You’ve probably heard serotonin talked about in the news or in commercials, especially when it comes to mood and pharmaceuticals. But what is serotonin? To put it simply, serotonin is a chemical produced inside your body. It’s classified as a neurotransmitter, which means it sends signals back and forth between different nerve cells.
But what does serotonin do? It has a lot of functions, but it’s perhaps best known for its effect on the brain. Serotonin is considered a ‘happy chemical,’ along with other neurotransmitters such as dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin and others. Your serotonin levels affect your sense of well-being, and a healthy amount of serotonin is associated with a good mood.
When you think of serotonin, you probably picture a chemical primarily in the brain. It’s true that the brain produces serotonin and needs it to function. However, you might be surprised to know that the majority of serotonin is actually produced in your gut. Having a healthy gut is actually key to having healthy serotonin levels.
How Does Serotonin Regulate Mood?
Serotonin is a natural built-in mood stabilizer within your body. It helps regulate feelings of anxiety and happiness. Many researchers believe that serotonin plays a vital role in the regeneration of brain cells. Some theorize that low levels of serotonin can actually interfere with this regeneration process, and that the result can be a mood imbalance.
What Are The Effects Of Serotonin On The Body?
Even though serotonin is mostly known for its effect on mood, it actually does a lot more than that. It’s thought that the majority of your 40 million brain cells are affected either directly or indirectly by serotonin. Not only does serotonin play a role in mood, it also affects sleep, appetite, memory, learning, sexual function, and thermal regulation.
When it comes to your bodily functions, serotonin also plays a role in many diverse ways. It can affect the functioning of your cardiovascular system, muscles, parts of the endocrine system, and breast milk production. Serotonin is vital to your health, and you need healthy serotonin levels to feel good and function well.
Bone Density And Serotonin: Are The Two Related?
Bone density is a big issue, especially as we age. But what does serotonin have to do with it? Some research indicates that high levels of serotonin in your gut may be linked to a decrease in bone density. Studies showed a link between serotonin-boosting prescription medications with low bone mineral density and an increased risk in fractures. More research is needed to fully understand the relationship between serotonin levels and bone density.
Serotonin and Melatonin: Are They Connected?
Melatonin, as you may know, is a hormone that is important to your sleep cycle. You may have taken melatonin at some point when you were jet lagged or struggling with sleeplessness. It is often used as a first option for people struggling with sleep disturbances.
What you may not have known is that serotonin is the chemical precursor to melatonin. What does that mean? Serotonin is actually used to synthesize melatonin within your body. Serotonin is taken from the pineal gland during sleep and converted into the hormone melatonin.
Both serotonin and melatonin work together to help your daily sleep function. Serotonin is involved with triggering sleep, the REM cycle and wakefulness. Melatonin is used to control the entire sleep/wake cycle and govern the body’s biological clock.
What Are The Signs Of A Serotonin Deficiency?
Although only a doctor can determine if you truly have a serotonin deficiency, there are general signs that you can observe.
Difficulty Sleeping — Low serotonin can cause disturbances in sleep, including poor sleep quality or nonrestorative sleep. This could include waking up more than once per night, not being able to get back to sleep or waking up feeling unrefreshed.
Mood Imbalance — Although scientists do not unanimously agree, many experts believe that a deficiency of serotonin can create mood disturbances. This may be reflected in feelings of sadness, low self-esteem or loss of interest in activities.
Sugar Cravings — Lack of proper serotonin levels could lead us to seek chemical balance through unhealthy substances like sugar. Sugar cravings could be caused by several reasons; however, serotonin deficiency could be a contributing factor.
Psychological Issues — Lack of serotonin could in some cases lead to psychological disturbances. These may include: aggressiveness/irritability, impulsive behavior, poor appetite and fearfulness/stress.
Physical Issues — Lack of serotonin may also be associated with the following physical issues: fatigue, weight gain, nausea, digestive issues and carbohydrate cravings.
7 Ways To Boost Your Serotonin Naturally
The good news is that there are certainly many natural ways to boost your body’s production of serotonin. Serotonin plays a major role in your mood, but that’s not the only factor. If you’re looking for healthy ways to boost your mood, there are several holistic approaches you can take. Diet and lifestyle is key; so is practicing emotional/spiritual self care.
If you’re looking for practical ways to boost your serotonin levels, then you’re in luck! There are many things that you can do to increase serotonin naturally. Some of it has to do with lifestyle: the things you eat and how active you are. Supplements can also play a role as well as simple ‘hacks’ that can trigger a release of your ‘feel-good’ neurochemicals. Scroll down to learn 7 ways that you can raise your serotonin levels and increase your sense of well-being.
1. Get Some Sunshine
For most of recorded history, humans have spent the majority of their days outside hunting, farming, and working. Getting healthy amounts of natural sunlight is part of your body’s requirement to function well. It is also one of the best-known methods to increase serotonin.
The bright light/serotonin relationship has been established in a number of interesting studies. One research team analyzed serotonin levels in post-mortem brains and discovered that those who died in summer had more serotonin than those who died in winter. The theory was that the light of summer had a measurably greater effect on serotonin levels than that of winter. Some theorize that low serotonin levels in our society today may stem from a bright light-deprivation. Even standing outside on a cloudy day is much brighter than most indoor light settings.
So, what are some ways to get more natural sunlight? Here are some practical tips.
- Eat Lunch Outside
- Switch to an outdoor workout (running, biking, etc.)
- Plant a garden.
- At work, switch to a desk beside a window.
- Invest in a Light Therapy Lamp (replicates sunlight).
2. Exercise More Often
Exercise has so many benefits, and one of them is increased serotonin. Actually, exercise not only boosts serotonin, it also raises dopamine and helps regulate the two chemicals together.
We all know that exercise is good for the brain, but why does it boost serotonin? Part of the reason is that exercise increases the availability of tryptophan in the brain. You may have heard the word tryptophan before, especially in connection with turkey. Essentially, tryptophan is an amino acid found in several foods that is also a precursor to serotonin. Some studies have concluded that because exercise increases tryptophan levels, it leads to a greater level of serotonin synthesis. Some research has concluded that this chemical reaction is partly why we feel good after a workout.
3. Having a Healthy Gut = Healthy Serotonin
As we stated earlier, your gut plays a huge role in your serotonin production. In fact, approximately 90% of the serotonin in your body is produced in your digestive tract. When the gut is not functioning properly, it can become inflamed. This can lead to a decrease in serotonin levels.
So what is the key to having a healthy gut? A big part of it is taking care of your gut microbiome. What’s that? Your microbiome is actually the environment of microorganisms that live inside your digestive tract. These are the good bacteria that help you maintain a healthy body and strong immune system.
There are several measures you can take to support your gut microbiome. Firstly, you can reduce stress. Lowering your stress can be a major boost to your gut health. Secondly, just eating a healthy diet can improve your gut flora. This means eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and limited animal products. Thirdly, you can take a probiotic. Probiotics (especially when combined with prebiotics) can introduce new positive bacteria into the digestive tract. The health benefits of probiotics are thought to be numerous, and benefits may include: better functioning digestion, stronger immunity and more balanced mood.
4. Invest Into Your Relationships
It’s easy to forget, but human relationships are at the core of a healthy mind and body—and that includes healthy neurochemistry. To balance the brain you need positive people in your life--people that accept you. According to an article in Psychology Today: “Love is a cocktail of brain chemicals,” and that includes serotonin. Author Dr. Loretta Breuning argues that, “when you receive the affection of a desirable individual, it triggers lots of serotonin.” The opposite, she says, is also true.
Therefore finding loving, non-toxic relationships will be key to healthy serotonin levels. It’s often overlooked, but this includes having a healthy relationship with yourself. Self-image is another factor that affects serotonin. Finding resources and people to help boost your self-image will go a great distance in boosting your positive neurochemistry.
5. Take A Cold Shower
Here’s one for the adventurous types: taking a cold shower can lead to an increase in serotonin. According to dermatologist Michele Green, “Cold showers can wake up your skin receptors, which causes increased activity to the brain.” (source: wellandgood.com, southernliving.com) Green went on to explain that this can not only heighten mental acuity, but it can also boost serotonin. Many also report that the effect of cold showers is very invigorating and actually stronger than caffeine!
6. Try Different Foods
Although there is no food that contains the chemical serotonin itself, there are many foods that contain the cofactors needed to produce serotonin. A cofactor is an agent that helps a chemical to be fully functional. Vegetables and fruits are a great source of serotonin cofactors.
Another way to give your body fuel for serotonin is to increase your intake of tryptophan. As we stated earlier, tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin, and eating high-tryptophan foods will make sure you have the raw material needed to produce serotonin. High-tryptophan foods may include: eggs, cheese, tofu, salmon, nuts/seeds, and turkey.
7. Take Supplements
Although there is no real serotonin supplement, there are many supplements which help your body naturally produce serotonin. Some of these may include Tryptophan or 5-HTP. As we discussed earlier, supplements such as probiotics may indirectly help raise serotonin levels by improving gut flora.