Our brains are highly complex, which requires a high level of functionality. In order to function at an optimal level, our brains require balanced levels of neurotransmitters. These brain chemicals, send messages, which allow us to perform tasks, feel emotion, and even learn.
When there is an imbalance in these key neurotransmitters, it can affect the ways in which we think, feel, and behave. One of these critical neurotransmitters is serotonin, which regulates mood, appetite, sleep, and stress. When serotonin levels are low, it can create feelings of anxiety and depression. It is also associated with alcoholism, impulse control, and aggression.
A Serotonin Deficiency
Serotonin is not only found in the brain, as it can be found within the bloodstream and the digestive tract. It is most commonly found in the brain however, where it is said to interact with more than 40 million brain cells (either directly or indirectly).
In terms of nutrition, deficiencies are not unheard of. In fact, there are many deficiencies that can affect one’s health. However, when focusing on a deficiency of this magnitude, the effects can be severe. Not only can your mental health be severely affected, but it can create other complications as well.
Our brain and physical body are not independent of one another. Since serotonin influences so many areas of the brain, it has effects on our pain reception, muscle function, cardiovascular health, memory, and ability to sleep.
How to Spot the Signs of a Serotonin Deficiency
When you can effectively spot the symptoms of a deficiency, you can quickly work towards a more balanced, healthy state. There are various risk factors associated with a serotonin deficiency. Once a deficiency occurs, it can create numerous chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia or migraines.
When serotonin levels are low, it can cause the blood vessels to dilate, lowering one’s threshold for pain. In turn, this can create severe headaches. Not everyone experiences pain, as there are an assortment of possible symptoms, including; depression, lack of impulse control, loss of appetite, problems sleeping, feelings of guilt, negative thoughts, fatigue, low self-esteem, confusion, anxiety, and more.
Other conditions may also be linked to low serotonin levels, such as alcoholism, anorexia, addiction, panic attacks, or compulsive behavior. Some also report losing interest in their friends, family, and life in general. Although mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety can have many contributing factors, low serotonin levels are typically seen.
What Causes Serotonin Deficiencies?
Diet influences our brain chemistry, especially when we do not consume enough tryptophan. This amino acid is a precursor to serotonin, making it an essential compound. This means that our bodies cannot produce it, so it needs to be consumed within our diet. When you do not follow a balanced, nutrient-rich diet, deficiencies are bound to occur.
Also, if you consume high concentrations of pop, coffee, or tea, you could actually worsen the problem. This effect is due to the levels of caffeine in these drinks. When you consume caffeine, our bodies release serotonin, increasing concentrations within the central nervous system. This can lead to potential desensitization, or a depletion in serotonin levels.
A depletion in neurotransmitters, is typically linked to a lack of precursors. When we consume protein, we obtain amino acids, which aids in the production of numerous neurotransmitters. A classic example is breast milk, as it is high in tryptophan. It has been found that babies who are raised on formula (which does not contain tryptophan), may be more prone to develop a serotonin deficiency as an adult.
There are also a number of cofactors, which play a vital role in serotonin production. Various vitamins and minerals, are needed in order to achieve stable serotonin levels. For example, calcium, magnesium, vitamin D, and B vitamins, are all needed in order to increase successful production.
In relation to vitamin D, serotonin is a light-sensitive process. Seasonal affective disorder, is now being recognized as a condition occurring throughout the winter months. The winter season brings shorter, darker days. Since we obtain vitamin D from the sun, serotonin production can decrease, leading to depression-like symptoms. The ‘winter blues,’ may have some truth to it after all.
How to Correct a Serotonin Deficiency
If you think that you’re currently being affected by a serotonin deficiency, there are steps you can take naturally. Of course, the first place to start is your diet. A well balanced, protein-rich diet, can help target this deficiency, while improving your overall health.
Vegans are typically serotonin deficient, because they lack enough protein in their diet. If you are are a vegan or vegetarian, ensure that you are getting enough protein through sources like nuts (or dairy for vegetarians). Tofu is also an excellent source of protein.
However, if you are still not getting enough protein in your diet, supplementation is another option. When you take 5-HTP or L-tryptophan, you can help boost this production process. Another natural way to boost neurotransmitter levels, is through exercise.
When you exercise, your muscles utilize the amino acids from your blood. Tryptophan is then left, free to cross the blood-brain barrier. Once it reaches our pineal gland, the production of serotonin occurs. Have you ever gone for a brisk walk, and found that it lifted your mood? This is one of the key reasons why.
Some are also interested in the effects of light-therapy. For those that are prone to seasonal affective disorder, this may be a beneficial option. When exposed to light-therapy, many affected individuals have positively responded in terms of their mood and behavior. Not only do you have the option to go outside and take in some fresh air; but you can also sit in front of a light box for several minutes daily.
Which Supplements Target Serotonin Deficiency?
If you have already made lifestyle changes with little results, then you may benefit from supplementation instead. Although tryptophan is found in various foods, there are tryptophan supplements that are specifically designed to target stress and mood.
Since supplementation increases tryptophan levels, it is more effective at crossing the blood-brain barrier. Since tryptophan is considered to be a hypnotic, many countries require individuals to obtain a prescription. However, within the United States, you can purchase over-the-counter tryptophan supplements. These are typically purchased online or within health food stores.
Another option is 5-HTP, which helps to breakdown tryptophan. Not only does 5-HTP influence serotonin levels, but it also has an effect on melatonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These chemicals influence our mood, our ability to manage pain, and sleep.
Many prefer 5-HTP supplements over tryptophan supplements, simply because it tends to have a greater effect. Unlike tryptophan, 5-HTP is not affected by other amino acids. Therefore, it works faster, while increasing higher levels of serotonin.
If lifestyle changes have not helped, speak with your health care professional regarding appropriate supplements. They will instruct you regarding specific doses and potential side-effects. You also need to disclose the medications you’re currently taking, just in case of a possible interaction.