Serotonin is a juicy neurotransmitter. Juicy, because its job is to help us feel good. Ideally, we want lots of these chemical messengers running around because they make us feel happy, relaxed, and self-confident. Serotonin also regulates body functions such as carbohydrate cravings, sleep cycle, pain control, and digestion. Sounds great, right?
Now let’s look at how we feel when we have low levels of serotonin. Low levels can cause gripping anxiety and depression. We may become consumed with negative thoughts that circle around in our brains. Or we experience severe panic attacks. Or feel so depressed that we can’t enjoy our day-to-day lives.
Serotonin is a big deal.
Boosting Serotonin With Meds
When we can’t live with these feelings of distress anymore, we go to a doctor for help. Doctors very often provide relief by prescribing anti-depressants or SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) such as Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, and Lexapro. These medications are often life-saving and provide much needed support for thousands of people.
Unfortunately, SSRIs have some down sides. Common side effects include drowsiness, nausea, dry mouth, insomnia, diarrhea, agitation or restlessness, dizziness, sexual problems, headaches, and blurred vision. One of my daughters punched a hole in the wall on Prozac because it made her feel so agitated (she eventually stopped taking it altogether). Plus, over time, our bodies can adjust to a particular medication so that it no longer provides relief. When that happens, the doctor might have to boost the dose or offer a new med altogether.
Meds are not always a perfect solution.
Boosting Serotonin Without Meds
Here’s an interesting fun fact. Even though serotonin is considered a brain chemical, we produce 95% of our serotonin in our gastrointestinal tracts. Yup, our guts. And our brains and guts are connected by a bi-directional communication highway called the vagus nerve. (Another fun fact: our brains and our guts emerged from the same clump of cells in utero.) This bi-directional connection means that our gut flora has a huge impact on our brain chemistry and vice versa. In other words, our mental health is closely tied to our digestive health.
So what does that mean? It means that meds are just one way to get relief from anxiety. It means that if you pay close attention to your digestive health, your mental health will improve. It means that if you’re committed to healing the imbalances in your gut, you will begin to put your racing thoughts, fears, panic attacks, and feelings of hopelessness into remission. You have more power and control than you think.
Creating a Serotonin Factory
Is there a “one size fits all” model for optimum digestive health? Unfortunately, not. The microbiome in our guts is influenced by a wide range of factors. Things like how we were delivered (vaginally or c-section), whether or not we were breastfed, the antibiotics we’ve consumed, stress, grief, alcohol consumption, the types of food we eat—and more—all influence our gut health, and therefore, serotonin production.
You might be thinking, “But my gut doesn’t hurt; it can’t be the problem!” The thing is, our guts can be compromised without us even knowing it. I learned this about myself. The good news, however, is that you can heal! There are no side effects.
If you commit to making lifestyle changes, not only will your gut heal, but you’ll reap tremendous relief from anxiety symptoms and enjoy your life. I’m talking about things like removing inflammatory offenders from your diet (sugar, dairy, and gluten are biggies), eating fermented foods, taking a good quality probiotic, eating bone broth, adding nutritional supplements, and developing a practice of gratitude. These are just a few.
Not sure where to start? If you prefer a doctor’s care, I’d search for a “functional” or “integrative” or “holistic” doctor; they are the ones who are most likely to be familiar with these exciting gut-brain connections.
Of course, I can help too. If you want to know how, simply contact me to get the conversation started!
While the connection between gut flora and brain chemistry isn’t mainstream yet, it is starting to getting more press! If you’re interesting in digging into the science, check out these articles:
- That gut feeling (American Psychiatry)
- Gut feelings: the future of psychiatry may be inside your stomach (The Verge)