Serotonin is the brain chemical that allows you to experience pleasure and feel good about yourself. When your serotonin levels are strong, you feel alive and excited about taking on new challenges. At night, serotonin allows the brain to recharge and rebalance as you experience deep, restful sleep, so every morning you begin with a fresh start. That's why I equate balanced serotonin to complete serenity. And when your brain is balanced and refreshed, you'll even find it a whole lot easier to lose weight.
Yet as we get older, serotonin levels begin to wane. You may notice that your mood is the first aspect of your overall health that has changed. While dopamine and GABA deficiencies affect our emotional life, serotonin deficiencies are markedly different, and even more pronounced. Instead of feeling fatigued (low dopamine) or anxious (low GABA), without serotonin we don't feel much of anything. That's why the stereotypical aged person is often portrayed as crotchety or withdrawn. This is an example of someone who has burned out their serotonin.
Both sleep disturbances and depression are associated with low serotonin levels, and therefore influence weight gain. Emotional upheavals can subliminally lead you to self-medicate through food, fostering specific food cravings that when satisfied, can temporarily change your mood. For example, have you ever told anyone "I eat when I'm depressed"? If so, think about the foods you choose when you are in a funk. If you are low in serotonin, chances are very good that you are a "salty snack" binger: simple carbs and salty foods actually provide more energy to combat fatigue, and actually help to release stored serotonin. But even though highly salted carbs, like potato chips, provide the lift you are looking for, they don't provide the nutrition your body desperately needs.
You can boost your serotonin levels in a variety of healthy ways and become younger. You can learn how to get out of a black mood without the help of fattening foods so you can reverse your bad and often dangerous eating habits. You can also learn the tricks you need to get a better night's sleep so your brain can rest, allowing you to make better food choices the next day.
Strategies to Create/Increase Serotonin
If you are low in serotonin, tryptophan is vital because it induces the creation of this brain chemical. Tryptophan is an amino acid the brain and body needs, but cannot make on its own. The foods that are key to producing serotonin are those low-calorie foods that are high in tryptophan, such as avocados, eggs, or cottage cheese. Here's a list of foods containing significant amounts of this amino acid. Try to incorporate as many of these as possible into your diet each day:
While many spices can make your meals more flavorful, specific spices will act as antidepressants, naturally increasing your serotonin levels. Good choices are saffron, marjoram, peppermint, spearmint, dill, nutmeg, licorice (anise), and turmeric.
Many foods that are high in tryptophan do not provide significant levels in diet-size portions. You would have to eat a whole cup of granola to get the levels you need. Another way to increase your tryptophan and other serotonin-boosting nutrients without adding calories is through vitamin and mineral supplements.
Consult your healthcare provider to see which of the following supplements may be appropriate for you. Some supplements can interfere with medications you might be taking - especially antidepressants.
Eric R. Braverman, M.D.
Dr. Braverman is a Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Brandeis University and NYU Medical School, did brain research at Harvard Medical School, and trained at an affiliate of Yale Medical School. He is acknowledged worldwide as an expert in brain-based diagnosis and treatment, and he lectures to and trains doctors in anti-aging medicine.