Updated: Apr 26
By John Nicoll, BHSP.
In this series, we will be looking at the relationship between giftedness, highly sensitive
physiology and neurotransmitters. We will look at these topics with a focus on supporting the
mental, emotional, and physical health of gifted individuals through natural means, including
nutrition, supplementation, emotional care, and lifestyle considerations.
Giftedness & High Sensitivity
A study by Elke van Hoof in 2015 indicated that 87% of gifted individuals are also highly sensitive. (1)
Note that giftedness and high sensitivity are not the same thing. In fact, most people with high sensitivity are not gifted.
Giftedness typically refers to individuals who have exceptional intellectual abilities, such as high IQ scores or advanced academic skills, in one or more areas. Gifted individuals often display exceptional creativity, problem-solving skills, and memory abilities, and may also have advanced social and emotional abilities.
High sensitivity, on the other hand, refers to a heightened sensitivity to environmental stimuli, including sensory input, emotional cues, and social interactions, as well as the deeper processing and integration of all this information by the brain. The receipt of higher levels of sensory input, combined with the deeper processing and integration of that input, result in heightened levels of awareness, understanding, and insight. Additionally, individuals with high sensitivity may be more prone to experiencing strong emotions, such as anxiety and empathy, and may be more easily overwhelmed by stimuli that others find manageable.
Clarifying High Sensitivity
Dr. Elaine Aaron brought the reality of “high sensitivity” to the public in 1999 when she published The Highly Sensitive Person. We now know that this evolutionary approach to life is found in over 100 species in the animal kingdom, from fruit flies, birds, and fish to dogs, cats, horses, and primates. (2)
But what is “high sensitivity” exactly?
For a variety of reasons, the term “highly sensitive person” can be somewhat confusing and too vague. In general parlance, to say someone is “highly sensitive” carries a negative connotation and usually indicates that the person is “difficult”, “touchy”, or “delicate.”
In truth, high sensitivity as we are discussing it here, is a series of measurable differences in physiology which produce a heightened awareness of both one’s internal and external environments. The subtle, yet powerful adjustments in physiology underlying this heightened awareness have been selected for, over time, to produce an evolutionary approach to life which differs from the rest of the population.
Highly Sensitive Physiology
Describing someone as a person with “Highly Sensitive Physiology” instead of a “Highly Sensitive Person” can be helpful in both understanding and communicating that the features of high sensitivity are not merely an aspect of personality, or simply emotional in nature. Rather, individuals with this physiology carry an evolutionary approach to life selected for over time and across species.
The fact that highly sensitive physiology is a significant and positive natural phenomenon can be a helpful context to keep in mind when dealing with its more challenging aspects. For example, there is a wealth of information available today indicating that people with highly sensitive physiology make exceptional leaders. (3)
The Costs of Sensitivity - Neurotransmitter Insufficiency
There is some evidence to suggest that people with highly sensitive physiology may be prone to neurotransmitter insufficiency. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit signals between nerve cells, and imbalances in these chemicals can have a significant impact on mental and physical health.
One study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry found that people with highly sensitive physiology (as measured by the Highly Sensitive Person Scale) had lower levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in certain areas of the brain, which could lead to an increased risk of mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. (4)
Another study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that highly sensitive individuals had lower levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is associated with mood regulation, than less sensitive individuals. (5)
Furthermore, research has also shown that highly sensitive individuals may be more susceptible to the effects of stress and trauma, which can deplete neurotransmitter levels over time.
Stress & Neurotransmitter Insufficiency
Stress and trauma can deplete neurotransmitter levels over time through a number of mechanisms. One major way that stress and trauma affect neurotransmitter levels is by activating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is the body's main stress response system.
When the HPA axis is activated, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which in turn stimulates the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH then stimulates the adrenal glands to release cortisol, a hormone that helps the body cope with stress.
While cortisol can be helpful in the short term, chronic stress and trauma can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels, which can have a number of negative effects on neurotransmitter systems. For example, cortisol has been shown to reduce the synthesis and release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, which are important for mood regulation and motivation.
Additionally, chronic stress and trauma can lead to inflammation in the brain, which can also disrupt neurotransmitter function. Inflammation can lead to increased oxidative stress, which can damage neurons and impair neurotransmitter synthesis and release.
Overall, chronic stress and trauma can have a number of negative effects on neurotransmitter function, which can contribute to the development of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.
The combination of high sensitivity and giftedness can create a perfect storm of chemical, emotional, mental, and social challenges that can impact a person's well-being over time. In this series on neurotransmitters, high sensitivity and the gifted, we’ll look further at the various challenges that gifted individuals face, how these challenges play out in the body’s physiology, and most importantly, how to support the gifted and highly sensitive individual through natural means including nutrition, supplementation, emotional care, and lifestyle considerations.
The Good News
There is increasing awareness that the bodies of people with gifted and highly sensitive
physiology are designed by nature and evolution to operate differently than the rest of the
population. Awareness and acceptance of this fact takes the pressure off of trying to help (or in the worst cases, trying to force) gifted and highly sensitive individuals to “fit in” to social systems and structures not designed for them.
New structures are being created now that allow gifted and highly sensitive individuals to
embrace their strengths and abilities as well their unique needs and vulnerabilities. Parents,
educators, and therapists will find that one of the most effective supports for gifted and highly sensitive individuals is to not over-stress a physiology that runs “hot” by design.
John Nicoll is the the founder of HSPConnection.com, a website connecting people, parents, and couples who live life with highly sensitive physiology. His work focuses on the health and wellness of the highly sensitive person and gifted individuals. He studied holistic medicine under former NASA physicist Dr. Barbara Brennan, graduating in 2005, and has undertaken more than two decades in the study of human health and wellness. He regularly publishes articles on high sensitivity and giftedness at HSPConnection.com and conducts research at HighlySensitivePhysiology.org. John also has a healing practice specializing in helping individuals heal from Accutane damage
2015, Elke van Hoof
Acevedo, B. P., Aron, E. N., Pospos, S., & Jessen, D. (2019). The highly sensitive brain: an fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others’ emotions. Biological Psychiatry, 86(11), 891-897. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2019.06.009
Luebbe, A. M., Bell, D. J., Allwood, M. A., Swenson, L. P., & Early, M. C. (2016). Social information processing and the serotonin transporter in individuals with chronic peer difficulties. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 110(4), 489-505. doi: 10.1037/pspp0000054
Stress & Neurotransmitter Insufficiency Section
McEwen, B. S. (2012). Brain on stress: How the social environment gets under the skin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(Supplement 2), 17180-17185. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1121254109
Gold, P. W., & Chrousos, G. P. (2002). Organization of the stress system and its dysregulation in melancholic and atypical depression: High vs low CRH/NE states. Molecular Psychiatry, 7(3), 254-275. doi: 10.1038/sj.mp.4001032
McEwen, B. S. (2015). The brain on stress: Toward an integrative approach to brain, body, and behavior. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(6), 663-666. doi: 10.1177/1745691615598507
Ménard, C., Hodes, G. E., & Russo, S. J. (2016). Pathogenesis of depression: Insights from human and rodent studies. Neuroscience, 321, 138-162. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2015.05.053
Haroon, E., & Miller, A. H. (2017). Inflammation effects on brain glutamate in depression: Mechanistic considerations and treatment implications. Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences, 31, 173-198. doi: 10.1007/7854_2016_33