If you’re happy and you know it, raise your hand. Congratulations! You probably have a sufficient level of serotonin in your body.

What Is Serotonin?

If neurotransmitters had categories like yearbooks, serotonin would definitely win the most-likely-to-make-you-happy title. When you have enough, that is. When you have too little or too much, it’s an entirely different story altogether.

“People who are deficient in serotonin are at risk of developing symptoms of depression and anxiety,” explains Gregory Scott Brown, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist and wellness advocate, and the founder and director of the Center for Green Psychiatry in Austin, Texas.

In fact, serotonin imbalance has long been linked to the regulation of mood, social behavior, appetite, sleep, memory, and sexual desire and function. It is important for central nervous system function, as well as digestive function, making its effects both physical and psychological.

Based on its suspected link to depression, serotonin is the target of the most commonly prescribed type of antidepressant medications: selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). A class that includes popular drugs like Prozac, Paxil, Lexapro and Zoloft, SSRIs work by blocking the reabsorption of serotonin into the neurons of the brain. This allows more serotonin to be available to help the brain transmit necessary messages to regulate mood and other processes.

But medication isn’t the only answer.

Natural Remedies That Increase Serotonin

“It is absolutely possible to increase serotonin without medication,” Dr. Brown says.
For those with mild to moderate levels of depression, Dr. Brown recommends a variety of non-pharmaceutical interventions to boost serotonin and improve mood:

#1: Sunshine

“Spend more time outside,” he says. “There’s a clear link between sunlight and depression–as evidenced by light-box treatment for seasonal depression. We’re learning more that people who are deficient in vitamin D are at greater risk of a lot of health problems, including mental health. The best way to increase vitamin D and reduce those risks is spending time outdoors, followed by eating foods fortified with vitamin D or taking vitamin D supplements.”

#2: Sleep

“We know that people who are depressed have disruptive sleep. There’s a debate about whether inadequate sleep can cause depression or if poor sleep is a side effect of depression,” Dr. Brown adds. Whether it’s the chicken or the egg, the fact remains that sleep plays a big role in mood and getting sufficient shuteye can help naturally increase serotonin.

#3: Meditation

“I’m a yogi and I believe in meditation and mind-body practice,” he continues. “Meditation can increase activity in the GABA receptors, which helps us relax, and increase alpha wave activity in the brain, which helps reduce anxiety.”

#4: Therapy

“This is a big one,” he concludes. “Therapy is not medication and it shouldn’t be left off the table. Therapy can help tremendously.”

When Meds Are A Must

For some people with more severe depression, however, non-pharmaceutical methods simply may not work on their own. For these people, Dr. Brown says medication may be the best answer.

“If someone is severely depressed and there are concerns about their safety, that person needs more aggressive treatment. That would be a case where I would recommend some kind of medication intervention,” he says.

“I focus a lot on functional capacity. That’s our way of saying, is someone able to go to work? Can they interact with their spouse or parents or children appropriately? If they find that their depression is so severe that they are withdrawing from life, that’s the point where I would recommend medication,” he continues. “I’m an integrative psychiatrist and my approach is holistic and collaborative. Some patients do not want to take medication, and often those folks can still get better without it. It’s important that we meet patients where they are.”

Can You Have Too Much Serotonin?

You can never have too much happy chemical, right? Wrong. In the case of serotonin, too much of a good thing can turn into a very bad thing.

“On the flip side, if you give someone medication that can raise their serotonin levels too high, that can cause serotonin syndrome,” Dr. Brown adds. “This can make you very sick.”

Serotonin syndrome, a potentially life-threatening condition, is most often caused by drug interactions. Symptoms include:

• Agitation or restlessness
• Confusion
• Rapid heart rate and high blood pressure
• Dilated pupils
• Loss of muscle coordination or twitching muscles
• Muscle rigidity
• Heavy sweating
• Diarrhea
• Headache
• Shivering
• Goose bumps

Signs of potentially life-threatening serotonin syndrome include:

• High fever
• Seizures
• Irregular heartbeat
• Unconsciousness

Seek emergency treatment immediately if you are taking psychiatric medications and experience any of these symptoms.

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Last Updated: Aug 13, 2020