The research and cultural status quo on serotonin doesn’t make much sense, and is full of contradiction. Strangely, everyone seems to be madly in love with serotonin (people even have tattoos celebrating it – I hope they don’t read this post!) and is fully satisfied with the label of “happy juice.” Serotonin makes you happy, everyone seems to believe, and if you aren’t happy then well, let’s figure out how to get more serotonin in ya. Buck up little camper, we’ll beat that slump, together.
When everyone in the media, in the health field, and beyond start to collectively believe in a very simple and narrow story about any one thing, you can probably be sure that some kind of Scientific Sasquatch has come into being. The belief that serotonin is like the biochemical equivalent of Happy Gilmore sharing a Happy Meal with a bunch of Care Bears in heaven holding hands and skipping with Mr. Rogers and Bob Ross is not just Kardashingly shallow. It’s criminally inaccurate.
In pursuit of maintaining good mitochondrial respiration and keeping metabolism from declining with age, in pursuit of squelching stress hormone production and keeping the anabolic hormones of youth in full swing, and in pursuit of minimizing inflammation and more – what science increasingly leads us towards when it comes to the prevention and cure of the modern world’s most common illnesses, the recruitment of serotonin in that fight is about as productive as (insert clever, sarcastic metaphor).
What I’m really getting at is that serotonin sucks, in a general sense. And what people think about serotonin – in terms of how to raise it, what it will do for you when it rockets up, and so forth are really kinda dumb and poorly thought out. But it doesn’t take a whole lot of research to determine that serotonin isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and that those who think it’s going to cure everything from depression to seasonal affective disorder and help you shed some pounds while you’re at it are some pretty confused people with only a very superficial understanding of the many things that serotonin regulates in the brain and body.
Anyway, I’ll stop playing around. Let’s discuss 6 sad things about serotonin:
1) Serotonin is highly involved in hibernation, lowering body temperature and more. It rises as daylight shortens and helps to trigger many of the metabolic changes that occur with hibernating animals – all of which are synonymous with a reduced metabolic rate, reduced respiratory rate, increased insulin resistance, reduced carbon dioxide levels, reduced energy level, reduced body temperature, increased histamine, reduced peristalsis, and so forth – just to name a few. If those things were good, we would get progressively healthier with advancing age. But they aren’t, and we don’t. Those are all biomarkers of poorer health, lower vitality levels, and increasing risk of degenerative disease.
2) Serotonin is fattening and triggers insulin resistance. Knowing serotonin’s role in hibernation, it should come as no surprise that “antidepressant” drugs like Prozac, which increase serotonin levels through sort of a recycling process, are very fattening and known to dramatically increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Wow. Real shocker there. Increase the levels of a substance that makes you tired and want to sleep all the time and induces weight gain and insulin resistance and watch it cause weight gain and insulin resistance!
3) Serotonin plays a primary role in seasonal affective disorder (SAD). There is a great deal of shocking bull$#@^ when it comes to seasonal affective disorder, as the bass ackwards rumor that seasonal affective disorder has something to do with decreasing levels of serotonin is pervasive, yet increasing darkness and shortened day length causes INCREASES in serotonin, and increases in laying around all day, lifeless, sad, and wanting to shoot your Alaskan self in the face in early January. Oh yeah, “sunlight raises serotonin” says the brainwashed serotonin lovers. That must be why serotonin peaks at midnight when the sun is really shining bright! Both high-powered lights in the morning as well as negative ions have been shown to be effective treatments for seasonal affective disorder, which is interesting when you consider the quote coming up in #4…
4) Serotonin causes depression. I was perusing through a pro-serotonin article and found this contradictory gem lying there, plucked from a book on controlling asthma (more on that in a sec). It says a lot, and is probably part of the reason why I have always found failure to make it outdoors by about 10am to be extremely depressing (modern dwellings are notoriously high in positive ions, which raise serotonin)…
“Research by Dr. Leslie Hawkins at the University of Surrey, UK, showed that levels of the hormone serotonin in the blood, brain and other tissues seemed to be reduced by negative ions. Serotonin is a substance that plays a part in brain chemistry, and imbalances in it lead to depression and other mental disturbances. Dr. Hawkins suggested that air rich in negative ions has a stimulating effect while too many positive ions, and thus high levels of serotonin in the body, are depressing. This may explain why ionisers help in cases of irritability and stress.”
5) Serotonin exacerbates and may even cause asthma. That should be no surprise seeing that serotonin is synonymous with reduced carbon dioxide levels, constricts bronchioles, plays a role in the general inflammatory response (stimulating the pituitary gland), and so forth. It would also make sense that if negative ions decrease seasonal affective disorder that they would also reduce asthma symptoms if the cause (high serotonin) was the same, which they of course do (negative ions reducing asthma symptoms, that is).
6) Serotonin may play a causal role in schizophrenia, autism, and countless other neurological disorders. The bulk of our serotonin supply is produced in the digestive tract. Serotonin increases with digestive distress. Serotonin forms somewhat of a vicious cycle with the digestive tract. Serotonin suppresses metabolism, suppressed metabolism fosters the overgrowth of yeast and bacteria in the small intestine, which in turn produces a much greater outpouring of serotonin produced in the gut, especially when “health” food like whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and raw fruits and vegetables are consumed. Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride’s Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS), a theory that groups many psychological disorders and pins it on digestive abnormalities is most likely related to the increased serotonin activity with impaired digestion.
This is just a short list of course. Serotonin is involved in the general disease, aging, inflammation, and degeneration process – from hypertension to asthma to schizophrenia to insomnia to diabetes to depression – of which there is tremendous overlap and redundancy between all of them, them, them. The list easily could have been titled “66 Sad Things About Serotonin.” More on serotonin to come in the future, including very simple practical measures that can reduce the serotonin burden.
If you see lots of authors, researchers, and even formal studies that seem to contradict what was said here, keep looking, look carefully, and review the breadth of what you find only after thoroughly taking in a comprehensive viewpoint – keeping in mind that Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI) drugs are some of the top selling drugs on earth, and that the pharmaceutical industry is the primary financier of medical research, medical education, and the media empires that have hardwired you to believe that serotonin is great stuff, and if you are sad or anxious or tired you need more of it.
For further geekage, listen to Josh and Jeanne Rubin’s interview with Ray Peat on serotonin, and some of the links below that provide some validation to the claims made in this post.