In America, the obesity epidemic is often discussed, but there is another epidemic that is too often overlooked – an epidemic of serotonin deficiency. Serotonin is the hormone in the brain that regulates various moods, and especially happiness. The fact that antidepressants are the most commonly prescribed drug in the world serve to support this theory; that there is currently a serotonin deficiency epidemic.
When people take antidepressants, they are commonly prescribed SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. These help regulate serotonin levels and are intended to treat depression, panic disorders, and eating disorders. However, eventually the body learns to resist these medications, which leads to a need for more and more medication, which can make the original problem worse. You don’t want to be taking more and more chemicals over time that affect brain chemistry.
In addition to depression issues, a serotonin deficiency may also be related to sugary food cravings, and in-turn, other health issues. When high-sugar foods are consumed, all of the insulin that is released tells the body to go into storage mode, and pull nutrients out of the blood. It pulls all amino acids out except for one – tryptophan, which is a precursor to serotonin. This makes it easier for trytophan to get to the brain, and regulate serotonin naturally. This is why a deficiency may make us crave sugary foods; to speed the uptake of tryptophan. However, as we know, high amounts of sugar can lead to a whole host of other problems.
Another important hormone called dopamine can interact with serotonin in the brain, as the two have a very complicated relationship. When SSRIs are taken for depression, they can inhibit dopamine, meaning dopamine levels will be lowered as serotonin increases. Dopamine regulates all sorts of functions in the body, so as the amount of serotonin needed for healthy function increases, dopamine, and thus many other functions, are negatively affected. So, as this down-ward spiral continues, and we need more and more serotonin to be “normal,” this serotonin may inhibit dopamine, which leads us to crave more sugary food, and the cycle repeats.
Now that we’ve talked about serotonin depletion causing cravings, and causing our bodies needing more and more, let’s look at what actually causes it to be depleted in the first place. From a dietary standpoint, high amounts of caffeine over time can eventually lead to serotonin issues. Our body releases serotonin and noradrenaline in response to the surge in caffeine, which is okay from time to time, but if it happens on a regular basis, can lead to an imbalance.
In terms of supporting healthy serotonin levels, it’s important to consume plenty of protein. We talked about amino acids and tryptophan; tryptophan being an amino acid itself. So, consuming a diet with adequate, whole-food protein sources, can provide the necessary amino acids, and other nutrients needed to optimize serotonin levels. Serotonin is also dependent on sunlight and Vitamin D. If you’ve ever heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is depression during cold, dark months, it’s most likely caused by a decrease in serotonin, as sun exposure is limited, which also limits Vitamin D production.
To summarize, it’s important to eat a well-rounded diet, get your protein, get some sunlight if you can, and exercise regularly. If you remember earlier, we mentioned how insulin pulls all the amino acids from the blood except for tryptophan, giving tryptophan a clear path to the brain. Exercise has the same effect on nutrient storage as high sugar, which may be a reason why so many report feeling happier after a good workout. Get your whole food in, try to stay active instead of eating more sugar, don’t abuse caffeine, and get sunlight whenever you can.