A neurotransmitter is the smallest of the informational molecules that transmits an impulse from one nerve cell to one or more neighboring cells across a junction called a synapse. Neurotransmitters are stored in vesicles (little containers) at the ends of neurons. When these neurotransmitters reach the receptors of other neurons, a complex cascade of effects may result, such as increased heart rate, changes in mood, perception, and thought.
Neurotransmitters can also affect the sensitivity of neurons, making them more or less reactive to impulses.
The brain has a limited quantity of any neurotransmitter available at any given time. After having been released for use and having completed its task, the neurotransmitter is rapidly destroyed or recycled and stored for later use. If neurotransmission were not limited in this way, the brain might race out of control, virtually burning itself out. Because neurotransmitters must be made ongoing, the brain must continually renew its supply of raw materials, such as amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, which it needs for manufacturing more neurotransmitters as well as the fuel (i.e., glucose and oxygen) that it needs to function and the antioxidants that it needs for protection.
If neurotransmitter precursors, the raw materials from which we make these vital nervous system messengers, are in short supply, problems in perception, behavior, cognition, and mood will result. Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, are the most important of the neurotransmitter precursors. The brain uses some of the unaltered amino acids as neurotransmitters, directly. Glutamate, aspartate, and glycine are three such amino acids. It builds other neurotransmitters by altering the amino acids slightly and/or combining them with other substances.
Here is one example:
In order to make the dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters that may be deficient in some children, the brain must have adequate supplies of amino acids, vitamin B6, and iron. If a child does not take in and properly absorb these nutrients, he or she will not have what is needed to make enough dopamine and norepinephrine.
The amino acid tyrosine is found in the nerve cells of the brain.
Tyrosine is transformed into L-dopa only in the presence of enzymes, folic acid, niacin (vitamin B3), and iron.
L-dopa is changed into dopamine in the presence of vitamin B6.
Norepinephrine is finally made with the assistance of vitamin C.
As the above example illustrates, proteins alone are not sufficient. A host of cofactors are critical in a child’s diet in order to manufacture the proper brain chemicals and structures that support optimal mood, cognition, and behavior.
Following are links to information on four major neurotransmitters (over 50 informational molecules are known or suspected), with dietary examples of their nutrient building blocks: