If you have ever explored treatment options for a mood
disorder such as depression or generalized anxiety, you have probably come
across the term "serotonin." But what is serotonin, and what role
does it play in your body?
What Is Serotonin?
Serotonin is 1 of about 50 neurotransmitters produced in the
brain. Neurotransmitters are responsible for transmitting messages between the
brain's billions of nerve cells. Serotonin plays an important chemical role in
controlling certain functions of the body, such as sleep, mood, behavior, and
sexual desire. In recent years, serotonin has gained notoriety for its role in
mental illness, such as depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Serotonin and Depression
An estimated 3.5% of the population currently suffers from
some form of depression, which researchers believe may be caused by problems
with the serotonin system in the brain. Although the exact manner in which
serotonin influences depression is unknown, scientists believe that people with
depressive disorders do not produce or utilize serotonin as efficiently as
The newest classes of antidepressant drugs work by blocking
the reabsorption of serotonin in the brain, thus improving communication between
brain cells. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) affect the
serotonin system exclusively, while serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake
inhibitors affect the serotonin and norepinephrine systems.
While SSRIs and SNRIs are generally considered safe and
effective, they can produce side effects, especially in the early stages of
treatment. The most common include:
In addition to medication, certain foods can affect
serotonin production. Foods high in carbohydrates may induce feelings of
calmness by boosting serotonin levels, in addition to regulating blood sugar
levels. Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and tuna, may also
increase serotonin production, and help promote relaxation and feelings of
The amino acid tryptophan is essential to the production of
serotonin in the brain. Tryptophan-rich foods include chocolate, bananas, milk,
cottage cheese, cassava, and mangoes.
Excessive amounts of serotonin in the brain and bloodstream
can lead to a potentially life-threatening condition known as serotonin
syndrome. The most common cause of serotonin syndrome is inadvertently
combining different types of medication that affect serotonin levels, such as
SSRIs, older anti-depressants known as MAOIs, and foods that can alter
serotonin pathways. If you plan on taking an anti-depressant medication, always
check with your doctor or pharmacist regarding possible drug interactions.
Symptoms of serotonin syndrome include: