Diet, Stress, and Your Neurotransmitters

Written by: Kevin Cann

Stress and obesity have a strong link in our society.  In order to combat the obesity epidemic effectively we need to recognize the connection and handle the underlying stressors.  A group of hormones that are released when we are stressed are called glucocorticoids.  These glucocorticoids remain in the blood for a significant time after the stressor is removed.  Put a person under chronic stress and they will have constantly high amounts of glucocorticoids in their blood.

The glucocorticoids initiate the release of corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) which is a key player in our stress response.  They also increase our cravings for sugary foods and they also act directly on increasing abdominal fat storage (Dallman, 2003).  Dallman in her study concluded that “We believe people eat comfort food in an attempt to reduce the activity in the chronic-stress response network with its attendant anxiety.”  This is due to the decreased CRF, catecholamines, and hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal activity found in depressed people that overeat (Dallman, 2003).  To understand these links more let us take a step back and look at what is going on in our bodies.

There are two types of neurotransmitters; inhibitory and excitatory.  The inhibitors are serotonin and GABA.  These neurotransmitters are the ones that make us feel good and also are responsible for our self-esteem and sleep.  These get depleted and we suffer from depression, insomnia, and even anger.  The excitatory neurotransmitters are glutamate, catecholamines, PEA, and dopamine.  These are responsible for making us alert, our thinking, focus, memory, ambition, and stress.  To look at a few of these, if we have low dopamine we will generally be fatigued, have trouble with numbers, low libido, and decreased short term memory.  Low norepinephrine causes depression, decreased ambition, and dependence on stimulants such as caffeine.  Too much norepinephrine and we get panic and insomnia.

We need these neurotransmitters in the right balance to feel well and be healthy.  Chronic neurotransmitter release leads to depletion over time.  This is why medications work in the beginning, but then need to be adjusted.  Our receptor sites for neurotransmitters work just like our receptors for insulin.  Chronic up regulation of these neurotransmitters cause the receptor sites to desensitize to them to protect themselves from too much.  So what causes desensitization and depletion of neurotransmitters?  Diet for one.

High glycemic carbohydrates cause spikes in dopamine and serotonin as well as opioids and cannabinoids (see my other articles on carb addiction and food addiction).  Too little protein in the diet can also cause depletion due to some of the neurotransmitters being made up of amino acids.  A 3oz serving of protein can actually raise epinephrine levels in 30 minutes.  Other causes are heavy metal toxicity, low b-complex status, low omega 3 status, low estrogen, and stimulant use.  Genetics also play a critical role in how much of the neurotransmitters we produce and how sensitive we are to them.  Obesity as well as mental illness have strong genetic links.

Another major factor that depletes neurotransmitters is stress.  Stress raises free radicals, insulin, and blood pressure which all damage neurons.  Our body has a checks and balances system to make sure we do not go too far in one direction.  When we are stressed and our catecholamines rise we will release serotonin and GABA to counteract it.  If we are constantly under stress and releasing serotonin and GABA we will desensitize to them and they will become depleted.  This leaves the catecholamines to run rampant.  Excess amounts of catecholamines in our system lead to depression, anxiety, and insomnia.  Poor sleep, illness, and excessive heat will also deplete serotonin as does cortisol.  Cortisol actually damages serotonin receptor sites.

As was mentioned earlier we need all these neurotransmitters in balance to function properly.  This is a requirement of our HPA-axis.  Our HPA-axis controls our metabolism.  Therefore, if the neurotransmitters are not in balance our metabolism gets thrown out of whack.  One of the negative side effects of this is an up regulation in fat storage.  This is what Dallman’s study showed as well.  Sustained imbalances in neurotransmitters leads to increased risk for obesity.

The take home from this is that we need to eat right, manage our stress, and get the right amount of exercise in order to achieve our health goals.  A low carb paleo diet can help combat blood sugar imbalances, give us enough amino acids to make neurotransmitters, and correct nutrient deficiencies.  Meditation has been shown to lower catecholamines and exercise can actually double serotonin and brain repair chemicals. Sunlight also increases serotonin.  Give some stress management some serious thought, especially if your goals seem to be out of reach.


Dallman, Mary (2003).  Chronic Stress and Obesity.  Retrieved on April 17, 2012.

Other information was derived from a 2004 NANP seminar with Dr. Ramona Richard titled Brain Stress: Neurotransmitter Nutrient Support.


Kevin is owner of Genetic Potential Nutrition. He is a holistic nutritionist, wellness coach, and strength coach. He works with people fighting illness, to competitive athletes. Check out his site at

Categories: Anti inflammatory diet, Paleo/Low Carb


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  1. paleoslayer says

    I’ve been on phosphatidylserine for the past few weeks (200mg night) and it seems to be working- more restful sleep, decreased abd fat deposit.

  2. Jana McKlemurry says

    So discouraged … Need to lose major body fat to include ab. 46 and dealing with some major stressers; trying to exercise and eating Paleo mostly. Have lost 10-12 pounds since 8/2011 but just can’t seem to break under 160.

  3. Rick Hallett says

    I really like the intentions of this article and mental health remains a continued interest of mine as I work in the field. Having said that, some of the statements made might not be quite as robust as the scientific-audience would like and I know Robb is committed to bringing the paleo-sphere into line with actual evidence as well as worthy lines of speculation. It might not be necessary to reference all statements, but could it be worth bringing in the likes of Emily Deans MD to help report the facts as they are within the literature base?

    One things that sticks out for me in particular is the link between carbohydrate and serotonin. If I remember correctly, this isn’t as simple as we have previously been led to believe (i.e. heavy carbohydrate diets have a strong impact on serotonin levels, for better or for worse). The research this originated from (again, I thinks) only found that pure sugar (or nearly pure) ingestion resulted in increased uptake of tryptophan (serotonin pre-cursor). Small amounts of dietary protein blunted this phenomenon as it’s very competitive down there.

    This is just one example within this article, but I’m acutely aware of how psychiatry, particularly nutritionally informed psychiatry, is still very much in an embryonic stage of development. I’m concerned that other statements within this article may be falling under similar criticism, particularly statements surrounding the mono-amine hypothesis of depression. Speculation and hypothesis creation is good and laudable, but personally I would like to see more evidence supporting this article. Robb, if you are able (and willing) to get Emily Deans to comment on this article it could really strengthen it.

    Thanks for all your continued hard work, to you and all your team. And just in case I came across too skeptical, I fully support the central message behind this article, that of an integrated approach and understanding of human physiology and psychology. It’s just awesome!

  4. Amy B. says

    Anyone interested in a great layman’s crash course in neurotransmitters might want to check out The Mood Cure (book), by Julia Ross. Phenomenal stuff.

    She gets into what affects neurotransmitters (diet, stress, sleep), and how those neurotransmitters affect our mind and body. She has some questionnaires to help identify what you might be low in (serotonin, dopamine, etc) and very specific protocols for getting back on track without pharmaceutical drugs. It’s great b/c there are things in those questionnaires that you would probably never associate with any particular deficiency and have just come to accept as “normal” for you, or just the way you’re wired. Lots of little, nagging things that you’ve resolved yourself to live with, when they could actually be remedied with the right inputs. (Her protocol is mostly diet [lower carb, lots of good fat and protein] and supplemental amino acids targeted at your specific deficiencies.)

  5. Jessica Jane says

    You guys throw around the word “low-carb” but that term is so relative…

    I’ve been experiencing hypoglycemia at 4-5am every morning lately (wake up absolutely ravenous!) and signs of adrenal fatigue/chronic stress (dropped the coffee, sleep 8-10hrs a night, trying not to do any intermittent fasting, but still trying not to kick my butt too hard with my training…), to which I’ve read a “low-carb” approach works well… I’ve been on 70-80g net carbs, but is that still too high?? Please clarify? I will usually eat 25-50g of carb after my workout. I’d be devastated if I had to stop eating bananas. 😉 Thank you for any input!

    • says

      I’m purposefully oblique as it is so relative. If you suspect adrenal issues, I;d use low (25-50g) for a period to try to reset that axis, but you may then benefit from ratcheting things up. There is not ONE way through this forrest!

      • Josh Finlay says

        Hi Robb, so, if you were in a position of low “stage 3” adrenal fatigue would you go to 25-50 grams carbs per day?

        This topic seems to be divisive. Some say high carb and frequent meals to prevent low blood sugar and release of cortisol. Others argue for a low carb ketogenic approach to balance blood sugars.

        I have heard many people warn those with adrenal fatigue to stay away from ketosis as it is stressful and raises cortisol. However, my feelings (although I have not experimented with it yet) is that a well formulated ketogenic diet with plenty of MCT’s early on could mitigate the chances of that primary stress response.

        Any (as brief as time permits) thoughts?

  6. Pender Channe says

    I suffer from major depression for over 10 yrs, I’m on 2 antidepressants, 2 mood-stabilizers one being lithium, sleeping pill ect ect and going through menopause and I am always sleepy, tired and have physical pain how lucky am I. I just finished reading the Paleo Solution and started the challenge, it was really hard, I was always crazy hungry and felt really weak. I want to succeed and alleviate my depression. How should I approach this?I
    p.s I have also developed hives.
    Thank you!

  7. says

    I agree that stress is a major cause for weight gain. When I discovered this I incorporated Pilates into my exercise regime to help reduce stress. Since starting Pilates I have seen results from my cardio training that I simply wasn’t getting before. Pilates is a great stress reliever.

  8. michele says

    Hi, im having a crisis with high excessive catecholamines that are making it impossible to stay calm for long. I accidently ate too low calorie after going on paleo api for fibromyalgia. I have recovered well from that except for the excitory neuroransmitters. I get 100g to 150g of carb and 90g of protein. I weigh 126lbs. Ive tried yoga, meditation, passionflower at night. I can get to a calm state but something simple throws it all out of wack again. Can’t even enjoy my art work like I used to. I wanted to try l glutamine for gut repair but I am worried that will make my already excited state abd high muscle tension worse. But was hoping it would also help gaba. Dopatone sup made this worse and I think seritone sup both fron apex didnt help either. Plesse help I had a great natropath I can’t afford anymore im at my wits end.

  9. says

    This is an interesting article – So first, yes, it’s important to monitor levels of NT’s, or pay attention to the behavioral correlations between certain levels of them – and try to fix levels to correct/re-align behavioral/mental functionality.

    What I’m trying to learn, and what I suspect, is the proper replenishment of the catecholamines throughout, let’s say, a week’s timeframe, given two major stressors/possible depletion events: Running a company (the stress of being an entrepreneur, constant demand, massive challenges, lots of thinking), and then 2 very intense exercises throughout the week – something like 2 super intense runs, in high heat, until near muscle failure/total exhaustion.

    We could argue that working out that intense isn’t good to start – and that may be true. Doesn’t stop people from doing it, and sometimes, training is intense. And it has to be.

    Coming back full circle, the reason I’m interested in all of this is because for me, particularly during stressful times, and after intense workouts, 500-1000 MG of Tyrosine (precursor to the catecholaminal neurotransmitters)seems to correct mental functionality deficiencies. – I’d try to get the precursors in diet, but the only shot seems to be bacon, which I LOVE, but you’d have to eat 6+ slices to near the levels of phenylalanine (Tyrosine precursor) to attempt to replenish levels diminished by stress/intense demand/exercise.

    Too bad the urinary tests for neurotransmitters are 200 bucks, for 1, that you have to send back to a lab for results. Need home NT tests that are easy! A lot of my theories, and internal understandings of this could be quantified.

  10. wendy says

    O discovered I am wheat intolerant 13yrs ago. Cutting out alot of carbs. Now realised that this is behind my severe unexplained mood swings. I have tried everything. Gp depressants, I am.not depressed
    I am.frustrated and scared I’ll be like this for ever. I afraid to increase my carbs as I used to compete in body building. If I eat carbs I get big, and I’m trying to lose the fat, especially abdominal fat!! Cortisol/stress from.moods swings from.low serotonin!! Please help.. Only carbs I have 30-40g of oats each morning for breakfast. Lots of salad and veg.
    Please help

  11. Adam says

    Hi robb,

    Do you have any advice on RE-sensitising dopamine receptors? I’ve had a history of drug use and depression, but I’m now ready to change that.

    I’ve been reading that fasting can help with re-sensitising dopamine receptors, any other idea at could help give this a kickstart, before commencing a regular eating plan?

    I’ve been thinking possibly a low-calorie liquid diet for a week (or possibly longer), and then paleo.

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