Natural Serotonin Boosters To Help Anxiety And Depression
If you're anxious or depressed, boosting your brain serotonin might help.
Serotonin is known as a "feel good" chemical in the brain. It's connected with mood, appetite and sleep; and also with learning and memory.
If your serotonin levels are too low, you are likely to be irritable, anxious, and perceive the world as unfriendly. You may feel depressed, pessimistic, and have irregular appetite and sleep.
Anti-depressant medications work by keeping the serotonin in your brain circulating and regulating your mood, appetite and sleep patterns.
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But if your serotonin levels are low, and you don't want to take medication, keep reading to find out about the best ways to boost your serotonin naturally.
Serotonin and anxiety
Most likely you will already know that low serotonin is connected with depression. But it's also intimately connected with anxiety, in a number of different ways. Serotonin works in different areas of the brain, and low levels of serotonin seem to have an interactive effect with other brain neurotransmitters, especially norepinephrine (noradrenaline) which is directly related to anxiety and the "fight or flight" response.
Not all types of anxiety are connected with low serotonin levels - or at least, some types won't benefit particularly from having their serotonin levels raised, and for a few there is a risk of getting worse. Serotonin boosters such as Prozac have been found to be linked to aggression or suicidal thoughts in some people.... for others, a serotonin booster can dramatically improve mood and soothe irritability & aggression. So before you rush out to try one of these remedies I describe below, read about the different types of anxiety/depression and the recommended types of remedies for each of them.
Diet and exercise to boost serotonin.
Exercise is one excellent way that you can boost your serotonin levels, naturally and safely. Exercise also boosts other feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine (which helps regulate reward and pleasure in your brain) and endorphins (your brain's natural opiates), so you get a lot of benefits from the effort you put in!
If you feel depressed and the thought of exercise just makes you want to crawl back into bed or hit the refrigerator, push yourself to take a 10 minute walk. You'll probably feel better afterwards...
Even if you don't feel better, persist. When your serotonin levels are very depleted, it can take some time to actually feel the benefits - and exercise, even fairly gently exercise, is the single most important thing you can do to pull yourself out of the doldrums. As well as the physical and biochemical benefits, you will feel empowered by being able to do something to help yourself, and this is key to overcoming depression.
You might also benefit from boosting your serotonin more directly, and there are several ways you can do this.
High protein or high carbohydrate?
Most people (whether anxious, depressed or neither) will feel best and function best on a high protein, low carbohydrate diet. However, there are some people who get worse on a high protein diet, and respond better to a high carbohydrate diet. These are the people who fit Dr Amen's description of Type 4: Overfocused Anxiety/Depression.
People with this type of anxiety or depression (according to Dr Amen's research) have too much activity in a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate gyrus – which works as the brain's gear-changer.
If you have an over-active anterior cingulate gyrus, you most likely need a serotonin boost! SSRI medications such as Prozac and Zoloft will also boost serotonin levels in the brains, but a high carbohydrate diet helps to boost serotonin naturally.
It's not actually the carbohydrate that boosts serotonin – it's an amino acid, tryptophan, that is needed by your brain to make serotonin. You get tryptophan from all high quality protein foods such as dairy products, meat, eggs, fish, nuts, etc. Now, you might be thinking, why do I need carbohydrate if my brain is deficient in an amino acid?
The problem is that all those high protein foods also contain lots of other amino acids, and they compete to get into the brain. (To protect your brain from imbalances, there is a well-guarded gateway – the blood-brain barrier – that any substance has to pass before getting into your brain.) If your blood is high in amino acids, tryptophan is the laggard in the race. When you eat a carbohydrate meal, this increases your insulin level, and this in turn tends to reduce the blood levels of amino acids, which get taken up by your muscles – except for tryptophan, which is then able to cross the blood-brain barrier without competition and be available for serotonin production in your brain.
One clue that you have this type of anxiety/depression is that you have a craving for carbohydrate... careful, though – there are other reasons for craving carbs, and better ways to get tryptophan into the brain than going on a sugar binge!
In 2008, there was a book written by Dr Kathleen DesMaisons called Potatoes Not Prozac: Solutions for Sugar Sensitivity.
As you might expect from the title, the book was advocating a high carbohydrate diet as the solution to depression, and other conditions sometimes related to low serotonin, such as anxiety, addiction, weight gain.
Some people loved it, others reviled it.
Some people got better, others got worse.
Now you can begin to understand how this might happen... it depends entirely on what brain imbalance you actually have.
If you think you might have Type 4 Anxiety/Depression, you might like to try this dietary approach and see if it helps – it might help bust your sugar cravings, and help prevent the weight gain some people get with depression and anxiety.
If not, try the high protein approach – you might be pleasantly surprised at how helpful it can be!
L-Tryptophan for anxiety
While changing your diet can help a lot, some people prefer a more direct approach to getting more tryptophan (and increasing serotonin levels).
L-Tryptophan (the form your body uses) is available as a supplement, though in many countries, only with a doctor's prescription (it's approved for treating depression). The dose is 1000-3000 mg per day, taken on an empty stomach with a small amount of carbohydrate for best absorption.
It's best to take it at night, because it can make you sleepy - and some people use it just for this.
Be cautious about increasing the dose higher than is recommended, and as always, discontinue if you get any negative side-effects. Especially if you are on anti-depressant medication, you must not take L-Tryptophan without consulting your doctor. I'm using strong wording here, and there's a reason for that – L-Tryptophan can interact with anti-depressant medications, with potentially fatal consequences. Both increase serotonin – and while too low serotonin is a problem, high serotonin also has undesirable health effects, and can be fatal.
You need your serotonin levels to be just right!
(This article has an excellent discussion of the possible harmful effects of L-Tryptophan, if you are interested in the science of this.)
5-HTP for anxiety
Apart from L-Tryptophan, there are other natural remedies and supplements that can increase serotonin levels.
Another natural supplement you can take to boost serotonin and reduce anxiety and depression is 5-HTP. This is normally made in your body from L-Tryptophan (from food or a supplement) as the first step in producing serotonin. Many people find 5-HTP better than L-Tryptophan because it doesn't compete in the same way with other amino acids, and is more likely to get through to your brain. But the same cautions apply: if you are on anti-depressant medication or any other serotonin booster, please consult your doctor before taking it!
The recommended dose is 50-100 mg for adults, 2-3 times per day (children should take half this amount).
Some people take 5-HTP just at night, as with L-Trypophan, to help them sleep better.
St John's Wort for anxiety
Apart from supplements, there are herbal remedies for anxiety and depression that work by boosting serotonin levels, usually more gently than prescribed medication.
One of the most effective is St John's Wort.
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The starting dose for St John's Wort is 600 mg for adults (300 mg 2-3 times per day), though doses as low as 300 mg can be effective.
If you want to try St John's Wort make sure you get a high strength supplement, with 0.3 percent hypericin (the active ingredient). You can buy it in tablets or capsules, or as a liquid extract. If you prefer to take it in capsule form (which is recommended as St John's Wort has a very bitter taste) then Gaia Herbs make a very reliable and high-quality supplement.
Once again, don't start taking St John's Wort if you are on anti-depressant medication or any of the other serotonin boosters, at least without discussing it with your doctor. You could end up with problems from too high serotonin levels – which can be serious, even fatal.
Otherwise, St John's Wort is fairly safe, and has proved helpful for many people, for both depression and anxiety.
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