I’m not a fan of exhaustive lists that are meant to cover absolutely every possible way that some miscellaneous biochemical, of which there are a bajillion, are affected by our diet and lifestyle. Trying to simply research one of them recently, serotonin, has nearly turned my brain into scrambled eggs. Actually, that’s a terrible metaphor as my brains probably look, taste, and have some nutritional similarities to scrambled eggs regardless of my current research project (snoop du jour?). But you know what I mean.
In the last post I discussed some of the dangers of serotonin. When looking at the big picture of aging, inflammation, mitochondrial respiration, metabolism – that stuff that is a recurring theme in almost all illnesses, serotonin is worthy of mention. It’s not worthy of mention because it is the “happy” chemical that makes us “feel good,” which is about as educationally deep as Blues Clues when describing the complexity of serotonin, but because of the many interactions it has with our cells in a very fundamental way.
Like, say, when you increase serotonin in the brain and see a reduction in ATP and a move away from oxidation and towards glycolysis (in English, this means that serotonin makes brain cells less able to produce energy properly, and put the cells into a metabolic state synonymous with aging, cancer, and neurodegeneration).
Anyway, to get back to the original point – I’m not a big fan of exhaustive lists that would make anyone who takes the information seriously completely neurotic. I am a fan of simple changes that don’t really make a person a health hermit or require much effort (other than maybe reorganizing your daily rituals), that actually do make a significant difference.
Before I list some ways a person can potentially lower serotonin levels, so that this information can connect with some people who are truly negatively impacted by an excess of serotonin (and therefore have the highest likelihood of benefitting from the information noticeably), please don’t make serotonin the next big, bad, wolf. It is an important substance, and its basic functions should be known and understood a lot better than they are, but remember that there really are no dietary or lifestyle one-hit wonders. Everything we do and consume and experience interacts with our physiology. Serotonin is just one lens to look through at how certain stimuli interact with our bodies. Anyway, here goes…
5 Practical Ways to Lower Serotonin…
1) Eat more digestible foods
Slow digestion with weaker digestive secretions is a feature of a reduced metabolism. This can lead to bacterial overgrowth of the small intestine (SIBO) – thought to be the predominant cause of irritable bowel syndrome, as well as yeast overgrowth and other complications. Women produce more estrogen than men, and estrogen increases serotonin and suppresses metabolic rate, which is most likely what’s responsible for the far higher rates of irritable bowel syndrome in women than men (and issues that seem to have a strong connection to the gut, such as mood disorders and autoimmune disease). It doesn’t take as much “health food,” dieting, or overexercising to trigger IBS and other problems in a woman of reproductive age than in a man in my experience, as discussed in 180 Degree Digestion.
Anyway, the foods that exacerbate this condition, fueling greater bacterial proliferation and serotonin production (most serotonin is produced in the gut), are foods with a high-residue. These include beans, legumes, whole grains, raw vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruit – particularly the firmer fruits and unripe bananas, and anything overly coarse and fibrous that is tougher to fully break down in the upper regions of the digestive tract. While such foods are a staple of cultures with low incidences of irritable bowel syndrome, and seem to have a protective effect over bowel diseases (probably because they yield more short-chain fatty acid production in the gut as discussed in my other work), I find that once health problems arise the theoretical superiority of “whole foods,” high fiber diets, raw and unrefined foods, and so forth becomes temporarily irrelevant.
Anyway, be open about eating a highly-digestible diet featuring well-cooked, soft foods with very little fiber, particularly if you have health problems with a high probability of being caused by serotonin, such as depression, brain fog, lethargy, asthma, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome – to name a few. This usually boils down to eliminating most of the things in the diet that could be considered “health food” and opting for refined grains, strained juice instead of whole fruit, granny-style vegetables that have been cooked to a slush-like consistency, mashed potatoes, blended soups, pie, ice cream, and other nice things. Don’t forget the salt. In general, the softer and easier-to-chew a food is, the easier it is to digest. But in general, minimizing digestive irritation by any means should decrease serotonin.
Note – there are other ways to look at this, for example, eating tons of raw fruit can cause your transit time to speed up so much that it doesn’t have time to ferment and increase bacterial proliferation in the gut. But eating a ton of raw fruit usually makes people freezing cold and feeling pretty crummy, probably due to its high water content, and low sodium content – factors that I am discussing in a book I have due out in a few weeks.
2) Get bright light exposure as close to dawn as possible
Light, and proper circadian rhythmicity, seems key in overcoming some of the syndromes associated with serotonin such as Seasonal Affective Disorder, Sundowner’s Syndrome, depression, insomnia, asthma, and just generally feeling tired and groggy in the morning. There is debate between whether bright light therapy or dawn simulation is superior. The ultimate would be to sleep outdoors, and natural dawn and dusk is perhaps why sleeping and spending more time outdoors seems to lead to so many health improvements. Likewise, for proper circadian rhythmicity, it’s probably best to have LESS light exposure after sunset, especially from bright stuff you stare directly into.
3) Spend time outdoors
Along the same lines, spending time outdoors, especially early in the day, is hugely underestimated in terms of its important physiological impact. While ideas like “earthing” and exposing oneself to more negative ions seem, on the surface, to be wacky new age fads, they do have real scientific validity – validity that will probably continue to be understudied and underappreciated. You could also try using earthing mats or ionizers in your home if getting outdoors is not an option. But reliance on a gadget is certainly inferior to the whole experience of being outdoors, in bright light, doing something physically active, using the brain actively, and all the things that come with the entire outdoor experience. I hit this topic up in a post entitled 10 Health Reasons to Spend Time Outdoors a few months ago.
4) Use your brain actively
Serotonin seems to be more aligned with low brain wave activity – alpha waves and lower. Active use of the brain seems to be something that is driven by serotonin-opposing forces, like dopamine. While it’s good to relax the mind from time to time with things that stimulate alpha waves and serotonin, like meditation for example, the rate of mitochondrial respiration and glucose oxidation in the brain and body is much higher when the brain is active and producing higher frequency beta waves. Of course, you can have too much of a good thing and become highly stressed and anxious with excessive beta wave production. But as a general rule, the modern world and environment triggers a lot more low brain wave activity, with a lot more passive brain use.
The worst offender is probably television, which puts the body into a high serotonin, depressive, extremely hypometabolic low alpha wave state. The average American watches something like 4 hours of television per day, and television watching is one of the most closely-tethered activities to obesity and diabetes (both associated with excess serotonin) known. But even activities that would seem to foster more active brain use like video games or internet use still have a tendency to shut down the nervous system, due to the way that cathode rays from any glowing box interact with our biology.
Activities that use real problem-solving brain power and concentration like reading, research, crossword puzzles, conversing, and writing, just to name a few common ones, are much better serotonin killaz. These activities of course build the proficiency of your brain, while serotonin is known to be directly involved in learning disorders and other varieties of cognitive impairment.
5) Tweak your aminos
Serotonin is made from tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid – one that has been found to be directly anti-metabolic, which should be no surprise if it is the precursor to the anti-metabolic serotonin. You can’t avoid tryptophan. That would be more or less impossible, and you might omit some really excellent foods like milk in the process of trying to cut it out completely. But you can favor a few low-tryptophan sources to offset the high tryptophan foods that you eat. The most substantial thing you could do would be to add some broth/gelatin to your diet. Gelatin contains amino acids that seem to directly oppose the actions of tryptophan, and contains no tryptophan. Tryptophan is concentrated in muscle meats, but is not found in the bones and collagen, which are often discarded and not consumed in modern cookery (though almost always used in traditional cookery).
So eating less muscle meat and more gelatin and broth by cooking meats on the bone, roasting whole birds and consuming the juices that come out of them, and so forth is a great practice, as is making homemade gelatin candies and desserts.
Another thing you might consider doing is supplementing with branch chain amino acids, an increasingly trendy practice. The branch chain amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine are commonly used to prevent muscle breakdown and trigger anabolism – effects that may have something to do with their role as a serotonin antagonist.
Anyway, those are just a few interventions. Don’t get too serotonin-ed out on me. The emphasis should be on the basic health practices that we all know to be beneficial to our mood, energy levels, and overall life quality. And that is basically getting up early, going outside and doing something active, interacting with others, using the brain actively and creatively instead of having it babysat by a television, and not eating a bunch of food you don’t like that upsets your stomach.
That’s the one sentence summary. If that still seems too complicated, the one word summary is “LIVE.”
And trust me, I know how hard that can be sometimes. Our whole society and life design is one that fosters low grade depression and lethargy, characteristic of serotonin excess. But there are simple ways to break outside of that, and forming some simple new rituals and following them with daily adherence can be very powerful.