Serotonin definition: a monoamine neurotransmitter that’s functionally important in neural transmission for regulating the sleep/wake cycle, depression and memory. Serotonin foods high in the amino acid tryptophan can maintain healthy serotonin levels, but lifestyle choices like traveling abroad or working a split shift can cause erratic sleep schedules that will disrupt serotonin production. When serotonin levels are low, the inability to sleep easy and other health issues can result, including depression and chronic fatigue syndrome.
What does serotonin do to your sleep cycles? High levels of serotonin are associated with wakefulness and lower levels with sleep. Serotonin is naturally produced by foods that contain tryptophan in the pineal gland to make melatonin. Melatonin is known as the “hormone of darkness” as it is directly related to regulating out body’s internal clock and its highest levels of production are during the night between 2 and 4 am. Melatonin appears to have some use against other circadian rhythm sleep disorders as well, such as jet lag and problems for those working rotating or night shifts. When melatonin is taken as a dietary supplement, it helps people with sleep disorders fall asleep easy, but excess melatonin levels can also lead to trouble sleeping and other health issues. Some unwanted effects in some people, especially at high doses (3 mg/day or more) may include: headaches, nausea, next-day grogginess or irritability, hormone fluctuations, vivid dreams or nightmares, reduced blood flow, and hypothermia.
While serotonin levels are at their lowest during sleep, they are especially low during REM or dream sleep. Serotonin is active during all stages of sleep except REM, as it appears to act as a REM inhibitor. If you take an antidepressant it may increase your serotonin levels and reduce your dream sleep. An antidepressant is prescribed to increase serotonin levels resulting in improved mood, decreased anxiety and inhibition of panic. According to the Mayo Clinic common antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRI’s, that include popular drugs such as Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft, cause a sleep disorder called REM behavior disorder, in which people may act out what they are dreaming.
Although rare (only 5% that take the medication are reported having it) REM behavior disorder can be potentially dangerous. Normally when we are in the REM stage of dream sleep our skeletal muscles are paralyzed, preventing us from acting out our dreams. Those with REM behavior disorder, however, don’t experience this protective paralysis. If the person is dreaming they may actually be kicking and punching their spouse lying in bed next to them. Although scientists don’t know the exact mechanism, they believe that these antidepressants affect the same neurotransmitters responsible for sleep paralysis. Patients who experience REM behavior disorder due to an antidepressant can be easily be treated by switching them to an antidepressant like Wellbutrin, which does not seem to trigger the disorder.
For those with low levels of serotonin it may interfere with sleep and cause sleep disorders like insomnia. Stress and anxiety are common low serotonin symptoms, resulting in disrupted sleep, depression and afternoon sleepiness. Eating serotonin rich foods that are high in tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin, like potatoes, grains, cheese and some meat can help you to get a better night’s sleep as well as general mood pick-me-up. Experts believe foods high in carbohydrates along with some daily exercise like yoga and practicing meditation has been linked to higher levels of serotonin. However excess serotonin like melatonin can be toxic to the brain and lead to a condition called serotonin syndrome. Serotonin syndrome occurs when you take medications that cause a high level of the chemical serotonin to accumulate in your body. Increasing your dosage of such a drug, adding a new drug, taking a serotonin sleep supplement and certain illicit drugs are associated with serotonin syndrome. Symptoms of excess serotonin are; mild shivering and diarrhea, to severe muscle rigidity, fever and seizures. Severe serotonin syndrome can be fatal, if not treated. Milder forms of serotonin syndrome may go away within a day of stopping the drugs or supplements that are causing symptoms and doctors may recommend taking other medications that block serotonin production.
Natural serotonin is produced by the body during the digestion of foods that contain the amino acid L-Tryptophan; commonly known as tryptophan. The body cannot make its own supply of serotonin; therefore, it has to come from our diet or from dietary supplements. The key to making serotonin is eating tryptophan enriched foods. So, if your diet doesn’t included foods with tryptophan you will not produce serotonin. Low levels can lead to aggressive behavior and increased symptoms of anxiety and depression along with impulsive traits that are associated with suicidal acts. Serotonin and depression are linked to levels of very low carbohydrate diets.
Natural serotonin boosters include; turkey, flaxseed/flaxseed oil, buckwheat, wild fish and seafood, whey protein, bananas, eggs, sour cherries, beef and dark chocolate. Other foods that are good for you and increase serotonin levels are asparagus, avocado, pecans, pineapple, eggplant, spinach, walnuts, oats and some coffee. If you serotonin levels are too low food may not be enough to put them in proper balance. Talk to your doctor as he may recommend taking a 5 HTP supplement and/or Folic Acid which like tryptophan are precursors to serotonin. You can also increase your folic acid by eating chicken livers (yummy), lentils, kidney beans, black beans, chick peas, oranges, melons, strawberries, leafy greens, broccoli, spinach and asparagus.
Serotonin is your key to being happy and sleeping well. But resolving a serotonin imbalance can be more complicated than just taking it as a supplement or trying to use chemicals in your brain to change the metabolism of serotonin in the body. You can literally eat your way to happiness with food rich in tryptophan and folic acid, the building blocks to maintaining high levels of serotonin.
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