What is Serotonin?
Have you ever wondered what hormone is responsible for your mood and feelings? Serotonin is the key hormone that stabilizes our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness. This hormone impacts your entire body. It enables brain cells and other nervous system cells to communicate with each other. Serotonin also helps with sleeping, eating, and digestion. However, if the brain has too little serotonin, it may lead to depression. If the brain has too much serotonin, it can lead to excessive nerve cell activity. It also helps reduce depression, regulate anxiety, and maintain bone health.
Your body uses serotonin in various ways:
Mood – Serotonin is in the brain. It is thought to regulate mood, happiness, and anxiety. Low levels of serotonin are linked to depression, while increased levels of the hormone may decrease arousal.
Bowel Movements – Serotonin is found in your stomach and intestines. It helps control your bowel movements and function.
Nausea – Serotonin is produced when you become nauseated. Production of serotonin increases to help remove bad food or other substances from the body. It also increases in the blood, which stimulates the part of the brain that controls nausea.
Sleep – Serotonin is responsible for stimulating the parts of the brain that control sleep and waking. Whether you sleep or wake depends on the area is stimulated and which serotonin receptor is used.
Blood Clotting – Serotonin is released to help heal wounds. Serotonin triggers tiny arteries to narrow, which helps forms blood clots.
Bone Health – Having very high levels of serotonin in the bones can lead to osteoporosis, which makes the bones weaker.
How Does Serotonin Impact Your Mental Health?
Serotonin helps regulate your mood naturally. When your serotonin levels are at a normal level, you should feel more focused, emotionally stable, happier, and calmer.
What Problems are Associated with Low Levels of Serotonin?
Low levels of serotonin are often associated with many behavioral and emotional disorders. Studies have shown that low levels of serotonin can lead to depression, anxiety, suicidal behavior, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. If you are experiencing any of these thoughts or feelings, consult a health care professional.
What Problems are Associated with High Levels of Serotonin?
Serotonin syndrome can occur when you take medications or supplements that increase serotonin action leading to side effects. Too much serotonin can cause mild symptoms such as shivering, heavy sweating, confusion, restlessness, headaches, high blood pressure, twitching muscles, and diarrhea. More severe symptoms include high fever, unconsciousness, seizures, or irregular heartbeat.
Natural methods to increase Serotonin
A reason for pursuing nonpharmacologic methods of increasing serotonin arises from the increasing recognition that happiness and well-being are important, both as factors protecting against mental and physical disorders and in their own right. So preventing (nonpharmacologic), rather than fixing (pharmacologic).
The constitution of the WHO (World Health Organisation) states “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This may sound exaggerated but positive mood is an important predictor of health and longevity. Studies found the solid link between feeling good and living longer, while negative emotions were associated with increased disability due to mental and physical disorders, increased incidence of depression, increased suicide and increased mortality up to 2 decades later. Positive emotions protected against these outcomes. Research confirms what might be intuitively expected, that positive emotions and agreeableness foster congenial relationships with others. This in turn will create the conditions for an increase in social support.
Several studies found an association between measures related to serotonin and mood, consistent with a study demonstrating that, those experiencing depression may have tryptophan levels that are lower than normal. Tryptophan is an amino acid that can be converted into several important molecules, including serotonin.
Nonpharmacologic methods of raising brain serotonin may not only improve mood and social functioning of healthy people but would also make it possible to test the idea that increases in brain serotonin may help protect against the onset of various mental and physical disorders. Four strategies that are worth further investigation are discussed below.
Four Nonpharmacologic Strategies in raising brain Serotonin
1 – Self-induced, through therapy
A study by Perreau-Linck and colleagues provides an initial lead about one possible strategy for raising brain serotonin. The study is the first to report that self-induced changes in mood can influence serotonin synthesis. This raises the possibility that the interaction between serotonin synthesis and mood may be 2-way, with serotonin influencing mood and mood influencing serotonin. Obviously, more work is needed to answer questions in this area. For example, is the improvement in mood associated with psychotherapy accompanied by increases in serotonin synthesis? If more precise information is obtained about the mental states that increase serotonin synthesis, will this help to enhance therapy techniques?
2 – Light
Exposure to bright light is a second possible approach to increasing serotonin without drugs. Bright light is, of course, a standard treatment for seasonal depression, but a few studies also suggest that it is an effective treatment for nonseasonal depression and also reduces depressed mood in women with premenstrual disorder and in pregnant women suffering from depression.
Relatively few generations ago, most of the world population was involved in agriculture and was outdoors for much of the day. This would have resulted in high levels of bright light exposure even in winter. Nowadays “Light cafes” have been pioneered in Scandinavia, and an Austrian village that receives no sunshine in the winter because of its surrounding mountains is building a series of giant mirrors to reflect sunlight into the valley. Better use of daylight in buildings is an issue that architects are increasingly aware of. Working indoors does not have to be associated with suboptimal exposure to bright light.
3 – Excercise
A third strategy that may raise brain serotonin is exercise. A comprehensive review of the relation between exercise and mood concluded that antidepressant and reduced anxiety effects have been clearly demonstrated. In the United Kingdom the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, has published a guide on the treatment of depression. The guide recommends treating mild clinical depression with various strategies, including exercise rather than antidepressants, because the risk–benefit ratio is poor for antidepressant use in patients with mild depression.
As with exposure to bright light, there has been a large change in the level of vigorous physical exercise experienced since humans were hunter-gatherers or engaged primarily in agriculture. Lambert argued that the decline in vigorous physical exercise and, in particular in effort-based rewards may contribute to the high level of depression in today’s society. The effect of exercise on serotonin suggests that the exercise itself, not the rewards that stem from exercise, may be important. If trials of exercise to prevent depression are successful, then prevention of depression can be added to the numerous other benefits of exercise.
4 – Diet
The fourth factor that could play a role in raising brain serotonin is diet. According to some evidence, tryptophan, which increases brain serotonin in humans, is an effective antidepressant in mild-to-moderate depression. However, whether tryptophan should be considered primarily as a drug or a dietary component is a matter of some dispute. In the United States, it is classified as a dietary component, but Canada and some European countries classify it as a drug. Treating tryptophan as a drug is reasonable because, first, there is normally no situation in which purified tryptophan is needed for dietary reasons, and second, purified tryptophan and foods containing tryptophan have different effects on brain serotonin. Although purified tryptophan increases brain serotonin, foods containing tryptophan do not. This is because tryptophan is transported into the brain by a transport system that is active toward all the large neutral amino acids and tryptophan is the least abundant amino acid in protein. The idea, common in popular culture, that a high-protein food such as turkey will raise brain tryptophan and serotonin is, unfortunately, false. Another popular myth that is widespread on the Internet is that bananas improve mood because of their serotonin content. Although it is true that bananas contain serotonin, it does not cross the blood–brain barrier.
The primary purpose of this blog is to point out that pharmacologic strategies are not the only ones worthy of study when devising strategies to increase brain serotonin function. The effect of nonpharmacologic interventions on brain serotonin and the implications of increased serotonin for mood and behaviour need to be studied more. The amount of money and effort put into research on drugs that alter serotonin is very much greater than that put into non-pharmacologic methods. The magnitude of the discrepancy is probably neither in tune with the wishes of the public nor optimal for progress in the prevention and treatment of mental disorders.
How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs
Simon N. Young
Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience