- What is Serotonin?
- What Does Serotonin Do?
- Serotonin Deficiency Symptoms
- How to Increase Serotonin Levels Naturally
- Serotonin Vs. Dopamine
- What is Serotonin Syndrome?
Think of your state of mind and wellbeing right now or in any moment of your life, good or bad. How much do you think it’s affected by what’s happening inside your body or brain? Although the answer cannot be quantified in precise terms, it is a well known fact that our emotional and mental states are to a large extent affected by the balances and imbalances of hormones or neurotransmitters in our brain and body which in turn affect how we perceive and react to what’s happening around us. One important neurotransmitter that affects our mental wellbeing and overall mood is serotonin.
Serotonin is one of the most important neurotransmitters that is a key player in our mental mood and wellbeing and is responsible for the levels of fear, anxiety and aggression depending on whether it’s production is deficient, in over-supply, or in the right balance. It is also involved in certain critical physical processes such as the regulation of sleep and appetite.
A neurotransmitter is a messenger that sends signals between nerve cells in the central nervous system. It is sometimes called the happy chemical because in the right amounts it can bring about positive moods, happiness and a sense of wellbeing. Scientifically, Serotonin is referred to as 5-hydroxytryptamine, or 5-HT and is found in the digestive system, brain & central nervous system, and in blood platelets.
What Does Serotonin Do?
Serotonin has wide ranging effects and functions throughout our bodily systems such as for example modulating our emotional states, regulating sleep and digestion. More importantly, and this is what makes Serotonin a focal area of study, is its relation to anxiety and depression.
In the right amount, Serotonin has the active role of reducing depression, maintaining a good mood and regulating anxiety. In fact, deficient levels of Serotonin is a main cause of depression, and is something that affects a large percentage of the adult population throughout the world.
Serotonin production is also responsible for purging out unwanted food by stimulating the part of the brain that causes nausea, particularly through the fast route of diarrhoea. Being also present in the stomach and intestine, it helps in the control and functioning of bowel movements. 95% of the body’s serotonin is found in the guts and is released as soon as food enters the small intestine in order to stimulate contractions and push food downwards throughout the intestines. Serotonin-based medications can in fact help in alleviating gastro-intestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome.
Being a precursor to Melatonin, Serotonin produced from the pineal gland has a role in affecting the circadian rhythm and regulating sleep cycles.
When we have a scar or wound, Serotonin plays a role in healing by narrowing the tiny arteries, forming blood clots and thus preventing blood loss.
Last but not least, Serotonin levels have a significant effect on sexual function. Low serotonin levels can cause increased libido whereas high serotonin levels can cause the opposite effect.
Low serotonin levels in the body can cause a whole spectrum of effects, not least, anxiety disorders such as social anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and bipolar disorder. If you have low serotonin levels, there are various symptoms that one can observe on oneself (although professional medical advice should always be sought). Here are some Serotonin deficiency symptoms:
Too much worrying or Panic attacks
Agressive or violent behaviour
Crave sweets or starches
Irritable bowel syndrome
When diagnosed with low serotonin levels or depression, many doctors prescribe antidepressants, most common of which are Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI). Some of the most widely available SSRIs include Prozac and Zoloft among others. SSRIs main action is to block the brain in reabsorbing Serotonin, thus more of it remains available and active. The downside of SSRIs is of course unwanted side effects such as nausea, insomnia, headaches, dizziness and drowsiness among a list of others.
There are alternatively other natural and equally effective alternatives to SSRIs:
5-HTP is the immediate precursor of Serotonin when synthesised in the body. Supplementing daily with 5-HTP is one of the easiest and most direct way of increasing Serotonin levels in the body without the heavy side effects of SSRIs. Beside regulating mood, regular use over time has shown marked effects on weight loss. In a study, a group of women have lost 10.3lbs on average after 12 weeks of use while the placebo group lost only 2.2lbs.
Curcumin is probably nature’s most powerful anti-inflammatory. Multiple studies have also shown Curcumin’s effect on regulating depression and anxiety as effectively as mainstream SSRIs. One study in particular has tested regular use of Curcumin amongst a group with major depression disorder and compared it with Fluoxetine (Prozac), and results clearly indicated that natural Curcumin is at least as effective as the widely distributed drug in treating depression and serotonin deficiency.
St. John’s Wort has been used as a natural remedy for depression, anxiety and pain management for centuries. St. John’s Wort inhibits the reuptake of the neurotransmitters Serotonin and Dopamine, leaving more of them active in the system. This process, as with pharmaceutical SSRIs, helps alleviate depression and anxiety, enhance mood and gives an overall sense of wellbeing.
There are several foods that boost Serotonin. Most of these foods that increase Serotonin are commonly available at your local green grocery store or super market. They are not some hard to get exotic products you never heard of. In fact you will be surprised how easy it is to source these foods and include them in your daily diet plan.
Here are some of the most commonly available foods that increase serotonin naturally:
Eggs: Yolks are rich in tryptophan (a precursor to Serotonin) and Tyrosine, Choline, Biotin, Omega-3 fatty acids and other rich nutrients.
Cheese: Good old cheese is another great source of Tryptophan and there is such a variety of it! Oh the goodness!
Pineapples: I did say there is nothing exotic but pineapples are nowadays available in any food store whether fresh or preserved (I will always suggest eating fresh and healthy)
Tofu: An Asian popular, the beancurd or Tofu has also made its way on shelves in most food stores in the West. It is a good source of Tryptophan and a favourite ingredient among weight watchers and health food lovers.
Salmon: Apart from being a rich source of cholesterol-lowering Omega-3 fatty acids, as you might have guessed, Salmon contains good amounts of Tryptophan.
Nuts & Seeds: are one of my favourite things to snack on anytime of the day really. They are rich in vitamins and antioxidant, and yes also serotonin boosting tryptophan.
Turkey: Is a meaty source of Tryptophan and it is said that Turkey is literally stuffed with it!
Regular exercise ( 3 times a week up to daily) is one of the best ways apart from supplementation and diet to increase serotonin levels naturally and enhance mood. I often find myself getting on a ’natural high’ after a good long walk, running or workout. Meditation has been scientifically shown in studies to help with depression, boost serotonin levels and relieve stress while maintaining a healthy outlook on life. Last but not least, more exposure to bright light in light therapy or simply being more out in the sun can help fight seasonal depression especially in countries that do not receive a lot of it during winter months.
Dopamine, like Serotonin, is a neurotransmitter which affects much of the same functions but does it in slightly different ways. Both Serotonin and Dopamine are intricately linked to depression or wellbeing. Dopamine plays a central role with regards to reward and motivation. Lack of Dopamine in the body causes common symptoms of depression such as loss of interest, lack of motivation and a general sense of helplessness.
The release of Dopamine in the body causes pleasure which in turn can create a reward feedback loop. In some cases this may start or reinforce an addictive pattern. For example winning at a game of chance, releases a rush of feel-good Dopamine in the body and over time this feedback can cause an addictive tendency, in this case, gambling. Anything that releases Dopamine in the body can potentially be addictive such as drugs, social media, shopping, etc.
Serotonin Syndrome refers to an effect where too much serotonin is built in the body due to over-dosing medication that cause serotonin increase or using the wrong combination of medication. This is why it is always advisable to follow dosage indication if you are taking supplements or consult a doctor if you want to increase the dose or are taking other medications together with your serotonin boosting supplements or prescriptions.
Some Serotonin Syndrome Symptoms:
Serotonin syndrome symptoms can occur after a few hours of ingesting a new drug or increasing the dose of a drug you’re already taking. Signs and serotonin syndrome symptoms include:
- Agitation or restlessness
- Rapid heart rate and high blood pressure
- Dilated pupils
- Loss of muscle coordination or twitching muscles
- Muscle rigidity
- Heavy sweating
- Goose bumps
Acute serotonin syndrome can be life-threatening so please make sure to seek medical help in the unlikely case you ever experience one of the following signs and symptoms:
- High fever
- Irregular heartbeat