You’ve likely heard of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Sometimes referred to as the “calming chemical”, an increase in serotonin is thought to be the answer to many ailments; both mental and physical. But serotonin – and what it does – is a bit more complicated than we might think.
What is serotonin?
Serotonin is a compound, derived from the amino acid tryptophan, that functions as a neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers used by the nervous system to transmit messages between neurons (nerve cells), or from neurons to muscles.
Where does the word serotonin come from?
Serotonin is combined from sero, indicating a serum that is occuring or found in the blood, ton(ic), a medicine that make you feel stronger, healthier, and less tired, and in, indicating a neutral organic compound.
How is serotonin made?
Serotonin is created by a biochemical conversion process that combines tryptophan, a component of proteins, with tryptophan hydroxylase, a chemical reactor. Together, they form 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), or serotonin.
It is estimated that 90% of the body's serotonin is made in the digestive tract. In fact, altered levels of gut serotonin have been linked to diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis.
What does serotonin do?
Serotonin is considered a natural mood stabilizer and assists the body with multiple functions including sleeping and waking, eating and digesting. Serotonin is the reason you become nauseated and also controls bowel function – if you eat something that your body wants to expel quickly, serotonin levels will rise, resulting in diarrhea.
Blood platelets release serotonin to help heal wounds, and it plays a role in bone health.
Is it better to have higher or lower levels of serotonin?
Correct levels of serotonin are a fine balance. Significantly high levels of serotonin can lead to osteoporosis, which makes the bones weaker. Low levels of serotonin are associated with increased libido, while increased serotonin levels are associated with reduced libido.
Low levels of serotonin have been associated with depression but studies of people suffering from depression show they don’t always have low levels of serotonin.
Serotonin deficiency is associated with many other psychological and physical issues, including:
Studies have looked at the symbiotic relationship between abnormal levels of serotonin and addiction. Obsessive compulsive disorder has also been linked to a lack of serotonin.
What depletes serotonin?
Faulty metabolism and digestive issues can impair absorption and breakdown of our food which reduces our ability to build serotonin. Hormonal changes can also cause issues; women who suffer from PMS typically have low levels of serotonin. Lack of sunlight also contributes to low serotonin levels.
What raises serotonin levels?
Diet and regular exercise are the simplest ways to regulate serotonin levels. Foods that the body can use to make serotonin include:
-Nuts and seeds
In the book Potatoes Not Prozac, author Katherine DesMaisons suggests a dietary focus on foods that contain tryptophan to create a stable reserve of serotonin and decrease dependence on SSRI’s and sugar, which millions of people reach for when they need a mood boost.
Sugar and other simple carbs do trigger the release of serotonin by facilitating serotonin transport and generate a dopamine response, providing an instant mood lift. But using sugar for a mood boost will eventually cause a depletion of serotonin. As the associated dopamine (pleasure) signal down-regulates over time, more sugar is needed for the same effect, driving a vicious cycle of consumption that can negatively impact mood while creating a dangerous dependence.
What are SSRIs?
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are a class of drugs that act as serotonin transporters, relieving the symptoms of depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and eating disorders. Although it is not completely understood how they work, it is believed that they increase the extracellular level of the neurotransmitter serotonin by limiting its reabsorption (reuptake) into the presynaptic cell, increasing the level of serotonin in the synaptic cleft available to bind to the postsynaptic receptor (Wikipedia). In layman’s terms, SSRIs prevent serotonin from being reabsorbed into the brain, making more serotonin available.
But the efficacy of SSRIs has been widely questioned. SSRIs produce a wide variety of side effects, including sexual dysfunction, drowsiness and insomnia, nervousness and restlessness, and weight gain. According to a recent article in the New York Times, some long-terms users are finding it difficult to wean themselves off of the drugs completely. And, SSRIs, when taken with other medications, some herbs, or illicit drugs, can cause serotonin syndrome, an excessive buildup of serotonin in the body. Serotonin syndrome can cause nausea, sweating, shaking, headaches, seizures, loss of consciousness, and even death.
Are there natural alternatives to SSRIs?
Curcumin and Saffron have both been studied and have been found to be as effective as Prozac in relieving symptoms of depression. Regular exercise can also reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Limitless Life’s AVA contains amino acids that are involved in the creation and metabolism of mood boosting neurotransmitters such as serotonin. And, although not studied, anecdotal customer accounts have linked AVA with relief in migraine symptoms, which may also be brought on by an imbalance of serotonin.