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Chemical Imbalance
August 2002

Q. Can you direct me to any information on chemical imbalances? How does chemical imbalance occur? How quickly does it happen? When recovered from a chemical imbalance, can it change in a matter of days? What does it mean to have a chemical imbalance?

A. Although the phrase "chemical imbalance" is in common usage, it is vague and does not have a specific meaning in medicine. It usually refers to "something not working right" in the body but is not more specific. These terms may be used as a concept when a person does not feel well, but an exam and tests do not identify the exact nature of the problem.

Another area in which the concept is expressed would be mental health conditions such as depression. We know of dozens of internal chemicals that act as neurotransmitters in the brain, but we do not yet have a way of measuring them. Yet we know that the medications that often help depression act by changing the levels of these chemicals. So a depressed person may have an imbalance of these brain chemicals, but current testing does not allow for direct measurement.



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