Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Subscribe to the Magazine for free
Subscribe for free to keep reading! If you are already subscribed, enter your email address to log back in.
Thanks for subscribing!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Are you a healthcare practitioner?
Thanks for subscribing!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

How to Interpret a Neurotransmitter Test

Medically reviewed by 
How to Interpret a Neurotransmitter Test

At the core of neurological and mental well-being lie neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that play a pivotal role in regulating numerous bodily functions, including mood, cognition, muscle movement, and sleep. The delicate balance of neurotransmitters is integral to maintaining optimal brain function, and disruptions in this equilibrium can contribute to a spectrum of neurological and mental health conditions. In functional diagnostics, neurotransmitter testing has become a valuable means of gaining insights into these intricate biochemical processes. This article aims to shed light on the importance of neurotransmitter testing, providing healthcare practitioners with a comprehensive guide to interpreting and utilizing test results.


Overview of Neurotransmitters

There are over one hundred neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers that help transmit signals within the nervous system. They are responsible for communication between nerve cells (neurons) and are essential for various physiological and psychological functions. Neurons communicate with each other and other cells, such as muscles or glands, through the release and reception of neurotransmitters.

Neurons produce neurotransmitters and store them in sacs called synaptic vesicles. When a nerve impulse reaches the end of a neuron, it triggers the release of neurotransmitters from the vesicles into the synapse, which is the small gap between the sending neuron (presynaptic neuron) and the receiving neuron (postsynaptic neuron). Neurotransmitters travel across the synapse and bind to their designated receptors on the surface of the postsynaptic neuron. The binding of neurotransmitters to receptors can have various effects on the postsynaptic neuron. It can either excite the neuron, making it more likely to generate an action potential, or inhibit it, making it less likely to generate an action potential. After the neurotransmitters have transmitted their signals, they are either taken back up into the presynaptic neuron through a process called reuptake or broken down by enzymes in the synaptic cleft. Neurotransmitters assist the nervous system's control over physiological functions, including heart rate, breathing, muscle movements, thoughts, memory, feelings, sleep, senses, digestion, stress responses, and hormone regulation. (6, 23

Common Neurotransmitters

Acetylcholine is an excitatory neurotransmitter involved in arousal, muscle movement, and memory. (1

Dopamine is a monoamine neurotransmitter involved in reward and pleasure, motor control, and mood regulation. It is also classified as a catecholamine hormone, released by the adrenal glands, and a neurohormone, released by the hypothalamus, in response to stress. (13

Epinephrine (also called adrenaline) and norepinephrine (also called noradrenaline) are neurotransmitters and hormones collectively known as catecholamines. Released in response to stress, they play vital roles in the "fight or flight" response. Epinephrine increases heart rate, dilates airways, and mobilizes energy stores. Norepinephrine increases alertness, constricts blood vessels, and affects mood, memory, and the sleep-wake cycle. (10

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the body's primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in adults' central nervous systems, blocking chemical messages to decrease brain stimulation. By slowing brain functions, GABA reduces stress and promotes relaxation. (15

Glutamate, on the other hand, is the primary excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain. By activating the brain, glutamate plays a crucial role in learning and memory. (16

Serotonin, also called 5-hydroxytryptamine, is an inhibitory monoamine neurotransmitter that functions as a hormone. The gut makes roughly 90% of the body's serotonin, with the remaining 10% synthesized in the brainstem. Serotonin's primary roles are regulating mood, appetite, sleep, and pain. (27)

Indications for Neurotransmitter Testing

Neurotransmitter testing may be warranted when individuals exhibit symptoms suggesting potential neurotransmitter imbalances. Clinical indications for neurotransmitter testing include persistent mood disorders, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and cognitive issues that have not responded to conventional treatments. Neurotransmitter imbalances are implicated in various neurological disorders, including Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia, depression, and Alzheimer's disease. Additionally, it may be considered when evaluating conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia. (28)

The following table summarizes the key symptoms of neurotransmitter imbalances:

Sources: (7-12)

What Is a Neurotransmitter Test?

Neurotransmitter testing helps understand possible neurochemical imbalances underlying neuropsychiatric and neurological conditions. Several neurotransmitter testing methods can be used in practice, each with strengths and limitations.

Urinary Neurotransmitter Testing

Due to its non-invasive collection method and being the primary method of neurotransmitter elimination, urine has been the preferred sample type for measuring neurotransmitters. A urine test such as the Neurotransmitters panel from ZRT Laboratory quantifies the concentrations of urinary neurotransmitters, their amino acid precursors, and metabolites. This comprehensive analysis provides a framework for understanding how the body's synthesis and degradation of neurotransmitters contribute to their concentrations in urine. By including the precursors and metabolites of neurotransmitters, this panel provides insight into whether genetic polymorphisms or nutritional deficiencies are involved in neurotransmitter imbalances, helping to create a tailored treatment plan with dietary, lifestyle, and supplemental interventions. While urine neurotransmitter testing provides valuable insights, its limitations include the influence of external factors like diet, medications, and supplements on results and the indirect reflection of central nervous system neurotransmitter concentrations. (21)

Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF) Analysis

A lumbar puncture is performed to obtain CSF directly from the spinal cord. This direct measurement accurately represents neurotransmitter levels in the central nervous system; however, this method is limited by invasiveness, cost, and practicality. Because of this, CSF analysis is reserved for diagnosing certain disorders of neurotransmitter metabolism, often in the pediatric population. (22)


Interpreting Neurotransmitter Test Results

Below is a step-by-step guide for analyzing neurotransmitter test results:

Compare the patient's neurotransmitter levels to the testing laboratory's standard and optimal reference ranges. Identify any values that fall outside the normal ranges. Results outside the standard reference ranges may indicate pathology, warranting additional testing. For example, frankly high levels of epinephrine, norepinephrine, and their metabolic byproducts require further testing to rule out pheochromocytoma, a catecholamine-secreting adrenal tumor. Consider both individual neurotransmitter levels and their ratios, as imbalances may be more evident when evaluating the proportions of certain neurotransmitters to others.

When interpreting results, consider the patient's overall clinical presentation, medical history, and symptomatology. Neurotransmitter levels are part of a broader clinical picture. Relate abnormal neurotransmitter levels to the patient's symptoms. For example, low serotonin levels align with depressive symptoms. Remember that diet, medications, and supplements can skew neurotransmitter results. Before going down an unnecessary rabbit hole of investigation, ensure these factors haven't influenced the patient's results. For example, eating bananas, walnuts, pineapple, and avocado can cause significant elevations in serotonin and dopamine.

Identify patterns of neurotransmitter imbalances to correlate them with specific disorders and craft effective treatment strategies. Continuing with the example of serotonin, low levels of tryptophan and serotonin indicate the patient has insufficient building blocks to synthesize serotonin. Part of this treatment plan would include incorporating dietary and supplemental sources of tryptophan to assist endogenous serotonin synthesis.

Functional Medicine Approach to Neurotransmitter Imbalance 

The functional medicine approach to optimizing neurotransmitters emphasizes a comprehensive understanding of an individual's health by identifying and addressing the underlying causes of dysfunction rather than merely alleviating symptoms. This approach recognizes that neurotransmitter imbalances may result from various factors, including lifestyle habits, gut health, and chronic stress. Along with a thorough patient evaluation and history, additional testing may help to identify contributory factors to the identified imbalances on the neurotransmitter test. These may include hormone, stool, and micronutrient tests. Once root causes have been identified, such as poor diet, chronic stress, and intestinal dysbiosis, a holistic approach to neurotransmitter imbalance utilizes various strategies to restore balance to a patient's neurotransmitter profile, neurological function, and mental health.

Treatment Strategies Based on Test Results

Personalized treatment strategies are implemented to lay a solid foundation for successfully treating neurotransmitter imbalances. This includes correcting nutritional deficiencies and gastrointestinal and adrenal function, as needed, because the body cannot make neurotransmitters efficiently without the correct nutritional and energetic building blocks. This approach takes time but ensures long-term success. Use the test results to guide personalized treatment plans. Interventions may involve nutritional support, lifestyle modifications, or targeted medications/supplements based on identified neurotransmitter imbalances.

Therapeutic Diet

Many neurological diseases and imbalances have an underlying inflammatory component, so adopting an anti-inflammatory diet that focuses on eating fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, herbs, and spices while limiting ultra-processed foods and refined sugars is an excellent foundational way to support all body systems and reduce systemic inflammation.

Additionally, using a food-as-medicine approach, smart dietary choices can ensure certain vitamins, minerals, and amino acids are eaten in adequate amounts so that the body has sufficient neurotransmitter-building blocks and cofactors for optimal synthesis. The following list provides examples of specific nutrient-rich foods that may be recommended to support various neurotransmitter levels. 

  • Acetylcholine: whole eggs, fish, beef, chicken, organ meats, navy beans, broccoli, and green peas for pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) and choline (11, 30
  • Dopamine: beef, poultry, fish, eggs, soy, cod liver oil, dark leafy greens for tyrosine, phenylalanine, vitamin D, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids (8)
  • Epinephrine/Norepinephrine: beef, chicken, pork, fish, eggs, nuts, soy for tyrosine and phenylalanine (10)
  • GABA: beef liver, fish, potatoes, non-citrus fruits, nuts, seeds, dark leafy greens for vitamin B6 and magnesium (5, 9, 30
  • Glutamate: cheese, beets, asparagus, sea vegetables, eggs, mushrooms, fermented soy products, and bone broth naturally contain glutamate. However, excess glutamate is more commonly a problem than too little. Therefore, avoiding foods with added monosodium glutamate (MSG) is commonly recommended for patients needing to balance glutamate. (12)
  • Serotonin: salmon, oysters, poultry, eggs, potatoes, fruits, pumpkin seeds, and spinach for tryptophan, iron, magnesium, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, folate, vitamin D, and vitamin C (7)


Exercise is a powerful tool for balancing neurotransmitters and promoting overall mental well-being. Regular physical activity often results in a net increase in neurotransmitter levels, contributing to improved mood, reduced stress, and enhanced cognitive function. To optimize the benefits of exercise for neurotransmitter balance, it's essential to consider both the type and intensity of the physical activity. While high-intensity workouts can boost endorphins and dopamine, they may also elevate stress hormones, potentially impacting the delicate balance of neurotransmitters. As a result, individuals with specific neurotransmitter imbalances or sensitivities may benefit from modifying their exercise routine. Incorporating more meditative and low-intensity forms of exercise, such as yoga or tai chi, can provide the physical health benefits of exercise while minimizing stress-induced neurotransmitter fluctuations. These mindful activities have been linked to increased serotonin and GABA levels and may be particularly beneficial for those seeking a balanced approach to neurotransmitter modulation. Additionally, incorporating strength training can help address different aspects of neurotransmitter regulation and prevent brain atrophy. (7-10)

Stress Management 

Stress is directly linked to neuroinflammation. This inflammatory environment can disrupt the delicate balance of neurotransmitters, leading to imbalances that contribute to mood disorders, anxiety, and cognitive impairments. Managing stress is crucial for maintaining a healthy neurological environment, and incorporating stress management techniques, such as mindfulness meditation or deep breathing exercises, can mitigate the detrimental effects of chronic stress. Additionally, avoiding hyperstimulation from external factors like excessive caffeine intake or prolonged screen time can help prevent overactivation of the nervous system, supporting neurotransmitter balance. Adequate sleep is another critical component, as it plays a fundamental role in neurotransmitter restoration and overall neurological health. (7-10)

Nutritional Supplements

Sometimes, nutritional supplements may be recommended as medication alternatives for more naturally boosting neurotransmitter levels. Examples include the following:

  • Acetylcholine: citicoline (11)
  • Dopamine: phosphatidylserine, choline, and resveratrol (8)
  • Serotonin: 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), L-theanine, and Lactobacillus spp. probiotics (7)


How To Interpret a Neurotransmitter Test: Key Takeaways

Interpreting neurotransmitter tests is crucial for understanding the intricate biochemical factors contributing to neurological and mental health conditions. These tests offer valuable insights into neurotransmitter levels, their precursors, and metabolites, aiding in identifying imbalances that may underlie various disorders. These results should be interpreted holistically, considering the broader clinical context. A comprehensive understanding of neurotransmitter imbalances, lifestyle factors, and clinical findings enables healthcare practitioners to formulate personalized treatment plans. The integration of neurotransmitter test results in healthcare emphasizes the importance of combining diagnostic insights with a holistic approach to treatment, addressing lifestyle modifications, stress management, and overall mental health to optimize patient outcomes.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
Learn More
No items found.

Lab Tests in This Article


1. Acetylcholine (ACh). (2022, December 30). Cleveland Clinic.

2. Blake, K. (2023, May 22). Anti Inflammatory Diet 101: What to Eat and Avoid Plus Specialty Labs To Monitor Results. Rupa Health.

3. Chaunt, L. A. (2023, April 3). Mental Health Benefits of Yoga and Meditation. Rupa Health.

4. Cloyd, J. (2023, May 10). Unlocking the Secrets of Lactobacillus: A Comprehensive Guide to Testing Patient Levels and Deciphering High and Low Levels. Rupa Health.

5. Cloyd, J. (2023, October 18). The Top 6 Essential Health Benefits of Magnesium That You Should Know. Rupa Health.

6. Diorio, B. (2022, August 11). Anxiety, GI Discomfort, Irritability, And Poor Memory Are All Signs Of These Neurotransmitter Imbalances. Rupa Health.

7. Diorio, B. (2022, September 6). How To Increase Your Serotonin Levels Naturally. Rupa Health.

8. Diorio, B. (2022, September 23). How to Regulate Your Dopamine Levels Naturally. Rupa Health.

9. Diorio, B. (2022, October 5). 5 Natural Ways to Increase Low GABA Levels.

10. Diorio, B. (2022, October 25). How to Balance Adrenaline Levels Naturally. Rupa Health.

11. Diorio, B. (2022, November 3). Brain Fog, Muscles Weakness, and Constipation are Symptoms That This Neurotransmitter Could Be Low. Rupa Health.

12. Diorio, B. (2022, November 28). 11 Medical Conditions Associated With Glutamate Imbalance. Rupa Health.

13. Dopamine. (2022, March 23). Cleveland Clinic.

14. Epinephrine (Adrenaline). (2022, March 27). Cleveland Clinic.

15. Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA). (2022, April 25). Cleveland Clinic.

16. Glutamate. (2022, April 25). Cleveland Clinic.

17. Henry, K. (2022, April 15). 4 Possible Causes Of Parkinson's And 5 Things That Make It Worse. Rupa Health.

18. Henry, K. (2023, February 21). An Integrative Medicine Approach to Depression. Rupa Health.

19. Khakham, C. (2023, May 23). An Integrative Medicine Approach to Alzheimer's Disease: Testing, Nutrition, and Supplements. Rupa Health.

20. Maholy, N. (2023, June 21). Evidence Based Benefits Of Physical Activity For Neurological Health. Rupa Health.

21. Marc, D. T., Ailts, J. W., Campeau, D. C. A., et al. (2011). Neurotransmitters excreted in the urine as biomarkers of nervous system activity: validity and clinical applicability. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(3), 635–644.

22. Neurotransmitter Metabolites (5HIAA, HVA, 3OMD) (CSF). (2023). Mayo Clinic Labs.

23. Neurotransmitters. (2022, March 14). Cleveland Clinic.

24. Norepinephrine (Noradrenaline). (2022, March 27). Cleveland Clinic.

25. Pheochromocytoma. (2020, February 12). National Cancer Institute.

26. Purves, D., Augustine, G. J., & Fitzpatrick, D. (Eds.). (2001). Neurotransmitters. In Neuroscience. Sinauer Associates.

27. Serotonin. (2022, March 18). Cleveland Clinic.

28. Sheffler, Z. M., & Pillarisetty, L. S. (2019, June 4). Physiology, Neurotransmitters. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing.

29. Smith, A. (2016, October 6). Testing Urinary Neurotransmitters? Avoid the Big 5. ZRT Laboratory.

30. Sweetnich, J. (2023, April 24). How To Make Sure Your Patients Are Getting Enough Vitamin B6 In Their Diet: Testing, RDA's, and Supplementation 101. Rupa Health.

31. Sweetnich, J. (2023, May 1). Vitamin B5's (Pantothenic Acid's) 101: RDA's, Testing, Nutrition. Rupa Health.

32. Sweetnich, J. (2023, May 26). Integrative Treatment Options for Neurological Diagnosis: Specialty Testing, Nutrition, Supplements. Rupa Health.

33. Yoshimura, H. (2023, October 23). What is Neuroinflammation, and How Can Functional Medicine Help to Identify and Reduce it? Rupa Health.

34. Yoshimura, H. (2023, November 7). The Remarkable Power of Exercise on Our Health: A Comprehensive Overview. Rupa Health.

Subscribe to the Magazine for free. to keep reading!
Subscribe for free to keep reading, If you are already subscribed, enter your email address to log back in.
Thanks for subscribing!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Are you a healthcare practitioner?
Thanks for subscribing!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.