Many medications and drugs exhibit their effects by manipulating the release or re-uptake of neurotransmitters in the brain. Stimulants, such as amphetamines (i.e., methamphetamine, “speed”, Adderall, Vyvanse, Dexedrine), ecstasy (MDMA), cocaine, methylphenidate (i.e., Ritalin, Concerta), norepinephrine-reuptake inhibitors (i.e., Strattera, Edronax), and norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitors (i.e., Wellbutrin, Zyman) exert their effects by increasing the activity of norepinephrine and/or dopamine in the brain by either blocking re-uptake or stimulating the release of the neurotransmitter. These medications are used by people for a number of health concerns, including fatigue, lack of focus/concentration, ADD, ADHD, depression, anxiety as well as for recreational use.

In addition, many anti-anxiety medications, sleep aids (i.e., Ambien, Lunesta) and other depressants, such as alcohol, barbiturates (i.e., phenobarbital, Fioricet), and benzodiazepines (i.e., Xanax, Klonopin, Valium, Lorazepam) work by facilitating GABA activity or inhibiting glutamate or catecholamine (i.e., dopamine, norepinephrine or epinephrine) activity. In so doing, they may be able to help calm down an over-excited system and allow for short-term relaxation and/or anxiety relief.

Still other medications work on serotonin, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (i.e., Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, Lexapro and Luvox) which block the reuptake of serotonin back into the pre-synaptic nerve, or triptans (i.e., Imitrex, Maxalt, Amerge, Zomig) used for migraines which can temporarily dock with serotonin receptors and help alleviate the pain of a migraine headache.

Unintended Consequences of Many Medications

The problem with these medications is that they are not doing anything to make more neurotransmitters; they are simply shuffling them around or tricking the body into thinking there is more neurotransmitter available than there actually is. This can have several undesirable affects.

First, the brain is being tricked into thinking there is more neurotransmitter in the system than there actually is. As such, it will upregulate processes that increase the degradation (destruction) of more neurotransmitter in order to try and restore balance to the system. The problem is, there actually isn’t a surplus of neurotransmitter to start with, so the increased degradation of neurotransmitter creates further depletion over time.

This is often what happens when medications, such as anti-depressants ‘stop working’; when these drugs appear to “stop working”, there is not enough neurotransmitter left for the drug to shuffle around and the person is left in a more depleted than when they started. This is also why it is so incredibly difficult for many people to get off of these medications without professional guidance; they are actually in a worse state after taking the drug than they were before they started it and need even more support to feel better. Unfortunately, at this point, a person in this state is usually prescribed more of a given mediation or another medication to try and help them feel better, which actually makes the underlying problem worse.

The second detrimental effect of these medications has to do with actual damage to the post-synaptic neuron and/or it’s receptors due to the drug; this damage may be permanent (called neurotoxicity). Neurotoxicity occurs when a neuron dies, and is a major concern with many medications, particularly amphetamines.

However, even in the case of neurotoxicity, there is a solution. Even though the underlying neuronal damage is not known to be reversible, long-term correction is possible with continued, life-long use of amino acid therapy to make up for the underlying damage.