What is a chemical imbalance in the brain?

A chemical imbalance in the brain is said to occur when the brain has either excessive or insufficient chemicals, called neurotransmitters. However, mental health conditions aren’t exactly caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. There’s a lot more to them.


Neurotransmitters are natural chemicals that help ease the communication between your nerve cells. Examples include norepinephrine and serotonin. It’s often said that mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, are caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.

What are the symptoms of a chemical imbalance in the brain?

  • Feelings of sadness, helplessness, worthlessness, or emptiness.
  • Overeating or a loss of appetite.
  • Insomnia or sleeping too much.
  • Restlessness.
  • Irritability.
  • A feeling of impending doom or danger.
  • A lack of energy.
  • Distancing yourself from others.
  • A feeling of numbness or a lack of empathy.
  • Extreme changes in mood.
  • Thoughts of hurting yourself or others.
  • Difficulty carrying out day-to-day activities.
  • A feeling of hearing voices in your head.
  • Alcohol or drug misuse.
  • Difficulty concentrating.

What maybe the possible causes of chemical imbalance in the brain?

  • The exact cause of mental health conditions is still unclear. Researchers believe that genetics as well as environmental and social factors, such as stress or trauma play a role.
  • The chemical imbalance theory is disproven, yet it’s often presented as an explanation for mental health conditions.
  • It states that these conditions are caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters between nerve cells in the brain.
  • The millions of reactions occurring make it impossible to determine if someone is experiencing a chemical imbalance in their brain.
  • The most common evidence used to support the chemical imbalance theory is the effectiveness of antidepressant medications.
  • Antidepressant medications work by increasing the levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain.
  • However, if a person’s mood can be elevated with help from medications, this doesn’t mean that the symptoms necessarily come from a chemical deficiency.
  • It’s also possible that low serotonin levels are just another symptom of depression, not the cause.

Diagnosing mental health conditions

Mental health conditions aren’t determined by using chemical tests. Your healthcare provider may order blood tests to rule out other conditions, such as a thyroid disorder or vitamin deficiency. Both conditions can trigger symptoms of a mental health condition. However, your healthcare provider will possible refer you to a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. They’ll perform a psychological evaluation.

The evaluation psychiatrist or psychologist will include a series of questions about your:

  • Firstly, thoughts.
  • Secondly, feelings.
  • Thirdly, eating and sleeping habits.
  • Lastly, daily activities.

How is a chemical imbalance in the brain treated?

Blocking re-absorption increases the level of neurotransmitters that are available for your nerves to use. This will activate your nerve receptors for a longer time.

Medications that adjust neurotransmitter levels:

  • Firstly, dopamine.
  • Secondly, serotonin.
  • Thirdly, norepinephrine, also called noradrenaline.

Some medication work on combination’s of two or more of the chemicals above.

Medications include:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIs work by blocking the reabsorption of serotonin. Examples are fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), and citalopram (Celexa).
  • Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). They include duloxetine (Cymbalta) and venlafaxine (Effexor XR). SNRIs work by blocking the reabsorption of both serotonin and norepinephrine, leading to increased levels of these two chemicals in the brain.
  • Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs). Examples are imipramine (Tofranil) and nortriptyline (Pamelor). TCAs block the reabsorption of noradrenaline and serotonin.
  • Norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRIs). NDRIs, such as bupropion (Wellbutrin), block reabsorption of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine.
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). MAOIs block the reabsorption of norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. These medications, including isocarboxazid (Marplan) and phenelzine (Nardil), are not as popular as other types of antidepressants.

Mental health conditions facts

  • When it comes to mental health conditions, there are likely many factors at play. It’s difficult to determine whether a particular treatment will ensure a cure.
  • For some people, depression and other mental health conditions are episodic, which means that the symptoms come and go.
  • Medication might be able to help manage your symptoms, but the disorder may take a long time to go into remission. Symptoms can also come back later on.
  • While taking medication for a mental health condition, therapy techniques are also an important addition to your treatment plan.
  • Psychotherapy may help convert your thinking and behavioral patterns into healthier ones. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy and psychodynamic therapy.
  • During these therapy sessions, you will work with a mental health professional to use techniques that may help you manage your depression or prevent it from returning once you’re feeling better.

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