Serotonin is a brain chemical responsible for regulating people's moods. It is our 'happy hormone'. It is the leadership chemical and is responsible for feelings of significance, importance, pride and status. Serotonin is also responsible for social behavior, appetite and digestion, immune function, sleep, memory and sexual function. It has a wide variety of functions which keep us happy and on track.
We are social animals and social recognition is important to us. Serotonin re-enforces relationships to give us feelings of fulfillment, love and trust; such as the relationships between parent and child, boss and employee, coach and player, and caregiver and the one receiving care. This is why we have graduations and give out awards. If we fulfilled all the requirements to graduate and simply received an email stating, "Congratulations! Please print your certificate with the attached pdf", we wouldn't feel as good. Instead, we have a big ceremony to celebrate accomplishment. In the audience are our family, friends and teachers: everyone who supported us and watched our backs. We show up on the day, go up onto the stage, receive our diploma and it feels great! We feel our status and our pride rise when we have serotonin in our veins and our confidence rises also. The best part is, at the exact moment we receive our diploma, we feel a burst of serotonin go through our body. And our parents sitting in the audience also receive a shot of serotonin and feel immense pride watching our graduation.
This is what serotonin is trying to do. Its job is to re-enforce our relationships. Think about the speeches we give. If an award is given to somebody, we say, "I couldn't have done it without..." We thank God, mum and dad, family and friends, and they look on thinking how proud they are. We work to make them proud.
Great teams don't want to win the trophy, they want to win for their support team: to make the coach proud, to make their parents proud! This raises our status, our confidence and it feels good. We, in turn, will look after others, so that they may accomplish the same. This is what serotonin is trying to do. The value of family or belonging to a tribe means we can trust each other. We feel safe. Benevolence and random acts of kindness also give us bursts of serotonin.
Today's problem is that we can trick serotonin. We live in a materialistic society, so we often judge status on how much money we make. Sadly, any conspicuous display of wealth raises our status. This is why logos are put on the outside of clothing. They're no good on the inside, nobody can see them! We all want a pair of Gucci shoes and designer glasses. How good does it feel to own them, to wear them? Our confidence rises when we put them on, a display of status feels great! The problem is, there is no real relationship being re-enforced in this scenario. We can trick the system. That's why we attempt to accomplish things, accumulate more and more material possessions, yet we never feel successful because there was no relationship in it. We have tricked the release of serotonin. A lack of serotonin may also be the reason people fall into gangs and criminal activity. These cultures bring experiences that facilitate serotonin release. Unhealthy, attention-seeking behaviour can also be a search for how serotonin makes us feel.
Symptoms of deficiency may include loneliness, depression, sleeping disorders, anxiety, irritability, aggression, stress, behavioral problems, premenstrual syndrome, binge eating and carbohydrate cravings. When we eat a lot of carbs, especially sugary ones like dessert, it produces a surge of serotonin in the brain which can make us feel happy and sleepy. This is why we can get 'addicted' to carbs.
80-90% of serotonin is manufactured in the digestive system where it helps to regulate gastric functions. Serotonin is synthesized by an amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan is the source of serotonin in the brain. The only source of this amino acid is from certain foods. Increase tryptophan and you increase serotonin which will result in relaxed mind and mood, better concentration, better sleeping patterns, calmness and feelings of security.
Some guidelines to promote serotonin production through various activities and to break those poor patterns and negative cycles include:
1. Drink milk regularly: high levels of Tryptophan are found in milk and especially whey, as well as cottage cheese and lean meats like chicken, turkey, salmon, tuna and eggs. Other foods include bananas, pineapple, tofu, soy products, nuts, seeds, oats, beans, lentils and spinach.
2. Eat a balanced diet: tryptophan is mainly found in protein but the human body works in synergy, so proper nutrition must be balanced for absorption and synthesizing.
3. Sleep: give yourself a good night's sleep every night. Good and well patterned sleep increases serotonin production. Develop a good sleep pattern with a glass of warm milk before bed. Eat a banana before bed if hungry.
4. A healthy body and regular exercise: exercise increases the level of neurotransmitters in the brain.
5. Have a time set aside each day for relaxation: meditation, reflection or prayer can provide a relaxed positive mood, so have some quiet time in a relaxing or soothing place.
6. Natural sunlight promotes serotonin and is a natural mood elevator.
7. Avoid too much caffeine: caffeine can give a good energy boost but this is short term. Caffeine's good mood wears off after a few hours and can also disrupt sleeping patterns.
8. Reflect on past significant achievements: this allows the brain to re-live the experience. Our brain has trouble telling the difference between what’s real and what's imagined, so it produces serotonin in either case.
9. Practicing gratitude reminds us that we are valued and have much to value in life, so learn to be grateful. If you need a serotonin boost during a stressful day, take a few moments to reflect gratefully on friends, past achievements and victories.
The benefits of serotonin are improved mood, sleep, immune system and gut function, which all can lead to weight loss. From this, REM sleep improves, dreams come back and sleep quality as a whole often improves, leaving people feeling rested when they wake up. Serotonin also helps us feel like we belong.