Beyond Happiness- 5 Natural Ways To Boost Serotonin
Serotonin has reputation for making us feel happy, but this powerful brain chemical controls more than just our moods – it has a role in digestion, sleep, pain, appetite, and more. We've compiled a simple guide to serotonin, and also included 5 natural ways to boost this feel-good neurotransmitter that are scientifically-backed and easy to do.
Serotonin controls digestive contractions
Serotonin, or 5-hydroxytryptamine if you're feeling nerdy, is often though of as a “brain chemical”. But 95% of the body's serotonin is actually produced in the gut by cells that line the intestines. While some does circulate to the brain, most of this gut-produced serotonin acts locally on the digestive tract where it controls the contraction and relaxation of the muscles there.
Feeling full after a satisfying meal? That sensation is thanks to serotonin. The muscular contractions signal that we're full, then push food through the intestines, and protect the body against infection. If you eat something toxic or irritating, serotonin ramps up its actions to push the nasty stuff through the gut faster.
Serotonin also regulates inflammation signals in the gut, helping to mount immune reactions against pathogens, and to soothe irritated sections of the digestive tract. If you're trying to repair a leaky gut (or intestinal hyperpermeabilty), having healthy serotonin levels can improve the tightening of the gap junctions between intestinal cells .
Serotonin improves sleep by regulating circadian rhythms
When you're awake and exposed to light, serotonin builds up in certain areas of your brain. As night falls and light dims, this cache of serotonin is converted into another neurotransmitter called melatonin, which initiates feelings of sleepiness, and influences what time you'll wake up in the morning.
Some serotonin in also active during sleep, where it helps us to experience restful REM states, and to feel bright eyed and bushy tailed when we wake up. If you have low levels of serotonin, you might feel groggy in the mornings, be unable to get to sleep, or struggle to stay asleep throughout the night.
Serotonin causes and blocks pain
Serotonin's role in pain is kind of tricky – it actives some nerve pathways, and inhibits others. Having too little or too much serotonin can contribute to migraines, chronic pain conditions, and extreme pain from acute injuries.
In many chronic pain conditions, increased levels of serotonin are released from the brain and into the spiral cord, where it activates nerves that relay an exaggerated “pain” signal throughout the body .
Symptoms of low serotonin:
- Low moods – Irritability, sadness, and low self-esteem
- Poor appetite
- IBS flare-ups
- Fibromyalgia flare-ups
- Chronic pain
- Poor memory
Common Causes of Low Serotonin:
- Prolonged periods of stress
- Low nutrition diet
- Some prescription drugs
- Hormone changes
- Lack of sunlight
5 Natural Ways to Support Serotonin
The body does everything it can to keep all of its neurotransmitters in balance, and within a tight physiological range – too much or too little serotonin can cause serious health problems. Levels naturally fluctuate through the seasons and as we age, but there are five key things you can do support the healthy production and function of serotonin in your body.
1. Let the sun shine in
Serotonin levels are directly related to the amount of bright sunlight we are exposed to. At least 10 – 15 minutes a day is recommended to get a healthy serotonin fix – combine it with some aerobic exercise for an extra boost . Indoor lighting doesn't count – the sun is about 100 times brighter than even the harshest office lighting.
2. Ramp up your heart rate
Heart-pumping aerobic exercise helps the amino acid tryptophan to circulate into the brain, where it can be converted into serotonin. This boost of pulse rate also blocks other amino acids from blocking the channels, making more room for tryptophan to rush in. Any exercise that increases your heart rate will do – brisk walking, vinyassa classes, swimming, biking, and even sex (solo or partnered) can give a serotonin boost. Just make sure it's something you like doing – overexercising or feeling like you're forced into it won't have the same affect!
3. Become a beach babe
Studies have found that being at the beach can improve mood by boosting serotonin. Staring at the ocean can alter brain wave frequencies to put us into a meditative state, which in turn triggers serotonin release. Plus, the negative ions that roll off the waves are the same kind of that have been used to treat depression in seasonal affective disorder by booting serotonin .
4. Get a Massage
It's no secret that a good massage can leave you feeling blissed out – this is thanks again to serotonin! Gentle physical touch of any kind signals the release of serotonin, but an hour-long session of deep tissue work can trigger big surges of this feel-good neurochemical.
In one small study, pregnant women whose partners gave them massages twice a week for four months had a 30% increase in serotonin levels, compared to those who didn't have such generous partners . Getting a massage is an investment that keeps on giving – researchers found that the positive, neurochemical effects from massage can last for days, or even up to a week !
5. Top 3 Nutrition Hacks to Boost Serotonin
- Carbohydrates at every meal: They're called comfort foods for a reason! Carbohydrates help tryptophan to cross into the brain, where it can boost serotonin and affect moods, sleep, and pain. Eating a few crackers before bed can help sleep quality, and a breakfast that contains lots of whole food carbs may keep your mood stable throughout the day.
- Boost your B vitamins: These powerful nutrients are essential for the creation and actions of serotonin throughout the body. They're also easily depleted from the body when we're stressed. Get a boost of B vitamins by eating brown rice and other whole grains, and consider taking a supplement if you're under stress.
- Soak up Magnesium: Magnesium is another essential nutrient for the conversion of serotonin, and it's used by all neurotransmitters in the body. Without magnesium, serotonin receptors don't fire, and its signals get lost. Eat plenty of green leafy vegetables, legumes, and nuts – and epsom salt baths are a lush way to get more magnesium, too.
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