Brain Zaps, Brain Shivers, Brain Shocks. Head Shocks or Electrical shocks are a common side effect and withdrawal symptom from Antidepressants, but they can also occur with Benzodiazepines and Sleeping Pills. The symptoms are described as brief but repeated electric shock-like sensations in the brain and head, or originating in the brain but extending to other parts of the body. Moving one's eyes quickly from side to side has also been shown to trigger Brain Zaps in more rapid frequency. Brain Zaps are often accompanied by disorientation, tinnitus, vertigo and lightheadedness.
In withdrawal in particular from antidepressants, but also from sleeping pills or anxiety medications, these jolts of electricity can worsen and become debilitating, although there is no current evidence that the zaps present any danger to the
individual. Currently they are not recognized as a physiological syndrome. So what causes brain zaps?
Understanding the Brain
Grasping the brain's complexity isn't easy. This organ gives us the capacity for art, language, rational thought and moral judgments. It is responsible for our memories, movements, personality and the way we sense the world. Basically it governs everything that comprises the human experience. In the late 1700s, an Italian anatomist named Luigi Galvani discovered evidence of a bioelectric force within living tissues. Since his discovery, other scientists have proposed theories about how electricity is conducted in the human body. One prevailing theory states that electrical impulses in the central and peripheral nervous system are transmitted from one nerve to another with the help of electrically charged salts passing through ion channels. And nowhere in the body are nerve cells as prevalent as in the brain.
The brain is a 3-pound (1.4 kilogram) mass of fat and protein that has the appearance of a small cauliflower. As one of the body's biggest organs, it consists of 100 billion nerve cells that regulate our conscious and unconscious body
processes, including digestion and breathing. To put this into perspective, consider the fact that there are as many nerve cells in the human brain as there are stars in our galaxy.
To compound the intricacy, each of these 100 billion nerve cells make 10,000 connections with other nerve cells, so ensuring these nerves remain in balance is critical.
Each brain cell depends on a regulated stability to function properly. Excess sugar, salt, fat, and caffeine can cause imbalances in the brain's normal chemistry. This is especially true with medications that target specific neurotransmitters. Fifty neurotransmitters have been discovered to date, with about six associated with addiction by causing feelings of euphoria. Medications that target Serotonin (antidepressants) appear to be linked to Brain Zaps, as do anxiety medications and sleeping pills that target GABA.
SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) work by forcing the level of Serotonin higher in the brain by blocking the natural recycling process to other nerves. But Serotonin is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter that is required to have communication between nerve cells. Serotonin can either excite or restrain. So pushing the levels artificially high in the brain also starves other areas. This could account for the extensive list of side effects related to antidepressants and also the mysterious side effect of Brain Zaps.
The average adult human possesses only 5 to 10 mg of serotonin, 90% of which is in the gut region, with only 2% reaching the central nervous system. The remainder is in the blood platelets and the brain. No physiological substance known possesses such diverse actions in the body as serotonin.
The small amount of Serotonin in the CNS attaches to receptors that lie along the brain stem from the midbrain to the medulla (lower half of the brainstem). Most antidepressant medications work by holding serotonin for longer periods in the synaptic spaces of the nervous system, and it is this space between nerve cells that has an electrical current. Since Serotonin transmits currents, it is highly possible that holding the Serotonin longer than nature intended could cause a misfiring of electrical current resulting in a Brain Zap.
Benzodiazepines and Sleeping pills work on GABA (Gamma-Aminobutric Acid), which is the neurotransmitter that prevents over-stimulation of the central nervous system. Continual use of anxiety medications and sleeping pills 'down regulate' the GABA receptors and reduce their ability to ease an over-excited state. This could explain the Brain Zaps that occur while on medications or in the withdrawal process for drugs that affect GABA. Rather than inhibiting the electrical activity in the brain, tolerance and withdrawal symptoms over-stimulate, allowing more electrical impulses to go unchecked.*
Oxidative Stress and the Brain
Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that modify, disrupt and impair the stable structure within our brain and body. Excitotoxicity is the process by which nerve cells are damaged by toxins. Both an inflammatory response and excitotoxicty are known to play important roles in all neurodegenerative diseases, and may also play a significant role in Brain Zaps.
The brain makes up only 2% of the total body weight but consumes 25% of the energy for the entire body. The oxygen we breathe helps to burn sugar and fat inside our body cells to produce energy. But about 2% of the converted oxygen remains as free radicals. Oxidative Stress in the brain can result from poor diet, the extended use of medications or environmental toxins. If these reactive elements are not neutralized, oxidative stress on the brain occurs.
According to Dr. Jimmy Gutman, the brain is particularly susceptible to free radical attack because it generates more oxidative by-products per gram of tissue than any other organ. It could be this increase in oxidative stress that worsens Brain Zaps.*
A study in The Journal of Neuroscience in December 2000 indicated that Tricyclic antidepressants and SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) were shown to cause oxidative stress in a nerve cell line due to a reduction of intracellular Glutathione (master antioxidant of the body) levels.
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