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By: Deane Alban
As a hormone and neurotransmitter, norepinephrine plays a key role in many mental disorders. Here’s how to balance your norepinephrine level naturally.
Norepinephrine is a stress hormone that gets much less attention in mainstream media than another hormone, cortisol.
And that’s certainly understandable.
Cortisol has been called “public enemy #1” because of the damage it causes. (1)
Excessive levels of cortisol contribute to mood swings, insomnia, memory loss, shortened attention span, and a long list of physical ailments. (2)
But, in some significant ways, norepinephrine is equally important.
And as a neurotransmitter, it also plays a significant role in our mental health and overall happiness.
Let’s take a look at what norepinephrine does, what happens when you have too little or too much of it, and what you can do to correct these imbalances.
What Is Norepinephrine? What Does It Do?
Norepinephrine is a dual-purpose compound that acts as both a stress hormone and a neurotransmitter.
It’s sometimes called noradrenaline, especially in the United Kingdom, but here in the US, norepinephrine is the preferred term.
Norepinephrine is made in the brain, the central nervous system, and in the adrenal glands.
Its name literally means “alongside the kidneys” referring to its synthesis in the adrenal glands. (3)
Norepinephrine, along with epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), triggers the “fight or flight response” in the face of danger or extreme stress.
It helps you think and move fast in an emergency.
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It increases heart rate and blood pressure, directs blood flow away from skin and into muscles, and triggers the release of glucose into the bloodstream.
Norepinephrine differs from cortisol in that it’s created on an as needed basis and dissipates quickly after the perceived danger or stressful situation is over.
Cortisol, on the other hand, lingers in the body where it accumulates, contributing to diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. (4)
Norepinephrine and Depression
No one, including the experts, fully understands the biochemical causes of depression.
Norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine — neurotransmitters that belong to a group of compounds known as the monoamines — play a role in mood regulation. (5)
The most popular theory of depression causation is low serotonin.
This is why the most popular antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) which work by increasing serotonin levels.
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Other theories posit that depression is caused by brain inflammation, low dopamine, or low norepinephrine. (6)
The main symptoms of low norepinephrine-based depression are feelings of lethargy, brain fog, and lack of zest for life.
These symptoms are very similar to depression that’s linked to low dopamine.
This makes sense since these two compounds are extremely similar in structure and function.
Both are formed from the same amino acid precursors — tyrosine and phenylalanine — and both are essential for maintaining alertness, focus, and motivation.
The biggest differences are that they’re created in different areas of the brain and act on different receptors. (7)
It’s easy to see why prescribing antidepressants can get complicated.
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Most antidepressants work by increasing serotonin levels, with a few working on dopamine or norepinephrine, or a combination thereof.
Wellbutrin, for example, blocks the reabsorption of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. (8)
Cymbalta is a serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) that works by increasing both norepinephrine and serotonin. (9)
Tricyclics, some of the oldest antidepressants, work by increasing both serotonin and norepinephrine, while blocking the action of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter of memory and learning. (10)
All this explains why no one antidepressant works for everyone.
Norepinephrine and ADHD
Another common disorder linked to norepinephrine is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The conventional treatment for ADHD is a prescription stimulant like Ritalin or Adderall possibly accompanied by behavioral therapy.
Most ADHD medications are based on the theory that those with attention disorders are deficient in dopamine or norepinephrine. (11)
When you can’t focus or sit still, taking a stimulant would seem to be counterproductive but here’s how this works.
These drugs stimulate the release of dopamine and norepinephrine and slow their rate of reabsorption allowing more to properly bind to receptors. (12)
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This allows you to make better use of available norepinephrine and dopamine.
These drugs can make you feel more alert, focused, and mentally clear — whether you have ADHD or not.
Adderall and Ritalin are sometimes used off-label (and often illegally) as smart drugs or study drugs by college students and those in high-pressure occupations looking for a mental edge.
You don’t have to rely on drugs to increase norepinephrine to manage ADHD.
Dr. John Ratey, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and bestselling author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, has spent decades studying the effects of physical exercise on the brain.
He’s found that exercise tempers ADHD symptoms by raising both norepinephrine and dopamine which work to regulate the attention system.
The food you eat can also have a significant effect. Read our article on how your diet affects ADHD.
Norepinephrine Imbalance and Other Mental Disorders
Norepinephrine is linked to a substantial number of mental health disorders.
As with any neurotransmitter or hormone, your levels can be either too high or too low, and nowhere is that more apparent than with norepinephrine.
When you have too much norepinephrine, you’ll tend towards anxiety and insomnia.
A sudden burst can even trigger a panic attack.
Conversely, low levels leave you fatigued and depressed, with little interest in life.
People with both fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome have low norepinephrine levels.
Bipolar disorder, which is characterized by excessive mood swings, may be caused by an imbalance of norepinephrine. (13)
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It’s theorized that high levels cause the manic phase while low levels cause the depression phase.
Debilitating migraine headaches may also be a norepinephrine-related disorder that occurs when the sympathetic nervous system’s stores of this brain chemical are depleted. (14)
Parkinson’s, a motor control disease, is usually associated with the death of neurons in the area of the brain that produce dopamine.
But there’s evidence that the problem may be one of norepinephrine as well. (15)
The loss of norepinephrine may explain some of the non-movement symptoms of this disease such as fatigue and irregular blood pressure. (16)
Norepinephrine may be a factor that contributes to Alzheimer’s disease.
How to Balance Norepinephrine Naturally
Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may suggest a norepinephrine-altering drug like an SNRI, Wellbutrin, or Adderall.
But finding the right cocktail is hit or miss and these medications often have unwanted side effects.
Here are some ways to balance norepinephrine levels naturally.
Norepinephrine Boosting Foods
The amino acid tyrosine is the basic building block of norepinephrine.
You can eat foods that contain either tyrosine or phenylalanine, another amino acid that converts into tyrosine.
Virtually all animal products are good sources of both tyrosine and phenylalanine.
The foods that increase norepinephrine will be very similar to those that increase dopamine.
You can find a complete list of foods that increase dopamine here.
Here are some foods known to specifically increase norepinephrine: (21)
- beans and legumes
- fish and seafood
Norepinephrine Enhancing Supplements
If you don’t eat a lot of norepinephrine-boosting foods, you can take supplemental tyrosine or phenylalanine.
Acetyl-l-tyrosine is the most bioavailable form of tyrosine.
Unlike other forms, it readily crosses the blood-brain barrier, a filter that protects the brain from foreign substances. (22)
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Tyrosine supplements can help with memory loss caused by acute stress.
Phenylalanine supplements are available in the “d” form or the “l” form.
L-phenylalanine is used as a natural antidepressant and for weight loss while d-phenylalanine is used mainly to relieve pain.
Some supplements combine both and are called d,l-phenylalanine or DLPA. (23)
Another amino acid, l-carnitine, provides the foundation for an excellent brain booster that works by increasing levels of norepinephrine and serotonin — acetyl-l-carnitine (ALCAR), a synthesized form of l-carnitine. (24)
Unlike naturally occurring l-carnitine, acetyl-l-carnitine readily enters the brain.
Arctic root (Rhodiola rosea) is a popular adaptogenic herb that reduces depression symptomsfaster than antidepressant medications. (25)
It works by decreasing cortisol levels while increasing levels of norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. (26)
Many college students, biohackers, and seniors are already self-medicating with nicotine to improve mental performance.
Nicotine turns out to be a surprisingly safe brain enhancer that shows promise in treating brain disorders including ADHD, depression, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. (29, 30, 31)
Tips for Increasing Norepinephrine
Besides food and supplements, here are two more norepinephrine-boosting tips.
We’ve already noted how exercise increases the feel-good brain chemicals.
If you’re game, you can enhance the effects of your exercise by finishing up with a cold water plunge.
Jumping into cold water increases norepinephrine two to three times within minutes. (32)
If cold water isn’t your style, take a nap instead.
A daytime nap, a more realistic option for most of us, can also double your levels of norepinephrine. (33)
Supplements to Decrease High Norepinephrine Levels
The overwhelming majority of neurotransmitter imbalances are on the low side, but not everyone has low norepinephrine. (34)
If you are among those with a high level of norepinephrine, it can really impact your life.
Signs of high norepinephrine include racing thoughts, anxiety, and high blood pressure.
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While there aren’t as many natural remedies as there are for low norepinephrine, there are some interesting options that use common natural remedies in unexpected ways.
5-HTP is a popular supplement for depression, insomnia, and anxiety.
It works mainly by boosting serotonin, but it also depletes norepinephrine, dopamine, and epinephrine. (37)
This is usually a cautionary side effect when using it to treat these conditions, but you can put it to work for you if you have high norepinephrine.
Melatonin is your body’s natural sleep hormone and a common sleep supplement.
A reliable decrease in norepinephrine occurs after taking melatonin, but only if you take it and lie down. (38)
Velvet bean or cowhage (Mucuna pruriens) is an herbal remedy that contains l-dopa, a dopamine precursor.
It’s useful for treating Parkinson’s — one study found it worked even better than typical medications. (39)
It also drives down norepinephrine levels.
Do not take this if you have low blood pressure or take hypertension medications as it can cause your blood pressure to drop too low. (40)
One of the weirdest remedies I came across was baking soda.
Apparently taking baking soda after exercising reduces norepinephrine levels by 30%.
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is one of the world’s most powerful natural remedies.
It’s been wildly popular in Asia for thousands of years as a tonic that brings long life, strength, and wisdom to those who take it.
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It reduces the stress hormone cortisol while strengthening the adrenal glands.
There’s also evidence that it can inhibit the reuptake of norepinephrine. (42)
Norepinephrine: The Bottom Line
Norepinephrine is a stress hormone and neurotransmitter that helps the body respond to danger and stressful situations.
Your level of norepinephrine can be too low which leads to depression and ADHD, or too high which contributes to anxiety.
It is closely linked to both epinephrine (adrenaline) and dopamine in function and structure.
Common medications such as antidepressants and stimulants can modify norepinephrine levels, but finding the right drug can be hit or miss.
Fortunately, there are many natural ways to balance norepinephrine levels with food, supplements, exercise, and other lifestyle adjustments.