How to supplement serotonin? Natural alternatives for depression

A reader writes:

Is there any way to supplement serotonin?  I used to be such a happy person; now I am very angry…irritable…depressed.  I MISS the happy-go-lucky girl that I was.

I am so sorry to hear that you’re going through such a hard time.  Unfortunately, there is no quick fix, but you do have options.

The lion’s share of the serotonin your body makes is not actually made in your brain.  Although it’s important for your brain and your brain uses quite a bit of it, it is actually produced in the intestines.  The intestinal environment is delicate and can be prone to problems.  Any one of over 10,000 different microorganisms can interfere with intestinal function, so it is very important to be screened for these organisms.  It is also important that the test be very sensitive.  Most conventional stool cultures used by family physicians and hospitals are not nearly sensitive enough and may not reveal an existing problem.  Many Functional Medicine doctors use a DNA-based test that is anywhere from 200-1000 times more sensitive.

In addition, food intolerances can create digestive inflammation, which can also interfere with proper serotonin production.  Many food allergy/sensitivity tests can be misleading as well; a positive result can almost always be trusted, but a negative result may well be a false negative.  Test panels that evaluate multiple types of immune reactions are best.

And then there’s stress.  Stress suppresses stomach acid production, which is required to break down protein.  If your body is not efficiently breaking down proteins into their building blocks (called amino acids), then it cannot make serotonin or other neurotransmitters (a fancy word for brain chemicals), because several particular amino acids are precursors to major neurotransmitters.

Next, to manufacture serotonin requires several complex biochemical reactions.  For these reactions to take place, several vitamin and mineral cofactors are needed, such as B vitamins and iron.  Many ladies are lacking in iron due to heavy monthly cycles or uterine fibroids.  Lots of people also lack iron because their bodies can’t convert it to a usable form.

Chronic stress and adrenal dysfunction often deplete B vitamins because of B-complex’s role in supporting adrenal function.  Extremely high short-term stress or even mildly high long-term stress force the adrenal glands to work harder, using up B vitamins before your body can use them in the production of serotonin.  There are excellent functional lab tests for both adrenal function and to assess cellular Vitamin B complex status.

And last but not least, if your liver isn’t functioning as efficiently as it should (usually due to toxin exposure, environmental pollution, heavy metals, hormone overload, or a diet heavy in processed foods), then it can’t fully clear your body of hormones, wastes, and toxins.  This causes a traffic jam in which these harmful substances will build up in the body, circulating in the blood and affecting sensitive brain tissue and serotonin usage.  Toxic overload is one of the most common causes of depression, and it is almost always entirely overlooked by the conventional medical system.

Note: There is no clinically reliable lab testing for serotonin or other neurotransmitters themselves yet.  There are some doctors and other practitioners who use a urine test that claims to indirectly evaluate levels of various neurotransmitters.  Current research failed to verify the validity of the claims made by the proponents of this type of testing (typically the lab company offering the test).  So, please do NOT fall for these claims!  At present, the closest we use clinically are some excellent questionnaires derived from observations in academic settings and a superb lab test panel that measures several principal biochemical pathways (including some by-products of neurotransmitter production pathways) for their efficiency and metabolic activity.

So as one can see, a LOT of variables come into play here – we’ve covered adrenal stress, gastrointestinal function, liver detoxification ability, hormone overload, environmental and heavy metal toxin exposure, and even uterine fibroids!  Truthfully, there are probably more to add to the list that are beyond the scope of this post.  Since the appropriate treatment is different for each, it is crucial to narrow down the cause to avoid lost time and money, and the progression of the underlying condition!

I certainly hope your world begins to look up for you soon!

Additional Information:

Serotonin deficiency symptoms: how and when to suspect you’re short on serotonin:

  • You seem to be more sensitive to pain than you used to
  • Your appetite is irregular
  • You experience sadness, but can’t pin down the cause – you just feel sad.
  • You sleep poorly
  • You have tinnitus, or ringing in the ears that isn’t linked to any particular event (or if it can vary every so often)
  • You’ve lost pleasure or enjoyment from activities/people/situations that you used to enjoy before.
  • Your self-esteem is low

What about Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)?

Antidepressant drugs such as Zoloft, Prozac, and Paxil don’t actually produce any serotonin at all.  Instead, they attempt to concentrate the levels of existing serotonin to keep it viable for a longer period of time.  The problem with this is that brain cells have been shown to adapt to their surrounding environment; if this environment is saturated with serotonin (since pharmaceutical drugs cannot duplicate the delicate balance of normal body mechanisms and will often “overshoot” the level needed), then the cell may become desensitized to serotonin.  An in-progress study that will soon release its results has suggested that long-term use of SSRI medications may actually reduce serotonin levels, which is the last thing a person wants if they are suffering any of the symptoms above.

Dr. L. Sweeney, DC is the Director of the Functional Medicine program at San Antonio Family Alternative Medicine.  She works  with a wide variety of patients, many of whom suffer depression, insomnia, fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, gastrointestinal dysfunction, adrenal fatigue, and more.  She runs a wide variety of quality diagnostic lab testing, leaving no stone unturned.  She can be reached at (210) 340-2150 or you can visit the clinic website at http://mysanantoniochiropractor.com.

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6 responses to “How to supplement serotonin? Natural alternatives for depression

  1. I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but have issues with that diagnosis. I used to be happy and the world seemed right, till about the age of 40, ( appox 7 years after a hysterectomy). I am now 44 years old and nothing is right!!!!! I experience all the symptoms above – except the ringing in my ears. I also need to add loss of memory, or trouble remembering things. If you can help, please do!

  2. What’s your take on tryptophan or 5htp?

    • Hi Christopher, I use both tryptophan and 5-HTP in my practice. I’m a big fan of both, as long as it’s appropriate for that particular person (that’s a big caveat; it’s not necessarily appropriate for everyone, since there are so many reasons someone may experience depression). Barring any genetic variation that causes someone to permanently need larger amounts of these nutrients, tryptophan and 5-HTP supplementation will usually be temporary. If there’s a longer-term need, more investigation should be done. 🙂

  3. What kind of food or life style may help to increase or develop serotonin in our body in case we do not want to go on drugs?

  4. I have suffered the loss of my daughter .we were very close did everything together.it will be 8 years this xmas.for the past 2 and one half years I have lost 26 pounds,had neumerous of health issues and suffered almost every day of panic attacks and anxiety.i am allergic to most medications and prefer a natural way to get my serotonin level up and stop these terrible attacks that are ruining my life.i have tried to stay strong,pray,read positive books,and see a talk thearipst 2x a week.i need some help,please.thank you,rose

  5. When someone writes an paragraph he/she maintains the
    idea of a user in his/her brain that how a user can be aware of it.
    So that’s why this article is perfect. Thanks!

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