You know what a serotonin deficiency looks like and feels like: being anxious, depressed, irritable, experiencing unexplained pain, sleeping with no feeling of being refreshed, eating with no feeling of satisfaction.
So how can you raise your brain levels of serotonin and feel better?
First, some basic brain facts..... you need to understand how serotonin works if you want to boost it most effectively.
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Serotonin is made naturally in your body, 90% in intestinal cells and only 10% in your brain. Most of it is made from L-Tryptophan – an amino acid – which comes from the food you eat, usually protein.
Now, before you start trying to find out about foods rich in L-Tryptophan – protein foods such as meat, milk, cheese, chick peas, nuts – read on. Protein foods mostly won't help boost serotonin, and here's why.
The problem of the blood-brain barrier
The serotonin made by your intestinal cells determines your blood level serotonin – but it can't enter your brain because of the blood-brain barrier: a process which ferociously guards your brain's chemical stability.
This same blood-brain barrier tends to block L-Tryptophan as well, and more so when there are other amino acids in your blood, such as after a high protein meal. L-Tryptophan has to compete with these other amino acids for the carrier molecules to enter the brain. Think of it as like waiting for the next bus in peak hour traffic – your chances of getting a seat are pretty slim when there's a long queue!
There's a way around this – you can increase the amount of L-Tryptophan that's able to enter the brain by eating some carbohydrate with your L-Tryptophan rich food or supplement. What this does is trigger the release of insulin, which in turn stimulates your muscles to take up other amino acids, so lowering the competition with L-Tryptophan.
Don't go on a carbohydrate binge, though - you'll just create an insulin spike, followed by a slump – a slump not only of insulin and blood sugar, but also serotonin.
You can find out more about how to increase serotonin in your brain by making adjustments in your diet, in The Serotonin Power Diet, a book based on more than 30 years of pioneering research at MIT by internationally renowned researcher Dr. Judith Wurtman.
Dr Wurtman tells you exactly how and when you should add the carbohydrate so as to boost your serotonin and your sense of well-being, so that you can lose weight without feeling deprived or hungry.
Exercise is a great serotonin booster
And here's another trick: exercise does much the same thing.
I know, you've heard it before. But it's true. You don't need a lot of exercise to help increase your serotonin level. The best exercise for this is light aerobic exercise – walking is good, or moderate jogging or cycling if you are used to it. Thirty minutes three times a week is the usual recommendation, but I'll tell you now, 10 minutes a day can make the world of difference to your mood and sense of well-being.
Not only does exercise increase your serotonin level, but it will also increase your dopamine level (dopamine gives you that sense of pleasure and reward), and most likely your endorphins (the brain's natural opiates) and boost your metabolism as well.
In fact, 10-20 minutes of brisk walking (or even slow walking if you feel really blah) will give you the most bang for your buck of any serotonin boosting strategy.
So get out there and get started!
Let the sun shine in
There's another benefit of exercise, if you do it outdoors.
Light is another way of naturally boosting your serotonin. There is more and more evidence piling up that natural daylight - preferably sunlight – increases brain serotonin not just in people suffering from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) but also the rest of us.
If you live in a place with a long, dark winter, you may not be able to get the benefit of natural sunlight. In that case, you would probably benefit from a light therapy device, for example this one.
Reduce stress and be happy
But I would be doing you a disservice if I didn't point out that the interaction between serotonin level and mood seems to work both ways.
Anything you can do to reduce stress – and lower your levels of adrenal stress hormones such as cortisol – will also help boost serotonin.
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Meditation is one of the best strategies for this, and there are lots of different methods of mediation that you can try. Find one that you like, and do it every day. Mindfulness meditation is one that is easy, and here is a great short video that teaches you how to do it.
Other ways to feel better - sneaky ways to get into a meditative or more positive state - are:
- listen to music
- get a massage
- make something with your hands - cooking, craft or creative activity
- play with a pet
- read a book that inspires you
Supplements that increase serotonin
Both L-Tryptophan and 5-HTP can cross the blood-brain barrier, so both can work as an effective serotonin supplement and help you feel better, sleep better and lose weight.
But 5-HTP has some advantages that make it work faster and more effectively to boost your brain serotonin to optimal levels:
- Much of the L-Tryptophan you get from food or a supplement is used for other purposes, eg protein synthesis. This means that only a small fraction of the L-Tryptophan you take in is effectively available to the brain to make serotonin and boost your mood.
- 5-HTP is a step closer to serotonin in the synthesis process, making it more targeted and more efficient as a supplement, with much faster and more controlled benefit to your mood.
- L-Tryptophan has to compete with other amino acids to enter the brain, whereas 5-HTP is taken up much more readily, without having to compete for the transport system - again, faster and better benefits.
- 5-HTP is more efficient at boosting your serotonin levels and so works out to be less expensive for equivalent results. Typically, the effective dose of 5-HTP taken is 100 mg, whereas the equivalent dose of L-Tryptophan is 500 mg.
- 5-HTP seems to have fewer risks and side-effects than L-Tryptophan. There are still some cautions about taking 5-HTP, especially long-term, but most of these refer to over-use or interactions with prescribed medication (eg SSRI anti-depressants, or other drugs that boost serotonin levels).
Overall, 5-HTP is a better choice for a general serotonin booster to help you overcome depression or anxiety, lose weight, improve your sleep, and get relief from headaches, fibromyalgia or other pain that has no apparent cause.
Some people like to take L-Tryptophan as well, at night, specifically to help them sleep better. While many people find that 5-HTP helps with sleep, others find that it gives them vivid dreams or keeps them too energised to sleep. If this is the case, it is better to take 5-HTP in the morning, perhaps with L-Tryptophan in the evening as an extra booster.
Experiment and find out what works best for you!
If you would like to find out more about my recommended 5-HTP supplement and where to buy it, click here.