Welcome to Episode #20 of the Healing Pain Podcast! Today we are joined by Certified Clinical Nutritionist, Beverly Meyer to discuss the role of neurotransmitters in pain perception.
With chronic pain there are significant changes to both the structure and function of the central nervous system and brain. Neurotransmitters are a new and developing area regarding pain perception. Glutamate, GABA, serotonin and dopamine are a few of the key neurotransmitters found in the brain. For example, glutamate is a type of neurotransmitter that either excites or inhibits the function of neurons. Neurotransmitters have an especially strong impact on mood, behavior and the perception of sensations such as pain. High levels of glutamate in the brain are linked to increased sensations of pain and chronic pain syndromes such as fibromyalgia. Reducing glutamate levels helps to reduce the perception of pain.
A lack of inhibition, particularly that mediated by gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA), the main inhibitory transmitter of the central nervous system, is responsible for many pain states. Until recently, few GABA acting drugs were available and were prescribed mostly for relieving muscle spasms, anxiety and epilepsy, but rarely for pain. There are also natural ways to boost GABA production that do not require prescription medication or have side-effects.
In This Episode You Will Learn:
- The role both GABA and serotonin regarding pain perception.
- The link between the brain, gut and pain.
- What does it do and is it similar to Serotonin?
- How do GABA (and Serotonin) affect the perception of pain.
- How can we boost GABA and Serotonin naturally.
- Any side effects if you’re on pain medications.
Hey everyone, it’s Dr. Joe Tatta. Thank you for joining me for another episode of The Healing Pain Podcast this week. We have a really incredible topic this week. We are going to discuss the role of neurotransmitters in the perception of pain. Before we get started I wanted to share with you that my brand new book, Heal Your Pain Now, is finally out and available. You can order this now in pre-order on Amazon, on Barnes & Noble, on [CR Reads 00:00:24], on anywhere online where they carry books. This is obviously a majorly published book. It’s called Heal Your Pain Now: The Revolutionary Program to Reset Your Brain and Body for a Pain-Free Life. This is not available in stores until February, but if you order it now, you can get it at a super, super cheap discounted rate that I specially have created with the publisher.
Right now you can order it for just about $10. This book is a total steal. If you are a physical therapist, if you’re a chiropractor, if you’re a nutritionist, if you’re a physician, if you’re a nurse practitioner or a nurse, this book is an invaluable tool to discuss natural strategies to heal from chronic pain or help others heal from chronic pain. It’s also a great book to bring into a clinic or to use as a resource for an inservice. Of course, if you have chronic pain or you know someone that has chronic pain, this is absolutely invaluable. It’s over 300 pages of everything from exercise, to nutrition, to mindset, to the brain in pain neuroplasticity. I really recommend that you check it out. Go to Amazon and just Google Heal Your Pain Now.
To get started this week, my special guest is Beverly Meyer. She has been studying natural health since 1985 where she uses nutrition, lifestyle, supportive supplements, and lab tests to change people’s health and help them thrive. Her Primal Diet – Modern Health podcast is a popular show on iTunes. She has lived with celiac disease, Graves’ disease, and a partial seizure disorder that she credits her decades of health research to helping her thrive and stay healthy through those chronic diseases. Stay tuned, we have a great podcast this week about how neurotransmitters effect pain perception. Beverly Meyer, welcome to The Healing Pain Podcast. It’s great to have you on as an expert guest this week.
Thank you for having me.
We’re going to talk about the role of neurotransmitters and pain perception and I love the topic because so much of my podcast, I talk about the brain pain and how the brain changes when you have chronic pain or when pain is an issue in your life. Now, when people first hear the word neurotransmitter, they think, “Oh my god. This sounds complicated,” but give us kind of the basics of neurotransmitter, kind of neurotransmitter 101.
Yes. It seems a little overwhelming, but when you break it down in a very compatible way it’s easy to get. Here’s how I talk about it. They’re four main neurotransmitters, two that I call the go-gos and two that I call the slow-slows. All right. The two main go-gos are dopamine and acetylcholine. They’re very involved in thinking, and acting, and working, and managing. They’re the go-gos. Things are firing. Then the inhibitory neurotransmitters, the slow-slows, that’s GABA and serotonin. What I find is that in modern life, we are very much oriented to the go-go. Everything is go-go, but we didn’t evolve for that. We evolved with, some say, 85, 90, 95, 99% of our time spent in slow-slow and that the only time we needed the go-go was when we had to work out a complex problem or we had to run and fight.
Really we’re talking about, in some way we know, when you’re talking about go and slow, in some way you’re talking about kind of the fight or flight mechanism and how neurotransmitters are effected or change in our body basically.
That’s right. Then there’s another biggie and that’s the … Well, it’s an amino acid and a neurotransmitter and that’s glutamate. Glutamate is very excitatory. It’s all about firing, firing, firing. It’s control is the neurotransmitter GABA. They are supposed to be a gas and brakes situation. That’s where I think we have the problem in modern life is that we’re all glutamate, no GABA and then we can talk a little more about the things that suppress or shut down GABA so it’s not just the go-go lifestyle side of things, it’s also why the slow-slows aren’t working.
Yeah. I want to get back to talk about glutamate a little bit later because I know we’re going to talk about diet and nutrition and sometimes that comes into play on some level. I mean, just as we’re talking, my first thought is, you’re a certified clinical nutritionist, how did you get so interested in the role of GABA in neurotransmitters?
Through my own health. I think a lot of us in this field of natural health support have gotten here because of our own health. I went through a period of unexplained and uncontrollable anxiety, rapid heart rate. I was just basically one constant panic attack with no apparent reason. I mean, there was definitely stress going on at that time. My father was very ill and so on. I could be at home or with a client whatever, but the heart would just be racing and pounding. This went on for weeks, literally for weeks. It was when I finally, basically took a leave of absence from my own clinic and basically went home to just sit and be for months and months and that’s when I came across some really helpful work in a book that changed me and I went to see that particular neurologist. He’s the one that said, “Well, you don’t have any GABA in your brain. You have no inhibitory neurotransmitters at all.”
Working with him, we used very small amounts of anti-epileptics, because GABA is the neurotransmitter that’s involved in things as diverse as epilepsy, tourettes, anxiety, insomnia, rage. There’s dozens of things that are under GABA’s control. Very tiny, tiny doses of neuro-epileptics and within a week, I was amazed. It’s like, wow, okay. I can see this is going to work out somehow. Then I didn’t have to stay on them but a year. Since then, I’ve devoted myself to working with, and understanding, and podcasting, and writing about GABA, and I call it the never forgotten neurotransmitter because people talk about serotonin but no one ever talks about GABA. There’s reasons for that, but …
Did he give you a form of gabapentin or what kind of medication did he give to you? Because there’s some … Some people try to use GABA supplementally, before they try to go on, let’s say, a prescription drug.
Well, first of all, there’s a question about GABA and the blood-brain barrier. Regular, store-bought drugstore kind of GABA that just says G-A-B-A on the label, theoretically, it is not supposed to be able to cross the blood-brain barrier. If it does, that can indicate you have leaky brain, like leaky gut, leaky brain. There are other forms of GABA and I use in my clinic and my online store and so on, is passionflower. They’re other herbs and CBD from hemp … So they’re other substances, heroin, alcohol, that do work with GABA, but passionflower seems to be the safest and chamomile, skullcap, California poppy. When I started with him, though, on the prescriptions, I believe it might have been … It was either Lamictal, or Depakote, that we started with first. We tinkered around with a little bit. I had muscle tests, so this doctor was amazing. He actually let me … He prescribed one pill of each of the five drugs per my request. I said, “Can you give me one of each of these so I can muscle test them?” He said, “Sure, why not?” I left with five pieces of paper for one pill each and five pieces of paper for a month of each. He let me make my own choice what worked best for me. Isn’t that amazing?
Yeah, that’s great, because I think so often … One of the things I talk about in my podcast is that at times people are prescribed a month’s supply of things like opioids, or even some of the gabapentins have some … They have addictive properties to them. If you just take one, or two, or maybe three, it might get you through that period, or if you could actually test it, like you said, before you take a 30-day supply and figure out this is not the right drug for my specific biochemistry.
Right. Of course, if you can solve something at the core and that’s obviously what the goal of all of us is. In my case, apparently it was so bad he said, “You’re actually having seizures, you just don’t know it.”
At the same time, I was doing cortisol testing, a lot of other things, Epstein–Barr was really elevated, my cortisol was gone. Basically, all that hyperactivity had just burnt out my adrenals, so all the mechanisms of go and slow were toast. They just weren’t working at all. That’s why now it’s been a passion of mine for years.
Yeah, fascinating story. Connect serotonin to us. I think a lot of times people think of serotonin as the one thing that calms people, because it’s an SSRI drug, or a lot of our antidepressants. Talk to us about the difference between serotonin and GABA or how they interact.
Well, they’re extremely similar and if people want to look at the list, the book I was talking about earlier is The Edge Effect by Dr. Eric Braverman. There’s a lot in the book that’s not particularly helpful, like diet, or whatever, but really it is the most amazing book ever and it’s not in publication anymore, but you can usually find some used copies. It has the list and serotonin and GABA’s list is almost identical. They are the key inhibitory neurotransmitters, so they’re like having two brakes in your car, which one do you need right now? GABA is very … It’s very effected by the microbiome, the gut microbiome. We know we make neurotransmitters using the bacteria and other processes in the gut, so that’s one reason why these guys are already messed up. Gluten in particular seems to have a problem with inhibiting GABA, but not necessarily serotonin, which is a little interesting.
Then the whole concept of stress. Stress inhibits the transmission of GABA, but the studies are still iffy on this, because nobody wants to study GABA, because we don’t have good prescriptions for it that aren’t the opioids and the benzodiazepines. Doctors are very reluctant to just, “Well here, just take a Valium a couple of times a day.” They just don’t even go to GABA and that’s … Anyway, yes. GABA and serotonin are extremely similar, but in one word GABA is stability, or rhythm, and serotonin is satisfaction, or playfulness. I mean, if you’re running from the tiger, you’re not satisfied and you’re not playful, so serotonins at play, but that question of rhythm and stability is where GABA shines. Anything that’s out of rhythm, high blood pressure, low blood pressure, constipation, diarrhea, rapid heart rates, slow heart rate, whatever. Depression, mania, it doesn’t matter, it’s under the control of that stability and the rhythm of the brain.
This is great, because those are two important neurotransmitters for people with pain to start to think about, both in their own life and things they’re doing, whether they’re doing activities that keep them kind of stimulated, or they’re working on some activities that kind of slow them down, as you say. How do they kind of really effect pain directly, so to speak?
Well, of course from an evolutionary point of view, it all gets back to that, right? All creatures have very keen senses. We have to hear that snap in the bush, we have to sense that change in barometric pressure, a storm could be coming. We have to [inaudible 00:12:55] the eye quickly to see if it’s a snake, or a stick. Those alert phases, those alert parts of our brain that need that balancing GABA, particularly, stability and balance. Pain is the same thing. It’s the body’s way of speaking, “Hey, you got a problem over here, you need to take care of this arm, or you need to lay down and get off that leg.” The brain is doing its thing to send out pain messages. The problem is, is that when we’re in a stressful state that these signals just keep coming, and coming, and coming. We’re not able to calm that signal down and that’s where GABA comes in. We’re back to that signaling control mechanism.
Yeah. I think that’s a really important point, because you initially had said that if you’re injured, like if you fall and you break your leg, then there’s a signal there coming from your brain to your body that it’s time to rest. In certain people, those with kind of pain processing problems, those with chronic pain, that signal never shuts off and that signal really comes from your brain, it’s sent down to the rest of your body, so even though you’re feeling that signal, and I want to use the word feeling kind of gently, even though you’re feeling that and there’s a neurotransmitter imbalance, doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re harming yourself anymore at that point basically, that there’s just a kind of a chemical switch that is not switched over yet, basically.
Right. Of course, as you well know, they’re many studies that show the link between stress, and lifestyle, and anxiety, and insomnia, and general overwhelm of the senses in life, and how that amps up our perception of pain, or our inability to quill the perception of pain. It does ultimately get back to stress and lifestyle and GABA is a key piece of that to incorporate, along with the things that we need to do, like let’s not allow ourselves five hours of sleep, and let’s not work three jobs unless for some reason we have to. All the things that we have to do to take care of ourselves, which contribute to that big word we call stress.
Yeah, you mentioned, obviously you’re talking about stress, you mentioned sleep. Let’s give people a couple of kind of take-homes as far as what can they do to influence their own GABA production in a positive way, before they obviously reach for a pharmaceutical or maybe even before, let’s say, nutraceutical.
Well, again, the first thing I think everybody needs to do … I mean, basically we are all stressed with sensory input. Sensory input is one place that I encourage people to take a look, that get off the computer, shut down the phone, turn off the lights, you don’t need such loud music. It’s too much sensory overload and I really encourage people to get less loud, less all of that, just less and to get out of sensory overload. I think that’s number one. Then part of that, that comes along with it, number two, is then allowing more sleep, more downtime, more reading, and stop burning out those adrenals. Don’t go and work out seven days a week when you’re tired, and don’t go at night when you rev up your cortisol, and then you wonder why you can’t sleep. There’s a lot of common sense things that we have to do and getting that gut microbiome working, getting the gluten out of there and the sugars out of there.
I recommend people take different probiotics and rotate them around, because we’re just babies in the whole study of what’s going on in the gut. We don’t know what’s living down there. There’s so many different products on the market, I just, I encourage people to tinker around with several of them and try to get the maximum variety of species and hope that will make some GABA. I find that the passionflower herb, chamomile, California poppy, skullcap, these are … They’re very safe, they’re very tolerated by all ages, they’re non-addictive. Valerian too, although, it’s a little more of a sedative than working with the GABA neurotransmitter, but it does work there. Then the CBD oils and things that are available now that’s … We have to relax, destress, and reduce the sensory overload.
Yeah. The point about Valerian’s really interesting, because I find that some patients if they take too much, obviously they get a little sleepy, but if they take just the right amount, it just kind of takes the edge off and really smooths them out throughout the day almost and they’re really just fine with it. I’m glad you brought that up, because it says, it’s okay to try things. Sometimes it’s the actual dose, it’s not the actual herb or nutrient itself, it may just be the dose that you’re working with.
Yeah, they are definitely dose dependent and the instructions on the passionflower, for example, have a huge range, 10 to 60 drops one, four times a day. I tell clients, look, learn what 10 drops feels like, and then learn 15, and then learn 20, and that old song, what is it? A three dog night, which is how cold is it? Well, you need all three dogs on you to keep you warm. It’s a three dog night.
That’s kind of how it is when you’re learning to dose these herbs, is you want to know, “Okay, that’s a 40 drop situation, that’s a 50 drop situation, and yes, I can take 50 now and I can take 50 again in an hour when something’s happening,” and that they won’t impair your judgment, they just help keep your brain more stable.
Yeah. I love the idea of rotating the probiotics. You’re the first person I’ve ever heard say that on the podcast. It’s really great, because what you’re really doing is constantly seeding or reseeding your gut with different type, different strains, different … A lot of strains, even though they may be the same name, sometimes they’re a little genetically different and through that we can influence our gut health, which may directly influence serotonin, correct?
Yes, serotonin and GABA, but we’re just babies, we do not know what we’re doing yet with the gut and that’s fine. At least we’re knowing that we don’t know.
What kind of foods would influence our GABA production, either hinder it or help it?
Well, anything that is going to increase your blood sugar cycling is a problem, because that creates more stress for the body. I mentioned earlier that there seemed to be some direct links between GABA and some antibodies in the temporal lobe of the brain that inhibit the transmission of the GABA neurotransmitters, so there is a gluten element there. Yes, your proteins, your fats, your vegetables, and not overdoing on either fasting, which I’m not a proponent of for women. I think men can handle that better than women. Keeping your blood sugar stable and getting your life under control.
Yeah. The fasting point is interesting, because you obviously do a lot of work around primal health and in the primal communities there’s a lot of talk about fasting and working with intermittent fasting, whether it’s for days, or just a single meal. Why for women might not it be the best choice?
It’s a great question-
It’s a whole other podcast, but …
It is, and I did a really good blog post on this, the pros and cons of intermittent fasting for women, because in the research and the studying I’ve done, as well as, 25, maybe 30 years now in practice with people, women have more of a history of dieting and that whole issue anyway. When you come up with an idea of, “Hey, just skip this meal and well hey, why not just eat today?” It can be a problem for women that have a … The whole, “I eat too much. I just need to starve myself,” and men just don’t seem to go there with that. Men would rather try to exercise something off, rather than starve it off. Women tend to go the opposite direction. That’s number one, is that it’s just another excuse to not eat.
The other thing is, is that most of proponents that I have found of intermittent fasting tend to be younger males who are physically fit and have theoretically some muscle and some testosterone. That women, that I especially tend to work with, tend to be in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s. We’re tired, our adrenals are fatigues, we’re much more confused hormonally, we don’t have the muscle mass, we don’t regulate blood sugar well, we tend to not sleep well. It seems to me that it’s like, well those voices tend to be coming from the athletic male community, but that when you really challenge women about it, they say, “Ah, thank goodness, I’m so glad you said that, because it does not work for me at all.”
Yeah. I mean, there’s no doubt that obviously, especially women I see with adrenal fatigue, really should be cautious about intermittent fasting and implementing that into your life because it kind of effects all of your hormonal rhythms. There may be times of the month where it’s better for certain women than others, but it’s something that you have to kind of really work with a professional around to try to kind of implement that exacting.
It’s the same thing why the percentage of hypothyroidism is much higher in women, than men. The whole hormonal side of things and obviously food is going to impact hormones and it does that number one, through blood sugar. Blood sugar’s very much under the control of the adrenals. The pancreas, liver, they play a part of it, but adrenals are huge in regulating blood sugar. You take someone that’s already stressed out and on the edge with babies, and caring for their sick parents, and whatever, and now you take their food away from them, it’s just not right.
Yeah. Earlier in the podcast we talked about glutamate. How does glutamate come into our diet, let’s say, as an excitatory neurotransmitter, how does it effect our pain perception?
Well, they’re all based on amino acids, so they’re all found in foods that contain amino acids, the proteins and so on. Then of course, the big wild card is the mutants like monosodium glutamate. We know for a fact that, that seriously disturbs the brain and this is one of the, if not the main mechanism why is that the more GABA you pump in there on an already suppressed GABA system, you’ve got rocket fuel and no brakes. Yeah. There’s a lot of examples I could give, but MSG is definitely a direct source of glutamate and there’s some other issues potentially with fermented foods and high histamine foods that kind of comes into this too. Yeah, there are things happening all over the brain, but to me, the key is let’s build up and support the inhibitory neurotransmitters that we evolved to not need so much and now we’re calling on them all day and all night, because everything is fast, instant, perfect, or else kind of life now. That’s not what we evolved to handle.
Yeah. If someone has been working on their diet, their diets clean, there’s nothing processed and they’ve taken gluten out, they’re working on their sleep patterns, they’re trying to decrease stress, but they want to give GABA a try. Would you recommend that and what would the steps be to kind of enter into that?
Absolutely. Passionflower, again, I just have to keep going back to it. We sell it. It’s the number one thing in my clinic. We order it by the large case full every week. Most people find that it is supremely helpful. It’s not addictive, it’s not like you, “Oh my gosh, I have to have my passionflower,” except that, “Oh my gosh, I need my passionflower. I’m going into that meeting,” and you know that just a little 10, 15 drop serving of passionflower is going to mellow things down. By the way, we recommend, I recommend the tincture, rather than the capsules, because the capsule is a fixed dose, obviously. Whereas, with tinctures, as I was saying before about, “Yeah. I just need 10 drops to take a tiny edge off, or yeah, I need 50, 60 drops right now.”
To me, the tinctures are really valuable and that’s true for all those herbs that I mentioned and the tinctures or the capsules. Then, having them in glycerine is useful because you don’t have that alcohol burn that you need to chase it with a glass of water, so it’s useful to have passionflower, glycerite, for example, in your car, and in your purse, and under your pillow. Places where you can take some of that and not have to think about, “Oh, wait a minute, now I need some water to drink with it.” They’re never safe, you can just play with these things, and obviously you don’t just start taking them all at the same time, but you can play with them and see, “Yeah, in that situation, that really helped and I … ” You have some mastery over things.
Perfect. That’s a great take-home for people. You have a great website and a great podcast. Can you share with all of our listeners on The Healing Pain Podcast where they can learn more about you, where they can contact you?
Absolutely. The website is on diet and health and my podcast is four or five years old. It’s primal diet, modern health. The basis for that is, yes, the diet needs to be instinctual … Actually, evolutionary, because sometimes our instincts don’t connect to reality anymore, but the diet is clean, that we want the best of modern healthcare. That may be ancient herbs, it might be surgery, whatever it is, we want the best modern healthcare. Some of these things I’ve been talking about, you’ll find a lot of blog posts on that on my website.
Great. I want to thank Beverly Meyer for being with us on The Healing Pain Podcast this week, for making the connection between the brain, the gut, and the perception of pain that you may be experiencing. Please watch the video. If you like it, please make sure to share it out with your friends and family, and make sure to check Beverly out on her website at OnDietandHealth.com. I want to thank her once again. Please stay connected each week @DrJoeTatta for The Healing Pain Podcast and we will see you next week.
About Beverly Meyer
Beverly Meyer has been a client of natural health therapies since 1972. After a successful but exhausting career in business (with interviews in Glamour, Venture and Entrepreneur), she devoted herself full-time to the study and practice of natural health therapies for herself and her clients. She is a Board-Certified Clinical Nutritionist, teaching others to “Help Themselves To Health” through diet, lifestyle, intelligent supplements and lab tests since 1985.
Her Primal Diet – Modern Health podcast is a popular show on iTunes. Her award-winning blog and website is On Diet and Health. Having lived with Celiac, Grave’s and Partial Seizure Disorder, Beverly credits her decades of health research and activism with her current level of health.
Learn more about Beverly Meyer at: www.ondietandhealth.com
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