You might have heard of serotonin. If you go to your doctor because you have been feeling low and your doctor thinks you might have depression, you will probably be prescribed a drug that raises serotonin levels.
Many people call it the ‘happy’ chemical for this reason and we are often told to eat certain things or behave in a certain way, just so we raise our brain’s serotonin.
The problem is, things are not quite so simple.
Serotonin is a ‘messenger’. It is part of a multi-step, signal delivery system. In order for you to be ‘happy, a signal needs to travel from A to B on one specific highway in your brain. Serotonin relays the signal in one part of the delivery process. If there isn’t enough serotonin around or the signal that serotonin is delivering is ‘weak’, then boosting the overall serotonin level within the brain may improve this part of the signal’s delivery.
For someone diagnosed with clinical depression, improving it may restore a good mood and completely change a person’s life.
As with all things, there is a flip side. Remember, serotonin is not in itself ‘happy’. It is the signal that is ‘happy’. The brain cells are using serotonin as a messenger. Serotonin – and other brain messengers such as dopamine, noradrenaline and acetylcholine, may be messengers for more than one signal and can have a different effect on the brain, depending on which signal they are carrying.
Raising serotonin activity in one region of the brain improves depression, but new research suggests that increasing serotonin activity in another region increases anxiety. Raising serotonin in the whole brain can end up stimulating both effects!
It gets even more complicated. More serotonin in one region (the hyperactivity of the serotonergic neurons in the dorsal raphe nucleus) reduces depression, whereas more serotonin in another region (the hyperactivity of the serotonergic neurons in the median raphe nucleus) increases depression!
For this reason, it is not a good idea to take serotonin-raising drugs if you don’t have a genuine medical need, since you will be raising serotonin all over the brain and stimulating signals you don’t want stimulated. You might end up over-stimulating a pathway that makes you more and not less depressed!
With easy access to ‘smart drugs’ over the internet these days, it seems some people who are otherwise perfectly healthy are getting access to these serotonin-raising drugs without medical supervision....and without realising that these drugs could leave them feeling rather different to how they expected they would feel.
Serotonin–raising medications can have life-changing, positive effects in many patients who are medically diagnosed with clinical depression. These new findings about the two regions of the brain where raising serotonin levels has completely opposite effects may partly explain why these drugs don't work in some cases.
Unless you have been prescribed anti-depressants by your doctor, it is much better to target the whole brain’s balance. Instead of over-supplying it with the actual messengers, you can make sure the brain has all the raw materials it needs to make its messengers from scratch. It can then make whichever messenger it needs and use them at just the right amounts in the right places.
Eating a good diet with a variety of proteins (from poultry, meat, or carefully selected vegetarian sources) that include the amino acids tryptophan and tyrosine and also making sure you get your B vitamins (B6 is involved in the making of serotonin) will make sure your brain has the building blocks to make the messengers serotonin and dopamine.
Interestingly, eggs contain all of these raw materials. Did you know that eating a whole egg can have an anti-depressant effect? (at least in rats!) The serotonin signal in the ‘happy’ circuit can also be normalized in some other clever ways.....more to come in another blog post.
This site is for discussion only and should not be used as a source of medical information. Please consult your medical doctor before making any changes to your diet, lifestyle or medications.
Mark S. Ansorge, Ph.D et al. Activity of Raphe Serotonergic Neurons Controls Emotional Behaviors. Cell Reports, (online first) November 2015
Nagasawa M, Otsuka T, Ogino Y, Yoshida J, Tomonaga S, Yasuo S, Furuse M. Orally administered whole egg demonstrates antidepressant-like effects in the forced swimming test on rats. Acta Neuropsychiatr. 2014 Aug;26(4):209-17.