Take a closer look at one of the body's most versatile neurochemicals—serotonin. We're going to break down exactly what you need to know, including serotonin's potential links to CBD.
Serotonin is one of several essential neurochemicals, playing a crucial role in mood, sleep, digestion, and much more. But despite its common association with mood, the greatest concentration of serotonin isn't in the brain; it's in our digestive system. With so much to uncover regarding this multifaceted compound, let's first look at serotonin's basic features.
• Formally known as 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT for short), serotonin is a naturally occurring neurochemical that binds with 5-HT receptors to facilitate biological changes all over the body.
Serotonin acts as a signal carrier, transmitting information between nerve cells to areas such as the GI tract, pineal gland, and limbic system. The body uses amino acids (tryptophan) from the food we eat to create serotonin, and it's often because of our diet that serotonin levels can fluctuate (the impact of which we'll explain shortly).
We've already mentioned that serotonin can influence mood and digestion, but how exactly? Below is a breakdown of some of the neurochemical's fundamental mechanisms.
Serotonin is often deemed a “feel-good compound”, and this is a pretty accurate description. A spike in serotonin positively affects our mood, sense of reward, and pleasure, while helping to regulate instances of depression or anxiety. It's often a serotonin deficiency that contributes to the onset of several mental health disorders.
To understand serotonin's role in sleep, we first need to explain its relationship with melatonin. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that helps to tell our mind and body when to sleep and when to wake. Many of our bodily systems would fall completely out of sync without it.
Fortunately, serotonin is a chemical precursor to melatonin, meaning balanced serotonin levels lead to greater concentrations of melatonin and a healthier sleep-wake cycle.
Despite it being a relatively well-known chemical, many are unaware of the abundance of serotonin in the gut. In fact, the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) is home to almost all of the body's supply of the chemical. Binding with 5-HT receptors in the digestive system, serotonin helps to regulate nausea and healthy digestion.
Serotonin shares many links with dopamine, and it's via this synergistic relationship that sexual arousal can become disrupted. It's thought that low levels of serotonin increase libido, while high levels decrease sexual desire. Of course, getting the balance right is crucial; though low levels may increase libido, the caveat is a greater risk of mood disorders.
Given the relationship between low serotonin and mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, it’s valuable to understand the primary causes of a serotonin deficiency. While it's true that too much serotonin is troublesome, a deficiency is much more common.
Potential causes of serotonin deficiency include:
• Lack of exercise
• Poor diet choices
• Limited exposure to natural sunlight
• Chronic stress
• Hormone changes
Low serotonin symptoms include:
• Disturbed sleep
• Loss of appetite
• Low mood and self-esteem
It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of serotonin deficiency, mainly because the neurochemical is involved in many different functions. That said, a person's genes may play a fundamental role in their propensity to experience serotonin deficiency. Some people are born with fewer serotonin receptors, or a body that breaks down the neurochemical much faster.
If you suspect that you're experiencing serotonin deficiency, it is crucial to speak to a doctor or physician. While lifestyle adjustments can increase serotonin production, oftentimes a deficiency is due to a chemical imbalance. In these cases, individuals are often prescribed medication or recommended certain supplements to restore their natural levels.
Although the list of symptoms linked to serotonin deficiency may seem daunting, the good news is there are plenty of steps you can take to restore that all-important state of balance.
SSRIs are one of the most commonly prescribed antidepressants in the world. The concept of this medication is relatively simple; it works to block cells from reabsorbing serotonin. Because the body cannot “reuptake” serotonin as easily, levels remain elevated for longer.
While there are generally few side effects associated with SSRIs, they aren't without their downsides. It's important to discuss this type of antidepressant medication with a professional to establish if it's the right fit for you.
For a natural approach to improving serotonin levels, you can try making small adjustments to your diet. Thankfully, several foods contain serotonin, and consuming them can help to keep levels of the neurochemical balanced. Foods to focus on include:
• Nuts and seeds
• Oily fish
Aside from serotonin, many of the foods listed above contain other wellness-boosting compounds, such as omega-3, vitamin D, and tryptophan.
Exercise is another approach to increasing serotonin that comes with numerous benefits. Not only can it help with mental and cardiovascular health, but several rounds of moderate exercise per week can improve strength, endurance, and appetite.
The ideal fitness regime will vary from person to person, but ideally you want to aim for roughly 150 minutes of exercise per week. It may sound like a lot, but this can be broken down into just five 30-minute workouts.
If you're struggling to eat a diverse selection of foods, supplements are great for helping to fill potential gaps in nutrition. They're also useful for supplementing serotonin, especially if you have a hectic work schedule or a busy social calendar.
As several options exist, the most effective supplement for your scenario will vary. That said, to help keep serotonin levels balanced, many people consider 5-HTP, probiotics, or pure tryptophan supplements.
Typically used to address a particular variant of depression (seasonal affective disorder [SAD]), light therapy is believed to boost serotonin levels by influencing the neurochemical's binding efficiency.
Research is ongoing, but all you need to do to try it yourself is spend at least 10–15 minutes outside in the sunlight per day. Also, consider using a SAD lamp during the winter months, as these lights simulate natural sunlight.
While a serotonin deficiency is a cause for concern, there is also such a thing as too much of this chemical. Raising levels beyond the appropriate amount can lead to serotonin syndrome. Mild cases can cause shivering, diarrhoea, headaches, and confusion, while severe instances can lead to heart problems or seizures.
It's unlikely you'll need to worry about serotonin syndrome resulting from changes in diet, exercise, or even some supplements. However, you must talk to a medical professional before aiming to take any serotonin-related medication, so they can advise the proper dosage to suit your individual needs.
We know that serotonin deficiency is a significant factor in mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. As such, raising levels, either through medication or lifestyle changes, is a crucial action. But given the existing treatment options and lifestyle adjustments, where does that leave CBD in relation to serotonin?
Interestingly, researchers have noted a promising interaction between 5-HT receptors and cannabidiol. CBD was found to activate certain 5-HT receptors in an animal model, pointing to a potential link with antidepressant-like effects.
Now, we should point out that CBD doesn't appear to influence serotonin production directly, but it could be that binding with the same receptors alters the signalling process. How that interaction might be used to benefit people living with serotonin deficiency remains to be seen, but it's a promising start.
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