Catecholamines are chemical compounds in the body derived from the amino acid tyrosine. They arouse and excite us mentally, emotionally and physically, and help us to focus and be attentive. The catecholamines include dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). Two catecholamines, norepinephrine and dopamine, act as neurotransmitters in the central nervous system and as hormones in the blood circulation.
Catecholamines are important for good mental health, especially as we grow older and our output of these neurotransmitters gradually declines. In recent years, research has linked depression to catecholamine function, and scientists have developed a theory called the “catecholamine hypothesis” to explain how catecholamines affect emotional disorders. According to this hypothesis, depression is associated with a deficiency in norepinephrine (NE) at functionally important receptor sites in the brain that causes a decrease in catecholamines.
Catecholamine deficiency is associated with depression in people with a genetic predisposition for depression. In one study, depleting catecholamines produced symptoms of depression in an experimental group of people. In contrast, the control group was almost completely unaffected by catecholamine depletion. The researchers reported that “catecholamine function may play a crucial role in mood regulation for subjects who are vulnerable to depression.”
In an article in American Scientist, researchers suggested that over 30% of Americans have a gene anomaly that alters production of the catecholamine dopamine.
How Whole Foods Helps Catecholamine Function
The best means to correct a catecholamine imbalance is by eating whole foods and taking the appropriate supplements. Low calorie, high carbohydrate diets cause catecholamine depletion due to inadequate protein intake. Protein helps to elevate tyrosine levels, which in turn stimulates catecholamine production. Hence, low-protein diets may be one contributing cause of depression in some people.
Stress can negatively impact catecholamine function. As the general level of stress in our life goes up, our adrenal glands make more catecholamines, which means our brains have less serotonin to maintain balance. As stressful events occur, such as pregnancy and childbirth, the brain can have difficulty making enough serotonin to correspond with the new levels of catecholamines. In addition to serotonin deficiency, catecholamine and adrenal function have been linked to depression.
As wonderful as pregnancy and new motherhood can be, it places a great deal of stress on the mind and body. Some vegetarians may run the risk of catecholamine deficiency due to the typical low-protein nature of their diet. In addition, soy, a mainstay of a vegetarian diet, can inhibit the conversion of tyrosine into the catecholamines.
Depletion of other micronutrients such as the B vitamins, vitamins C, vitamin D, vitamin E, calcium, and magnesium, appear to play a role in catecholamine function, and subsequent supplementation can correct imbalances. Essential fatty acids also have a positive effect on catecholamine function.