Noradrenaline (also called "norepinephrine") is a chemical created in your nerve endings that helps you stay focused and alert. With noradrenaline, you want a "Goldilocks" amount that's just enough to keep you going. Too much can cause anxiety while too little brings on symptoms of depression. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about this important neurotransmitter, what medications can help you control it, and how you can maintain your noradrenaline balance naturally.
What is noradrenaline?
Noradrenaline is a neurotransmitter created in your brain stem. A neurotransmitter sends a message from one neuron to another. Once it sends its message, its work is done and it's reabsorbed by your body. For noradrenaline, in particular, you might think of that message as saying, "Wake up!"
- Noradrenaline is mainly a neurotransmitter, but it's also a hormone. Hormones send messages too, but they travel through the bloodstream instead of across neural pathways.
- Unlike neurotransmitters, hormones aren't reabsorbed—they keep traveling through the bloodstream and communicating their message throughout your body.
What is the difference between noradrenaline and adrenaline?
Noradrenaline is a neurotransmitter and adrenaline is not. The hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline are produced in your adrenal glands. However, your brain stem also produces noradrenaline as a neurotransmitter. Both hormones and neurotransmitters carry messages from one part of your body to another, but hormones have a much broader range than neurotransmitters do.
- Neurotransmitters tend to have very short-lived effects, while hormones act over a longer period. But since noradrenaline is both, it's capable of affecting your body and behavior in both the short and the long term.
Noradrenaline is released all the time, not just when danger is present. When your brain senses danger, it triggers a flood of adrenaline into your bloodstream to help you combat or escape that danger—the so-called "fight or flight" response. Noradrenaline is released then too, but it's also released normally throughout the day whenever you need to be more alert.
- For example, if you're lounging on the couch watching TV and get up to get a snack, you'll get a small push of noradrenaline to get you moving.
- Noradrenaline production slows at night when you lie down to go to bed, but if you stand up and start moving around, you're likely to get a quick burst of noradrenaline. This is why it's so hard to "stay sleepy" if you get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
What Noradrenaline Does
Increases your heart rate. The neurotransmitter works with adrenaline to speed up your heart at signs of danger, which also increases the amount of blood pumping from your heart. It also constricts your blood vessels to increase your blood pressure. If your life is threatened, this gives you more strength to overcome the danger.
Gives you more energy. Noradrenaline breaks down fat and increases your blood sugar levels to give you that extra burst of energy to get going. When you're facing danger, this helps you fight or flee. But noradrenaline carries on this role to a lesser extent even when you're not in danger.
- For example, when you wake up in the morning, your brain sends a small burst of noradrenaline into your bloodstream to help get you going.
- When you're exercising, it's noradrenaline that helps you power through a tough part of your workout. If you've ever had a moment where you felt like you were wiped out, then got a sudden burst of energy, that was noradrenaline.
Maintains your metabolism and biorhythms. Most of the functions of your body occur on cycles, and noradrenaline plays a role in keeping these rhythms steady so your body continues to function normally. These cycles are disrupted without sufficient noradrenaline.
- For example, noradrenaline helps maintain your circadian rhythm. If your sleep cycle gets out of whack—say, you pull an all-nighter—you might end up with too much noradrenaline in your system, which can leave you jittery and anxious.
Ensure proper organ function. Noradrenaline helps trigger smooth muscle—that's the muscle that makes up your internal organs—to move and react to change. This keeps your organs functioning normally to keep your body healthy.
- For example, after you eat a meal, noradrenaline signals your stomach and intestines to start the digestion process.
How Noradrenaline Affects Everyday Functioning
Noradrenaline wakes you up and gets you moving. Your body pumps out noradrenaline throughout the day, but that production slows down during the evening as you get ready to go to sleep. Production is lowest at night, then jumps back up again in the morning.
- The extra noradrenaline in the morning is one of the reasons it's usually best to tackle your most difficult tasks first—you'll be better able to give them the attention they deserve.
Noradrenaline helps you pay attention and learn. Small bursts of the neurotransmitter send messages through your nervous system to keep you alert and attentive. By helping to hold things in your working memory, noradrenaline helps you remember things that you've learned—rather than those things going in one ear and out the other.
- If you've ever felt yourself drifting off and then suddenly snapped to attention, you likely got a short burst of noradrenaline.
Noradrenaline's Role in Mental Health
Too much noradrenaline causes anxiety, irritability, and difficulty sleeping. Noradrenaline causes you to feel awake, but you don't need to be awake all the time, right? High levels of noradrenaline result in high levels of alertness, which are really taxing to you mentally and physically.
- Panic attacks can be caused by too much noradrenaline. Likewise, if you have a hard time falling asleep or staying asleep, too much noradrenaline might be to blame.
- With too much noradrenaline, you typically feel as though you're always on edge. Since your senses are heightened to some degree, lights seem brighter and noises seem louder. All of this can make you extremely irritable.
Too little noradrenaline leads to depression, poor memory, and a lack of energy. Remember that burst of noradrenaline that helps you get out of bed in the morning? If you don't ever get it, you might not feel like getting out of bed at all. Feeling lethargic and unmotivated are often signs of low levels of noradrenaline—as well as major symptoms of depression.
- ADHD is also associated with low noradrenaline levels, which cause difficulty with focus and concentration.
Controlling Noradrenaline with Medication
Psychostimulant medications increase noradrenaline for people with ADHD. The most common medications for ADHD increase both noradrenaline and dopamine. These include methylphenidate (Ritalin/Concerta), dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine), and Adderall.
- Atomoxetine (Strattera) is a drug developed specifically for ADHD and only affects noradrenaline. It has less potential for abuse than psychostimulants but research shows it might not be as effective in treating ADHD.
Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) treat depression. These drugs work by keeping noradrenaline from being re-absorbed and stored in nerve endings. This results in more noradrenaline in your body.
- SNRIs include duloxetine (Cymbalta, Yentreve) and venlafaxine (Effexor).
- Some people respond better to SNRIs than they do SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), such as fluoxetine (Prozac). SSRIs are the most commonly prescribed antidepressant and don't affect noradrenaline.
Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) also increase noradrenaline. These older drugs have a lot of side effects that people don't like, including dry mouth, constipation, and weight gain. Because of this, they've been largely replaced by newer drugs with fewer side effects.
- Your doctor might prescribe a TCA if you've tried other drugs and they haven't helped manage your depression. Common TCAs include amitriptyline (Elavil), clomipramine (Anafranil), dosulepin, imipramine (Tofranil), lofepramine, and nortriptyline (Pamelor).
Work with your doctor to find the right medication.Mental health conditions typically involve more than one neurotransmitter and finding the best medication can be tricky. It's totally normal to try several different medications before you land on the one that treats your symptoms with minimal side effects.
- Your doctor will want to know how long you've been having your symptoms as well as what you've done to cope with those symptoms.
- If you've taken any supplements to treat your symptoms, let your doctor know about those as well. Your body's response to those supplements might help your doctor determine what medication to prescribe.
Ways to Naturally Correct Noradrenaline Imbalance
Exercise for 20-30 minutes a day to regulate noradrenaline levels. Routine exercise helps stabilize your noradrenaline levels over time. In fact, routine exercise can be just as effective as antidepressants in treating anxiety and depression, as long as you stay consistent.
- If you have depression, it can be difficult to motivate yourself to exercise every day. This is one of the many reasons taking antidepressant drugs can be so helpful.
- Once you develop a consistent exercise routine, you might find that you can decrease your dose or even stop taking antidepressants altogether.
- If you have an anxiety or panic disorder associated with too much noradrenaline, regular exercise can help lower your noradrenaline levels. This happens because physical activity mimics the fight-or-flight response—it's just that instead of running from a bear, you're just running (or walking, or swimming, or even dancing).
Combine exercise with relaxation techniques to further reduce noradrenaline. A therapist can help you discover the relaxation techniques that work best for you. Deep-breathing exercises and meditation are two clinically proven ways to lower noradrenaline and calm your body and mind.
- Grounding is one simple exercise you can try if you're feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Start by focusing on your breath. As you take slow, deep breaths, start by naming 5 things you see around you. Then, name 4 things around you that you can touch. Name 3 things around you that you can hear, followed by 2 things around you that you can smell. End the grounding exercise by naming 1 thing around you that you can taste.
Boost serotonin and dopamine through small accomplishments. Serotonin and dopamine work together to make you feel better about yourself and your life—and the good news is that every little accomplishment gives you a little hit of these happy chemicals. Since dopamine helps make noradrenaline, making more dopamine means more noradrenaline as well.
- Keep a "to do" list to give yourself little bursts throughout your day. No accomplishment is too small not to be included on your list! There's no shame in including "get out of bed" as an accomplishment in and of itself.
- Divide large tasks into smaller ones so you have more accomplishments to celebrate. For example, if you have an essay due for a class, you might consider each paragraph a separate accomplishment.
Take amino acid supplements to boost noradrenaline levels. Your body makes noradrenaline from dopamine, so you have to start there. Your body synthesizes dopamine from the amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine, which you can buy in supplement form. A healthy adult needs 25 milligrams (0.00088 oz) of these amino acids per 1 kilogram (2.2 lb) of body weight.
- You can also get these amino acids in the foods you eat. Foods high in tyrosine include dairy products, meat, poultry, fish, beans, soybeans, and whole grains.
- Phenylalanine also makes tyrosine. Foods high in phenylalanine include meat and meat products, dairy products, and whole grains.