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What Is Serotonin

Serotonin (5-hydroxytrptamine, 5-HT) is a chemical and neurotransmitter found in the human body that carries signals between nerves. The word Serotonin originated from a discovery in 1948 by Maurice M. Rapport that classified it as a serum agent that affected vascular tone.  A biochemical process in the body combines Tryptophan (component of proteins) with tryptophan hydroxylase (a chemical reactor) to form 5-hydroxyltruptamine (5-HT), which is Serotonin.

Serotonin is manufactured in the brain and the intestines, with 90% in the gastrointestinal tract. Serotonin is also located in the blood platelets and the central nervous system and influences many body and psychological functions. However, Serotonin cannot cross the blood-brain barrier and therefore Serotonin used in the brain must be produced there.

Serotonin Functions

Serotonin functions as a neurotransmitter, influencing both directly and indirectly the majority of brain cells. Serotonin assists in:

Bowel Function – Roughly 95% of the body’s Serotonin is found in the gastrointestinal tract and triggers the gut nerves that contract the intestines, but also signal pain, nausea and other GI problems. 

Clotting – After a wound, the platelets release Serotonin so the vasoconstriction (narrowing of the tiny arteries) can reduce blood flow and assist with the formation of blood clots.

Sleep - Serotonin is synthesized by the pineal gland to produce melatonin, the hormone directly related to healthy sleep.

Cardiovascular – Serotonin maintains cardiovascular system efficiency. High Serotonin (such as with the use of antidepressants) can lead to a rapid heart rate and high blood pressure. 

Mood – Serotonin plays a major role in mood, anxiety control and happiness. Ecstasy and LSD cause a massive rise in Serotonin levels.

Liver – Helps to regenerate the liver.

Cell Health – Serotonin is necessary for efficient cell division.

Nausea – After ingesting a toxin, bacteria or irritant, Serotonin is produced in the gut to increase time to expel the irritant in diarrhea. The increase in blood Serotonin levels also stimulates the nausea area in the brain to warn the body of the irritant ingested.

Sexual Function – High levels of Serotonin can cause a reduction in libido and sexual function. This explains why antidepressants have a side effect of decreased libido.

Body Temperature and Breathing – Serotonin in the brain play an essential role in maintaining a healthy balance in body temperature and respiration (breathing). Serotonin is produced by the nerve cells in the brain stem, the area that controls the heart, respiratory system and sleep cycle.

Bone Density – Studies have shown that sustained high levels of Serotonin can lead to an increase in osteoporosis. Studies have shown that persistent high levels of Serotonin with the use of SSRIs can weaker skeletal bone.

Serotonin and Sleep

Serotonin plays a role in sleep cycles and in wakefulness states.  Serotonin is synthesized by the pineal glad to make melatonin, the hormone directly related to sleep.

Serotonin levels are lower in sleep than while we are awake and are at their lowest during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, the dream sleep. Neurons with Serotonin receptors are active during all stages of sleep until we reach REM stages, then Serotonin quiets. When Serotonin levels drop, acetylcholine (neurotransmitter) rises in the brain. This is why many on antidepressants have reduced dream sleep – the high Serotonin levels inhibit the increase in acetylcholine.

The Serotonin System is Very Complex

Serotonin is involved in a broad range of physiological and behavioral processes including cardiovascular regulation, pain sensitivity, appetite, sexual behavior, cognition, learning, mood and respiration. The Serotonergic system is a complex structure that is critical to address not only biological responses but challenges from the environment.

Altering this system chemically upsets a fine balance within the body. Increasing Serotonin with antidepressants can cause symptoms including diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, headaches, shivering, agitation, restless, confusion and uncoordinated movement. If Serotonin rises too high, dangerous symptoms including irregular heartbeat, seizures and trembling can indicate Serotonin Syndrome, a potentially fatal condition.

Natural Ways to Build Serotonin

Serotonin is an inhibitory neurotransmitter meaning is does not stimulate the brain. Adequate levels are necessary to balance any stimulating signals. Any stimulant medications or items like caffeine and sugar can cause a depletion of serotonin over time. Serotonin also regulates carbohydrate cravings, pain control, digestion, and is critical for proper sleep, so supporting natural Serotonin levels through a healthy diet is essential.

The following may naturally assist in the production of Serotonin:

  • Vitamin B6  - Foods rich in B6 include spinach, turnip greens, garlic, cauliflower, mustard greens, celery, fish, poultry, lean beef.
  • Grain like Seeds – Buckwheat, millet, amaranth and quinoa are seeds with grain-like taste and properties that are healthy, high-protein carbohydrates that boost Serotonin.
  • Fermented foods – aid in digestion and the assimilation of nutrients.
  • Sunshine – Early morning sun can boost the body’s production of melatonin. Serotonin converts to melatonin.
  • Eliminate Sugar – Low Serotonin causes intense cravings for sugar as the body’s way of trying to increase neurotransmitter levels. However, sugar can cause insulin resistance, hypoglycemia and diabetes.

Foods that have the highest concentrations of Serotonin:

Our bodies naturally use the precursors from foods to build Serotonin levels. Serotonin in its complete form cannot pass through the blood-brain barrier, so serotonin-rich foods must be included in our diet to provide the building blocks. How we eat affects or mood and our mood affects how we eat.  A diet high in Folate also improves Serotonin levels.

Foods that provide the building blocks for Serotonin production are:

  • Walnuts
  • Pineapples
  • Bananas
  • Kiwis
  • Plums
  • Tomatoes
  • Plantains
  • Turkey
  • Bananas
  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Meats
  • Beans
  • Fish
  • Blackeyed Peas
  • Almonds
  • Sesame Seeds
  • Flaxseed
  • Pumpkin Seeds

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References:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2077351/
http://www.clinchem.org/content/55/8/1578.full

http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/232248.php
http://www.bu.edu/writingprogram/journal/past-issues/issue-5/mcclenathan/
https://www.madinamerica.com/2012/01/revising-the-history-of-the-serotonin-theory-of-depression-2/

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