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Serotonin: More Than Mood

Serotonin is neurotransmitter that plays a very important role in a number of bodily functions. While it is generally referenced in the same breath as mood and mood disorders, serotonin levels dictate far more than just whether you’re happy or sad. It’s responsible for regulating your digestive system, relieving pain, healing injuries, clotting blood, and even keeping your memory sharp. And while being best known as a brain chemical, a whopping 90 to 95 percent of your serotonin is actually produced in the intestines!

5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), a byproduct of the essential amino acid tryptophan, is converted into serotonin which transports signals throughout the brain (your central nervous system) and body (your peripheral nervous system) to keep it running smoothly. When it comes to mood regulation, serotonin differs from dopamine (released after pleasurable experiences) and oxytocin (associated with feelings of love and connection) in that it regulates how we process emotions. It is also responsible for many other biological processes including:

· Memory function and learning

· Regulating digestion and bowel movements

· Producing melatonin, which regulates the sleep/wake cycle, and working with dopamine to support sleep quality

· Sexual desire

· Pain regulation

· Wound healing and blood clotting

· Stimulating nausea and vomiting (nausea occurs when serotonin is released into the stomach too quickly to be digested)

Some of the serotonin produced in your gut is also used to regulate immune response, bone development, and cardiac function.

What Causes Low Serotonin?

Although scientists are unsure as to the exact causes of low serotonin or serotonin deficiency, studies have found possible connections to genetic and lifestyle factors.

Lifestyle factors include chronic stress; exposure to heavy metals, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals; lack of sufficient sunlight; and/or long-term use of certain medications.

Biological factors may include fewer or less effective serotonin receptors, and/or insufficient levels of L-tryptophan, vitamin B6, and omega-3s, all of which are used to produce serotonin. Animal studies have found that early-life stressors can negatively impact the movement of serotonin through the body. Disturbances in the gut microbiome may also have a negative impact on whether you can produce and/or utilize sufficient amounts of serotonin.

How Do I Know If I’m Serotonin Deficient?

Serotonin deficiency is a complex problem and there isn’t a direct way to diagnose it. However, treating the symptoms and conditions that are associated with low levels can correct the problem. If your body isn’t producing enough serotonin or using it effectively you may experience depression and anxiety, irritability, difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite, digestive problems, impaired memory, and chronic pain and/or headaches.

Boosting Serotonin Naturally

Although it’s important to discuss any changes in treatment with your healthcare provider first, it is possible to improve serotonin deficiency through diet and lifestyle changes instead of medication.

· Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet. Although foods rich in tryptophan seem like an easy way to boost serotonin levels, the actual production and absorption of the chemical is a bit more complicated. A better way to promote serotonin production is by keeping your gut microbiome healthy and balanced. An anti-inflammatory diet is key, and is rich in leafy greens and other veggies, wild-caught fatty fish like salmon; eggs; nuts and seeds; fermented foods like yogurt or apple cider vinegar; and healthy fats like avocado or extra-virgin olive oil. You can read more about the anti-inflammatory Mediterranean and MIND diets here.

· Exercise Regularly. Exercise is about way more than just weight control. Physical activity has a proven effect on mood and brain function, and it regulates not only serotonin, but dopamine and noradrenaline. By finding and committing to a form exercise that you like, you can reliably boost your brain function and stimulate serotonin production.

· Get Your Vitamin Sunshine. Exposure to sunlight and serotonin production are inextricably linked, as those sunny rays are thought to trigger the brain into producing it. Aim to get at least 10 to 15 minutes of sunlight a day, and in the morning, if possible, to best support a healthy circadian rhythm. If you live in a place with less daylight or is frequently overcast, light therapy lamps can be an effective substitute for the real thing.

· Supplements. If you are on other medications such as SSRIs and/or triptans supplementing with

L-tryptophan or 5-HTP is not advised. For others adding L-tryptophan and/or supplementing with the precursor 5-Hydroxytryptophan have been linked to improvements in depression, insomnia, anxiety, fibromyalgia pain, and migraine headaches. Quality products are simply essential here. Contact me for my recommendations.

· Engage in Mind-Body Exercise. In addition to regular exercise like strength training or cardio, practicing mind-body exercise, such as meditation or yoga, are proven ways to boost serotonin production as well as maintain higher base levels through consistent practice.

If you believe inadequate serotonin levels are impacting your mood or manifesting in other symptoms, please contact me. Together we can assess your diet and lifestyle and build a plan that will get you feeling your best—naturally.


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