You might not be aware of this, but gut health can have an impact on your mood as 90% of serotonin is made in the gut. But what exactly is serotonin, and how does it play a role in your mood? Understanding how serotonin works can help you decide whether you want to take supplements to boost your serotonin levels.
What is Serotonin?
Serotonin is a chemical that is created by your body's nerve cells. Essentially, serotonin is a result of the pairing of the a-amino acid tryptophan and a chemical reactor known as tryptophan hydroxylase. Together, these components create 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), which is more commonly known as serotonin.
When we hear about serotonin, a lot of the discussion has to do with mental health. This leads to the assumption that serotonin primarily exists in the brain. However, serotonin can be found throughout much of your body, including your gut, where the vast majority of it is made. Since it is unable to cross the blood-brain barrier, whatever serotonin is produced in the brain is forced to remain there until it gets used.
Serotonin works to relay messages between your nerve cells and helps to influence the functioning of both the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system. The better serotonin can do this job, the better your body will function.
Low Serotonin and Depression
Although science has yet to absolutely confirm that low levels of serotonin play a major role in the presence of depression, there seems to be a strong correlation. There is evidence that suggests moderate amounts of tryptophan in the blood leads to peripheral inflammation and that inflammation itself can reduce the amount of tryptophan and, therefore, lower serotonin functioning in the brain.
Adjusting your serotonin levels to the point where it can efficiently and effectively regulate your mood might help in the fight against depression. This might also be the case for anxiety and other mood disorders.
Serotonin and the Brain-Gut Connection
Serotonin is responsible for the execution of many different bodily functions. Since the majority of serotonin is found in the gut, it has a substantial impact on bowel functions. If you experience gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you might actually be dealing with an inadequate amount of serotonin being produced in your digestive tract.
Speaking of the gut, did you know that there are a large number of different neural pathways that connect these two parts of your body. Since serotonin is a neurotransmitter, it can relay messages back and forth between the gut and the brain. In fact, the enteric nervous system (which is what regulates the entire gut) is often referred to as the body's “second brain.” Think about the last time you had butterflies in your stomach. That is actually the result of messages being relayed between your gut and your brain!
Also consider this: How do you mentally feel when your gut feels awful? Many people with IBS and other gastrointestinal issues also report experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. When the nerves in your gut become damaged, it is possible to develop both chronic gastrointestinal issues and experience changes in mood. Those who treat one of these two areas often find that the other issue also improves.
Serotonin Deficiency Symptoms
So, how are you supposed to know whether you might be deficient in serotonin? There are a few crucial physical and cognitive symptoms that you should keep an eye out for if you start to notice a serious change in your mood.
One of the symptoms of a serotonin deficiency is impaired blood flow. Serotonin is needed to help your muscles contract and keep blood pumping through your body's blood vessels. When you aren't getting enough serotonin, your blood vessels will constrict, causing a lack of blood flow throughout the body. While this can be hard to see, it can manifest in the all too visible form of hair loss. If your scalp isn't getting enough blood flow, hair will dull, thin, and even fall out in large quantities.
Are you starting to feel like your biological clock is being thrown off? Serotonin deficiency can disrupt your sleeping habits. You might find yourself sleeping more during the day than at night or sleeping for much longer or shorter hours than usual.
If you find yourself struggling to remember even simple things (like what you ate for dinner last night), you might have a serotonin deficiency. Serotonin plays a role in your brain's ability to recall items from memory.
Supplements That Boost Serotonin Levels
So, should you be taking supplements? The chances are that, if any of the above symptoms sound familiar, you could benefit from taking supplements that will boost your serotonin levels. While selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are widely prescribed by licensed professionals to help treat symptoms of depression and other mood disorders, there are supplements available over the counter that can also work.
5-HTP supplements are quite popularly stocked on pharmacy shelves, as are SAM-e, St. John's Wort, and L-Tryptophan, all of which have similar effects in terms of boosting serotonin levels in the body. For the most part, these supplements are safe to use when taken at their recommended dosages.
Additionally, while you can't get serotonin itself from eating any particular food, you can get tryptophan from eating things like tofu, salmon, nuts, and pineapples. In fact, any food that is rich in vitamin B6, riboflavin, iron, or protein can assist in elevating your serotonin levels.
Finding the right supplement to boost your mental and physical health isn't always easy, and you might have to try a few different ones. However, supplements that boost serotonin levels have shown some promise in restoring harmony to gut and cognitive functioning. Stress and depression don't have to run your life, and you should not have to worry about other scary health issues like chronic hair loss and irritable bowel syndrome. Bring supplements up with your doctor and consider giving one a try.
Eileen O'Shanassy is a freelance writer and blogger based out of Flagstaff, AZ. She writes on a variety of topics and loves to research and write. She enjoys baking, biking, and kayaking. Check out her Twitter @eileenoshanassy.