Serotonin and Wellbeing (What you can do to diminish depression, stress and anxiety symptoms)
January can be a hard and dark month. We are past the excitement and the joy of Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the days are still dark and the spring is still far away.
Therefore I considered the following blog relevant for this time of the year, as it gives inspiration and information about what we can do to increase our serotonin levels so we feel better and more energised.
I wish you all a pleasant and inspiring reading.
When it comes to feelings, we all, I think, prefer to be happy, fulfilled and enthusiastic.
However, there are also difficult feelings, which are unavoidable, even beneficial. These psychologist Julia Ross calls ‘true emotions.’ They can sometimes be unbearable, but they are important. For example, grief helps us to move through our losses, true fear warns us of danger, true anger defends us against abuse, and true shame teaches us to grow and change.
True emotions typically pass, or diminish naturally, but if/when they get repressed, they can be relieved through therapy. However, when a broken heart does not mend, and when psychotherapy have no/low impact, there can be a biochemical error, which Julia Ross calls ‘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 the brain has plenty of all four, it keeps us as happy as we can be, considering our life circumstances. But if our brain runs low on these mood transmitters (because it has to cope with stress, a genetic issue or because we do not eat the specific foods it needs) it will stop producing normal emotions.
In the last thirty years, neuroscience has been studying the functions 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, on specific food, vitamins and supplements which are exactly what our brain needs to correct emotional malfunctions.
Under a dark cloud
- Do you have dark, pessimistic thoughts and the tendency to general negativity?
- Do you often feel worried and anxious?
- Do you have low self-esteem and self-confidence?
- Are you often self-critical and feeling guilty about things you have done, or did not do?
Then you are, in Julia Ross’ words, ‘Under a dark cloud’….take the test on her website to find out if you are 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 warm, happy feelings.
Now, serotonin is synthesised in our body from tryptophan, an amino acid, which is a protein building block, found in food like turkey, cheese, eggs. 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 that you are not getting enough sunlight or 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, eating too little protein, or eating an anti-serotonin diet reduces your serotonin derived happiness.
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.
Understanding the reason for the stress issues, introducing ways to reconnect with the body and relax, are some of the priorities in a therapeutic process.
Another priority is building up a good relationship with yourself, build self-acceptance and self-acknowledgement, as stress tends to develop self-criticism. You can read more about how I work with stress related issues.
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 more sunny 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 levels of light available during the autumn/winter months.
If you have symptoms of depression, stress, anxiety, please contact your 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 need for sunshine. I have bought one and I am happy I did. I spend 20-30 min in front of it every morning during the autumn and winter and I really think it is a great way to start my day.
Interestingly, exposure to bright light during the day not only improves our emotional outlook, it also helps us sleep, as it promotes our melatonin production, helping us to sleep well. In fact, poor sleeping improves with 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 other amino acids get diverted, tryptophan is transmitted through the blood brain barrier, and once trough, it converts into first 5-HTP and then serotonin, meaning that 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 creation of serotonin from amino acids.
Therefore, exercising outside has a double positive effect. Going for a walk is very much recommended for people with symptoms of depression and stress, who may not be able to or interested in engaging in more demanding exercise.
Do you practice self-reflection?
Positive self-reflection has a beneficial impact on improving the quality of our daily life.
Usually, we tend to try to understand what is wrong, and how to change it, when we feel bad. When we feel better or have a good day, we put the problems aside, try to forget them. I suggest doing the opposite.
When you have a bad, hard, challenging day because of stress or depression symptoms, focus on eating well, going for a long walk, giving yourself acknowledgement and self-understanding.
And when you have a better day, try to understand what the problem is, make the necessary decisions and plans, and start to introduce new positive changes in your life.
Struggling with low self-esteem?
This is a relevant issue, and any case of depression, stress, anxiety needs to account for the issue low self-esteem.
Raising your serotonin levels will point you in the right direction, psychotherapy will give you the tools to develop 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?
Lack of 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 tailored tools, will put you on the right track.
Do you experience gut and heart problems?
If you have a knot in your stomach because of stress and anxiety (low serotonin worry) you might find it useful to know that 90% of the serotonin in your body is not in your brain, it is in your gut. When you raise your serotonin levels, your digestive tension, including constipation, will often go away along with your mental constrictions.
Your heart is also partly serotonin dependent. It is well known that low serotonin levels feed negative moods including fear and anger and are associated with heart disease.
Therefore, nourishing 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.
And, as mentioned before, psychotherapy also 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 nighttime fixes because they contain tryptophan, as all milk products do, as well as sugar. Unfortunately, these products are addictive and can turn into really bad habits. The question is if you are craving carbs 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 go to sleep.
Marijuana, just like alcohol, will exhibit a natural 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 get a better mood and therefore a better life quality.
I also hope that the blog helps you realize the importance and the tremendous impact diet, light, exercise and self-reflection have on your general wellbeing.
With all my best wishes,
Source of inspiration for this blog, was ‘The Mood Cure’, by Julia Ross
Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash
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