Serotonin and You: A Practical Guide

I briefly covered the role of serotonin on my previous post, “Neurotransmitters and Mood: Why it’s important to remember you’re an Ape”, but I felt it deserved it’s own article as well. This is intended to be a practical guide to monitoring and moderating your brain serotonin levels, so I will include only the amount of hard science I feel is required to adequately explain things.

In your body, Serotonin regulates mood, appetite, and sleep. Appetite and sleep also influence mood, so Serotonin is a very important chemical in consciousness. High levels of brain serotonin will cause you to feel optimistic and excited about future prospects. Low levels of brain serotonin will cause you to feel pessimistic, as if nothing could work out. This is not to say that there aren’t objective reasons to feel these things, but the experience of feeling them is controlled largely by serotonin, and frequently isn’t actually related to objective reality. The same person viewing a situation can feel optimistic about it with a lot of serotonin, and pessimistic about it with little. The real world result of this is that frequently people will not attempt things that might make them happy, because a low serotonin condition has made them feel like they couldn’t accomplish it, regardless of the accuracy of that sentiment. While I generally advise people to listen to their intuition, if your intuition tells you no pretty frequently, it may be time to manually adjust your intuition.

There are certain healthy habits one can maintain that should keep a healthy quantity of serotonin in your brain at all times. Make sure you’re sleeping enough. I know it seems like you can function on 5 hours of sleep and an energy drink, but over a surprisingly short period of time this can disrupt your natural serotonin cycle, causing insomnia and appetite abnormalities, which in turn further disrupt your sleep cycle. Figure out what a full night’s sleep for you is. In most people, it seems to vary between 7 and 9 hours per night. For me, it’s about 9, and I start to feel symptoms of poor sleep below 7. If your sleep schedule is already highly disrupted, there are things you can do to to restore it to a healthy state. I have found the single most effective way to restore healthy sleep is to exhaust yourself physically during the day. Yard work, hiking, climbing, sports, it doesn’t really matter as long as you use your muscles a lot. Motor activity causes an increase in the synthesis of serotonin in the body, provided the necessary amino acids are present. Sleep is caused when the pineal gland in the brain converts serotonin to the hormone melatonin, and releases melatonin to the rest of the brain. When you have insufficient serotonin, your pineal gland can’t produce enough melatonin, and insomnia occurs. Intense physical activity is a great way to force your body to regenerate the serotonin it needs. Also, make sure your bedroom is as dark as possible. Studies show that even small amounts of light, like leds on a computer monitor, can trick your brain into not being in sleeping mode. Alternatively, you can actually purchase Melatonin from the pharmacy. This is an effective, natural sleep aid for many people. A small percentage experience undesired effects, ranging from simple inefficacy to intense night terrors. Overall, exercise is a better option if you can talk yourself into it. You can also purchase a natural serotonin precursor, 5-hydroxy tryptophan (5-HTP) from the pharmacy. This is the chemical your body makes serotonin out of. In low doses, it can act as a mood enhancer, and in high doses(200+mg) it can jump-start serotonin-melatonin conversion, causing sleepiness.

Low serotonin isn’t the only cause of insomnia though. Anxiety is another frequent cause of insomnia, and is actually modulated through a different chemical, Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid, or GABA. GABA is effected by drugs such as alcohol, barbituates, and benzodiazipines, but there are healthier ways to influence this chemical. In your brain, GABA is the primary inhibitory system, interacting with virtually every other neurotransmitter and brain function. Taking chemicals that effect the functioning of this neurotransmitter is risky. Many GABAnergic drugs are addicting and toxic. Do thorough research and be honest about your predispositions to addiction before deciding to experiment with this class of drugs. As I said though, there are less risky methods of controlling GABA. Again, exercise is extremely helpful here. Aerobic exercise produces endorphins, or Endogenous Morphine. This binds with your opioid receptors, which in turn inhibit the release of GABA. Since GABA has an inhibitory function itself, this causes a disinhibition of other neurotransmitters, primarily dopamine, which is the ultimate source of that runner’s high. The inhibition of GABA also generally has an anxiolytic(anxiety relieving) effect. If exercise is insufficient, or you just can’t make yourself do it, there are other ways to inhibit GABA manually as well. The only GABAnergic chemical I can recommend for self-medication is kavalactone, found in Kava brews. While alcohol and benzos are GABAnergic depressants, Kava has a more stimulating effect, resulting in a calm focused state, versus the loopiness caused by other drugs. Kava has been used by traditional Polynesian cultures for a very long time. It has shown to be much less prone to abuse than alcohol or benzos, and is substantially less toxic to the liver, though not non-toxic. The effects will be best if prepared in the traditional method from fresh Kava root, but the Yogi brand of herbal teas does sell a Kava based tea. I find it usually takes brewing about 4-5 bags at a time to feel the psychoactive effect of this tea. There is evidence that kavalactones degrade above 140 degrees F, so brew carefully so as not to damage to potency. This is effective, but ultimately has you relying on an external chemical to control your mood, which can be inconvenient if you’re ever denied access to it. Yoga and other forms of meditation have been shown to dramatically inhibit GABA in clinical studies. If you’ve ever done yoga, you know what I’m talking about. The deep calm I feel after a full kundalini set is completely antithetical to anxiety.

If somehow exercise and meditation don’t have you sleeping like a baby, there are a wide variety of chemical sleep aids available. I’ve already mentioned melatonin and 5-htp, but more mind-altering options exist as well. I personally have struggled with insomnia my whole life. These days, I spend a pretty considerable amount of time exerting myself outdoors, and I take time to meditate most days. This has reduced the frequency of insomnia episodes, though not eliminated them altogether. Cannabis has been a complete godsend here. Smoking a bowl of some high grade indica marijuana at the end of the day makes falling asleep effortless for me. For others, it is the comedown from marijuana that leaves them sleepy, so I recommend ceasing consumption 90 minutes before you intend to go to bed if you are such a person. This number will vary with personal tolerance levels, and with the quality and type of bud you’re smoking. If marijuana is unavailable to you, drinking Kava a few hours before bed can be effective. In a pinch, I will drink the minimum psychoactive dose of alcohol I can manage. Just enough to inhibit GABA, usually 1 shot worth. I strongly discourage anyone from making this a regular habit, but it is effective if other methods are unavailable. I generally would advise against any of the popular prescription options, as they all have very high risk of dependency. While marijuana and kava have some risk of dependance, it isn’t nearly as high as with alcohol or prescription sleep aids.

Hopefully we’ve got you sleeping healthily now. If you still experience symptoms of low serotonin, the next simple easy thing to try is light. That’s right, simple light. Go outside. We’re animals that evolved outside. Our brain is hardwired to produce neurotransmitters in coordination with the naturally occurring light cycle caused by the sun. Maintaining a nocturnal sleep schedule can have serious effects on how much serotonin your brain gets. It is advisable to spend as many daylight hours as you can awake, especially during the winter when days are shorter. I hate waking up early, too, but sometimes you gotta. The level of light indoors is insufficient to signal your brain to increase serotonin production. Even on a cloudy day, it can be tens of times brighter outside than it is indoors. I really can’t stress this enough. Go outside. You are an ape. Apes confined to dimly lit boxes are not happy. The effect can be incredibly rapid. If you are inside, finding a problem to be completely unsolvable, go outside to think about it. You’ll be amazed how much easier things can seem in a brightly lit environment versus a dimly lit one.

Diet is another important factor in serotonin production. Try to restrict your red meat intake. It can be hard at first, but you’ll find after a while you don’t really miss it too much. Meat is an addiction dietary component, that while incredibly delicious, has a pretty wide variety of deleterious effects on your health and mood. I am still an omnivore, because meat is fucking delicious, and I have evolved over millions of years to process it pretty well. However, I recognize the truth that it is usually not the most healthy option, and so I try to restrict how much meat makes into my diet. Replacing it with other protein sources isn’t actually difficult at all. Sprouts actually contain higher amounts of protein than beef, and in a much more bioavailable form. I personally like putting hemp and rice protein powder in smoothies, too. Meat, and red meat specifically, contains very high levels of l-tyrosine, and very low levels of L-tryptophan, resulting in an amino acid mix highly unfavorable to serotonin production. A diet consisting of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and raw eggs and seafood is pretty ideal for serotonin production. The good fats and cholesterol in the eggs and seafood facilitate the serotonin generation process. Mmmm, omega fatty acids. These are also present in high quantities in hemp seeds and hemp oil.

Don’t let poor habits upset your serotonin cycle and hold you back from pursuing your goals. Take care of your body, and your body will take care your mind. Sleep at night. Go outside and be active during the day. Eat right. Explore some form of meditation or self-exploration. The way I see it, I have another 55ish years to live, and I don’t want to look at back at my life and wonder why I never did all those things I wanted to do. Sometimes it’s hard to just motivate yourself, and it’s easier to influence all the factors that influence your motivation. Next time you find yourself thinking you can’t do something, stop and really think about the habits you have in your life, and see if there’s room for improvement.

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