Neurotransmitters, Receptors, and Prescription Drugs
Science has made some amazing breakthrough discoveries in the last fifty years or so. Television, internet, cell phones, technological advancements – all of these have drastically changed our lives, for better or for worse. But in the area of human health, perhaps the most profound discovery of all has been made regarding the mind-body connection in human physiology.
The term mind-body connection is more than just a new-age catchphrase. It feels kind of strange to think about this, but science has shown us that every thought or emotion you experience can actually be boiled down to the binding of certain tiny molecules called neurotransmitters in your nervous system.
It happens at lightning speed. When you have a specific thought or emotion, synapses in your nervous system are firing, causing a chain reaction through the release of neurotransmitters. If you have a home brain scanning device (just kidding), you could actually see this. You would see that when you think about certain things or feelings, different parts of your brain are activated.
For example, thoughts about a pleasurable experience would release endorphins that activate the opiate receptors in your brain, giving you feelings of happiness or peace. Feelings of anger would release molecules called catecholamines, giving you a burst of energy and causing your circulation to increase or your face to flush.
Neurotransmitters are also involved in the body’s physical systems. The pumping of the heart, the movement of the stomach in digestion, the breathing of your lungs – these are all controlled by the binding of neurotransmitters to the cells in your body.
Of course, this has created a pretty big impact in the field of medicine, primarily in the creation of new drugs. Being able to understand the receptors and neurotransmitters in the body, scientists have developed a whole array of drugs aimed at treating or preventing a variety of health conditions, both mental and physical. This has given birth to our new age of medicine, where in treating disease, prescription drugs reign supreme. While this has benefited many people, the downside is that the powerful movement of the drug industry is detracting from the other benefits we can gain from this new scientific understanding.
The Mind-Body Connection in Daily Life
The same neurotransmitters involved in thought and emotion also have receptors in the various organs of the body. What this means is that not only are your thoughts and emotions physical processes, but they also have an effect on the systems in your body.
Take the digestive system for example. The digestive system has been coined “the second brain” because it is so rich in nerve endings and receptor sites. These nerves in your digestion have many of the same receptors as the ones in your brain. So when you have certain thoughts or emotions, the release of neurotransmitters are going to have an effect on your digestive system. We’ve all had the experience of a nervous stomach, or felt the effects of anger in our gut.
It’s not a one way street either. The organ systems of the body release neurotransmitters that have an effect on our brains, and this can then affect our thoughts and emotions. The human body is a complex system of feedback loops.
This understanding can have just as profound a change, if not a bigger one, than the development of new drugs. In seeing our thoughts and emotions as physical processes that affect the health of our body, it can motivate us to be more attentive to what is going on in both our minds and bodies.
For example, understanding the mind-body connection, it becomes harder to just blow off something like having too much stress as if it is only mental or emotional. Stress can actually have detrimental effects on our health because it leads to the release of excess stress hormones which can cause a number of health problems. Or, when our immune systems become weak because the mind tells us that brutally high expectations are the path to success, we can start to question whether sacrificing health is a worthy trade for this pursuit.
In the 17th century, Descartes penned his famous phrase “I think, therefore I am,” implying the highest quality of humanity is the power of the mind. Over time, we have come to value the mind as being above and therefore superior to the body. We use our minds to control our bodies, to pursue our ideals often at the expense of our physical health.
The breakthrough understanding in the science of neurotransmitters and receptors challenges this mentality. The mind is not elevated above the body – the mind and the body are one and the same. By understanding this reality, we can see more clearly how the mind and body affect each other and learn to take better care of ourselves, our health, and each other.