Serotonin - What You Need To Know About This Powerful Hormone - Part I
“I tried every diet in the book. I tried some that weren’t in the book. I tried eating the book. It tasted better than most of the diets.” ~Dolly Parton
Are Youthful, Toned Bodies Wasted on the Young?
Like many of us when I was in my twenties (before having babies), I was sexy, curvy and toned. Curvy wasn't exactly what I was going for; runway model thin was more what I had in mind. If I could go back in time and look that way, again, I'd take "curvy" in a heartbeat.
Sensible nutrition was never an option for me when trying to lose weight. My option of choice was always the latest diet craze, which always ended in failure.
Back then, the No-Fat craze (still around) appealed to me. In those days, eating a box of "fat-free" chocolate cookies in one sitting was not uncommon for me. Luckily for me, I had youth on my side.
I thought I could really sink my teeth into the carb-free Atkins diet: bacon, grease and eggs galore. By my fourth week on Atkins, I was a carb-craving junkie looking for a fix. My fix came in the form of a dozen blueberry muffins, a crumb-explosion feeding frenzy followed by intense guilt.
What I experienced with all of my diets, carb or no carb, was deprivation, bad nutrition and a drop in serotonin that could sink a ship.
What Serotonin Is And Why We Need It To Lose Weight
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (also called 5-HT); it's a chemical in your brain (and your guts) that is involved in the regulation of your appetite, mood and sleep. When food consumes your thoughts and you have lust for carbs that is more than your willpower can handle, you are most likely low in serotonin. When serotonin takes a nosedive no amount of willpower can save you; donuts and Ding-Dongs are your destiny. It's like being Lawrence Talbot on a full moon.
Serotonin controls your appetite, food selection and food consumption habits, therefore it effects metabolism. Serotonin balance is important and tricky. Too little causes food cravings, aggression, insomnia, even suicidal tendencies. Too much serotonin can cause psychiatric disorders, confusion and even may have fatal consequences.
When serotonin is in balance we have an overall sense of well being, and an appetite within the normal range and under our control.
The brain must keep making serotonin every day. Serotonin cannot be stored up like a squirrel stores it's nuts for the winter.
Diets, like the ones I've tried (mentioned above), or any calorie restrictive diet, cause serotonin levels to drop. In fact your serotonin levels may drop even before your weight does.
Stress is a major zapper; it not only may cause insomnia but it releases cortisol (stress hormone) which decreases serotonin and creates unsightly belly fat---not fair.
Lack of sunlight, too much caffeine, alcohol, pharmaceutical and recreational drugs, age (we will talk more about age in part II) are all serotonin zappers.
Your Brain On Tryptophan - Not "Talking Turkey"
"Psilocybin (the active molecule in psychogenic mushrooms), ergotamine, yohimbine (a traditional aphrodisiac), and LSD are active in the human brain because they can stimulate the serotonin receptors." ---Psychology Today
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid (meaning our bodies cannot produce it); we can only get it from food.
Serotonin levels rise when tryptophan from foods we eat crosses our blood-brain barrier (BBB) and makes its way into our brains.
Tryptophan in our brains equals more serotonin.
One would think that to create serotonin all we would need to do is eat more foods containing tryptophan, such as turkey or shrimp. If only it were true.
Even though meat is really the best source of tryptophan, tryptophan is one of the least abundant amino acids that meat contains. There is a great competition among all the amino acids to get over the BBB. Tryptophan is an unassuming and unassertive amino acid, often losing out in the competition to get into the brain club. This is why high protein diets don't work---because tryptophan is missing, leading to low serotonin levels, leading to cravings for carbohydrates.
When I researched how to increase serotonin levels, I was surprised to see that some articles actually recommend eating sugar and starches: bagels, pasta, baked potatoes, toast, cereal, crackers, and cookies.
It's true eating these glucose-laden insulin-producing foods makes the serotonin-deprived brain happy again, but with a price. The insulin rush clears the non-tryptophan acids that are usually hanging out in the blood stream out of the way---except for tryptophan; tryptophan it likes and leaves alone. Now, the only amino acid in the blood stream is tryptophan, which, minus the competition, crosses the BBB effortlessly where it will be made into serotonin.
That's the quick solution, until we get low on serotonin, again, and boost it back up with more carbs. This viscous cycle can eventually wear down our ability to make serotonin by maxing out our neurotransmitters, and leaving us cranky, depressed and tired.
In my next post, coming up shortly, we will talk about how to boost our serotonin naturally. This is the happy and content method to permanent weight loss.
To read part II go here
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