Serotonin (5-hydroxy-tryptamine, or 5-HT), is a complex brain chemical that transmit information throughout your brain and body cells. This “feel good” neurotransmitter contribute to your overall health and wellbeing by influencing a variety of physiological and psychological functions such as temperature regulation, digestion, sleep pattern, appetite, mood, cognitive function, libido, pain sensation, behaviour, cardiovascular function, muscle contraction and endocrine regulation.
Why We Need Serotonin
Though, serotonin is made from tryptophan only in the brain and the intestines, but it is extensively found in three main areas of your body i.e. the intestinal wall; large constricted blood vessels; and the central nervous system. It has so many diverse and important roles in your body that its levels in your body are actually a key to determine your mental and physical health.
An understanding of the function of serotonin in your body and how to increase its level can help you feel great, naturally.
- Enhances Mood: Serotonin is a mood regulator that is often called the “happy molecule” for its role in enhancing your mood. Adequate amounts of serotonin are necessary to create balance and make you feel happy, relaxed, and self-confident. It also helps in preventing anxiety and aggression by calming your brain.
- Digestion: About 80-90% of your body’s supply of serotonin is found in the enterochromaffin cells that line the stomach and intestines, where it regulates the involuntary movement of food through the system (peristaltic contractions). When you eat something toxic or irritating, more serotonin is produced in the gut to increase transit time and expel the irritant in the form of diarrhea. This increase in blood serotonin levels can also cause nausea by stimulating the nausea area in your brain.
- Longevity: This neurotransmitter is required for optimal functioning of your muscles, cardiovascular, endocrine and immune systems. Serotonin also has a role in maintaining bone density, as studies have shown that a persistent high level of serotonin in the bones can lead to an increase in osteoporosis. Serotonin deficiency increases your risk for heart disease, dementia and Alzheimer’s and can contribute to the severity of symptoms of asthma, fibromyalgia and migraines.
- Blood Clotting: It helps coagulate blood for clotting purposes. Serotonin is released by platelets when there is a wound, which facilitates vasoconstriction to reduce blood flow and aids the formation of blood clots.
- Sleep Cycle: Serotonin is required to produce Melatonin, the primary neurotransmitter involved in the regulation of circadian rhythm. It helps in establishing healthy sleep cycle by stimulating quality sleep.
- Satiety: It has a role in hunger signalling and carbohydrate cravings. Serotonin regulates appetite by modulating food intake and creating a feeling of fullness.
- Social Behavior: Serotonin also plays a critical role in regulating aggressive emotions during social decision making.
Research suggests that people who suffer from the symptoms of anxiety and depression often have imbalance of serotonin levels in their bodies. Other symptoms of serotonin deficiency are: binge eating, being unusually sensitive to pain, digestive disorders, low self esteem, feeling overwhelmed, insomnia, migraines and poor cognitive function.
How to Increase Serotonin Naturally
- Diet: Serotonin can be found in a variety of foods like walnuts, bananas, kiwis, pineapples, plums and tomatoes. Though, these foods boost serotonin levels in the gut, it cannot pass through the blood-brain barrier. Therefore, serotonin that is used inside the brain must be produced within it.
- Protein: To meet brain’s serotonin requirements, there is a unique biochemical conversion process, which combines tryptophan (a component of proteins), with tryptophan hydroxylase, a chemical reactor. Together, they form 5-hydroxyltryptamine (5-HT), which is referred as serotonin. Protein-rich foods such as turkey, bananas, milk and milk products, eggs, meat, nuts, beans, fish, cheeses, contain generous levels of tryptophan. However, to properly process the tryptophan in protein it needs to be consumed in conjunction with a small bit of complex carbohydrates.
- Carbohydrates: Studies suggest ingesting carbohydrates boosts serotonin synthesis and levels. When you eat a carbohydrate-rich meal, your body triggers release of insulin, which promotes absorption of amino acids (except tryptophan) circulating in the blood into the body. As a result high levels of tryptophan remain in the bloodstream following a carbohydrate meal, which facilitates its entry into the brain and cause serotonin levels to rise.
So, eat foods high in tryptophan with a serving of healthy carbohydrates (brown rice, oatmeal, whole-grain bread) to boost your serotonin levels. Do you know why salt is so important in your diet?
Some other foods that increase serotonin production through other mechanisms are dark chocolate, cold-water fatty fish, green tea, fermented foods and spice turmeric.
- Healthy Behavior: When you practice good health behavior (i.e. regular exercise, adequate sleep and daily de-stress), you regulate your energy optimally and promote serotonin synthesis in your body:
- Exercise: Besides triggering release of serotonin, just 15-20 minutes of exercise everyday can help regenerate neurons and brain cells, which help your brain to optimally utilize this “feel good” hormone serotonin for boosting your mood.
- Sleep: Lack of sleep can negatively affect your brain’s neuronal signalling, which alters how it responds to serotonin. Aim for undisturbed 7-8 hrs of sleep to maintain healthy serotonin signalling in your brain.
- Vitamin B complex especially thiamine (B1), pyridoxine (B6), niacin (B3) and folic acid help in production of serotonin. Supplementation with these vitamins is found helpful in boosting mood and cognitive function.
- Sunshine Vitamin “D”: Research suggests a strong connection between sunlight and serotonin levels. When your skin absorbs UV rays it promotes production of vitamin D and serotonin. So, expose yourself daily to at least 20 minutes of sun by taking a walk in the sun or having your lunch or coffee outside to boost your serotonin levels, naturally. Are you Vitamin D deficient? You might be VERY surprised.
- De-stress: Research suggests that your emotions and moods are directly linked with serotonin levels. Prolonged physical or emotional stress produces adrenaline and cortisol, which interfere with serotonin. So, schedule sometime everyday for relaxation techniques (deep breathing, therapeutic massages, meditation) and bonding with friends and family to raise your serotonin levels.