Biochemical tests for Brain Chemistry Imbalances

When someone goes to the Brain Bio Clinic for help with recovering from addiction we take some initial tests for brain chemistry imbalances. The most common laboratory biochemical/nutritional tests that we use are listed here. These tests are not often performed in routine medical screening.

Neurotransmitter tests measure blood platelet levels of dopamine, noradrenalin, adrenalin, serotonin and acetycholine. These levels are a good indicator of levels found in the fluid in the brain (the cerebrospinal fluid – CSF), thus indicating excesses, deficiencies and imbalances in neurotransmitters. This test is also available through doctors and nutritional therapists.

Kryptopyrrole or HPL test is a urine test for a chemical that, if raised in the urine, indicates increased oxidative stress and is associated with mental-health problems such as depression, confusion, anxiety and insomnia. It is a very useful indicator of a person’s need for zinc and vitamin B6, supplementation of which tends to normalise HPL levels. This test is available through doctors and nutritional therapists.

Zinc taste test is based on the fact that sufficient zinc is required to detect bitter, sour or metallic tastes. The client is given 10ml of a solution containing zinc, then asked to swish it around in his or her mouth for about ten seconds before swallowing it. Then they are asked to describe what they taste. If they report a distinct bitter, sour or metallic taste or a distinctly unpleasant taste, they are not zinc deficient. If they report no taste, or a ‘watery’ or ‘chalky’ taste, but not bitter, sour or metallic taste, they are most likely to be zinc deficient. Many nutritional therapists use this test. In our experience, it links well with other signs and symptoms of zinc deficiency, and is a good and inexpensive tool for monitoring the success or failure of zinc therapy.

Homocysteine is a potentially toxic amino acid associated with heart disease, strokes, cancer, abnormal blood clotting and over 100 other medical conditions (see The Homocysteine Solution for details). It is frequently elevated in those with a chemical addiction and especially alcoholics. The optimal level is 6–7µmol/l. The higher your level the more specific homocysteine-lowering nutrients, mainly B vitamins, you need. An extremely high level, above 20 µmol/l, is associated with an increased risk of alcohol withdrawal seizures and therefore should be corrected before beginning alcohol withdrawal. It is an excellent tool for indirectly measuring SAM, folic acid and methylation status. When it’s elevated, SAM, folic acid and methylation status is usually inadequate, so it’s a good functional test of whether you are lacking in these nutrients. Homocysteine can and should be tested by your doctor if you have any of the above, but rarely is. You can test it yourself with a home-test kit.

Essential fatty analysis, using red blood cell membranes. Low levels are often found when conditions of addictions occur together, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, ADHD, cognitive impairment and irritability. This usually matches nicely with physical examination findings of essential fatty acid deficiency (dry skin, dandruff, dry unmanageable hair, ‘chicken skin’ on the backs of arms, pale-skin patches on cheeks, thickened cracked heel calluses, soft or brittle nails). Low levels indicate the need for both dietary and supplementary essential fats. Another useful test is a niacin patch test. The skin’s ability to blush when exposed to niacin depends on prostaglandins, made from essential fats. This test involves putting a patch of aqueous niacin on the skin and observing the severity of the blush within five minutes. No blushing indicates a lack of essential fats. Some nutritional therapists use this test.

Salivary cortisol and DHEA tests usually measure daily saliva cortisol levels, the adrenal stress hormone, at four different times of the day: morning, noon, early evening and bedtime, because they should rise and fall with the day. If they are too high in the evening this might explain, for example, insomnia, whereas if too low in the morning this would explain lethargy. DHEA is usually measured once as a measure of the adrenals’ ability to produce stress hormones and your stress levels. Elevated levels indicate excessive stress, and possibly excessive use of stimulants. Low levels of cortisol and DHEA indicate low adrenal function. Elevated cortisol levels are frequently observed in people who drink alcohol to excess or use drugs, and those in very early recovery. Low levels of cortisol, as found in adrenal fatigue or exhaustion, are commonly seen in depressed women in recovery. A doctor or nutritional therapist needs to interpret these results and make appropriate recommendations.

IgG food allergy/intolerance test measures IgG: delayed-onset food sensitivities. Food sensitivities cause or aggravate many conditions and symptoms linked to addiction, including sleep problems, food cravings, depression, anxiety, ADHD and chronic pain syndromes. Visit this page for more on allergies. Milk and wheat are the top two allergens detected among recovering clients. If they test positive, clients are asked to eliminate all moderate to severely allergic foods for at least three months. IgG food intolerance test kits are available from York Test.

Your doctor or nutritional therapist may also measure other standard biochemical indicators such as:

Liver function tests measuring AST (also called SGOT), ALT (also called SGPT), GGT, alkaline phosphatase and bilirubin. Blood levels of these are often elevated in people with alcohol liver injury – fatty livers, alcohol hepatitis and cirrhosis – as well as in clients with hepatitis C. These can be tested by your doctor. Your AST and ALT levels can also be measured by a simple pin-prick home blood test called the Livercheck. Since alkaline phosphatase is a zinc-dependent enzyme, low levels (below 55 units) are indicative of zinc deficiency, especially if accompanied by zinc deficiency symptoms. Extremely low levels (below 40) are frequently found in addicted clients with eating disorders. Your zinc status can further be tested by the zinc taste test or kryptopyrrole (HPL) test. Many nutritionists use these non-invasive tests.

Serum albumin is a blood protein formed by the liver. It is often low (under 3.5 units) or low-normal (under 4.0 – normal range is usually about 3.5 to 5.2) among alcoholics and other undernourished, chemically dependent people. In our experience, the two most common identifiable causes of low-normal or deficient albumin in recovering addicted people are alcohol-related liver damage and zinc deficiency.

Total cholesterol, LDL, HDL and triglycerides. Triglycerides are often elevated in recovering clients, especially alcoholics with fatty livers. Total cholesterol is often either high or extremely low (the normal range is 4–5 mmol/l or, in the US system of measurement, 160–200 mg/dl). Low total cholesterol, below 3 mmol/l or 120 mg/dl is not uncommon. Low total cholesterol is often associated with poor nutrition, low-fat and essential-fat diets (especially omega-3 fats). When extremely low it is linked to depression, suicidal tendencies, violence and serotonin dysfunction. HDL cholesterol levels are also frequently low or low-normal in poorly nourished and addicted people, alcoholics and especially those with addictions and eating disorders. Zinc deficiency is a common finding with low HDL levels.

C-reactive protein is a measure of general or systemic inflammation. This means your body’s chemistry is in a state of red alert and it is often associated with conditions of pain. When elevated, it is associated with an increased risk of sleep problems, liver disease, depression, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Complete blood count with differential Blood-loss anaemia, iron-deficiency anaemia, folate and/or B12 deficiency anaemias are common, especially among chronic alcoholics. Absolute lymphocyte counts, a measure of immune deficiency, are often low–normal (under 1,500 lymphocytes per millilitre) in poorly nourished clients, especially chronic alcoholics. Low lymphocyte counts are commonly seen in zinc deficiency, in association with low–normal alkaline phosphatase, low–normal serum albumin and a positive zinc taste test.

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