The human body is constantly making, altering, and destroying chemicals that it needs to survive and function. The variety of substances is so varied and complex that it’s impossible to begin to detect or count them all. You’ve heard them referred to as enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters. With so many different compounds flowing through your veins, it’s not hard to understand how a chemical imbalance could occur. Imbalances can be caused by many factors, including genetics, age, disease, injury, poor nutrition, exposure to toxic substances, and even chronic stress.
A chemical imbalance in the brain happens when a person has either too little or too much of certain neurotransmitters and is often associated with mood disorders or mental conditions. For decades, we’ve heard that various metal issues, like depression and anxiety, are linked to chemical imbalances.
However, the scientific evidence behind those theories is limited.
The Origins of the Chemical Imbalance Theory
The chemical imbalance theory was first introduced in the late 1950s, and we were told mental health conditions, including depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, and mood, personality, and behavior disorders, were due to a deficiency of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Then, a theory still popular today, blamed these mental conditions on too little serotonin. Pharmaceutical companies and the media popularized these theories despite the lack of empirical evidence and peer-reviewed studies. Today, we know that it’s much more complicated than either of these.
Research has debunked the chemical imbalance theory, with studies predominantly pointing to psychological and sociocultural causes in conjunction with biological factors contributing to mental health disorders. While there’s still a lack of a clear understanding about the exact causes of most mental health conditions, it’s a misconception that chemical imbalances in the brain are solely responsible for mental illnesses.
Here’s What Science Tells Us
While some studies have found links between certain chemical imbalances and specific mental health issues, researchers don’t know if the imbalances are causes or symptoms. While it’s true that neurochemicals are a contributing factor in most mental health conditions, it’s much more complicated than adjusting the levels of one neurochemical. Although chemical imbalances in the brain do not directly cause mental health disorders, because they do have influence, medications that alter the concentration of neurotransmitters can sometimes provide symptom relief for some people.
The reality is that mood disorders and mental health illnesses are highly complex conditions affecting 57.8 million adults in the United States in 2021. The development of mental health challenges is also influenced by the following factors:
- genetics and family history
- life experiences, such as a history of physical, psychological, or emotional abuse, or other adverse childhood experiences
- having a history of alcohol or substance abuse
- taking certain medications
- psychosocial factors, such as external circumstances that lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness
As of writing this, current biological testing cannot reliably verify and diagnose a mental health condition by finding a chemical imbalance. In fact, there are no medical tests to diagnose a chemical imbalance in the brain. Doctors can check the levels of neurochemicals in your blood. However, that’s not an accurate representation of the amount of these chemicals in your brain. Instead, they make subjective diagnoses based on the symptoms combined with findings from a physical exam.