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What is Serotonin?

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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 healthy individuals.

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:

  • Nausea
  • Sleepiness
  • Constipation
  • Reduced sexual desire
  • Dry mouth
  • Agitation / anxiety
  • Changes in appetite

Beck Depression Inventory

What foods affect serotonin levels?

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 well-being.

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.

Herbs for Depression

What is serotonin syndrome?

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:

  • Confusion
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Tremors
  • Sweating
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Loss of coordination
  • Fever
  • Death (in severe cases)

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