What is serotonin?
Serotonin is a hormone and neurotransmitter – a chemical “messenger” that communicates information throughout our brain and body.
It is perhaps one of the better known hormones, because it is connected with feelings of relaxation, sleepiness, content and calm. For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the “happiness hormone”. But did you know that it can also affect appetite and weight!?
Women naturally produce lower levels of serotonin than men. What’s more, these levels drop even further in the run up to menstrual cycles, because of serotonin’s link to the female hormone oestrogen. When oestrogen levels drop, so too do serotonin levels – hence the natural tendency towards PMS type symptoms of irritability, moodiness and depression.
Research has now proven beyond a doubt that the types of food we choose to eat can have a direct impact on the way that we think and feel.
Tryptophan – an amino acid – is the primary ingredient used by the body to make serotonin; without it, serotonin couldn’t be produced. However, the body can’t produce its own tryptophan and so it must be sourced from the diet. For this reason, tryptophan is known as an essential amino acid.
Tryptophan is taken into the body in the form of protein. Some of the best food sources include: seaweed, bananas, avocados, chicken, beans, eggs, fish and turkey.
Working with other hormones
Hormones are clever chemical messengers in the body, which are produced naturally and in abundance. They are secreted (by, for example, glands, fat cells and the gut) directly into the blood, which in turn carries them to the various organs and tissues to perform their various functions.
As we have seen serotonin is one such hormone, but there are many others, all of which act on different aspects of essential bodily functions and processes. In fact, hormones affect everything from emotions, appetite, weight and cravings, to sleep, fertility, brain function, libido, metabolism and much more.
When your hormones are in balance and working in harmony with one another and your body systems, you will tend to feel more energetic, vibrant and generally well. In contrast, a hormonal imbalance can result in:
- weight gain or stubborn weight loss (e.g. as a result of insulin resistance)
- increased fat storage (when your endocrine system is under stress there is an underproduction of certain hormones and an overproduction of others (mainly cortisol). This makes your body store fat for future use)
- fatigue (e.g. from unstable blood sugar levels)
- feelings of anxiety, depression and irritability (these feelings are important clues that you may have an imbalance or a high toxic load and could be an indication that you aren’t nourishing your body the way it needs. Low serotonin levels, for instance, can leave you feeling tearful and angry)
- insomnia and poor sleep (this starts the cycle of physical stress and increases cortisol levels, which directly causes many hormonal imbalances; low serotonin levels can also affect your sleep cycles)
- digestive problems (wind, bloating and poor digestion are common hormonal problems that aren’t actually usually associated with hormonal imbalances, but may instead be associated with eating the wrong type of foods (e.g. hard to digest and/or low in digestive enzymes), not chewing your food or overeating. When you don’t have efficient digestion, your body can start to feel the strain because of poor nutrient extraction).
A good example of hormones working together and in balance is the relationship between serotonin, tryptophan and insulin. Tryptophan needs a little sugar to work efficiently. This is because sugar stimulates the release of the hormone insulin, which helps serotonin (made up of small molecules) to enter the brain and do its job.
Eating your way to happiness and hormonal balance
As we have seen, hormones work together in complex ways. What this means in practice is that, if one becomes dominant or depleted, others will be affected. All your body needs to maintain balance within its systems is the right fuel, including continual access to the raw materials in the right quantities needed to make hormones.
As we have seen, hormones (and particularly serotonin) are linked to how we feel. As such, by simply making smart choices in terms of the foods you eat on a daily basis, you can actually change the chemistry of your body (and your brain, in particular) and proactively promote a happier, healthier you!
For instance, you might want to opt for:
- natural whole foods that are nutrient- and enzyme-rich
- lean protein (so you can make plenty of serotonin from the tryptophan)
- foods that are rich in hormone-friendly omega oils and essential fats
- low GI foods that promote stable blood sugar levels
- a diet that is low in processed foods and saturated fats.
This type of diet will naturally support hormonal balance and will also have the happy side-effect of supporting your emotional health, heart, digestive system, brain and waistline too. You are likely to have better appetite control, fewer cravings, greater motivation to exercise, more stable moods (and therefore a lower likelihood of emotional eating), a more efficient metabolism, higher quality sleep and healthier skin and hair.
So diet is a key factor – and not just because, as we have seen, our food provides the raw materials for hormones. Only relatively recently was it discovered that we actually manufacture more serotonin in the gut than in the brain. There is therefore a very clear connection between what we eat and how we feel!