Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that occurs naturally in the brain of human beings. In addition, this hormone is also found in the platelets and digestive system of some animals, counting humans. Serotonin is also present in a wide range of plant sources, including fruits, vegetables and mushrooms as well. Since this hormone is classified as a neurotransmitter, it plays a vital role in sending out nerve impulses. Serotonin is also known to be a vasoconstrictor - a medication or substance works to make the blood vessels narrower. Tryptophan, an amino acid, is said to be responsible for producing this hormone in our body.

Often, serotonin is considered to be a "happy" hormone. This is mainly because this hormone has a considerable influence on our general well-being. It helps to control moods, and temper anxiety, while alleviating depression. Serotonin is also said to be responsible for promoting sound sleep. This hormone also has a vital role in governing a number of things like appetite, aggression and even sexuality. Moreover, serotonin also facilitates regulation of our body temperature as well as metabolism; it also plays an important role in encouraging vomiting.

As serotonin plays a vital role in governing our moods and giving rise to senses of well-being, often this hormone is used in medications that are used to change moods, for instance anti-depressants. A class of drugs that is called monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), for instance, Marplan and Nardil, are effective in preventing the neurotransmitters from breaking down, thereby letting them to multiply within the brain and provide relief from depression. However, it is unfortunate that drugs like these have several adverse and sometimes even serious side effects. Moreover, such drugs even have a propensity to react hazardously with some other class of medications. In brief, they have dangerous drug interactions.

There is another type of drugs called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Celexa, Lexapro, Prozac and Zoloft which are also used to treat depression. These drugs also have adverse side effects, but they seem to react much better compared to other medications. However, it is worth mentioning here that all antidepressants are not effective in increasing serotonin in the brain. Some of them, such as tricyclic antidepressants like Elavil work effectively against reuptake of neurotransmitters.

Notwithstanding the role of serotonin in improving our well-being, excessive of this neurotransmitter or hormone may prove to be harmful. When the levels of serotonin are unusually high in our body, it has a toxic effect and, hence, too much of this neurotransmitter may even be fatal. When the level of serotonin in the body is extremely high, the condition is called serotonin syndrome. One in unlikely to have such elevated levels of serotonin only owing to use of one antidepressant. In fact, it is not possible even when one has an overdose of antidepressants. However, serotonin syndrome is possible in case one uses any SSRI in combination with an MAOI drug. It is worth mentioning here that serotonin syndrome is always not fatal, as this condition may also occur in relatively mild, non-toxic forms. For instance, the drug ecstasy may sometimes result in the symptoms of serotonin syndrome. However, even in this case, the levels seldom reach the level of toxicity.

Chemistry of serotonin

Serotonin is basically a monoamine transmitter known as 5 hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) and it originates from tryptophan. Noted Italian pharmacist and chemist Vittorio Erspamer discovered serotonin for the first time in 1935 in Rome. Later, in the late 1940s, American scientists substantiated his findings. In 1948, three scientists from Cleveland Clinic, Arda Green, Maurice M. Rapport and Irvine Page, isolated and named serotonin. Much later, Rapport identified serotonin chemically as 5-hydroxytryptamine 5-HT and subsequently it was commonly known as 5-HT.

Most of the serotonin found in humans is present in their digestive tract's enterochromaffin cells. In the digestive tract, serotonin works to govern the gut's movement. Serotonin present in the remaining parts of the body is synthesized inside the serotonergic neurons present in the central nervous system. In these parts, serotonin is used to regulate a variety of functions like sleep, appetite and mood.

Drugs that augment serotonin availability as well as uptake are generally used for treating depression. In addition, platelets also take up serotonin and stock up the hormone. When these platelets bind to a blood clot, they release the stored serotonin, which functions in the form of a vasoconstrictor. At the same time, this hormone also works in the form of a clotting factor, thereby promoting the healing process.

How does it work?

The hormone serotonin is made inside the neurons as a result of a tryptophan molecule's hydroxylation by tryptophan hydroxylase, after the decarboxilation of the consequential 5-hydroxytryptophan by a 5-htp decarboxylase. In this case, the original tryptophan molecule is basically an amino acid, which our body is unable to make and, hence, it should be ingested. Following the production of the 5-HT at the neuron's soma and it is enclosed by the vesicles present in the Golgi apparati, axoplasmic transport them to axonal varicosities (which are swellings of axon). In case the axon is a constituent of the D system, it will freely release the 5-HT to disperse in the adjoining areas. However, it will not form a specific synapse or the area where the nerve impulses are received or transmitted. On the other hand, if the axon is a constituent of the M system, it will let the 5-HT go into a synaptic cleft (a minute gap between an axon terminal and a cell membrane), where the axon will move to the postsynaptic membrane and the various 5-HT receptors like 1B, 1E, 1D, 1F, 2A, 2C, 2B and 5-HT 3 will bind to it there.

Usually the 5-HT may be released during resting conditions. When the serotonin is attached to the receptors, it results in a restrictive impulse on the postsynaptic cells (also called IPSP) in two different means - metabotropically and ionotropically. The first process (metabotropic) involves the 5-HT receptors 1D, 1B, 1E, 2A, 2C and 2B. In this method, the postsynaptic cells are hyperpolarized in some way by means of a metabolic process that is set off when the serotonin binds with the 5-HT receptors. On the other hand, 5-HT 3, which is the ionotropic receptor, manages a chloride channel directly and, hence, it makes direct IPSPs. The monoamine oxidase will work to deactivate serotonin inside the presynaptic cell provided the levels of this hormone are very high. The negative feedback is yet another auto-regulatory development. In this case, the 5-HT 1A receptor is basically a presynaptic receptor, which identifies elevated levels of serotonin at location called the synaptic cleft. This presynaptic receptor will stop releasing 5-HT when the serotonin levels are very high. Following the lapse of a certain time, the presynaptic cell reabsorbs the serotonin via a process known as reuptake.

Symptoms of serotonin deficiency

Serotonin is a vital hormone for our well-being and any deficit of it can lead to problems - both physical and mental. So what are the means to know that one is suffering from serotonin deficiency? There are various tests that help to gauze the level of serotonin in our central nervous system, but these tests alone are not practical for diagnosing deficiency of serotonin. Apart from these tests, it is advisable that one should try to find if they have developed the symptoms associated with serotonin deficiency. If the symptoms match, one can be sure that they have serotonin deficiency. Some of the symptoms of serotonin deficiency are mentioned below.

Some of the symptoms associated with serotonin deficiency include mania/ obsession, agitation, anxiety in low stress situations in general, fatigue when one should feel relaxed and keyed up, impatience without any reason, extreme craving for sugar, cognitive impairment (i.e. helplessness to concentrate, absence of mental clarity and poor memory), negative thoughts with no apparent reason, and mood swings. In addition to these symptoms, excessive or unnecessary worrying, coldness to situations when one would generally deeply care about, unable to sleep or remain asleep, mild to intense sorrow, and sense of misery as well as disturbed when the weather is dark or bad are also indications that you may be suffering from serotonin deficiency.

Fortunately enough, serotonin deficiency can be treated. If you experience any or many of the symptoms discussed above or have taken a test that diagnosed you are suffering from serotonin deficiency, you need to check with your physician or any holistic medical practitioner. It is important to bear in mind that you should never try to self-treat serotonin deficiency. Your physician or health care professional will not only help to measure the seriousness of your serotonin deficiency, but also give you an personalized treatment plan to restore the normal levels of serotonin rapidly as well as effectively.

Here is a word of caution. In case you are enduring suicidal thoughts, though you may not mean to really commit it, it is advisable that you immediately consult a mental health professional. In fact, such thoughts are in agreement with mild to acute cases of depression. If you undertake self-treatment with a view to cure your condition, it is likely that your condition will deteriorate further and dramatically.

Causes of serotonin deficiency

There are several reasons for serotonin deficiency. For instance, there are people who are genetically inclined to suffer from serotonin deficiency. While there can be various genetic causes, it can result in production of low or useless serotonin production, inefficient assimilation of vital amino acids by the body, relatively low vitamin D production and numerous other reasons. Nevertheless, the serotonin deficiency in most people is generally mild and their condition may be owing to an assortment of environmental, behavioural, dietary and physiological reasons. The most widespread causes are discussed below briefly.

Behavioural causes
Some of the behavioural causes for serotonin deficiency include absence of enough sleep, poor quality of sleep, absence of physical activity or exercise and/ or not dealing with one's stress levels effectively.
Environmental causes
Some of the environmental causes for serotonin deficiency may include inadequate exposure to the sun, consumption of meat or meat produce that are loaded with pesticides, coming in contact with toxic chemicals present in plastics like bisphenol-A (BPA) and/ or coming in contact with pesticides without wearing appropriate or inadequate protective gear.
Dietary causes
There are a number of dietary causes that may be responsible for serotonin deficiency. For instance, food allergies, deficiency of multiple vitamins and minerals in the body, consumption of too much of alcoholic or caffeinated beverages and also deficiency of omega-3 may lead to serotonin deficiency.
Physiological causes
There is a host of physiological causes for serotonin deficiency and these include insulin resistance, chronic infections, deficiency of progesterone, deficiency of glutathione, inadequate blood circulation to the brain, deficiency of human growth hormone and inherited anomalies in one's serotonin receptors.

In case you are experiencing any of the other symptoms, which are indeed severe, you should immediately get in touch with your physician or health care provider.

Food rich in tryptophan

There are various foods that contain different amounts of tryptophan, which is an essential amino acid and converted into 5-htp inside our body. Subsequently, the 5-htp is utilized by our brain to make serotonin. Moreover, the nutriments present in such foods are also effective in dealing with depression.

Foods that contain elevated levels of l-tryptophan (which is basically a precursor to serotonin), for instance duck or turkey; dairy products like milk as well as cheese; chickpeas; legumes; tree nuts like Brazil nuts, cashews, almonds, pine nuts, pistachio, walnuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts and others; whole grains; brown rice; blue-green algae; avocado; potatoes; beets; bananas; radish; pineapple; fennel; spinach; figs and soy products like soy milk, tempeh, tofu, miso and natto.

Flax seed and oil; chia seeds; hem seeds and oil; fatty fish like sardines and mackerel as well as walnuts also enclose elevated amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Even foods that contain glutathione like walnuts, garlic, carrots, okra, potatoes, squash, broccoli, asparagus, purslane, spinach, avocado, grapefruit and tomatoes are good for producing serotonin.

Foods that are rich in iron such as organic grass-fed beef, bok choi, broccoli, collards, lettuce, kale, nuts, swiss chard, dried fruits, seeds and sprouts also contain tryptophan. In addition to these, leafy green vegetables, orange, bananas, seaweed, whole grains, cheese, corn, peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs and white fish enclose considerable amounts of the essential mineral magnesium.

Foods that contain rich amounts of calcium like salmon, sardines, eggs, cheese, skimmed milk, yogurt, soy, soy products, dried figs, artichoke, cabbage, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, peas, kelp, lima beans, strawberries, avocado, green leafy vegetables, watercress, peanuts, tree nuts, grapes, orange and kiwi also enclose tryptophan and help in serotonin production, thereby preventing the deficiency of this hormone.

Foods like nuts, pumpkin seeds, wheat germ, parsley, oatmeal, sunflower seeds, steak, oysters and egg yolk are rich in zinc content and, hence, helpful for producing serotonin. Similarly, some foods like cheese, nutritional/ brewer's yeast, tree nuts, chestnuts, whole grains, lean meat, potatoes, broccoli, artichoke, mushroom, lima beans, sweet potatoes, watermelon, bananas, peaches, squash, avocado and cantaloupe are rich in vitamin B3 content.

Foods that are sufficiently rich in vitamin B6 content include avocado, bananas, Brussels sprouts, beans, wheat germ, whole grains, watermelons, green leafy vegetables, fish and chicken.

Foods like black-eyed peas, wheat germ, avocados, asparagus, tree nuts, peanuts, kiwi, orange, blackberries, bananas, strawberries, cantaloupe, dark green vegetables, carrots, green bell pepper, tomatoes, and liver are excellent sources of folate.

Foods rich in vitamin C content are also excellent sources of tryptophan. Such foods include cabbage, cauliflower, potatoes, dark green vegetables (both leafy as well as cruciferous), parsley, acerola cherries, goji berries, strawberries, black currants, sweet pepper, mango, guava, raw cacao, nettle, camu-camu, rosehips and all citrus fruits like grapefruit, orange, and lemon.

It is worth mentioning here that when you cook the foods mentioned above it actually lessens their vitamin levels and turns the minerals enclosed by them much less bioavailable. Therefore, it is advisable that as far as possible you should eat your vegetables and fruits raw or cooked lightly. However, some foods like brown rice, beans and potatoes may require proper cooking. At the same time, it is necessary to cook animal flesh because this will help to get rid of the harmful bacteria. Hence, the emphasis is more on plant foods, because they help you to obtain the maximum possible nutrients.


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