Serotonin and wellbeing

(What you can do to diminish depression, stress and anxiety symptoms)

Regarding feelings, we all, of course, prefer to be happy, fulfilled and enthusiastic.

However, there are also some very difficult feelings, but which are unavoidable, even beneficial. These are called by psychologist Julia Ross, ‘true emotions’. These can be unbearable sometimes, but they are very important. For example, grief helps us to move through our losses, true fear warms us to danger, and true anger defend us from abuse. Just as well, true shame teaches us to grow and change.

True emotions typically pass, or diminish naturally, and if/when they get repressed, they can be relieved through therapy. However, when pain of a broken heart does not mend, and when psychotherapy have no/ or low impact, there can be a biochemical error, called by the same psychologist mentioned before, ‘false mood’.

The brain and the false mood

Our brain is responsible for most of our feelings, both true and false. Together with some other areas in our heart and guts, it transmits feelings through four highly specialized and potent mood molecules. If it has plenty of all four, it keeps us as happy as we can be, depending of our life circumstances. But if our brain runs low on these mood transmitters (because of coping with stress, some genetic issues or because we aren’t eating the specific foods it needs,) it will stop producing normal emotions.

In the last thirty years, neuroscience has been studying the workings and effects of the brain. And drug companies have been using this information to create products, which give our emotional equipment a quick charge.

However, there is more and more information available, about specific foods, vitamins and supplements that are exactly what our brain needs that they can correct emotional malfunctions.

Under a dark cloud

Do you have dark, pessimistic thoughts and the tendency to be generally negative? Are you often feeling worried and anxious? Do you have low self-esteem and self-confidence? Are you often self-critical and feel guilty about things you done, or didn’t do? Then you are the type called by psychologist Julia Ross, ‘Under a dark cloud’.

The mechanism of this mood type is based on serotonin. If the serotonin supplies are plenty, our brain transmits positive feelings and thoughts. A decrease in serotonin produces the reverse of every warm, happy feeling.

Now, serotonin is synthetized in our body from tryptophan, an amino acid (protein building block) found in food like turkey, cheese, egg and so on. For vegetarians, tryptophan is found in: nutritional yeast, milk products, nuts, seeds, bananas, pumpkins. Tryptophan first converts into a substance called 5-HTP which then converts into serotonin. This important process can be short circuited by different factors; for example, if there is not enough tryptophan in our diet; or our natural production of serotonin is inhibited by caffeine, alcohol, or the artificial sweetener called aspartame. . Another reason can be not getting enough sunlight or enough exercise.

A serotonin rich diet is rich in proteins and healthy fats.

An anti-serotonin diet is rich in caffeinated sodas, coffee, and diet sweetened drinks and foods.

Please keep in mind that skipping meals or eating without protein or an anti-serotonin diet reduces your serotonin derived-happiness.

Low serotonin levels and how it influences our daily life: 

Is stress the reason why your serotonin level is low?

The majority of my clients are seeing me because of stress related issues in their work life, family life, social life, and so on. Understanding the reason of the stress issues, introducing ways to reconnect with the body and relax, are one of the priorities in the therapeutic process. Another priority is building up a good relationship with oneself, self-accept and self-acknowledgement, as stress develops always a self-critical tendency. You can read more about how I work with stress related issues on my web site.

Are you getting enough light, especially in winter?

In Denmark winters are long, and dark, therefore it is relevant to take vitamin D supplement from autumn to spring. Remember, serotonin is one of the body chemicals that is stimulated by light. Many of my clients are foreigners living in Denmark, coming from warmer and lighter countries. For these clients, the Danish weather is a challenge, and not just because it is windy, cold and rainy, but also because of the low light levels available during the autumn/winter months…So if you have symptoms of depression, stress, anxiety, please contact you own GP for a blood test for D-vitamin. If you prefer to do it privately, the Nordic Clinic has a good service in this way.

The light lamp available broadly is also a great and healthy way to fill up our sunshine resources. I myself bought one I have been so happy for. I spend in front of it 20-30 min every morning during the autumn winter and I really feel like a great way to start up my day.

Interestingly, exposure to bright light during the day not only improves our emotional outlook, it also helps us sleep, as it promotes melatonin, helping you to sleep well. In fact, poor sleeping responds well to light therapy.

Are you getting enough exercise and oxygen?

We feel better after walking, cycling, working out, because exercise raises our serotonin levels.

When we exercise and our muscles get working (even during moderate exercise) they call for amino acids for muscle repair. Our blood stream always carries an assortment of amino acids, but not tryptophan (the only one used for the brain to create serotonin). So while the other amino acids get diverted, tryptophan is transmitted through the blood brain barrier, and once trough, it converts into 5-HTP and then serotonin, so in half an hour you can enjoy the effects of your work out.

Exercise also helps raise serotonin by increasing your intake of oxygen which is important for the formation of serotonin from amino acids. So exercising outside has a double positive effect. Therefore walking is so much recommended for people with severe depression or stress, who are maybe not able to engage in more demanding exercise.

Do you practice self- reflection?

Positive self-reflection has such a beneficial impact on improving the quality of our daily life.  Usually, we all have a tendency to try to understand what is wrong, and how to change it, when we feel worst. When we feel better or have a good day, we all put the problem aside, try to forget it. I would suggest the opposite. When you have a bad, heavy, challenging day because of stress or depression symptoms, focus on eating well, going for long walks, giving yourself acknowledgement and self-understanding. And when you have a better day, try to understand what the problem is, make decisions, plans, and start to introduce new positive changes.

Struggling with low self-esteem?

This is a relevant issue, and every single case of depression, stress, anxiety has the need to look into and address the issue of low self-esteem. Raising your serotonin levels will definitely help you in the right direction; psychotherapy will give you tools for self-confidence and self-esteem so you can become your own best friend instead of your own worst enemy.

Are you shy, anxious, panicky? Are you often worried?

Serotonin is a common effect of anxiety and panic attacks, suggests psychologist Julia Ross, so filling up you serotonin levels, again, combined with psychotherapy for individually detailed tools, will put you on the right track.

Do you experience gut and heart problems?

If you experienced your stomach in knots because of stress and anxiety (low serotonin worry) you might find it useful to know that 90% of serotonin in your body is not in your brain, is in your gut. When you raise your serotonin levels, your digestive tension (including constipation) will often go away, together with your mental constriction.

Your heart is also partly serotonin dependent; is well known that low serotonin style negative moods including fear and anger, are closely associated with heart disease.

Therefore nourishing you’re your brain, your heart and your gut with the right pro serotonin foods and diet can result in big improvements in your health, as well as in your mood.

Again, as mentioned before, psychotherapy helps by giving you individual tools for your specific situation and problems.

Do you have afternoon or evening cravings for ice creams, sweets, or other artificial serotonin boosters?

Do you find yourself eating high carbohydrate snacks in the late afternoons and evenings, when light and serotonin levels start to sink? Ice cream, hot chocolate, snickers and so on are favorite night time fixes because they contain tryptophan (as all milk products do) as well as sugar. Unfortunately these products are addictive and can turn into heavy pounds. The question is, are you craving cabs because of low serotonin levels?

Alcohol is another carbohydrate commonly used as compensation for low serotonin levels. Marijuana also can alter brain functions, including serotonin levels, which is why people smoke pot in the evenings to relax and get to sleep.

Marijuana, just like alcohol, will exhibit serotonin production and can become addictive.

I hope this blog helped you to understand not just how  psychotherapy can help your wellbeing, but also what kind of changes you can introduce to have a better mood and therefore a better life quality.

I also hope that the blog helps you realize the importance and the tremendous impact the diet has on our general wellbeing.


Source of inspiration for this blog, was ‘The Mood Cure’, by Julia Ross

With all my best wishes,