A reader writes: Is there any way to supplement serotonin? I used to be such a happy person; now I am very angry…irritable…depressed. I MISS the happy-go-lucky girl that I was.
I am so sorry to hear that you’re going through such a hard time. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix, but you do have options.
The lion’s share of the serotonin your body makes is not actually made in your brain. Although it’s important for your brain and your brain uses quite a bit of it, the vast majority of it is actually produced in the intestines. The intestinal environment is delicate and can be prone to problems. Any one of over 1,000 different microorganisms can interfere with intestinal function, so it is very important to be screened for these organisms. It is also important that the test is very sensitive. Most conventional stool cultures used by family physicians and hospitals are not nearly sensitive enough and may not reveal an existing problem. Many Functional Medicine doctors use a DNA-based test that is anywhere from 200-1000 times more sensitive.
In addition, food intolerances can create digestive inflammation, which can also interfere with your body’s ability to make serotonin. Many food allergy/sensitivity tests can be misleading as well; a negative result may well be a false negative. Test panels that evaluate multiple types of immune reactions, as opposed to just one type of reaction, are best.
And then there’s stress. Stress suppresses stomach acid production, which is required to break down protein. Several particular protein building blocks (known as amino acids) are raw materials for major neurotransmitters; if your stomach isn’t breaking down protein completely, or you’re suffering from malabsorption (which many people are and don’t realize it), then your body can’t make the brain chemicals it needs for your cognitive function, mood stability, and emotional wellbeing.
Next, to manufacture serotonin and other brain chemicals, several vitamin and mineral helpers are needed, such as B vitamins, Vitamin C, Magnesium, Copper, Zinc, and iron. Many ladies are lacking in iron due to heavy monthly cycles or uterine fibroids. Lots of people also lack certain B-vitamins because their bodies can’t convert it to a usable form. And practically 80% of the worldwide population (including the US) does not even meet the minimum standards for dietary Magnesium!
Chronic stress and adrenal dysfunction often deplete several of the nutrients mentioned above because they are also needed to support adrenal function. Extremely high short-term stress or even mildly high long-term stress force the adrenal glands to work harder, using up these nutrients before your body can use them to make serotonin and other brain chemicals. There are excellent functional lab tests for both adrenal function and and nutrient status. These tests are not the typical Serum Zinc or Serum/RBC Magnesium that a conventionally-trained practitioner (or many Functional Medicine practitioners) may recommend; these are more specialized and accurate.
And last but not least, if your liver isn’t functioning as efficiently as it should (usually due to toxin exposure, environmental pollution, heavy metals, hormone overload, or a diet heavy in processed foods), then it can’t fully clear your body of hormones, wastes, and toxins. This causes a traffic jam in which these harmful substances will build up in the body, circulating in the blood and affecting sensitive brain tissue and serotonin usage. Toxic overload is one of the most common causes of depression, and it is almost always entirely overlooked by the conventional medical system.
Note: There is a urine test that to indirectly evaluates levels of various neurotransmitters. It’s important to keep in mind that these are useful for measuring the levels being eliminated, but at this time, there’s no publicly available test for measuring brain levels of serotonin or other brain chemicals. Thus, even in the case that we order this test, the results are always compared with your answers to some excellent research-tested questionnaires and a superb lab test mega-panel that measures several principal physiological functions (including some by-products of neurotransmitter production pathways).
So as one can see, a LOT of variables are involved – we’ve covered adrenal stress, gastrointestinal function, liver detoxification capacity, hormone overload, environmental and heavy metal toxin exposure, and even uterine fibroids! Truthfully, there are probably more to add to the list that are beyond the scope of this article. Since the appropriate treatment or intervention is different for each situation, it is crucial to identify the underlying root cause. This prevents the wasting of time and money, and also usually resolves the underlying condition!
I certainly hope your world begins to look up for you soon! Additional Information:
- Serotonin deficiency symptoms: how and when to suspect you’re short on serotonin:
- You seem to be more sensitive to pain than you used to be
- Your appetite is irregular
- You experience sadness, but can’t pin down the cause – you just feel sad.
- You sleep poorly
- You have tinnitus, or ringing in the ears that isn’t linked to any particular event (or if its presence or intensity varies from day to day)
- You’ve lost pleasure or enjoyment from activities/people/situations that you used to enjoy before.
- Your self-esteem is low
What about Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)?
Antidepressant drugs such as Zoloft, Prozac, and Paxil don’t actually produce any serotonin at all. Instead, they attempt to concentrate the levels of existing serotonin that your body has already made, in order to keep it viable for a longer period of time. The problem with this is that pharmaceutical drugs cannot duplicate the delicate balance of normal body mechanisms and will often “overshoot” the level needed. Brain cells have been shown to adapt to their surrounding environment; if this environment is saturated with excess serotonin, then the cell may become desensitized to serotonin. A study currently in progress that will soon release its results has suggested that long-term use of SSRI medications may actually reduce long-term serotonin levels and possibly damage the brain in other ways, which are the last things a person wants if they are suffering any of the symptoms above.