Serotonin: A Neurotransmitter that Directly Influences Depression and Anxiety Disorders

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter , which is a chemical that helps relay the transmission of nerve impulses from one part of your brain to another.

This neurotransmitter is created in your brain and it directly or indirectly influences the majority of your brain cells. However, almost 90% of your body’s supply of this chemical is located in your digestive tract and in your blood platelets.

Serotonin influences a number of psychological and bodily functions. It affects brain cells related to your:

  • mood
  • appetite
  • sleep
  • body temperature
  • sexual desire
  • sexual function
  • memory
  • learning
  • social behavior
  • cardiovascular function
  • muscles
  • endocrine system

Imbalances Influence Mood and Anxiety Disorders

If you have an imbalance in your serotonin levels, it may have an influence on your mood and lead to depression and anxiety disorders .

Imbalances can occur because your brain doesn't produce enough of it, you have too few receptor sites to receive the available neurotransmitters, serotonin is unable to reach the receptor sites, or your body has low levels of tryptophan (which helps create this neurotransmitter).

If any of these biochemical problems occur, you may suffer from depression or one of the anxiety disorders, such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), generalized anxiety disorder , or panic disorder .

Princeton University neuroscientist Barry Jacobs, Ph.D., has developed a very interesting theory about the development of depression. Jacob’s theory ( http://psych.princeton.edu/psychology/research/jacobs/case.php ) is that you may develop depression if you’re stressed out because stress suppresses the creation of new brain cells, making it the most common cause of depression.

Jacobs believes that antidepressant medications, designed to boost the level of neurotransmitters in your brain, helps your brain begin producing new brain cells. The creation of these brain cells helps ease your depression.

Jacobs has also done studies that show exercise boosts levels of serotonin in your brain, thus assisting in the creation of new brain cells. This shows that exercise plays a role in recovering from depression and it acts much more quickly than any antidepressant medication.

Study after study has shown that exercise is as effective a treatment for depression as antidepressant medications or psychotherapy.

It used to be believed that it took several weeks of exercise before an effect was seen on depression. Studies at the University of Texas (see http://www.utexas.edu/news/2006/01/17/education/ ) showed that a single exercise session can have an immediate effect on your mood. Researchers are still not clear about how exercise actually affects your mood.

While there are many of us who experience stress , anxiety, pain, and depression due to low levels of neurotransmitters, there are a number of ways we can fight this and boost our mood by helping our brain produce the proper amounts of neurotransmitters.

The following list shows you a few ways to do this:

  • Get the proper amount of sleep. Too little sleep interferes with hormone production and may keep your brain from making enough neurotransmitters. Try to get seven or eight hours a night of quality sleep.
  • Eat a balanced diet. Production of neurotransmitters depends on getting quality nutrition. Eat balanced meals and snacks and stay away from junk food. Include protein and quality fats with each meal…this keeps your blood sugar stable and helps balance your production of hormones. Including quality carbohydrates like whole grains and vegetables help keep your serotonin levels at the proper level.
  • Healthy fats are good for you. Because fat is important in the production of neurotransmitters and hormones, your body needs it to produce adequate amounts of neurotransmitters. The best fats are from natural and unprocessed sources. Flaxseed and olive oil are good choices.
  • Include vitamins in your diet. B vitamins are important for energy and serotonin production. They are quickly depleted if you’re stressed out. If you follow a sound eating plan and eat vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products you’ll get many of your B vitamins from your diet. Just to be sure, take a good quality multivitamin and vitamin B supplement. Make sure you get the proper daily doses of calcium and magnesium because both are needed to produce neurotransmitters. Dairy products and nuts are good ways to add calcium, as well as high quality vitamins.
  • Try to limit your intake of things like caffeine, sugar, and alcohol. Over time, these chemicals deplete your brain of the ingredients needed to balance your moods. It’s also smart to limit your intake of artificial sweeteners because these chemical substances interfere with your hormonal production.
  • Take time to exercise. Even things like walking or doing yoga are effective in boosting your neurotransmitter levels. Try to get 30 – 60 minutes a day for three to five days each week and include both aerobic and resistance exercises.
  • Go outside. Sunlight stimulates serotonin production and boosts your energy and moods. Try to get outside into the sunlight for about half an hour each day.

If you find yourself in a chronic stressful situation, getting little sleep, and eating junk food, you can pretty much be sure your serotonin levels are going to drop and you’ll be at risk of a depressive episode or an anxiety disorder. You can go a long way toward avoiding these psychological disturbances by taking care of yourself and practicing good health and nutrition habits.

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