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Feeling good with serotonin

                                        October 2010  


Feeling good with serotonin

SerotoninWinter is coming on and for many of us, the damp dark days can be quite depressing. There has been a lot of information in recent years about the link between the feeling of well being and serotonin. Many researchers believe that an imbalance in serotonin levels may influence mood in a way that leads to depression.

There is a lot still to be learned about serotonin (or 5-hydroxytryptamine) but we do know it is biochemically derived from tryptophan, one of our essential amino acids. It is mainly found in our gastrointestinal tract (or gut as we tend to call it) but it also performs many primary functions in the brain where it helps relay signals from one area of the brain to another.

Amazingly, we have around 40 million brain cells, and most are influenced directly or indirectly by serotonin. This includes brain cells that affect our moods, sleep and memory. It is not necessarily a low production level of serotonin that can cause problems; it could be a lack of receptor sites able to receive the serotonin, an inability of serotonin to travel over to these receptor sites, or even a shortage in tryptophan, the chemical from which serotonin is made. Researchers are finding increasing evidence that a reduction in serotonin level, caused by any of these problems, can lead to depression and other mood changes.

However, there are still some scientists who believe that in fact it is the depression that causes a drop in serotonin levels, so there is still some research to be undertaken.

However, many people have reported that medication which help the uptake of serotonin have really assisted in alleviating their depression. There are a number of antidepressant medications that work on serotonin levels including the SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and SNRIs (serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors). Common names for these types of medications include Prozac and Paxil.

Some believe that changing your diet can help to have effect on your serotonin levels. The tryptophan from which serotonin is made is contained in a very wide range of foods including meat and nuts. But many foods that are high in tryptophan also contain other amino acids which compete with tryptophan for entry into the brain. Carbohydrates such as bread, pasta and some vegetables and beans can help to increase the insulin levels in the bloodstream which in turn absorb competing amino acids meaning more tryptophan can enter the brain, causing serotonin levels to go up.

Goodness, this is complex, no wonder there is no quick and easy way to lift serotonin and gain instance happiness!

There is some belief that homeopathic supplements such as St John’s Wort and Rhodiola enhance serotonin levels. Also sunshine is said to increase serotonin – seasonal affective disorder (or SAD) is often treated with light therapies.

Many of us will feel a bit depressed as the miserable winter months come on; but if the depression becomes a problem, then the answer has to be to talk to your medical practitioner. As we can see, increasing serotonin levels is no easy answer and doctors have a range of treatments including cognitive behavioural therapy that have been proven to have really good benefits.

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