Serotonin - The Molecule of Happiness
We all must have gone through "blues" at some points of time in our lives. Whenever you feel slightly depressed, anxious or fearful about something, cannot grab a good night's sleep, have low self-esteem, feel angry and irritated about some trivial things, you generally feel unhappy. You feel terrible when you're unhappy and your mind and body are not in-sync with each other. You suffer from lack of concentration, feel lethargic, loss in libido, loss in appetite and feel stressed out.
What do you do then?
How do you get back to your normal happy self again?
Some people will advise you to "think positively, no matter what happens", or read self-help books or share your problems with your friends, meditate, exercise and many other regimen of activities.
I would advise you to simply understand the science behind feeling unhappy and inculcate natural ways to elevate your mood and feel happy. This hub tells you all about the molecule responsible for our happiness - Serotonin.
Get introduced to Serotonin
Serotonin is a monoamine neurotransmitter (chemical messengers in the brain) and is involved in transmission of nerve signals in the brain.
Serotonin is manufactured in our brain from its precursor, tryptophan, which is an amino acid in the region called raphe nuclei. It is also present in the gastrointestinal tract and blood platelets.
Functionally, serotonin is associated with sleep, fatigue, anxiety, fear, apathy, low self-esteem, body temperature, anger, violence, agression, suicidal attempts and the overall mood.
Optimum levels of serotonin in the brain is essential to maintain a feeling of well-being.
Chemical Structure of Serotonin: Chemically it is called 5-Hydroxytryptamine or 5-HT. It is manufactured from an important amino acid, tryptophan with the help of enzymes, in the raphe nuclei of the brain.
Symptoms of low levels of serotonin
Under high stress situation, serotonin is used up in brain more than it can be manufactured and used for its proper functioning. The symptoms that start showing when we have low levels of serotonin are:
- Chronic fatigue: One feels extremely exhausted all the time, devoid of energy and even after sleeping, one doesn't feel refreshed.
- Sleep disorders: One cannot get good quality sleep, and as a result continue to remain depressed and tired through the next day.
- Disturbance in appetite: Usually one loses appetite for eating, but in some cases, one may experience cravings for sweets and carbohydrates for a quick replenishment of serotonin. That can cause sudden weight gain undesirably.
- Loss in sexual interest, withdrawal from social interactions and frequent 'outbursts' of crying become very common.
- Disruption of the general body health: As serotonin regulates the body temperature, due to its low levels, one usually suffers from irritable bowel syndrome (unclear stool) which does not clear the body of toxins or from headaches and migraine.
- Feeling of low self-esteem, low self-confidence: Pessimism starts to set in, one starts feeling worthless, overtly critical of one's own life; anger, irritation and even aggression becomes very common. This can get as worse as suicidal attempts or violent acts.
- Disorganization of mind: The thoughts become disorganized, performance suffers at work places, temper tantrums and emotional outbursts surface very often, one loses concentration and attention and the body refuses to be in harmony with the mind. You lose reasoning and your brain digs out the most torturous memories of the past in order to terrorize you and trigger negative feelings in you.
- Clinical depression: The general mental health suffers due to the reduced levels of serotonin.
So how should we replenish the much needed serotonin levels to establish happiness in our lives?
Serotonin is made from the essential amino acid tryptophan, hence firstly we need to eat proteinaceous foods which will contain amino acids including tryptophan. Tryptophan is not produced in our body, it needs to be included in our diet and so it is called an essential amino acid.
Secondly, we have to make way for that tryptophan to the brain so that serotonin can be formed using the specific enzymes.
The Serotonin Diet: Your diet should include meat, fish, eggs, soybeans, legumes, nuts and seeds which have high protein content.The proteins are broken down into amino acids by the enzymes. After taking a high protein diet, with a break of two hours you should take carbohydrate-rich food or snack. Taking carbohydrates will induce production of insulin in the bloodstream, which clears the blood vessels off the other amino acids except tryptophan. Hence tryptophan can have an uninterrupted journey into the brain, where serotonin production can take place.
Taking sweets, candy or carbohydrates alone increases the level of serotonin instantaneously but the effect does not last for more than 1-2 hours, so these should not be depended on for a continuous replenishment of serotonin.
- That is why, it is suggested by many to take a chocolate just before the exams. The serotonin levels in the brain spike, giving you more concentration and organized thinking. But this cannot be used as a long-term solution.
- The best serotonin-rejuvenating diet is high protein intake (to introduce tryptophan in the body) followed by carbohydrate intake (to process the tryptophan and produce serotonin).
Other mood-enhancing foods: Other good sources of serotonin are:
Sometimes, due to poor eating habits and improperly planned diet, the body does not get the optimum amount of tryptophan, which is a precursor to serotonin. Hence serotonin supplements are recommended by the health care specialists as a cure of clinical depression or compulsive-obsessive disorder.
The widely used serotonin supplement is 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), which can cross the blood brain barrier (a mechanism which regulates selective entry of substances into the brain) and serotonin is synthesized with the help of an enzyme.
5-HTP is safe to be administered as it is derived from a tryptophan-rich natural vegetable grown in Africa, Griffonia simpicifolia, a kind of Griffonia bean. The effective dose has been prescribes as 100-300 mg of 5-HTP. However its safety of usage during pregnancy and when having liver or kidney problems are not yet well established. Hence physicians must be consulted before taking these supplements.
Also, 5-HTP should not be taken along with other antidepressants or migraine drugs, which can cause excessive serotonin levels, causing serotonin syndrome.
Usual cases when doctors prescribe serotonin supplements:
- To encourage restful sleep in patients suffering from sleep disorders
- People who are on alcohol, tobacco and caffeine have increased levels of serotonin, but withdrawal from these can cause a sudden drop in the serotonin production in the brain cells, causing anxiety, violence and irritability. Serotonin supplements help compensate the drop of serotonin levels.
- Helps fight obesity by satiating the appetite and increasing the craving for carbohydrates only.
- Relieves women suffering from pre-menstruation syndrome (including pain, mood swing and irritability)
Though elevated levels of serotonin in the brain are essential for general well being and feeling good, excessive serotonin levels can cause life-threatening clinical conditions called serotonin syndrome.
This is usually drug-induced and occurs in rare cases when someone takes too much of serotonin-increasing drugs. For instance, anyone who is administering drugs for migraine (have serotonin precursors) and taking antidepressants at the same time might suffer from serotonin syndrome.
The usual symptoms of serotonin syndrome are:
- violent trembling
- nausea and vomiting
- teeth chattering
- malignant hyperthermia
- profused sweating
There is no test for diagnosing serotonin syndrome, therefore it is always wise to let the physicians know if you're taking antidepressants or any other medication.
Serotonin syndrome can be treated using drugs which neutralize or block the action of serotonin in the brain.
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Other mood-enhancing activities to be coupled with serotonin
There are some other activities which can elevate your mood and induce a happy feeling. They are:
- Getting exposed to sunlight in the morning will burn melatonin molecules (molecules inducing sleep) and replace them with serotonin.
- Avoiding alcohol, caffeine and tobacco will go a long way in maintaining the serotonin levels in the brain. Addiction to these enhances serotonin levels to a great extent but only for a short while, that results in a sharp drop in serotonin level, causing nausea, vomiting, anxiety and discomfort.
- Exercising or simply brisk-walking helps to 'feel good'.
- Sleeping well for 5-6 hours or getting early but taking a short nap during the day helps to rejuvenate serotonin levels.
- Steal some laughter, meet friends and people you care for, write e-mails or call old friends - all of these will keep you fresh and jovial through the day.
Now that you understand the science of happiness, it is in your hands, go ahead and keep yourself happy naturally!
Now that you know the chemistry of happiness, unlock the key and open the door towards joy and freshness!
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