Hormones 101

Serotonin - the happy neuro-chemical

Where it is released from?

Serotonin acts a neurotransmitter and is made from the essential amino acid, tryptophan. Although it is created in the brain, the majority of serotonin’s supply is found in the gut and blood platelets.

What is its main function?

It’s no wonder that Serotonin is commonly referred to as the happy chemical when it plays such a huge role in the functioning of many of the internal systems that keep us well and balanced. Its reach is wide as most of our millions of brain cells are influenced in some way by serotonin.

This neurotransmitter communicates messages between brain cells to help regulate mood, social behavior, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual function.

It’s a feel good chemical that helps to foster feelings of contentment and relaxation but if it’s not in balance or working together with other chemicals effectively in the body, we may start to feel the effects. When we wake up in the morning, serotonin, simply put, supports us in wanting to get up out of bed and start the day. Obviously there are many other factors that contribute to feeling energized and motivated in the morning, but serotonin is one of the main players. Serotonin and melatonin work together to help us get a good night’s sleep - darkness supports melatonin production whereas daylight supports serotonin production. This is just one of the many examples of how these chemical messengers work together to bring about homeostasis. And our sleep-wake cycle is just one area in which serotonin does its magic - digestion, mood, sex and appetite are other systems that serotonins performance is necessary for us to really keep our cool.

What are the effects of imbalances in this hormone?

One of the primary areas of interest in science and medicine is serotonin’s potential link to depression. When our serotonin levels are balanced, we feel more content, calm, focused and emotionally regulated. When our serotonin levels are low however, we are more susceptible to feeling lethargic, anxious and unmotivated. We can also have difficulty sleeping, and struggle with low self-esteem and the desire to emotionally eat. Although these are common symptoms of depression, as with everything else in our lives - it’s important to have sight of the full picture before jumping to labels and conclusions. That’s why we encourage looking at each system individually so you get that full picture by tracking each symptom with curiosity, not judgement.  Respond to signals compassionately and responsibly; in a way that is unique to each and every one of you.

When levels of serotonin in the body are too high, this could lead to serotonin syndrome, potentially caused by an excess of multiple antidepressant medications (SSRIs) or when SSRIs are combined with medication that also affects serotonin levels in the body. Symptoms can include restlessness, hallucinations, nausea, sweating, rapid heart beats and raise in blood pressure. The syndrome and symptoms are also linked to excessive use of drugs such as ecstasy or LSD.

What is its relationship to lifestyle: diet and stress?

When we’re stressed, the body not only responds by producing high amounts of the hormone cortisol, but it can also suppress neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, in the process. There are ways in which we can naturally encourage serotonin production during times of stress or emotional instability.  Certain foods and vitamins such as vitamin B-6, which can influence the rate at which tryptophan is converted to serotonin, can help to stabilize moods. It’s also estimated that 90% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut, so no surprises that a healthy gut can equal a healthy mood. This is one powerful neurotransmitter and an important one to investigate for yourself personally. What are your energy levels like in the morning, do you identify with any of the symptoms associated with its imbalances in the body? The answers will come, when we start asking the right questions and put the time and energy into ourselves we so deserve.

Words by Amy Mabin

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