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What Is The Link Between Serotonin And Depression?

The link between serotonin and depression is something that has been studied by experts for as long as mental health research has been conducted. Often referred to as a ‘feel-good chemical’, serotonin is responsible for regulating a number of essential factors in your body – including mood. 

In this blog post, Paula Berry, Head of Service: Clinical Operations at Claimont Health will explore the correlation between low serotonin and depression to see how far the two can be related and whether poor mental health can be attributed to low serotonin levels.

What is serotonin?

Serotonin is a chemical nerve produced by your cells that sends signals in between your nerve cells. Serotonin is most commonly found in your digestion system but also travels through your blood platelets and central nervous system.

Made from tryptophan, an essential amino acid, the levels of serotonin in your body are based on your diet. Tryptophan-rich foods include nuts, cheese and red meat. Not receiving enough tryptophan in your diet can lead to lower serotonin levels, which may result in mood disorders such as anxiety or depression.

How does serotonin work?

Considered a major mood stabiliser, serotonin impacts functions all over the body. Eating, digesting and sleeping are all aided by serotonin. Mentally, serotonin can also help reduce depression and regulate anxiety, whereas physically, it stimulates nausea, heals wounds and maintains bone health.

What does serotonin do to help my mental health?

The serotonin in your brain is most commonly believed by scientists to affect anxiety, happiness, and mood. Low levels of serotonin and depression have often been linked – however, low serotonin levels are thought to increase arousal and vice versa.

Serotonin is also responsible for controlling sleep and waking up by stimulating the brain.

How does serotonin affect depression?

The link between serotonin and depression is one that has been heavily studied by experts yet still remains unclear. Many scientists believe that an imbalance in these levels may affect mood to the extent that they cause mental health disorders.

General theories for the links and causes of depression include low production levels of serotonin in the brain, a reduced ability to receive existing serotonin or a shortage of tryptophan. Scientists have theorised that if any of these issues were to occur, it can lead to the development of a mental health condition.

The issue with linking a lack of serotonin and depression is the fact that there is no way to measure its levels in the living human brain. This theory, although widely accepted by experts, has a lack of scientific evidence backing it due to the fact that there are no studies. 

However, the amount of serotonin in a person’s blood is measurable and often, people with depression have much lower levels. As valuable as this information may seem, researchers are unsure as to whether these blood tests reflect brain levels.

On the whole, the confusion lies in the fact that experts aren’t sure whether a lack of serotonin causes depression, or if depression causes serotonin levels to decrease.

What causes low serotonin?

Your serotonin levels can be affected by a number of different factors, so it’s important to consider how your lifestyle is impacting your overall well being. If you are someone who often finds themselves living through prolonged periods of stress, your serotonin levels may be significantly reduced.

Similarly, you need a healthy, balanced diet to retain essential serotonin levels. If you don’t receive enough vitamins, minerals and proteins in your diet, you’ll experience a drop in the serotonin your body can produce.

Toxic substances can also severely damage your nerve cells that contain the ability to retain serotonin. These include, but aren’t limited to, recreational drugs, heavy metals, pesticides and prescription medicines. On a lesser scale, substances such as caffeine, alcohol and nicotine can also deplete your serotonin.

Genetic factors are also known to impair your body’s ability to create enough serotonin. These include hormone imbalances, faulty metabolism and digestive disorders.

Lack of sunlight also contributes to low serotonin levels, especially in those who report experiencing seasonal depression, or SAD.

What are the signs of low serotonin levels?

If you’re concerned that you may be struggling with serotonin-related issues, it’s important to look out for low serotonin symptoms. These include low energy, low mood and negative thoughts, as well as feelings of irritability. You may also experience a low libido and strong sugar cravings.

Disorders that can be triggered by low serotonin levels include:

What increases serotonin?

There are several ways someone with low serotonin levels can increase their intake. These vary from prescription medications to natural remedies.

Prescription medications

Often, GPs will prescribe a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) to treat patients experiencing depression, anxiety or sleep trouble. As the most frequently prescribed antidepressant, SSRIs block reabsorption of serotonin so more of it remains active – therefore increasing the levels of the chemical in the body. 

There are eight types of SSRIs prescribed in the UK: 

  • Citalopram
  • Dapoxetine
  • Escitalopram
  • Fluoxetine
  • Fluvoxamine
  • Paroxetine
  • Sertraline
  • Vortioxetine

Serotonin medication is usually taken in tablet form and can take between four and six weeks for the user to feel any benefit. Early side effects include nausea, increased anxiety and blurred vision – however these often pass quickly. 

Natural serotonin boosters

For those adverse to medication, there are a number of ways to increase serotonin naturally. Regular exercise has been shown to improve mood, time and time again. Similarly, a healthy diet is also essential to keep your mood regulated. As well as red meat, nuts and cheese, serotonin-rich foods include eggs, salmon, tofu and pineapple.

Meditation is also a great stress reliever and when performed regularly can offer a much more positive outlook on life – boosting your serotonin levels. For those suffering with seasonal depression, sunshine and light therapy can also be extremely beneficial.

Let us help with low serotonin and depression

If you’re experiencing symptoms of low serotonin and depression, reaching out for an extra bit of help and support is one of the best things you can do to transform your mental health for the better.

As an alternative to traditional forms of therapy and mental health care, our dedicated mental health home care services are designed to provide you with the bespoke support you need for a stable recovery. Contact us today and one of our compassionate team members will be in touch to offer you a confidential consultation.

  • Can you have too much serotonin?

    As serotonin is a chemical naturally produced by the body, it’s important to monitor the medications you take regularly to ensure your levels aren’t too high. An excess of serotonin can cause a range of different side effects, from shivering and diarrhoea.

    More severe symptoms of high serotonin levels include fever and seizures and a condition known as serotonin syndrome. Serotonin syndrome can range from uncomfortable to life-threatening, often resulting in a change in blood pressure and a loss of consciousness.

  • Does serotonin decrease with age?

    There have been several studies on serotonin receptors in the frontal cortex and their ability to retain their strength as a person ages. Research conducted by Johns Hopkins Medicine has shown that the serotonin neurons are noticeably vulnerable to neurodegeneration, stopping transporters from functioning when these neurons die. Essentially, the older a person is, the more likely they are to have reduced serotonin.

  • How do I know if I need serotonin or dopamine?

    Dopamine and serotonin are often compared and, although they have similar effects on your mood – their core functions are somewhat different. Serotonin acts as more of a mood stabiliser, whereas dopamine signals rewards to boost feelings of pleasure and happiness.

  • Paula Berry
    Head of Service: Clinical Operations
    RMN, DPS, BSc

    Paula is responsible for the clinical and operational management of services. Prior to joining Claimont she was Regional Operations Manager and Substance Misuse Lead for the veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress. A Registered Mental Health Nurse, Paula’s career has focussed on complex mental health across in-patient, community, prison, NHS and private services. As an experienced senior nurse and healthcare manager, she has a history of successfully managing complex mental healthcare services within operational roles at national and regional level.