The Ultimate Guide to Serotonin

Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.

IN BRIEF

It's better living through chemistry! The more you know about how your body works, the more you can leverage that old adage. Here's how to boost seratonin in everyday life.

Serotonin is nature’s mood stabilizer. However, it also affects your entire body, helping send signals between all your nerve cells. While it has received much attention of late due to its relation to mental health, it is needed for more than managing mood and emotions. Here we provide the ultimate guide for serotonin to help familiarize yourself with this interesting hormone. (1)

What Is Serotonin?

Serotonin is actually a hormone. It plays an important role in allowing your brain cells and other nervous system cells to communicate back and forth, assisting with sleeping, eating, and digestion. It is found in your brain, blood platelets, digestive system, and central nervous system, and is made from the essential amino acid tryptophan. You need foods such as nuts, cheese, and red meat to get tryptophan. Without enough serotonin, you can suffer from depression and anxiety, while too much serotonin can lead to overactive cell activity. (2,1)

Why Is Serotonin So Important?

Serotonin is needed for many functions including: (2)

  • Brain: Serotonin in the brain regulates mood, happiness, and anxiety. When levels decrease, it leads to depression, while increased levels can decrease arousal. Serotonin in the brain also helps moderate sleep and waking.
  • Stomach and Intestines: Serotonin in your stomach and intestines helps keep bowel movements and function healthy. However, serotonin is also produced to trigger nausea if you have eaten bad food or poison.
  • Blood: Serotonin in the blood helps heal wounds and also triggers tiny arteries to narrow and form blood clots.
  • Bone: Higher levels of serotonin in the bones can weaken bone health leading to issues such as osteoporosis.

An interesting example of serotonin in action is nausea. If you eat something, have an illness, or are poisoned, serotonin increases in the blood, stimulating the part of the brain that controls nausea. If necessary, the serotonin causes your stomach to convulse to remove the offending substance. (2)

Why Is Serotonin Important To Mental Health?

Because serotonin is associated with mood, when levels become too low it leads to behavioral and emotional disorders including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Suicidal behavior 
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

When levels are normal you can maintain feelings that are more positive including happiness, a sense of calm, better focus, emotional stability, and fewer feelings of anxiousness. (1)

What Is Considered A Normal Serotonin Level?

Normal ranges for serotonin levels are between 101–283 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL). If levels are too high, it could indicate carcinoid syndrome related to tumors occurring in the small intestine, appendix, colon, or bronchial tubes. This is a condition doctors should rule out before treating issues such as depression. (1)

What Are The Signs Of Low Serotonin?

Common signs of low serotonin include: (3)

  • Anxiousness
  • Depression
  • Feeling “low”
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of aggression
  • Sleep issues
  • Fatigue
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Decreased appetite
  • Nausea and digestive issues
  • Craving sweet or carbohydrate-rich foods

If you find you are experiencing these symptoms, it is important to speak to a medical professional as soon as possible.

Is There Medical Treatment For Low Serotonin?

Yes, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) are available through a prescription. They can be very effective in treating depression and anxiety. SSRIs are considered antidepressants as they help increase serotonin levels by blocking reabsorption of the chemical to keep it active. (1)

How Can I Maintain Healthy Serotonin Levels?

There are some changes you can make to your lifestyle to help maintain healthy serotonin levels including: (3)

Diet Changes

As mentioned, you need tryptophan in your diet as it is converted into serotonin. It is found in proteins like turkey and salmon. However, in order to help tryptophan-rich foods cross the blood-brain barrier, you’ll want to enjoy your turkey and salmon with carbs. This way, the tryptophan gets through that protective sheath around your brain before other amino acids can. You can add about 25 to 30 grams of carbs to your plate to help the tryptophan reach your brain. (3)

Exercise More Often

Exercising releases tryptophan in your blood which helps decrease the number of other amino acids trying to reach your brain. Some good exercises to try include: (3)

  • Swimming
  • Bicycling
  • Brisk walking
  • Jogging
  • Light hiking

Choose activities you enjoy, and remember to mix them up a bit. This way you will be more likely to stick to an active exercise plan.

Bright Light

The winter can be brutal on serotonin levels. In fact, this is why low serotonin has been linked to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Get out in the sun as often as possible in the winter months to boost serotonin levels. Ideally, aim for at least 10 to 15 minutes a day. If you live in a climate with gloomier days, you can also consider investing in a light therapy box. (3)

Take Dietary Supplements

Supplements that can increase tryptophan (other than pure tryptophan) include: (3)

  • SAMe (S-adenosyl-L-methionine): SAMe can help increase serotonin but can’t be taken with other serotonin increasing supplements or medications.
  • 5-HTTP: This supplement produces serotonin in the brain and can work as effectively as antidepressants.
  • St. John’s wort: This supplement has seen mixed results, but can be effective in reducing depression symptoms. It is not recommended for long term use nor for people on blood clotting medicines, or other medicines or supplements that increase serotonin.
  • Probiotics: Probiotics can increase tryptophan in your blood either as a supplement or through probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kimchi, or sauerkraut.
  • Be Serene: This supplement contains natural ingredients to promote a state of calm, happiness, and relaxation including Mulenga, Holy Basil (also known as Tulsi), Schisandra, Shatavari, and Rehmannia root. (4) 

Be certain to read instructions and avoid combining supplements. This can lead to a risk for serotonin syndrome. (3)

Massage Therapy

Massage therapy can help increase natural mood enhancers serotonin and dopamine while decreasing stress-related cortisol. (3)

Mood induction

Focusing on positive emotions and things that make you happy can induce a better mood. This, in turn, increases serotonin in your brain. Some tricks to try include:  (3)

  • Picturing a happy moment from your life
  • Thinking about a positive experience 
  • Looking at photos that make you happy

The more positive thoughts you can invoke, the more likely you are to improve your mood. (3)

As you can see, healthy serotonin levels help assist in keeping your digestive system happy, promotes healing, and is vital to mental health. While serotonin-boosting tips shared here can help, always seek professional assistance when feelings of sadness or anxiety persist.

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About Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.

Dr. Morgan is an expert in Functional and Integrative Medicine with a Strong Emphasis in stress related illnesses like anxiety and insomnia. In addition to his 20 years of work in Functional Medicine, he has expanded his practice to include work on the deeper aspects of our being that point to the root cause of our illnesses working with Mind Body Wellness, Energy Medicine, and Healing with Consciousness.
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