We know serotonin, or lack thereof, is linked to mental illnesses like clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder. In a way, it's a household name that everyone has heard of, yet there are few of us who really understand what its job is and how it's exactly tied to depression. We just know that a little bit of serotonin is bad, lots of serotonin good (except for your sex drive, maybe). We could benefit, though, from paying more attention to this famous chemical and its properties, because women suffer from low serotonin levels more often than men do, and not understanding how serotonin works could lead to us suffering without even realizing it.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that's made in the brain but lives mostly in the digestive tract and blood platelets, and it influences millions of brain cells to control mood, appetite, sleep, sexual desires, social behavior, and more. Think of serotonin as your own emotional bodyguard. It prevents an excess amount of stimulating neurotransmitters like dopamine from crowding your brain and stressing the crap out of you. That's exactly why reduced levels of serotonin are often associated with anxiety. Whether low serotonin causes mental illnesses like an anxiety disorder or is caused by it is still up for debate, but we know they're intimately linked.
Bustle spoke with Jodi Aman, a psychotherapist who has spent more than two decades working with mentally ill patients and is the author of You 1 Anxiety 0, who confirms that low levels of serotonin are certainly connected with mental illness. However, she encourages us to stop thinking of anxiety or depression as an imbalance of chemicals. "Balance is not a metaphor that is helpful here, because 'balanced' is not the ideal nor does it even exist but we feel inadequate when we can't achieve it," she says. Instead, let's stick to some warning signs you're lacking in the amount of serotonin in your body.
Here are six signs your body isn't producing enough serotonin.
1. You're Low On Energy & Feel Sluggish
2. You Have Difficulty Concentrating & Making Decisions
One of serotonin's jobs is to send messages back and forth from one area of the brain to another. If you're low on this thinking juice, you'll definitely have trouble responding to things at your normal processing speed, Aman says. You've got about 40 million brain cells rummaging around in your head and serotonin impacts the vast majority of them, so naturally your ability to problem solve and make definitive decisions will become temporarily dull when you don't have enough of this neurotransmitter floating around.
3. You Crave Bread & Sugar All The Time
4. You Have Gastrointestinal Problems
Serotonin plays a primary role in your digestion and intestinal movement. In fact, "80 to 90 percent of serotonin is in the gut," Aman says. Experts claim that patients with severe symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) have very low levels of serotonin in their gut. They may experience pain in their abdomen, chronic constipation, bloating, and gas. Aman says it's crucial to "focus on making your gut healthy" if you'd like to see an increase in serotonin. Speak to your doctor about what the best way is to go about that, but a good place to start is consuming plenty of probiotics, fermented food, fresh fruits, and veggies.
5. You're Not As Social As You Used To Be
Witnessing differences in your social behavior is usually experienced alongside fatigue and loss of interest in things that used to excite you. Without much serotonin firing up your millions of brain cells, you don't have as much energy or patience to deal with friends and family. What used to be a fun weekend outing suddenly feels like a stressful obligation. Don't be afraid to speak to your doctor about this symptom; it's just as significant as having digestive issues.
Aman says exercise and meditation are good daily activities to beef up on if you want to see a boost in energy. "Close your eyes and try to expand your awareness simply by listening to noises that are far away. See if this helps you feel lighter emotionally," she recommends.
6. You're Experiencing Unexplained Anxiety Attacks Or Periods Of Rage
Panic attacks are associated with low levels of serotonin. You may feel a tightness in your chest, difficult breathing, and a rapid heart rate. Aman says it could feel like you're trapped in a tunnel and there is no escape. Anyone who has ever had a true anxiety attack knows how frightening this can be. If these episodes are happening frequently, don't wait around for them to simply disappear. They warrant a trip to see your doctor so you can sort out a treatment that will help you shake these nasty attacks once and for all.
Another psychological effect of not having enough serotonin to reach certain receptor sites in your brain is being overcome suddenly with anger. A study at the University of Cambridge showed that people who were given a mixture of amino acids that lacked tryptophan experienced unstable levels of serotonin, which made it challenging for the prefrontal cortex to regulate the anger that comes from the amygdala. The result was more aggressive behavior toward others.
The Bottom Line
If this all sounds like you, know that these symptoms could also be indicative of several other health issues, so it's important to seek some clarity. "There are different steps you can take when you wonder if your serotonin is low," Aman says. The first thing to do is speak to a medical professional about what you're experiencing. Even if you don't fully understand how serotonin works in your own noggin, they will, and they can help you get more of this happy chemical swimming around in your brain, if that's what you need.
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