Serotonin is a neurotransmitter – a type of chemical produced in the brain that helps communicate signals from one area of the brain to another. It helps pass messages between neurones and so influences a variety of psychological functions eg mood and sexual desire. It also helps control appetite, sleep, memory and learning and some social behaviours.
As discussed in previous parts of this article, drugs and alcohol stimulate an overproduction of feel-good chemicals. This effectively disrupts their natural transmission. Repeated drug and alcohol abuse can cause the brain to become chemically imbalanced. A serious lack of serotonin can lead to depression, as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, panic, and even excessive anger. These negative emotional and physical symptoms may be experienced during the withdrawal process. In some cases this is treated with antidepressant medications that artificially increase serotonin levels.
However, as with Dopamine and Oxytocin, a change of lifestyle can boost the production of Serotonin naturally. Here are some suggestions:
A Tryptophan-Rich Diet
Serotonin is synthesised from the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan cannot be synthesised in the body and must be taken through a healthy diet. Tryptophan depletion is sometimes seen in those with mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Hence, to boost serotonin levels in the brain it’s important to keep up the intake of tryptophan-containing foods. These include:
- Egg yolk – as well as being rich in important nutrients such as tyrosine, choline, biotin, omega-3 fatty acids, egg yolk increases blood plasma levels of tryptophan.
- Turkey – rich source of tryptophan and low fat.
- Pineapples – a major source of tryptophan as well as bromelain. This protein may help to alleviate coughs, and perhaps reduce side effects of chemotherapy.
- Soy products – rich sources of tryptophan. Tofu is an excellent alternative to meat and can be used in a variety of dishes, making it particularly useful in vegetarian and vegan diets.
- Salmon – is also rich in tryptophan. Salmon also helps balance cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, and it is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Nuts and seeds – contain large quantities of tryptophan and are a good source of fibre, vitamins, and antioxidants. Studies show that eating 30 grams of nuts a day can lower the risk of cancer, heart disease, and some respiratory problems.
Natural Food Supplements
In addition to diet, some natural supplements can facilitate the production of serotonin in the body. Here are the best ones:
- B-complex vitamin supplements – can help us in times of stress. Higher intakes of vitamins B6 and B12 are associated with a lower risk of depression as they support the production of serotonin in the brain.
- John’s Wort – is a herb that can be purchased in tea-bag or tablet form. It may be effective in easing mild to moderate depression. It appears to work as a natural selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) allowing more of the transmitter to remain active.
- Inositol – is naturally present in many foods but can also be taken as a supplement to help alleviate anxiety and depression and support the health of our nervous system. It is available in powdered form and can be added to a glass of water before bed.
- Magnesium – has effecs in regulating the nervous system via neurotransmitters. Studies suggest that about 50% of people in the UK get less than the recommended daily amount of magnesium. It is widely available in health shops and pharmacies in affordable powder supplements.
Exercise is a natural mood booster. Multiple research studies have demonstrated that exercise is as effective at increasing serotonin as antidepressants. Regular physical activity is one of the best ways to improve happy hormone levels and the overall health of our brain.
A recent study, conducted on post-natal depressed mothers, demonstrated that simple physical human contact increases serotonin. The women received massages twice a week from their partners for four months, and their serotonin levels increased by 30%. Other studies have shown that physical, non-sexual contact between partners helped migraine sufferers to boost their serotonin and reduce headaches.
Get Some Sun
Going for a walk in the sunshine is a valuable source of vitamin D, lack of which is why many people tend to feel a drop in mood during the winter months. If we are feeling down, afternoon walks will increase the amount of vitamin D in our body, boosting our mood. Make sure to protect against sunburn though!
Remember Happy Events
Remembering positive events from our past naturally increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain. In contrast, studies showed that remembering sad events decreased production. So, as basic as this may sound, recollecting positive occasions has a two-fold effect: it directly increases serotonin, and prevents us from having negative thoughts.
In conclusion, as serotonin is involved in normal behaviour such as eating, sleeping and socialising, it is important in recovery. After prolonged and repeated abuse the body and brain require a lifestyle that helps us redress the chemical imbalance caused by addiction. Engaging in all of the activities above can lead to an overall emotionally and physically healthier lifestyle.