“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” – Constitution of the World Health Organization
Are you the kind of person who bounces out of bed, eager and ready to face the coming day? Or do you “drag axle” and pull the covers back over your head because you are unenthused, sad, or depressed – even to the point of feeling as if there isn’t a reason to live?
Have you lost interest in eating foods that used to be your favorites? Do you have intense food cravings during the afternoons and evenings?
If you consistently have low energy and a mood to match, your body might not be producing enough serotonin, the chemical neurotransmitter that aids brain function. This key component to health and well-being is known as the “happiness neurotransmitter” or the “happiness hormone” and it plays a role in just about everything we humans do.
Even before we are born, our bodies start manufacturing serotonin. It plays a key role throughout our lifetimes, being responsible for sustained and deep sleep, staying upbeat and self-confident, a healthy appetite, and even how we interact with others.
Serotonin is responsible for sending signals between cells of the body. It is made from the amino acid tryptophan, an essential amino acid. The body is unable to produce tryptophan on its own so, to stay healthy, we must consume the amino acid every day in what we eat and drink.
Personally, I had no idea how important serotonin is to human health. Check out all the things it influences:
- Mood and emotions
- Movement (motor function)
- Sleep-wake cycle
- Body temperature
- Bowel movements
- Various gut functions
- Blood clotting (platelet aggregation)
- Constriction and relaxation of blood vessels
- Immune responses
- Bone development
- Heart function
- Reproductive function
- Pain perception
It was also surprising to find out that only 2% of the body’s serotonin is found in the brain. More than 90% of the serotonin within us is produced, stored, and released by the gut! (No wonder gut health is so important to overall health.) The remaining 5-8% of the body’s serotonin is stored in platelets circulating in the blood.
How do you know if you are low in serotonin? Here’s are some key symptoms of a serotonin deficiency:
- Brain fog
- Weight gain
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Chronic inflammation
Not having enough serotonin in the body can lead to depression, which, in turn, can lead to an increase in appetite, more eating, and unwanted weight gain. This can turn into a self-reinforcing negative behavioral loop if you think being heavier makes you less attractive – a buzz-killing self-image – and that thought makes you even more down in the dumps.
A 2007 study published in the Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience said that “serotonin plays a role, not only in the treatment of depression but also in susceptibility to depression and suicide.” These researchers had found scientific evidence that “positive mood within the normal range is an important predictor of health and longevity.”
Positive emotions and being agreeable foster congenial relationships with others, creating the conditions for increased social support.
Waking up once or twice and constantly changing your position in bed during the night, waking up multiple times through the night, and not being able to sleep or get rest at all are tell-tale signals that your serotonin levels may be low.
The good news is that there are many known strategies to help raise brain serotonin, among them:
- Exercise daily
- Consume “good” carbohydrates in moderation
- Increased exposure to sunlight
- Meditation, yoga, stress reduction techniques
- Take a dietary supplement such as: probiotics, L-Tryptophan, 5-HTP, vitamins D, B, C, and E, omega-3 fatty acids, St. John’s Wort, S-Adenosyl Methionine (SAMe), zinc, magnesium, and turmeric
- Music and/or dance therapy
- Do things that make you feel happy
- Associate with people who make you feel happy
Perreau-Linck led a separate 2007 study group which looked at how meditation (quiet introspection) increased the release of dopamine and serotonin synthesis. (Both are biochemical neural transmitters that work together but do different things: serotonin stabilizes mood and dopamine signals rewards.) These researchers wondered if “the interaction between serotonin synthesis and mood may be 2-way, with serotonin influencing mood and mood influencing serotonin.”
When we experience stress (physical or emotional), our bodies release cortisol which, in turn, decreases serotonin levels in the body. Consuming carbohydrates increases serotonin levels by increasing the delivery of tryptophan into the brain – but be careful to choose “good” carbs and limit your consumption to avoid unwanted weight gain.
If you feel blue, have trouble sleeping, or just don’t feel tip-top, try raising your serotonin levels through positive self-talk, a well-balanced diet, regular exercise, and doing things you love to do with people you enjoy being around. Readjusting your body chemistry could be what you need to turn that frown upside down!