Serotonin: The Happiness Hormone

April 2012
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a substance designed to transmit messages from one nerve cell to another. It relays signals to the brain to regulate how a person feels. Serotonin levels determine whether a person feels happy or sad, satiated or hungry, cold or comfortable.

Health issues such as depression and obesity have been linked to an imbalance in serotonin levels. Low levels can lead to depression, sleep disorders and various forms of addiction. Serotonin affects and controls mental and emotional processes, motor functions, thermoregulation, regulation of blood pressure and hormonal functions.

Few people think of serotonin as a digestive aid, but up to 95% of this monoamine neurotransmitter is found in the gastrointestinal system, where it regulates the movement and fluid content of the stool. Serotonin also affects cell growth, metabolism, sex drive and moods. Physicians treating patients with depression or anxiety often prescribe medications that modulate the release or reuse of serotonin.

A reduced level of serotonin signals to the brain that the body “is hungry.” Several studies have shown a direct link between obesity caused by overeating and low levels of serotonin. Overweight people with low levels of serotonin feel the need to eat constantly. The moment when blood glucose levels normalize, serotonin levels return to normal and they feel better again.

While the overall goal for good health should be to maintain effective levels of serotonin, rather than to have too much or too little of it, there are ways to naturally boost serotonin levels to curb these health concerns.

Natural Sources of Serotonin

Too much stress can throw a person’s serotonin levels completely out of whack.Techniques to de-stress and increase your serotonin levels include getting a massage, taking a warm bath, drinking a cup of tea, listening to music or reading a book. A little pampering can go a long way toward increasing serotonin levels.

Research has shown that as your heart rate increases so do your levels of serotonin. In the winter, some people suffer from Seasonal Affect Disorder (or SAD). One way that doctors help to combat SAD is by prescribing a challenging exercise routine. Exercise is known to increase serotonin levels yearround, so if you are feeling a little blue in the summer, perhaps it is time to amp up your exercise regimen.

People who are sleep deprived find that they have higher stress levels and lower serotonin levels. In addition, consistent Healthkeepers magazine • 39 sleep deprivation can lead to increased risk for diabetes and other health problems. For the sake of your body and mind, getting a sufficient amount of sleep is critical.

Ways to Boost Serotonin

Increase the amount of tryptophan-rich foods in your diet. Your body utilizes tryptophan to produce serotonin, increasing the amount available and improving both mood and sleep. Proteins such as garbanzo beans, nuts and seeds tend to have high amounts of tryptophan. Other proteins particularly high in tryptophan are eggs, Atlantic cod or perch, raw soybeans, milk, yogurt, cheddar or parmesan cheese, cottage cheese, chocolate, oats and sunflower or pumpkin seeds. Also dark chocolate has been found to increase serotonin levels.

Consider replacing a carbohydrate binge with a high-protein snack or a piece of fruit, such as a banana. Carbohydrates are necessary, not only for energy, but also for serotonin levels, but they are tricky. Eat too much of them and you gain weight. Eat too few and your energy levels will drop. People who are sad or depressed often reach for foods rich in carbohydrates because the body knows that carbs will increase serotonin levels.However, many people tend to overdo it and are unable to stop at just a few bites.

Avoid “quick fixes” such as sugar, caffeine and alcohol. While these may provide a short-term boost in mood and energy level, the long-term reliance on sugar or stimulants will have a negative effect on your body’s ability to regulate serotonin levels, which may lead not only to mood fluctuations but digestive irregularities.

Physical touch can increase serotonin levels. Serotonin helps regulate dopamine, and an excess of dopamine can lead to aggressive and sometimes violent behavior. Everyone needs hugs and touching to maintain serotonin levels, so hug friends, loved ones and even your pet, often.

Expose yourself to sources of natural light. The amount of sunlight you receive each day is directly related to the amount of serotonin in your brain in a positive way. Our bodies and our brains need sunlight in order to metabolize calcium, absorb vitamin D and regulate sleeping patterns. If you live in a northern climate or you are indoors for most of the day, consider using a light box, which is a form of artificial sunlight you can use indoors.

Think positively. Science has shown that your thoughts have an effect on your brain’s biochemistry, and so making a concerted effort to see things in a more positive light can help increase serotonin. This is a cascading positive effect because optimism has been found to be inversely correlated with the risk of developing heart disease. In short, the more optimistic you are, the less likely you are to develop one of the top causes of death.

Sources: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/ medlineplus/ency/article/002332.htm; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/ articles/PMC2077351/; http://www. Whatisserotonin.com/serotonin/what-isserotonin/