Larry Trivieri Jr.
With the increased awareness of the growing number of Americans who suffer from depression and other mental health conditions, chances are you have heard about serotonin. That’s because serotonin deficiency has been linked to such conditions. For this reason, drugs known as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), such as Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft, are often used to treat depression because of their ability to increase serotonin in the body and brain. Foods that are rich in serotonin can also be helpful for people with depression for the same reason.
But serotonin is important for far more than staving off depression. This versatile hormone is one of your body’s most important neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that transmit nerve signals between nerve cells. In its role as a neurotransmitter, serotonin helps to maintain the clear communication of nerve cells. This, in turn, helps your body to stay properly regulated and produces feelings of well-being. For this reason, serotonin is often referred to as the “feel good hormone.”
Serotonin’s Other Functions
In addition to its role as a neurotransmitter, serotonin has a variety of other important functions in your body. That’s because, either directly or indirectly, serotonin influences the majority of your brain’s approximately 40 million cells. These brain cells, in turn, are responsible for regulating a wide range of body functions, including your appetite, learning and memory capacity, sexual desire and function, sleep, and body temperature. Researchers have also found that serotonin also plays a role in proper heart and muscle function, as well as the functioning of certain aspects of your body’s endocrine (hormone) system. Without adequate serotonin, all of these processes can be impaired. In addition, serotonin also affects your mood — which is why it can be so useful as an aid for coping with depression — and influences your social behavior.
Serotonin also plays an important role in breastfeeding. Specifically, it regulates milk production in the breast. Due to this fact, a number of scientists think that a defect within the body’s serotonin network may be one of the underlying causes of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) in babies who are breastfed.
Researchers have also discovered how serotonin decreases the body’s sensitivity to light. They also discovered that exposure to constant darkness leads to a decrease in serotonin levels in the brain of fruit flies. Based on these findings, researchers now theorize that serotonin may play an important role in regulating the body’s circadian rhythm, or internal 24-hour clock, which is responsible for controlling your body’s sleep and wakefulness cycles, as well as other important body functions, including blood pressure levels. These same researchers also determined that serotonin also helps protect against light-related conditions such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Symptoms of serotonin deficiency
A number of factors can interfere with your body’s ability to produce adequate amounts of serotonin. Chief among them are lack of sleep, poor diet, over-stimulation, and working at night or in darkness. All of these factors, over time, can result in serotonin deficiency. Such a deficiency, in turn, can lead to a wide range of symptoms and health problems, ranging from mood and personality disorders (such co-dependency, depression, paranoia, phobias, rage, obsessive/compulsive disorder and an inability to experience pleasure), memory problems, and attention and concentration difficulties.
A wide range of physical symptoms can also be warning signs of serotonin deficiency. Such symptoms include aches and pains, body stiffness and muscle tension, blurred vision, cold or clammy hands, constipation, dizziness, dry mouth, food cravings (especially carbohydrate and salty foods), headache, heart palpations, insomnia, nausea, night sweats, shortness of breath, and unhealthy weight gain.
Increase serotonin levels in your body
Given the many important roles serotonin plays in your body, you can understand why maintaining adequate serotonin levels is so essential for good health and overall well-being. Here are some effective ways you can do so on your own.
Diet: A healthy diet is one of the most important steps you can take to boost and maintain your body’s serotonin levels. To this end, there are two goals to keep in mind. First, avoid all unhealthy foods, such as “junk” or processed foods, simple carbohydrates, and sugar, and also eliminate alcoholic beverages from your diet. Second, be sure to regularly eat foods rich in the amino acid tryptophan, which your body converts to serotonin. Foods high in tryptophan include avocadoes, chicken, cottage cheese, dark chocolate, eggs, oats, pork, turkey, wheat germ, and wild oats. Try to include at least one tryptophan-rich food at every meal, choosing organic foods whenever possible.
Nutritional Supplements: Various nutrients can also help your body produce sufficient serotonin, although not in place of a healthy diet. Such nutrients include B vitamins (especially B1, B3, folic acid, niacin, pantothenic acid, and vitamin B12), calcium, and magnesium, all of which are usually found in a good multivitamin/mineral formula. Tryptophan and its precursor, 5-HTP (5-hydroxy tryptophan) can also be used, although both of these should ideally be taken under your doctor’s supervision.
Lifestyle: The most important lifestyle choice you can make when it comes to improving and maintaining serotonin levels is to get a good night’s sleep. For most people, this means going to bed before midnight and getting at least seven hours of relaxing sleep each night. If you have difficulty sleeping, talk with your doctor.
The second most important lifestyle choice is to exercise for 30 to 60 minutes at least three times a week. The best type of activity for this purpose is aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, jogging, bicycling, swimming, or jumping on a mini-trampoline (rebounder).
By following these guidelines, you should soon start to notice an improvement in how you feel. However, if you don’t experience a noticeable improvement after one month and/or are suffering from any of the symptoms mentioned above, please see your doctor.
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