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Neurotransmitters – Acetylcholine

by Emma Rushe(more info)

listed in neurological and neurodegenerative, originally published in issue 264 - August 2020

Acknowledgment Citation

Reproduced with permission from Issue 5 of Walnut Magazine

 

So far, this series [from Walnut Magazine] on neurotransmitters has covered serotonin, GABA and dopamine, and in this final instalment, we focus on acetylcholine - a neurotransmitter closely involved with memory and learning.

 

Artwork LBS (2) Blue

Image by Lou Baker Smith, reproduced with permission from Issue 5 of Walnut Magazine

 

Firstly, here’s a brief reminder about neurotransmitters and their function. Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that send information from one brain cell, or neuron, to another every millisecond of every day. This process helps to regulate memory, learning, planning, heart rate, emotions, digestion, respiration, metabolism, blood flow, mood, and hormonal responses. When operating effectively, this critical process is extremely fast and efficient. But when out of balance, unpleasant symptoms or disease states can result such as anxiety, depression, learning problems and many more.

An Introduction to Acetylcholine

Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter made up of acetic acid and choline, hence its name; it was the first neurotransmitter to be discovered and identified back in 1914 and is considered the primary communicator between the body and the brain. It is also one of the most abundant neurotransmitters in the human body, although despite this, it is perhaps less well known in conventional circles than other neurotransmitters like serotonin or dopamine. This makes it no less relevant to our health, however, especially when it comes to healthy ageing and the function of our brains in the way we hold most dear, that is our precious memories and our understanding of life as we know it. That’s because acetylcholine is associated with learning and memory, and the neurotransmitter most closely related to brain degenerative conditions including Alzheimer’s disease. It helps us connect up different parts if our memories, like a name with a face, as well as being important for mental alertness, focus and concentration. It also helps to keep our primitive impulses, like fear and aggression, in balance so we don’t overreact inappropriately.

Symptoms of Impaired Acetylcholine Activity

  • Loss of visual, photographic and verbal memory;
  • Memory lapses;
  • Loss of creativity;
  • Reduced comprehension;
  • Difficulty calculating numbers;
  • Trouble recognizing objects and faces;
  • Slowness of mental response;
  • Difficulty with direction and orientation;
  • Dry mouth;
  • Constipation.

 

Artwork LBS 2 (2) Pink

Image by Lou Baker Smith, reproduced with permission from Issue 5 of Walnut Magazine

 

Acetylcholine and Memory

Acetylcholine is found throughout the brain, but most especially in the hippocampus and temporal lobes of the brain, where memories are stored. In the hippocampus, acetylcholine helps to convert short to long-term memory, and the hippocampus has unsurprisingly been found to be the area of the brain to degenerate first in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

In fact research has found that acetylcholine levels are decreased in both concentration and function in patients with Alzheimer's disease. While there is an awful lot more at play when it comes to the development of Alzheimer’s Disease, including genetics, stress, diet and environmental toxins, supporting acetylcholine activity is an important strategy for preventing brain degeneration, optimizing focus, concentration and memory, especially considering the fact that our brain’s ability to create acetylcholine naturally declines as we age.

As well as playing a vital role in mental processes, acetylcholine also works as part of the autonomic nervous system, where it activates muscle movement throughout the body, including the heart and digestive system. It does this by transferring signals between motor nerves and skeletal muscles; this helps to explain why some of the medications prescribed for brain degeneration designed to impact levels of acetylcholine can cause unwanted side effects related to muscle movement. Acetylcholine is also involved in calming the fight, flight, freeze response associated with the sympathetic nervous system. It helps to restore a parasympathetic state, which promotes rest, repair, reproduction and healthy digestion.

What Causes Low Acetylcholine Levels?

There are various factors involved in the reduction of acetylcholine in the hippocampus and temporal lobes of the brain, whether through a lack of acetylcholine being produced, or too much being used up. Most of these are manageable lifestyle factors, common to many of us living in modern society, and as such can be altered to benefit our current and future health.

Chronic stress is the first area worth mentioning, because so many of us have excessive demands on our stress response, which in turn causes a repeated demand for acetylcholine to be produced in our brains. This situation actually causes genetic changes in the brain that reduce production and increase metabolism of this neurotransmitter, leading to an overall reduction of acetylcholine in the brain, which in turn causes a decline in memory and cognition. Stress impacts all other neurotransmitter levels too, as well as nutrient levels, especially the B vitamins that are so important for the production of acetylcholine.

The dietary management of sugar and blood sugar swings are also highly relevant, because sugar is now more present in our diets than ever before, including those of young children. Excessively high sugar levels in particular negatively impact on acetylcholine production, with Alzheimer’s disease even being called type III diabetes by some, because of the impact that high blood sugar levels and the resulting insulin resistance has within the brain.

Common prescription and over-the-counter medications can have an anti-cholinergic effect in the body, meaning that they reduce levels of acetylcholine in the brain and can increase risk of Alzheimer’s. These medications include certain type of anti-histamines, antibiotics antidepressants, sedatives, and even Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) such as Ibuprofen. If you regularly take any of these types of medication, it’s certainly worth checking with your GP if yours has anti-cholinergic properties.

And finally, we are also all exposed increasingly to environmental toxins that can increase inflammation in our brains and disrupt neurotransmitter balance, such as electromagnetic radiation, pesticides in our food and drinks, and the plastics, toxins and metals in our drinking supply, food storage, household cleaning and cosmetic products.

Natural Strategies to Boost Acetylcholine Levels

Dietary fats are incredibly important when it comes to the body’s ability to produce and maintain healthy levels of acetylcholine, and so while you don’t need to adopt a very high fat diet, it’s fair to say that low fat diets are naturally bad news for the functioning of the brain. Whether or not you eat meat, it’s important to choose healthy, unprocessed fats that come from natural sources and are rich in choline (a precursor to acetylcholine), including avocados, nuts and seeds, tofu, egg yolks, organic grass fed meat, liver, butter and dairy.

Eating plenty of healthy fats will also help to you achieve healthy blood sugar balance, along with the inclusion of protein, fibre and slow release carbohydrates with your meals. Avoiding unnecessary sugars, whether refined or natural, will also help to prevent blood sugar spikes – it’s worth looking at the back of packaged goods - even supposedly natural ones like snack bars and yoghurts - to see how much sugar is in each portion, remembering that 1 tsp = 4g.

And finally, don’t overuse caffeine. It can increase acetylcholine levels, and so with strategic use it can in fact give your mind a boost, but too much can promote reduced production in the brain, which will leave you worse off in the long run.

As well as dietary changes, there are some nutritional supplements that have shown promise in the prevention of brain degeneration, through supporting acetylcholine pathways in the brain, slowing down acetylcholine breakdown, and delivering the precursors of acetylcholine production. As with any dietary or supplement change, it’s best to talk to a health professional or GP, especially if you suffer from a health condition or are on medication.

Supplements to consider if you have symptoms of acetylcholine deficiency or hereditary risk of Alzheimer’s:

  • Choline – this dietary supplement, often included with vitamin B complexes, will help to increase levels of acetylcholine. Alpha GPC is a phospholipid metabolite isolated from lecithin and may be the best form of choline to take to raise acetylcholine levels in the brain. Research shows it to be beneficial in those suffering from Alzheimer’s and also as an aid in stroke recovery;
  • Vitamins B1 and B5 – studies have demonstrated their ability to increase levels of acetylcholine in the brain. Consider taking them as part of a B vitamin complex;
  • L-acetyl Carnitine – an amino acid compound similar to acetylcholine itself. It activates the acetylcholine receptor, has been found to improve cognition and even delay the progression of Alzheimer’s;
  • L- Huperzine A – a potent component of club moss, which readily crosses the blood brain barrier and is thought to prevent breakdown of acetylcholine and increases levels in the brain;
  • Omega 3 fats – research has indicated that omega 3 fatty acids, in particular DHA, helps to improve the transmission of acetylcholine in the brain, improving cognitive function.

Acknowledgment Citation

Reproduced with permission from Issue 5 of Walnut Magazine

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About Emma Rushe

Emma Rushe BSc Nutr Med  EEM-CP is an experienced natural health practitioner, writer and recipe creator with a love of good food and a passion for helping people achieve vibrant health. Emma also co-founded the successful independent health magazine, Walnut, which she publishes with her husband.

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