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Serotonin: The Mood Boosting Neurotransmitter

The secret to a healthier mood may reside in a healthier gut.

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that carry signals between brain cells. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediates moods, and inhibits pain. Approximately 90% of our serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. And, the serotonin the brain uses must be produced within it. Since the GI tract is lined with millions of nerve cells (neurons), it follows that the digestive system doesn’t just help digest food, but it also helps emotions.

The healthy functioning of these neurons, and the production of serotonin, is largely dependent on the good bacteria that live in our gut. These bacteria play an important role in our physical and emotional health by providing a barrier against toxins, limiting inflammation, improving the absorption of nutrients from food, and activating neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain.

Our brain is always active and requires a constant supply of fuel in order to perform optimally. When we have an unhealthy diet, or have an unhealthy gut, we can experience insomnia, depression, low libido, and heightened aggression.

When serotonin is at its proper level, a few of the things it can do are:

  • Regulate appetite

  • Regulate stress

  • Improve memory

  • Improve sleep

  • Improve mood including regulating depression

  • Control impulses

  • Improve cardiovascular function

  • Assist wound healing

The reason that our gut is so critical to the production of serotonin is that our bodies cannot produce serotonin naturally. It must come from the foods we eat, specifically foods that contain the essential amino acid tryptophan. The good news is that tryptophan can be found in most protein-based foods or dietary proteins.

It is particularly plentiful in foods such as:

  • Chocolate

  • Oats

  • Milk

  • Yogurt

  • Red meat

  • Eggs

  • Fish

  • Poultry

  • Almonds and peanuts

Studies have shown that people who follow a proper traditional diet, like the Mediterranean diet, have 25-35% lower risk of depression. In addition, other studies have shown that people who take probiotics have lower anxiety levels and improved mental outlook when compared to people who do not take probiotics. The good bacteria not only influences what our gut digests and absorbs, but also affects the degree of inflammation throughout the body, as well as impacting mood and energy levels.

As always, we want to find natural ways to promote health and well-being, both emotionally and physically. Regulating serotonin levels in our bodies is no different and we have a number of options at our disposal.

  • Include complex carbohydrates in our diet such as sweet potatoes, apples, blueberries, carrots, and garbanzo beans, as a healthy way to boost serotonin.

  • Eliminate or drastically reduce sugar. Craving sugar is our body’s way of trying to increase serotonin because sugar produces insulin, which helps tryptophan get into our brain. However, too much sugar can eventually cause insulin resistance, hypoglycemia, and type-2 diabetes.

  • Eat foods rich in tryptophan such as chicken, turkey, salmon, beef, nut butter, eggs, and green peas.

  • Use a quality probiotic to ensure gut health.

  • Maintain a brain-healthy diet high in omega-3 fatty acids.

  • Natural supplements such as Vitamins B6 and B12 can help to support healthy serotonin levels.

  • Exercise boosts serotonin in the brain. The more we exercise the more serotonin we have available in our system. Many studies have demonstrated that exercise is equally, or more, effective at increasing available serotonin as serotonin-enhancing medications.

  • Get massages. Research shows that massage increases serotonin by 28% and decreases cortisol (the stress hormone) by 31%.

Another natural way to make sure serotonin levels are properly regulated is to use essential oils. This may seem a bit odd since we’ve been primarily discussing the importance of diet and gut health as it relates to serotonin. However, when we look at the pharmacology and how neurotransmitters work, a key element that has been the focus of prescription drugs is serotonin “reuptake”.

A selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) is one of the commonly prescribed drugs for treating depression. Some commonly prescribed SSRIs are Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft. SSRIs affect the chemicals that nerves in the brain use to send messages to one another (neurotransmitters). These neurotransmitters are released by one nerve and taken up by other nerves. Neurotransmitters that are not taken up by other nerves are taken up by the same nerves that released them. This process is termed "reuptake." SSRIs work by inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin, an action which allows more serotonin to be available to be taken up by other nerves.

Spanish and Danish researchers recently collaborated in a study investigating the effects of Lavender essential oil on the central nervous system. While it is commonly known that Lavender is soothing and supportive of a healthy nervous system, the precise mechanisms of action have not been fully understood. Researchers were able to observe interactions with serotonin receptors and transporters.

In one of the experiments, Lavender was found to block certain receptors. These receptors are important to learning and memory and play a role in hyperexcitability and neurotoxicity. By blocking these receptors, Lavender can help calm the central nervous system. The results from this particular experiment support the belief that Lavender’s nerve-calming effects may be due to its ability to modulate these receptors.

The scientists also discovered that Lavender and linalool, a major chemical constituent of Lavender, were able to interact with the serotonin transporter, indicating that Lavender’s effect on mood may involve modulation of the serotonin transporter. It may be that Lavender’s interaction with the transporter might inhibit the effects on serotonin reuptake. Limiting serotonin reuptake is a way to maintain proper serotonin activity, and proper serotonin activity promotes feelings of happiness and helps regulate appetite and sleep.

These results are very exciting and help validate the use of natural solutions for health concerns. Other essential oils, besides Lavender, that have been found to have a positive regulating impact on serotonin levels are:

  • Clary Sage

  • Lemon

  • Marjoram

  • Oregano

  • Roman Chamomile

  • Rose

  • Rosemary

  • Wild Orange

You can find out which supplements, probiotics, and essential oils I use to keep my body healthy and my moods positive by contacting me at

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