Serotonin Deficiency: How to Increase Serotonin Levels with Foods
What is serotonin?
Serotonin is a hormone known as 5 - hydroxytryptamine and it functions as a neurotransmitter. The 5 - hydroxytryptamine is made by a chemical reaction to tryptophan.
- Tryptophan and melatonin create relaxation and sleep cycles.
- Tryptophan is an amino acid and is commonly found in proteins and a variety of foods.
- Tryptophan is popularly known as the sleep inducing ingredient found in turkey.
What is a neurotransmitter? Think of it as the messenger that relays messages from one area of the brain to another.
The majority of serotonin is found in the brain, but some is also located in the digestive tract and in the blood.
Generally speaking, serotonin provides us with a sense of well being. Our mood greatly affects how we respond to our home and work environments during times of play, rest and stress.
What does serotonin do?
Although all of the roles of serotonin appear to be unknown, it is clear serotonin affects a variety of psychological and physical functions.
Functions affected include, but are not limited to:
- sexual desire
- memory and learning
- body temperature
- social behavior
- breast feeding
Potential Symptoms of Serotonin Deficiency
- Anxiety (beyond the norm)
- Apathy (lack of concern and sincerity)
- Excessive concern and worry
- A challenged ability to focus, remember or clarify
- Mood swings
- Restless and unusually impatient
What may cause a serotonin deficiency?
- Lack of sleep (usually lacks natural melatonin and tryptophan in the diet).
- Lack of protein.
- Lack of Omega - 3 (Fish Oil or Flax)
- Excessive caffeine or alcohol consumption.
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies (calcium, potassium or magnesium)
- Insulin resistance.
Mood and Exercise
A variety of studies have concluded, exercise can provide an immediate mood lift.
Serotonin and Depression
Low serotonin levels are to blame for depression. Is this always the case? Possibly not. A Doctor by the name of Pedro Delgado did a study in which he depleted serotonin levels in normal, healthy individuals. Interestingly, these individuals did not become depressed. Another argument is that the serotonin receptors are to blame. If the receptors are not receiving the serotonin then they cannot transmit to the necessary areas of the brain.
- Researchers are also trying to confirm if the serotonin levels are a result of depression or if they are in fact the cause of depression.
- Researchers have moved on to genetic studies of depression. Finding the genetic link to preassigned serotonin levels and depression is the current trend in depression research.
Interesting fact: Although it is known that serotonin altering medications may improve depression symptoms, researchers still do not know how or why they really work in alleviating depression.
Serotonin Syndrome: Is too much serotonin safe?
No! Too much serotonin can lead to serious health issues. Excessive serotonin can even lead to a medical emergency.
ALERT! Severe cases of Serotonin Syndrome can be fatal.
Severe symptoms include:
- Rapid and irregular heart rate
- Loss of consciousness
Additional symptoms include:
- Dilated Pupils
- Loss of muscle control, clumsiness and twitching
- Shivering and Goose Bumps
What causes excessive serotonin?
Certain medications and herbs may inadvertently increase serotonin to dangerous levels. Be aware of taking St. John's Wort or Ginseng in-conjunction with anti-depressants, as it may cause Serotonin Syndrome.
Please check with your pharmacist and physician if you are being medicated with the following (possible) serotonin altering medications:
- tobacco addiction medications
- migraine medications
- pain medications
- anti-nausea medication
- antibiotics such as, Zyvox
- HIV/AIDS medications such as, Norvir
Can you increase sertonin with certain foods?
Yes and no. Foods do not actually contain serotonin. They do however, contain tryptophan. Tryptophan is a building block in the creation of serotonin.
Diet: Foods that aid serotonin levels
What to avoid: Avoid sugary foods. These foods will spike your glucose levels and then will cause you to crash. The crash will leave you feeling lethargic and possibly cause you to feel guilty about your high sugar binge. This is not a good combination when trying to prevent depression. One should also avoid white, starchy foods: rice, potatoes, bread and other simple carbs will also cause a spike in blood sugar and insulin.
What to include in your diet: A colorful variety of fruits and vegetables, especially those rich in tryptophan. Try to consume a form of protein three times a day. A nice combination of proteins and vegetables will slowly feed your system with nutrients and tryptophan. Plus, they will not cause the sugar rush caused by simple carbs and sugary snacks.
Boost Serotonin with Tryptophan Rich Foods
Foods Rich in Tryptophan
Note, tryptophan is best absorbed when consumed with foods rich in Vitamins B, C, folic acid and magnesium. Importantly, Vitamin B6 is needed to convert tryptophan to serotonin. Fortunately, many of the foods rich in tryptophan are also naturally rich in Vitamin B6.
Foods Rich in Tryptophan:
Proteins: (General list)
- Red Meats
- Mustard Greens
- Collard Greens
- Turnip Greens
- Swiss Chard
- Brussels Sprouts
- Black Beans
- Garbanzo Beans
- Green Beans
- Kidney Beans
- Lima Beans
- Navy Beans
- Pinto Beans
- Dried Peas
Nuts and Seeds:
- Flax Seed
- Sesame Seed
Herbs that Increase Serotonin
Cooking Herbs and Spices with Tryptophan
Supplements and Herbs
5HTP is available over the counter and it is known to raise serotonin levels. Caution and physician supervision is strongly advised. 5HTP is not recommended for heart patients.
St. John's Wort is another herb commonly known to increase serotonin levels. It should not be combined with other serotonin increasing medications. Excessive consumption may lead to Serotonin Syndrome.
Additional benefits of eating tryptophan rich foods
The list of tryptophan rich foods above comes with many additional benefits when including them in your daily diet.
- Many of these foods are known to naturally lower blood pressure.
- Many of these foods provide potassium.
- Many of these feeds can help you avoid a magnesium deficiency.
- Many of these foods aid in maintaining calcium levels.
- Many of these foods provide natural levels of melatonin.
- May aid in avoiding health issues such as metabolic syndrome.
A theme and common thread between all of these foods is that they support healthy functions in the heart and brain. A lack of these healthy foods may spark unhealthy outcomes for many.
- Insomnia for example, is a common symptom found in depression and high blood pressure. Insomnia can usually be naturally improved through a healthy diet rich in melatonin and tryptophan.
- High blood pressure can possibly be naturally controlled through a diet rich in calcium, magnesium and potassium. Interestingly, many of these foods are also rich in tryptophan or melatonin inducing nutrients.
So what does all of this tell us? A diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables, along with lean proteins, will improve and sustain overall mental and cardiac health.
Increase Serotonin with Massage Therapy
A study confirmed massage therapy not only increases serotonin levels it also increased dopamine levels. Plus, it reduced cortisol by 31%.
Field, Tiffany, et al. "Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy." International Journal of Neuroscience 115.10 (2005): 1397-1413.
WebMD.com: Depression Center
National Institutes of Health: Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs, Nov 2007, Simon Young
NPR.org: When it comes to Depression Serotonin isn't the Whole Story
psychologytoday.com: The Serotonin Theory of Depression is Collapsing
nutritiondata.self.com: Foods Highest in Tryptophan
Disclaimer: The information provided in this hub should not be construed as personal medical advice or instruction. However, all information is research based. Please consult a physician for medical and dietary advice and treatment. Serotonin deficiency and/or Serotonin Syndrome should not be assumed or treated without the supervision of a medical professional.
© 2012 Marisa Hammond Olivares
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