You may have heard of Serotonin in relation to depression and anxiety.  It is called the “happy chemical” that is linked to your mood.  Specifically serotonin is a neurotransmitter and hormone that is produced naturally in your body.  Neurotransmitters sends messages between nerve cells and can play a role in how you feel emotionally.

Serotonin is produced in the digestive system, brain, and spinal cord. Everyone has different levels of serotonin in their body.  Various factors influence how much serotonin is produced.  For example, eating foods containing amino acid tryptophan will enhance your levels as your body can synthesize it to produce more serotonin.  No matter what your level is, when the levels get low you may feel sluggish, have gain weight, have trouble sleeping, and other symptoms that will ultimately impact on your mental health.

What exactly does serotonin do?

  • It is a natural mood booster.  It plays a role in managing depression and anxiety symptoms
  • It can aid in digestion.  Serotonin can suppress your appetite, enhance nutrient absorption, and promote insulin secretion.  All of this is critical in a well functioning digestive system and your intestines produce and store the majority of your body’s serotonin.  In fact, when you eat something harmful, it is serotonin that responds to push the harmful food through the digestive tract quickly and makes your feel nauseous.
  • It plays a role in getting a good night sleep.  Specifically it helps with sleep preparation (helping you relax), sleep triggering (helps to manage the circadian rhythm), and sleep maintenance (helps you fall asleep and stay asleep).
  • It causes blood vessels to narrow which promotes blood clotting and may help wound healing.
  • Increased levels of serotonin usually lead to lower levels of dopamine which can reduce sexual desire
  • It can be good for your brain. Higher levels of serotonin have been associated with a slower rate of age-related cognitive decline such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Causes of low serotonin include:

  • a deficiency of chemicals needed to synthesize serotonin including omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B6, and vitamin D
  • age-related brain changes
  • chronic stress
  • fewer serotonin receptors in your brain
  • a highly processed, low-nutrient diet
  • lack of exposure to natural light
  • infrequent exercising
  • ineffective serotonin receptors

Since serotonin is involved in so may functions, the symptoms of a deficiency of serotonin are many, including:

  • Mood changes
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • irritability
  • Behavioural changes
  • difficulty with memory
  • having a hard time paying attention or learning
  • hyperactivity
  • Insomnia
  • a change to sexual desire
  • Physical changes
  • blood clotting
  • constipation
  • cravings for carbohydrates or other “comfort foods”
  • digestive issues, like irritable bowel syndrome
  • fatigue
  • premature ejaculation
  • tremors
  • weight changes

So how can you boost your serotonin levels.  Thankfully there are many approaches including:

  • Diet: Eating more foods that contain the essential amino acid tryptophan. These include: bananas, eggs, cheese, nuts. salmon, tofu, turkey, pineapple, and seeds.
  • Regular Exercise: Regular exercise as well as bright light therapy can increase serotonin levels naturally.
  • SSRI/SNRI medications: Doctors can prescribe SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) or  SNRI (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors) which encourages the natural production of serotonin.

What happens if you have too much serotonin?    Too much serotonin is referred to as “serotonin syndrome”.  it is usually linked to medications that are meant to increase serotonin levels.  it can happen when combining drugs such as SSRIs with opioids, cold medications, or antipsychotic medications.  Symptoms may include:

  • agitation
  • anxiety
  • diarrhea
  • hypertension
  • muscle tissue loss
  • nausea

Significantly high serotonin levels can be life threatening and include the following symptoms:

  • confusion
  • delirium
  • hyperthermia
  • kidney disease or failure
  • respiratory difficulty or failure
  • seizures

If you have any concerns about your level serotonin, consult your doctor or health care professional.