There are a lot of different symptoms that might indicate a serotonin deficiency, and you probably won't have all of them, or even most of them!
Depression, anxiety, insomnia, headaches, and over-sensitivity to pain can all be signs of low brain serotonin levels.
Serotonin deficiency symptoms
This is because your brain needs L-Tryptophan to make serotonin, and L-Tryptophan needs carbohydrate (or more accurately, the insulin boost it causes) to get into your brain in significant amounts. (You can circumvent this process by taking 5-HTP as a supplement, which is able to enter your brain much more easily.)
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So if you have a chronic craving for carbs – especially in the late afternoon or evening – together with at least one of the conditions listed below, you have a fairly reliable indicator of low serotonin levels.
Most people experience depression from time to time, but if you have several of these symptoms lasting for more than two weeks, you may fit the diagnosis of clinical depression. If that is the case, you almost certainly have low or disrupted brain serotonin:
- depressed mood most of the day
- loss of interest and no feeling of pleasure in activities you previously enjoyed
- significant unintentional changes in weight or appetite
- changes in sleep pattern: sleeping too little or too much
- low physical energy, feeling as through you are dragging yourself to move
- poor concentration and memory
- feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- thoughts of death or suicide
Note: if you are experiencing these symptoms to the extent that they are significantly affecting your day to day life, and especially if you have thoughts of suicide, you should get qualified support right away. Clinical depression can be serious.
Bipolar Affective Disorder (BPAD) - NOT for a serotonin supplement!
If you have been diagnosed with Bipolar Affective Disorder (BPAD) then boosting your serotonin levels can flip you into a manic phase very quickly – not a good thing!
You would probably be better with a GABA supplement, which has a stabilising, soothing effect, and can be helpful both for most anxiety conditions, and for BPAD.
But speak with your qualified health practitioner - BPAD can be controlled with careful treatment, and your top priority should be to keep your brain chemistry balanced and avoid the extremes of mood as much as possible.
If you suffer from chronic anxiety, it's more complicated.There are several different parts of the brain that might be involved, and several possible biochemical imbalances that might be responsible – serotonin deficiency is just one of them. (There is a good article about the different types of anxiety here.) You would probably get more benefit from trying a GABA or L-theanine supplement than a serotonin booster – both of these have the capacity to soothe the over-active parts of your brain.
The exception is if you have some symptoms of depression, as outlined above, as well as anxiety. It's quite common to have both, to differing degrees, and if this is the case, you definitely will want to deal with both types of imbalance.
The other type of anxiety that will almost certainly benefit from a serotonin boost is the obsessive type of anxiety. This includes not just diagnosed OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) but also the type of anxiety where your thinking gets stuck in a groove and you can't stop worrying about bad things happening.
If you think any of these profiles applies to you, there's a good chance you will get some relief and not much risk of any problem if you want to try a serotonin supplement.
Sleep problems also can have many different causes – including depression or anxiety.
If that's the case, then read the relevant section, because your problem is deeper than simple insomnia.
However, if neither of those sections applies to you, you still might have a serotonin deficiency.... read on!
Melatonin, a hormone produced by the pituitary gland in the absence of light, is actually made from serotonin – so if you are deficient in melatonin, one of the solutions is to boost your brain serotonin level. (You can also try a melatonin supplement, but that is trickier and carries more risk than simply boosting serotonin and letting your body regulate the production of melatonin).
Okay, being overweight is most likely the result of several things being out of sync - but serotonin deficiency is one of the possibilities that affects a lot of overweight people. You see, one of the functions of serotonin is to regulate appetite. It's needed to give you that feeling of satisfaction after a meal - no serotonin, no feeling of pleasure.
And yes, eating is meant to be pleasurable - thousands of years of evolution have assured the survival of our species by motivating us to eat and enjoy it. Not only our species, but in fact all animal species, produce serotonin to help regulate eating.
If you find yourself craving carbohydrates (sweet or starchy) and/or you have a tendency to binge without really enjoying the food you eat, most likely you have a serotonin deficiency. (If its salty or savoury food that you crave, most likely there are other factors at work, such as tyrosine deficiency.)
PMS (Pre-Menstrual Syndrome)
Well, we all know what this is when we encounter it! .... sugar cravings, irritability, mood swings – typical symptoms of a low brain serotonin level and all associated with low oestrogen and progesterone in the second half of your monthly cycle.
As with the other conditions discussed, PMS can have many factors besides low serotonin that you will want to look at. However, low levels of oestrogen and progesterone do seem to be associated with low serotonin as well ( a triple whammy), and many women find that boosting serotonin levels gives them significant relief from PMS symptoms.
Here is a great resource for PMS help, with lots of great tips and information.
Fibromyalgia is a condition of chronic pain in the muscles and connective tissue, often accompanied by fatigue, headaches and disordered sleep (sleep that does not refresh). Again, there seem to be a number of factors involved - sometimes stress and adrenal fatigue, sometimes a hidden viral infection or allergy may be involved. There is increasing evidence, however, that low serotonin or disruption of serotonin function is involved in fibromyalgia, and many people do get relief from boosting their serotonin levels.
One common serotonin deficiency symptom is increased sensitivity to pain, so it would make sense to try a serotonin booster.
Serotonin is a blood vessel constrictor, and we know it has a role in producing headaches. It seems to work differently in migraine headaches and tension headaches, but recent research has shown that both types of headache are associated with low serotonin levels, and both can respond positively to boosting serotonin levels.
Low serotonin also increases your sensitivity to pain, so this will aggravate your suffering when you get a headache.
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If one of these symptom profiles fits you, there's a good chance that you'll get some relief and benefit from boosting your brain serotonin levels.
Caution: do be careful in diagnosing yourself with a serotonin deficiency – all of these conditions can be caused by other things than low serotonin levels. It would be very hard to do yourself any harm by boosting your serotonin levels with supplements, but you want to be fairly certain that you've chosen the right treatment.
If you decide to try a serotonin supplement, please keep to the recommended dosage, and if it doesn't work, don't increase the dose beyond the maximum recommended level.