Stress, Sleep and Serotonin

Serotonin is also known as the “feel good” chemical.

It is something that Dr. Mark Hyman refers to as the one chemical most of us are in short supply “in our overstressed society.” This chemical is necessary to produce a happy mood, reduce anxiety or irritability and help sleep.

Many people who crave carbohydrates unknowingly try to boost their serotonin levels temporarily by indulging in carbs. Unfortunately, when this approach is taken, they do crash and set out to get another boost again and a vicious cycle begins.

Here are some symptoms associated with low serotonin levels: anxiety in low stress situations, impatience for no explanation, fatigue even if you have rested, cognitive impairment such as poor memory or lack of mental clarity, automatic negative thoughts, agitation, mania/obsession, mood swings and excessive worrying.  Physical symptoms may include strong sugar cravings and the inability to fall and or stay asleep.

The causes of serotonin deficiency are as numerous as the symptoms and the patterns of each are so intertwined, it’s difficult to distinguish the cause from the symptoms.  For example, a lack of sufficient sleep causes low deficiency of serotonin but low serotonin levels affect the quality of sleep.  A diet low in tryptophan is a recipe for producing low serotonin levels as tryptophan is the primary amino acid  from which serotonin is created. In addition, if stress levels are not managed adequately, cortisol levels (the stress hormone) will increase which in turn breaks down tryptophan leaving less to make serotonin. Other things that break down tryptophan are inflammation-producing items such as toxins and allergies.

Vitamin deficiencies such as B6, will affect serotonin levels as it is responsible for the enzyme that converts tryptophan into serotonin.  The B vitamins work together so it would be wise to take a B complex supplement as well.  Magnesium deficiency ( especially found in dark green leafy vegetables) can also be the culprit as it too aids the body to make serotonin. Interestingly, stress, sugar caffeine and alcohol affect the absorption of magnesium. Another supplement, 5-HPTP, a derivative of tryptophan, has been effective on helping symptoms of sleeplessness, depression and anxiety.

One last method to boost serotonin levels is to exercise.  It can increase brain levels of tryptophan because without it, this amino acid because of its small size has problems competing against the larger amino acids to enter the brain.  During exercise, the larger amino acids are busy nourishing muscle tissue so the tryptophan has a fighting chance or compete more effectively to enter the brain.

To quote Hippocrates, “If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health.”

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Dope on Dopamine


Neurotransmitters are the brain chemicals involved in transmitting signals from one neuron to the next across synapses.

 Without the proper balance of these, your mental well being including happiness, alertness and memory are affected. In short they are in the communication business – transmitting and communicating instructions for cells.

Until recently, psychiatric medicine focused on medications that would counteract problems associated with a particular low level of a certain chemical.  Newer approaches centre more on the”why” that particular neurotransmitter is low in the first place. So far over 100 neurotransmitters in the human brain alone have been identified and evidence suggests there are likely more.  But for the sake of our purposes, common ones such as dopamine, serotonin, Acetylcholine and GABA will be discussed.

Dopamine is the pleasure and reward transmitter and is responsible for attention and focusing. Low levels of this neurotransmitter is common among people with ADHD, Parkinson’s Disease and also found in addicts and people with low-energy types of depression.  Traditionally stimulant drugs such as Ritalin (used often for ADHD) are designed to mimic dopamine.  Other drugs that do this include  cocaine, speed and the common morning liquid drug – coffee!

Dr. Mark Hyman, in his book The UltraMind Solution, says that any of the above drugs  over time will deplete your ability to make your own dopamine as well as its cousins epinephrine and nor epinephrine.  Furthermore, he believe that if a dopamine receptor isn’t good at listening to the signals, then any stress or toxic influence will interfere with the receptor’s ability to listen to messages. What this means is you could have enough dopamine in your system but if the receptors are not functioning well, this could lead to ADHD, autism and mood disorders.

Diet can certainly help with levels of dopamine and or improve its receptors.  Supplementing the diet by eating high quality proteins such as nuts, seeds, lean poultry, fish and eggs help. Supplements include good fats (from fish oils), vitamin supplementation such as folate, B6 and B12. Adding the amino acid tyrosine will increase dopamine levels and the amino acid phenylalanine can help with the other neurotransmitter responsible for focusing – nor epinephrine.

While we know what to increase in the diet, we also need to decrease other things and that is namely sugar.  When we eat these foods in large amounts, the dopamine receptors start to down-regulate leaving fewer receptors for the dopamine.  Unfortunately, supplementing won’t work alone and it comes down to avoiding the sweet white powder, commonly known as sugar.

To quote Avril Lavigne, “I was eating bad stuff. Lots of sugar and carbs, junk food all the time. It makes you very irritated.”

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The Good The Bad and The Ugly on Nutritional Studies

Many have heard or read reports about discoveries based on some kind of study conducted at some place, some where.  But what do these studies actually mean and furthermore how reliable are they? While this next topic may seem somewhat dry, it’s important  to have the tools to evaluate people’s recommendations upon a particular “study” and then make your choices. So let’s begin with the most common type of study, which are referred to as Case Studies.  Case studies are based upon observation.  They provide information about an individual in a particular setting.  They are considered the weakest of all scientific studies but it doesn’t mean there is no validity to the conclusions.  What they can do is prompt more research and help the researchers form a hypotheses for further analysis.

Epidemiological studies are observational in nature as well but are a bit more global in nature as they examine health – related events  in specific populations.  They often highlight nutrition and exercise patterns to show associations and correlations. They are  considered stronger than case studies as the studies focus on larger populations and the statistics are analyzed. They do lack control of all the variables so the researcher observes and collects information but does not try to change the participants being observed. Whereas  in an experiment, the researcher intervenes to change something (e.g. gives participant a drug) and then observes what happens.

Good scientific research involves several things but its goal is to reduce bias and help to ensure accurate results. The “best” research is a randomized double blind, placebo-controlled crossover study performed on humans. A sample of a populations is chosen to ensure that all people in the study population have the same chance of being selected for the sample.  These people are also randomly assigned to either the treatment or placebo group.

A double-blind study is one in which neither the researchers nor the study participants know which group they are in or what sort of treatment they are receiving.  A crossover study means the people involved will be in both the treatment and placebo groups.  For example if six trials were conducted, subjects would receive treatment in the three and then cross over and do three in the placebo group.  The strongest results do come from studies in which data are obtained from both a treatment and placebo group.

The strongest results do come from studies in which data are obtained from both a treatment and placebo group. But to put the “icing on top of the cake” so to speak, a study should be peer reviewed and scrutinized by a group of similarly trained professionals before the study is publicized. To eliminate bias, researchers names are removed and the manuscript is sent to two or more reviewers and if the study design and methodology is not sound, reviewers recommend that the study be not published.

Reproducible results are also an important part of the scientific process.  Cumulative data are the basis for sound recommendations.  It is important that any new study be reviewed within the context of the current body of research.  Finally, one should ask, “Who paid for the research?”. There are many ways that research is funded and many involve receiving grants from private companies and federal agencies.  It is important that the funding sources do not influence the outcome of the study.  While this is difficult to determine, it is something to keep in mind when evaluating a nutritional claim.

So make good judgments!

“Trust your instincts, and make judgments on what your heart tells you.  The heart will not betray you.” David Gemmell, Fall of Kings

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