because they are a rarer chemical in the body, neurons will recycle the neurotransmitters through a process called re-uptake. You may have heard of that term “re-uptake” because some types of antidepressants are what’s called “re-uptake inhibitors.”

Excitatory neurotransmitters send signals that stimulate the brain. Inhibitory neurotransmitters send signals to calm the brain down and create balance. If they become overactive, excitatory neurotransmitters can easily overshadow the inhibitory neurotransmitters and reduce their effect.

When we think about the neurotransmitters that influence our moods these are the important ones:

Dopamine, epinephrene and norepinephrene, and glutamate make us feel alert and engaged; Dopamine, GABA, and serotonin help us feel calm and relaxed.

Chemicals of Calm


Dopamine is a unique neurotransmitter because it is both Excitatory and Inhibitory. Dopamine is primarily known to be associated with feelings of pleasure and rewards, alertness, focus, motivation, happiness.

Dopamine is released when the brain is expecting a reward. The flood of dopamine to the brain when experiencing a pleasurable stimulus (e.g. delicious food, video games, sex) can reinforce wanting to engage with this stimulus even more due to the pleasurable feeling it causes. When you hear yourself saying “I deserve…” it could be that your dopamine levels are low, and your brain is playing tricks to get you to do something that will make dopamine.

This is a cycle of motivation, reward, and reinforcement. When we associate a certain activity with pleasure, sometimes even the mere anticipation may be enough to raise dopamine levels. Dopamine helps with learning, planning and productivity, regulating mood, memory and focus, sleep, stress response, digestion, and blood flow.



Gamma aminobutyric acid, commonly known as GABA, is an amino acid and the main inhibitory neurotransmitter present in the brain. GABA has multiple functions in the central as well as peripheral (rest of the body) nervous system. Many GABA functions are closely related to mood and emotions. It is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that acts as a brake to excitatory neurotransmitters; so, when it is abnormally low, this can lead to anxiety, panic disorders, attention deficit and depression. It is widely distributed in the brain and plays a major role in reducing neuronal excitability throughout the nervous system. High levels of GABA can accelerate heart rate and cause difficulties breathing, daytime drowsiness and non-restorative sleep.



Glutamate is an amino acid which supports cognitive functions such as memory formation and learning. This is known as the most abundant neurotransmitter, which is found in the central nervous system.

Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter, with receptors found in the central nervous system. If there is an excess amount of glutamate, this could result in excitotoxicity – meaning that neurons are killed due to over-activation of glutamate receptors. If these neurons are destroyed, this could lead to conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and epilepsy. Because glutamate is essential for many brain functions, too little glutamate can result in psychosis, insomnia, concentration problems, mental exhaustion, or even death.



Serotonin plays a role as a hormone as well as an inhibitory neurotransmitter. It is important in controlling mood and can therefore affects feelings of happiness and contentment. Serotonin is also important for regulating anxiety, appetite, pain control, and sleep cycles.

Serotonin is found in the gastrointestinal tract (the gut) but is also produced in the central nervous system in an area of the brain stem. As an inhibitory neurotransmitter it balances out excitatory neurotransmitters. Too little serotonin can be linked to depression, sadness, fatigue, suicidal thoughts, and anxiety. It therefore plays a role in the underlying cause of many mental health issues.


Norepinephrine (Noradrenalin)

Norepinephrine is an excitatory neurotransmitter made within the brainstem and hypothalamus and in the adrenal glands. This chemical helps in activating the body and brain to take action during times of stress or when in dangerous situations. It is especially important during the fight-or-flight response, helping the brain stay alert. Norepinephrine is at its peak during times of stress, but lowest during sleep cycles.

If levels of norepinephrine are too high, this can lead to high blood pressure, excessive sweating, and anxiety, all actions that the body takes when responding to a stressful event. Low levels of norepinephrine could mean that energy levels are lower, it’s hard to concentrate and stay cheerful and positive.

People who are sometimes called adrenaline junkies have been found to have low levels of norepinephrine, which is why the brain is driving actions (like dangerous sports which cause stress) that will encourage the brain to make this neurotransmitter.


Epinephrine (Adrenalin)

Epinephrine is an excitatory neurotransmitter as it stimulates the central nervous system. Epinephrine is also a stress hormone which is released into the bloodstream from the adrenal glands. It is a vital chemical that helps the body take a range of actions in response to a stressful event… like jumping out of the way of a fast moving car. You know you have just had a surge of epinephrine after something stressful when you find your heart pounding, you are panting, your eyes are big and wide, and you are starting to shake. This is epinephrine’s work - to get you ready to act in a dangerous situation.

The mechanisms that pump out epinephrine are designed to stop quickly once the “event” is over to allow the body to return to calm. If there is constantly too much epinephrine in the bloodstream, this could lead to high blood pressure, anxiety, insomnia, and increased risk of a stroke. If there is too little adrenaline, however, this can lead to diminished excitement and not being able to react appropriately in stressful situations.


Knowledge is Power (and PEACE!)

It’s exciting that we now have a growing understanding of some key neurotransmitters which influence so many aspects of how we feel. It can help us understand why we feel the way we do, and the options we have when we feel over or under whelmed!

Supplements, dietary changes, lifestyle changes (exercise, meditation), and topical creams - like Chaos Calmer - can all be options if you need more focus OR more calm!