Your body is chock-full of helpful messengers known as hormones. These substances travel to your tissues and organs, where they keep essential processes humming along. One hormone that assists with many key functions is serotonin.
Here’s what you need to know about this essential hormone.
Serotonin plays a major role in regulating mood, appetite, memory and sleep. It also takes part in many other processes in your body, like heart function, digestion and bladder control, according to a 2018 review.
Aging, lack of exercise, major life events (e.g., a death in the family) or a poor diet can all throw hormones like serotonin out of whack, says Annette Nunez, PhD, licensed psychotherapist and founder and director of Breakthrough Interventions, LLC. When serotonin levels run low, you may feel sad, irritable, anxious and have trouble sleeping. “But the main one is depression,” Nunez says.
One approach to treating depression is to take selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a type of prescription medication that works to increase serotonin function in the body. Common SSRIs include fluoxetine, sertraline and citalopram.
Low serotonin levels may also lead to changes in appetite, “where you’re either overly hungry, or you have no appetite at all,” Nunez says. Whether you eat too much or too little may depend on other factors, like mood changes and any emotional responses to food (e.g., stress eating).
There are ways to increase serotonin without a prescription.
Believe it or not, eating certain foods may help increase serotonin levels in the body. Namely, foods rich in tryptophan, an amino acid that gets converted to serotonin in the brain, according to a 2016 review.
Find tryptophan in protein-based foods, including meats (turkey, salmon), tofu, dairy (eggs, cheese), nuts and seeds, Nunez says.
Physical movement is huge for boosting both mood and serotonin. “If you can exercise at least 20–30 minutes a day, that will help with releasing the hormone and increasing your endorphins,” Nunez says. (Endorphins are feel-good hormones.)
In fact, exercise may be just as effective for treating symptoms of depression as prescription medications and talk therapy, per a 2013 review.
The type of exercise you do doesn’t seem to matter, Nunez says. So, find activities you enjoy and try to do them regularly.
While Nunez typically encounters people whose serotonin levels are too low, there are instances where levels can get too high. This is known as serotonin syndrome.
Serotonin syndrome is a potentially life-threatening condition that can occur when you take medications that increase serotonin function, like SSRIs. Too much serotonin can cause mild symptoms like shivering, sweating, confusion, headaches, high blood pressure, and diarrhea, according to a 2013 review. The best way to avoid this syndrome is to avoid taking multiple serotonin-containing medications, the authors note.
If you’ve been feeling depressed, irritable, anxious, or are experiencing other symptoms of low serotonin levels for a month or longer, it’s important to seek professional advice. “Lower levels of serotonin can lead to really severe bouts of depression and thoughts of suicide,” Nunez says. A mental health professional may be able to prescribe a medication to help increase serotonin levels.
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