If you have been diagnosed with any type of mood disorder, then you have probably heard the word “serotonin” before. Serotonin is a brain chemical responsible for regulating many of the functions in your body that contribute to your overall health and wellbeing, and people who have anxiety disorders generally do not have enough of it.
Now, there is some debate as to whether or not serotonin is low because you have anxiety, or vice versa. We'll explore serotonin and anxiety in this article.
Do You Have Serotonin Problems?
Those with anxiety often have problems with their serotonin levels. Our free 7 minute anxiety test scores your anxiety severity so you can see if your serotonin levels may be affected, and provide you with ideas for how to treat and control it.
What Is Serotonin and How Is It Related To Anxiety?
Serotonin is a complex chemical that's everywhere in your body – even your gut. It does affect anxiety, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Make sure you take my free 7 minute anxiety test to learn more.
Serotonin is a chemical in your brain known as a neurotransmitter. Theories on why serotonin levels are low is mixed. One potential reason is that when you are anxious all the time, your brain undergoes a chemical change. Specifically, it begins to produce excess fear-related neurotransmitters, such as adrenaline, and not as many of the neurotransmitters associated with happiness and relaxation such as dopamine and serotonin.
In reaction to this shift, the brain creates more receptors to handle all the excess fear neurotransmitters, and reduces the amount of serotonin receptors, which it deems less necessary. As a result, you become more prone to feeling anxious than to feeling relaxed. That may be one of the reasons serotonin is affected by anxiety.
But it may not be the only one either. Some people are simply born with less serotonin. Others lose it from stress. There may be any number of reasons you are affected.
Serotonin is a busy brain chemical and works more than one job. Apart from making you relaxed, it also helps you to regulate your sleeping patterns, your body temperature, your memory and your appetite. When any one of these things becomes irregular due to a lack of serotonin, it can cause you even more stress and perpetuate the cycle.
How Do I Know If I’m Low In Serotonin?
While an anxiety disorder and its accompanying symptoms are a pretty good indication that you are serotonin deficient, you can also ask your doctor, although currently it is very rare for any type of serotonin testing for anxiety. It's generally just implied by anxiety.
While there are many different types of anxiety disorders and therefore many different sets of symptoms that may point to a serotonin deficiency, there are a few symptoms that most anxiety disorders have in common and that you can look for in your own behavior. If you are regularly experiencing 3 or more of the following symptoms, you may want to look into possible treatments for anxiety.
- Difficulty sleeping
- Muscle aches
- Frequent nightmares
- Panic attacks (rapid heart rate, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea)
If you are a woman, you may also be more likely to be naturally low in serotonin, but men may still be born with low serotonin as well. Why women are affected is not well understood, though it has been theorized that higher levels of anxiety in women might have had the purpose of making them more alert to potential threats to their offspring, while men might have used less energy being hyperaware and more energy in physically combating obvious threats.
Because women are naturally low in serotonin, they are more likely to develop anxiety disorders than men. However, "normal" low levels of serotonin for women do not cause them to experience anxiety disorders. It is possible to naturally have lower levels of serotonin than normal, but what more often happens is that environmental stressors cause a decrease in already low levels of serotonin, resulting in a chemical imbalance.
Will More Serotonin Get Rid Of My Anxiety?
Serotonin deficiency, while a major factor in persistent anxiety, is not necessarily the only factor. Your beliefs, thought patterns, health, lifestyle and environment are also important factors. If these are causing you undue stress, the type of boost in serotonin you can get from medications or vitamins can only last so long before external factors start depleting your serotonin levels again.
Whether you are naturally low in serotonin or you have become so primarily due to external stressors, it is important to do two things. Firstly, it is important to address those external stressors (with the help of a professional if need be). Secondly, it is important to make a serotonin-boosting change to your lifestyle that is both healthy and sustainable.
Studies have shown that a decrease in anxiety may also boost serotonin, even when it's naturally low. So keep that in mind, since it implies that even when serotonin is genetic, you still have a good chance of boosting it. The section below will provide an overview of the different ways of boosting your serotonin levels and which will give you the most long-lasting relief.
How to Restore Serotonin
The body’s serotonin can be replenished in a variety of ways, some in the short term and some for the long term. The first three of these five tips for restoring serotonin work best in the short term, while the remaining two will work in the long term as long as you keep doing them.
- Medication Anxiety medications are designed to treat chemical imbalances in the brain by triggering the release of more “happy” chemicals, including serotonin. Talk to your doctor or therapist to find out what medication is most appropriate for you, if any.
- Foods Bananas, walnuts, and foods that are high in carbohydrates are believed to be good for naturally restoring serotonin in the brain, though it’s good to bear in mind that too many carbohydrates can be unhealthy and that the science on this is mixed.
- Vitamins Taking vitamin B6 or vitamin C supplements can help to convert the amino acid tryptophan into serotonin. It's not clear if this actually works, but people have reported some success.
- Diet Limiting unhealthy foods and committing yourself to a healthy diet will help you to get in shape and limit unnecessary physical stress on your body. This type of long term lifestyle change is the most effective when it comes to fighting anxiety. The less physical stress you have to deal with, the lower your mental stress levels will be. Dieting itself does not have to be a stressful process, as long as you choose a diet that allows you to eat a variety of foods and does not require you to starve yourself. Diets that limit you to only a certain type of food or keep you hungry are not effective in the long term and will likely make you miserable, which may actually have the effect of decreasing your serotonin levels.
- Exercise Exercise is another type of effective long term lifestyle change for increasing serotonin levels. Working the muscles in your body through exercise triggers the release of serotonin in the brain. Furthermore, improving your muscles’ flexibility and endurance will help your body to cope better with anxiety attacks, decreasing the danger of heart problems in combination with high blood pressure as well as the likelihood of side effects such as muscle aches. Doing an exercise such as running, biking, hiking, swimming or boating can also have the effect of making it easier for you to fall asleep at the end of the day and sleep deeply, which will alleviate fatigue and further decrease general stress.
Increasing your serotonin levels through fun and rewarding activities such as doing a physical activity of your choice on a regular basis and eating your favorite healthy foods will bring your brain chemistry back into balance, so that you can stop feeling anxious and start feeling great in both your body and your mind.
You should also make sure you enroll in a comprehensive anxiety treatment to start taking control of your anxiety and your mental health, and ultimately raise your serotonin naturally.
For that, make sure you take my free 7 minute anxiety test. This test is important for figuring out what causes your anxiety and how to fix it.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.