Low serotonin levels can affect anyone at any stage of life although some people are more likely to experience deficiencies due to genetics, menopause, addiction and other factors.
Anxiety and depression are two of the most common ailments associated with serotonin deficiencies, but this neurotransmitter can also play a role in insomnia, attention-deficit disorder, binge eating and fibromyalgia.
Fortunately, there are many ways to boost serotonin levels naturally and with supplements like 5-HTP. In many cases, lifestyle changes and supplements can improve your sense of well-being and alleviate common ailments like anxiety and depression.
Before you rush out and take a bunch of vitamins, it’s important to know how serotonin supplements work, why they work and whether they’re right for you.
There’s a lot to say about serotonin, so let’s start by explaining what it is.
Serotonin is a workhorse that’s active in nearly every part of the body. It’s a hormone and a neurotransmitter that helps the brain and the nervous system communicate. That’s an important job. When your serotonin takes an unexpected vacation, a lot of things can happen to your body and your mind.
Serotonin is also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine or 5-HT for short. This neurotransmitter is synthesized from protein, specifically the amino acid tryptophan, which is found in meat and dairy. Scientists believe that this internal protein-based communication system is one of the oldest in the brain. It’s also one of the most mysterious and complex. Serotonin molecules constantly flow through the blood and interact with more than a dozen different receptors in discrete parts of the brain.
The primary function of serotonin is to control impulses and regulate basic human functions, including hunger, sleep, attention, learning and memory. Scientists know that it works in the digestive, circulatory and nervous systems and that it interacts with other hormones. Serotonin can help you go to sleep, stay asleep and pass through different sleep cycles, but it also helps you wake up in the morning. It tells you when you’re hungry or when you’re not. For these reasons, both high and low levels of serotonin can have a negative impact on the body and the mind.
Because serotonin affects so many systems, deficiencies can produce a variety of seemingly unrelated symptoms. A serotonin deficiency can be caused by many factors, including diet, lifestyle and genetics. Here are a few of the common signs and symptoms of low serotonin:
• ADD and ADHD
• Binge eating
• Mood swings
It’s important to note that elevated or unstable serotonin levels can produce similar symptoms. Before taking supplements, have your doctor perform a serum serotonin blood test to see if your serotonin levels are normal. Unfortunately, this test can’t show how much serotonin is active in your brain or how well the transporters and receptors are working. That’s why self-assessments are a valuable tool for identifying serotonin deficiencies.
After you’ve done your homework, it’s time to take the next step to see what you can do to support your serotonergic system. In modern medicine, antidepressants are generally presented as the only option for regulating serotonin, reducing anxiety and treating depression. The truth is that many vitamins, minerals and herbs can have similar benefits without the side effects. Unfortunately, amino acids and vitamins don’t have sponsors to pay for clinical studies. Even so, there’s significant evidence supporting these six natural serotonin supplements.
It would be nice if people who had serotonin deficiencies could simply take serotonin, but tryptophan is the next best thing. The amino acid L-tryptophan is one of the most important precursors for serotonin synthesis. In the body, tryptophan is converted into 5-HTP, which can easily cross the blood-brain barrier and become pure serotonin, also called 5-HT. Tryptophan is effective for treating mild to moderate depression, improving mood and reducing irritability. According to a 2013 study in the Journal Psychopharmacology, the problem with tryptophan is that it’s easily broken down by enzymes in the liver before it can be converted into serotonin. That’s one reason why supplements can help reverse tryptophan depletion and increase serotonin synthesis, which can have numerous positive effects. Tryptophan supplements are most effective when small 2- to 3-gram doses are taken three to four times daily.
2. St. John’s Wort
During the past two decades, St. John’s wort, Hypericum perforatum, has been one of the most widely studied botanical alternatives to prescription antidepressants. Numerous studies have shown that St. John’s wort is effective for treating mild to moderate depression. It blocks enzymes and moderates the uptake of serotonin, dopamine and GABA. This is very similar to the effects of selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Lexapro and Zoloft, except there are fewer side effects. Research suggests that the antidepressant effects of St. John’s wort may increase when it’s paired with passion flower and other herbs. St. John’s wort is a potent antidepressant, so it should never be taken with a prescription SSRI. It takes about six weeks for the effects to become apparent, and doses shouldn’t be stopped suddenly. Most experts recommend taking 900 milligrams daily on an empty stomach.
3. B Vitamins (B6)
Low levels of vitamin B and iron can trigger panic attacks and worsen depression. One study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that older adults who consume significant amounts of vitamin B12 and B6 are less likely to become depressed. The idea is that the body uses both vitamin B6 and iron to convert tryptophan into serotonin. When levels are low, this action is inhibited. Although B6 is frequently cited in serotonin studies, B12 can prevent stress and fatigue by supporting the adrenal glands and central nervous system. B vitamins improve mood and brain function by stimulating melatonin and dopamine production. For best results, take up to 100 milligrams of vitamin B6 daily.
This simple carbohydrate from the vitamin B family resembles glucose, but it also binds with minerals and increases serotonin. It’s produced in the body and is found in many healthy foods, but some people don’t have enough of it. A 2015 study published in Neuropsychopharmacology found that myo-inositol is an accurate biochemical marker for major depressive disorder. Scientists believe that inositol supplements increase serotonin, which can help control depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Whole grains, seeds and liver are excellent dietary sources. Inositol powder and supplements are available and can be taken by mouth or added to smoothies. Experts recommend taking up to 12 grams of inositol daily. Higher doses might be beneficial for managing anxiety.
Omega-3s are important because they regulate serotonin, which moderates many brain functions. Scientists believe that omega-3s and vitamin D are essential for serotonin synthesis because many patients with depression and serotonin disorders are deficient in both. Healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats, including olive oil, flax seed oil and fish oil, increase cellular function and help neurotransmitters like serotonin work better. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the most important omega-3s. Both are found in cold-water fish. Other studies have found that fish consumption improves sleep and day-to-day functioning. Dosages vary by indication. For treating anxiety and boosting serotonin, take 450 milligrams of EPA and 100 milligrams of DHA daily.
S-adenosyl methionine, commonly known by the nickname SAM-e, is an effective antidepressant and serotonin booster. SAM-e is made in the body, but supplements have been available in the United States since 1999. According to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, SAM-e is likely to be effective for treating depression and osteoarthritis. SAM-e is widely recognized as an alternative to tricyclic antidepressants and is recommended for patients who cannot tolerate these medications. A review of past studies showed that oral SAM-e supplements reduced depression in 80 percent of randomized trials. Because SAM-e increases serotonin, it should not be taken with antidepressants or monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). This serotonin supplement can be administered in oral capsules or by injection. The Mayo Clinic recommends taking 8 grams daily for up to six weeks.
Other Vitamins and Supplements for Increasing Serotonin:
In conjunction with low tryptophan levels, niacin deficiencies can inhibit serotonin synthesis. Niacin, also known as vitamin B3, is included in most B complexes. Adults can take up to 14 grams of niacin daily.
Biologists have found that vitamin D is essential for synthesizing serotonin. Vitamin D and omega-3 deficiencies are common in patients with low serotonin. Spending just 15 minutes in the sun can replenish your vitamin D stores.
Calcium is one of the most important minerals, and the body requires large amounts to support the cardiovascular system, build strong bones and help cells communicate. Scientists believe that calcium activates serotonin receptors and transporters. Calcium deficiency and low bone density have been linked to SSRIs. For best results, take calcium supplements that also contain magnesium. To stay healthy, you need about 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily. Dark leafy greens and dairy products are excellent sources of this essential mineral.
Magnesium is a macro-mineral that the body uses in large quantities. It’s vital for the production of serotonin, which is why it’s included in many mood-boosting formulas. Women need about 300 milligrams of magnesium per day. Men need slightly more.
Vitamin B9 is crucial for supporting cell development and balancing the serotonergic system. Low levels of folate are linked to fatigue, anemia, canker sores, premature graying, unpleasant tastes, headaches and tinnitus. Folic acid is found in whole grains, legumes, meat and vegetables. Take 400 micrograms daily.
This trace mineral boosts serotonin levels and helps the body produce norepinephrine and melatonin, which counteract depression and improve mood. Just 30 micrograms are needed daily.
In acute cases of serotonin deficiency, some people may benefit from 5-HTP, which is a powerful serotonin supplement. The body can easily convert 5-HTP into serotonin because the molecules are very similar.
What is 5-HTP? This byproduct of tryptophan is one step away from becoming serotonin. It is the closest alternative to serotonin available in supplement form. Serotonin is 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), and 5-HTP is 5-hydroxytryptophan.
How does 5-HTP work? In the body, the amino acid L-tryptophan is broken down into several byproducts, including 5-HTP. Then, 5-HTP is synthesized into the neurotransmitter known as serotonin.
Where is 5-HTP found? This serotonin precursor isn’t present in food, but the body can produce it from ingredients that contain L-tryptophan. Most 5-HTP supplements are extracted from the African shrub Griffonia simplicifolia. The seeds of this plant contain about 20 percent 5-HTP by weight.
Over the past three decades, many clinical studies have investigated the health benefits of 5-HTP. Most used 5-HTP to manage common health problems that are affected by serotonin levels, including the following:
• Eating disorders
Between 1966 and 2000, more than 100 studies examined serotonin and tryptophan as possible treatments for managing depression. Two well-designed studies found that both substances were better at relieving depression than placebos. However, most of the studies were too small or had flaws that could have affected the results. Today, 5-HTP is a possible treatment for many common ailments. However, more research is needed. Two of the best double-blind studies found that 5-HTP was a moderately effective and remarkably safe treatment for patients suffering from chronic primary headaches and chronic tension-type headaches.
Dosages for 5-HTP Supplements
Based on current research, the University of Wisconsin Integrative Medicine Program recommends daily dosages between 150 to 300 milligrams. Generally, it takes two to four weeks to notice improvement.
Possible Side Effects
• To avoid major drug reactions, never take 5-HTP with antidepressants, including MAOIs.
• Supplements containing 5-HTP may interact with Demerol, Talwin, Robitussin, cough syrups, migraine medications, painkillers and other drugs that affect serotonin levels.
• Due to possible side effects, 5-HTP shouldn’t be taken if you have diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, liver disease or nerve-muscle disorders.
• Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not take 5-HTP.
• Health professionals are concerned about serious reactions caused by suspected contamination. Only take supplements that are from a trusted source.
• If you experience side effects or an allergic reaction, stop taking the supplement immediately, and seek medical attention.
• Always talk to your doctor before taking 5-HTP or any other supplement.
Taking vitamins and supplements isn’t the only way to boost serotonin. Diet, exercise and lifestyle changes are highly effective for increasing serotonin and improving overall health.
When it comes to depression and anxiety, it’s all mind over matter. In 2007, Canadian researchers released a groundbreaking study on mood self-regulation. The team found that participants significantly altered brain activity when recalling happy, sad and neutral memories. Self-induced thoughts increased serotonin and serotonin precursors in the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain that translates thoughts and emotions. Other studies have found that meditation affects a part of the brain that relieves anxiety. To stimulate serotonin production, try meditating for 15 minutes at least three times a week. If you’re feeling down, think happy thoughts! Science says that it works.
Exposure to Bright Light
Bright light is one thing that indoor environments lack. The light deficiency is even more apparent during the winter when many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and seasonal depression. Decreased light is one reason why serotonin levels decline sharply during the winter. Fortunately, low serotonin and tryptophan depletion are easy to reverse. One 2008 study published in European Neuropsychopharmacology found that tryptophan-related mood swings were immediately balanced when subjects were exposed to bright light. Just 30 minutes in bright light can boost your mood and stimulate serotonin synthesis. Light also helps the body produce vitamin D, which regulates serotonin.
Exercise is one of the best ways to improve your overall health and fitness, but it can also enhance your mood. Accomplished neuroscientist Dr. Kelly G. Lambert argues that our affinity for outdoor exercise goes back to the days of hunter-gatherers and early farmers who worked hard to secure food, water and shelter. In a 2006 study published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, she argues that there’s a link between increasing rates of depression and today’s sedentary lifestyle, which lacks effort-based rewards that are essential for activating parts of the brain that govern pleasure, motivation and problem solving. Other studies have shown that vigorous physical exercise increases the availability of tryptophan and other serotonin precursors. According to experts, serotonin and dopamine increase during and after aerobic exercise. In Great Britain, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recommends exercise as an effective alternative to antidepressants in patients with mild clinical depression. For best results, exercise for at least 30 minutes three to five times per week. When possible, exercise outdoors to get your daily dose of vitamin D.
If that same old TV dinner seems depressing, there could be a reason. For a long time, scientists have been working to uncover links between depression and diet. There is some evidence that obesity, hyperglycemia and high-fat diets can inhibit serotonin production, but researchers still don’t understand the molecular mechanisms. Current research shows that high blood sugar and caffeine can suppress serotonin synthesis. To boost serotonin levels, experts recommend eating 1 quart of fruits and vegetables daily. It’s also a good idea to limit refined and processed foods and to replace white starches with high-protein foods, legumes and vegetables that are rich in vitamins, minerals and complex carbohydrates. By the way, don’t fall for the banana myth. Although they contain serotonin, it can’t reach the brain and boost your mood. Meat and dairy, however, are excellent sources of protein and amino acids that the body can convert into serotonin.
Taking Serotonin Supplements for Health and Happiness
Improving your diet, stepping up your exercise routine and doing simple meditations are excellent for improving your overall health and wellness and becoming a happier person. Happiness is the ultimate key to health. People who are agreeable tend to live 10 years longer than those who are irritable even if they are frail or have existing health problems. On the other hand, hostility is linked to a shorter lifespan, coronary heart disease and increased morbidity. If lifestyle changes and serotonin supplements can improve your mood, relieve insomnia or help your depression, that’s priceless. Be happy, it’s good for you.
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