Strategies to balance serotonin (and anxiety and depression)
Most everyone these days knows what serotonin is. We even have a long history of giving people drugs to increase it, change it, or balance it in some way. Most of the drugs we give increase our serotonin levels by blocking some mechanism of our body to isolate it or remove it from our bodies. If we can give a human a drug that causes a change, then that means the effect potential is already there, just sitting around waiting for us to need it! Let's create some change together, shall we?
Serotonin is not the whole picture, but it definitely plays a major role in how our emotions function and regulate. Research shows that we can increase or regulate serotonin to treat depression. It is also important to do things to balance serotonin because happiness and well-being protect against physical and mental disorders. Depression, negative moods, and feelings of hostility don't just make us feel bad, they can also harm our health and shorten our lives. Hostility is a risk factor for coronary heart disease and for all causes of mortality and is associated with shorter, sicker lifespans of persons who already have coronary heart disease. Hostility can lead to poor social supports as it tends to isolate individuals from loving support. Poor social support is also associated with general sadness and post traumatic stress disorder. One study showed that the personality characteristic of agreeableness was a significant protective factor against mortality. In short, happy people live longer lives and are more healthy. Angry or hostile people live shorter lives and are sicker during that time. Even the WHO, the World Health Association states people in the lowest quarter %25 of positive emotions written from the person's own accounts, died on average 10 years earlier than those in the highest %25 with increased depression, suicide, and mortality. Positive emotions protected against these outcomes.
Research confirms what we would expect, that positive attitudes promote relationships with others and result in increased social support. Non-drug methods or raising serotonin will improve mood, social functioning and protect against various mental and physical disorders.
Raising mood by inducing good thoughts increases happiness
Research by Perreau-Linck and colleagues shows that altering your thoughts either by changing your thoughts yourself by "self-induced changes in mood" or through psychotherapy improves serotonin function.
What you can do:
Pet dogs or cats, enjoy things that are cute or fun. Take or obtain pictures and print them out and put them in your line of sight. Things that make you think positive will make you feel positive.
Grab images on Pinterest that interest you. Write thoughts that affirm your good qualities and post them in your life. Find positive words and keep them in your language and conversations. Give yourself a break for past problems. Learn from the past and vow to never make that mistake again and then put it behind you.
2. Exposure to bright light is another approach to increasing serotonin without drugs.
Bright light is a standard treatment for seasonal depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder, but a few studies also suggest that it is an effective treatment for general depression and can increase mood in women with premenstrual dysphoric disorder. In humans, there is an interaction between bright light and the serotonin system. Studies have even shown that depression caused by tryptophan deficiency can be remedied by exposure to bright lights 2500 lux or greater.
Even on cloudy days, exposure to light is greater than 1000 lux. Exposure to light is now considerably less than our ancestors for whom agriculture was a family responsibility. History shows us that exposure to sunlight during the day was greater due to the fact that electric lights to read by were uncommon until modern times; in 1925 only half of US households had electricity, so we spent a lot more time in the sun just to read or do regular household tasks.
What you can do:
Spend as much time near natural light or opt to go outside. Take breaks from work outdoors, even 15 minutes of sun is better than none. If you are someone that works and spends time in places devoid of bright lights, consider purchasing bright lights to spend time with. LED versions do the job well and are now inexpensive. Think how cool you will look indoors with sunglasses on!
3. Exercise increases serotonin.
The antidepressant and anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects of exercise to improve serotonin have been clearly demonstrated. In fact, many guides on treating mild depression indicate strategies other than medication. And given the risk-benefit of using medication for mild to moderate depression means that many people would like to use alternative methods first. Exercise does not just improve depression, we can also use exercise to manage and maintain moods for sub-clinical populations. The challenge of research on this subject is that when researchers have people exercise to improve mood or decrease anxiety, often the choice of exercise itself is pleasurable. This means the pleasure of that activity can improve mood.
My opinion is: Is it too much to ask for both?!?
For some, running on a treadmill for exercise can be pleasurable, others would rather poke a fork in their ear. Exercise will help improve serotonin function, but you may not have fun doing it. Instead try some other exercise you might enjoy. The point is to find the exercise that not only will help stabilize your serotonin but also be so much fun, that you will perform the exercise all the time. In addition, exercise increases the precursor of serotonin, Tryptophan, for hours afterward. Since Tryptophan is a mild hypnotic, higher levels from exercise can cause relaxation.
What you can do:
Find exercises that you can do that you enjoy. Exercise with friends to improve your enjoyment. Enjoying the exercise you do will keep you doing them consistently. Moderate to high exertion exercises are the best, but the slow or low impact is better then none and a good place to start if you have been sedentary for a while. Start slow and build. It will take you no time to build your stamina if you exercise every day.
The fourth factor that could play a role in raising brain serotonin is diet. According to some evidence, tryptophan, which increases brain serotonin in humans and animals, is an effective antidepressant. It also decreases irritability and improves mood and frustration tolerance. Some people consider tryptophan an actual drug rather than a dietary supplement such as in the United States. Canada and some European countries classify it as a drug. Food tryptophan does not increase serotonin like the drug tryptophan does, due to the relatively low amount of tryptophan in the presence of other large amino acids in proteins.
However, a balanced diet in foods high in protein's cannot hurt. Foods high in relative free tryptophan are salmon and other oily fish, Eggs, poultry, spinach, seeds, nuts, and milk.
What you can do:
What if you don't like these foods at all? well, there are many ways to sneak these into your diet. Salmon, for example, The helpful part here are the fish oils and if you don't like the taste of salmon, fish oil supplements can help. Have you tried smoked salmon? Or salmon with ginger soy glaze? it is an entirely different experience. Spinach, nuts, and milk may not be your go-to foods. But there are small ways to sneak them into your diet. After all, we are not talking about restricting calories here, we are talking about sneaking in nutrition. Could it hurt to put a little spinach under the cheese on a pizza? Lastly, magnesium deficiency is common in people that have anxiety problems. A simple supsupplement can help correct the deficiency and sometimes have remarkable effects.