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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