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Think of the last time you were blissfully happy.
Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and visualize it.
That’s the feeling of serotonin circulating through your brain.
In this article you'll learn why serotonin is so crucial to well-being, how an imbalance can affect your life, then you'll learn 4 natural ways to regain healthy balance of this most essential brain chemical.
Serotonin Function: A Beginner's Guide
It’s often called the “happy molecule”, but when this important neurotransmitter becomes imbalanced -- when we have too little or too much -- we can feel down and anxious, or overwhelmed and frazzled by even minor disturbances.
Serotonin imbalance is associated with a host of symptoms that can disrupt your mental, emotional, and physical health -- and even your quality of life.
Serotonin acts one of the brain's most well-studied inhibitory neurotransmitters.
This means it helps balance excessive stimulation of excitatory (stimulating) neurotransmitters such as glutamate and dopamine to foster more calm and relaxed mental states.
We typically think of serotonin as the brain’s primary “feel-good” chemical, but it is actually produced in two places: the brain and the gut.
Over 90% of the body’s serotonin is made in the gut, however, only serotonin produced in the brain can be used by the brain, which is why the brain is the most viable therapeutic target for improving neurotransmitter function and balance.
In the gut, serotonin plays a central role in digestion and satiety.
It serves as a hormone messenger to enhance the absorption of nutrients, as well as stimulate the muscular contractions of the intestine to facilitate the passage of food -- a process called peristalsis.
Serotonin is also involved in hunger signaling.
Similar to hunger hormones ghrelin and peptide YY, when serotonin levels are balanced, they signal the brain when you’ve had enough to eat.
This helps curb food cravings or uncontrolled eating.
Summary: Serotonin is a chemical messenger that regulates many processes in the body and brain including mood, appetite, social behavior, learning ability, and sleep.
Related: Could You Have a Dopamine Imbalance?
Serotonin Deficiency: Symptoms, Causes, and Contributing Factors
The prevailing theory used to be that low serotonin was what caused negative emotional states of mind.
However, recent research has flipped this hypothesis on its head.
Now, leading researchers believe serotonin imbalance is a more likely predictor of these negative emotional states .
Serotonin Deficiency Symptoms
The most widely recognized symptom of low serotonin is feelings of sadness and the loss of pleasure.
Other signs of low serotonin include:
- Mental obsessions
- Depressed mood
- Sleep-cycle disturbances
- Sweet and starchy food cravings or increased appetite
- Low libido
- Digestive health issues
- Sense of overwhelm
It’s unlikely that most of these symptoms are a direct result of low serotonin, but maintaining healthy serotonin levels is linked with improved physical and psychological symptoms, positive social behavior, and greater overall health .
Summary: Negative mood, anxiety, depression, impaired social behavior, aggression, fear, stress, and increased appetite are all factors that can result from the effects of a serotonin imbalance.
Serotonin Deficiency Causes
The Following Factors Can Cause or Contribute to Low Serotonin Levels
- Prolonged states of stress
- Genetic predispositions
- Some drugs and prescription medications
- Lack of sunlight
- Hormonal fluctuations, deficiencies, or imbalances
- Poor diet
- Lack of exercise
- Cigarette smoking
- High cortisol levels
- Problems converting tryptophan to Serotonin
- Low blood sugar
There are dozens of lifestyle factors that can influence serotonin levels either positively or negatively, but in order for the body to build this neurotransmitter in the first place, we need to get adequate amounts of dietary precursors -- the fundamental building blocks of serotonin.
Differences in Low Serotonin Levels Between Men and Women
A study from 2007 showed that men and women respond differently to low serotonin levels .
For men, poor mood and lack of interest or ability to focus are more commonly the result of dopamine deficiency. Low serotonin, on the other hand, is most commonly associated with compulsive behaviors like ADHD, excessive alcohol consumption, or other impulse control disorders.
For women, the most common signs of low serotonin are anxiety, cautiousness, and a general drop in mood.
Can You Have Too Much Serotonin?
High levels of serotonin and serotonin toxicity occur when levels of serotonin exceed the normal amount in the body.
Symptoms of high levels of serotonin include:
- Muscle stiffness
- Rapid heart rate
- Loss of coordination
- Twitching muscles
In more extreme cases, high levels of serotonin can result in a condition called serotonin syndrome.
What is Serotonin Syndrome?
It can occur when you increase the dosage of an existing medication, or possibly if you add a certain new drug to your regimen. Additionally, certain illegal drugs are associated with serotonin syndrome.
Serotonin syndrome is most often the result of medication use or complication, and while natural supplements have been shown to increase serotonin levels, when taken as recommended, the risk of excess serotonin levels is very low.
4 Evidence-Based Ways to Improve Serotonin Levels and Restore Balance Naturally
There are many pharmacological strategies to improve serotonin levels in the brain, but the research shows that there are 4 effective ways we can improve serotonin levels naturally that don't involve drugs or medications.
Physical activity has been shown to significantly increase serotonin levels in both human and animal studies .
Studies have shown that exercise increases the firing rates of serotonin neurons, which results in increased release and production of serotonin .
Exercise also triggers the release of the serotonin precursor, tryptophan, in the brain .
Exercise increases the availability of serotonin precursors as well as the activity of serotonin receptors in the brain.
Researchers believe the relationship between mood and serotonin is a 2-way street.
Self-induced alterations in thought, such as mindfulness meditation or even positive thinking, have been shown to alter brain metabolism and influence serotonin levels .
Activities that emphasize a positive mood like gratitude journaling, meditation or positive psychology are practical ways to improve symptoms of serotonin imbalance and mood, possibly even independent of one another.
Related: 5 Ways Gratitude Changes Our Brains
Exposure to bright light is a standard treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but researchers believe serotonin levels are affected as well .
Studies done in humans and animals reveal a positive relationship between hours of sunlight per day and serotonin synthesis [12, 13]. Even during the winder months, simply spending more time outdoors was shown to boost serotonin levels in the brain.
Another study showed that the mood-lowering effect of tryptophan depletion in healthy women was completely blocked when exposed to bright light instead of dim light .
Relatively few generations ago, our ancestors were more deeply involved in agriculture, and spent much of the day outdoors. Now, we live in a natural bright light-deprived society, which is believed to be a contributing factor to SAD and modern society's prevalence of mood disorders.
Healthy Diet Rich in Serotonin Precursors & Cofactors
To produce serotonin in the first place your body needs the right nutrients.
Eating a varied diet rich in vitamins, minerals, and nutrients helps provide the body the necessary cofactors and precursors to support optimal serotonin metabolism and function.
The following foods are good sources of tryptophan:
Though many foods contain tryptophan, other amino acids can "compete" for absorption. That's why purified tryptophan sources or 5-HTP (the next precursor in the metabolic cycle) are more easily transported into the brain.
Look for a supplement that contains the precursor tryptophan, plus additional cofactors like B vitamins, magnesium, and zinc.
Understanding Serotonin Imbalance: The Bottom Line
Nobody knows exactly what causes “the blues” or negative emotional states.
Brain chemistry is an incredibly complex field,; it's one we're continuing to learn more about every year.
However, we do know that serotonin does play a key role in our ability to feel calm, relaxed, and happy, and thankfully, we have some reliable methods to naturally increase this most essential neurotransmitter.
The most powerful way we can heal our bodies and our minds is through regular movement, healthy diet, making a deliberate effort to de-stress, and soak up plenty of sunshine on a daily basis.
These are our most powerful tools for living a happy, healthy, and balanced life.