Everyday steps to improve your mood; increasing your brain’s serotonin naturally.

By Guest Writer, Ryan Killarney L.Ac. B.S.

Serotonin or 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) is a neurotransmitter, primarily found in the GI tract, blood platelets, and the central nervous system.  Among many other body functions, 5-HT is commonly understood to be a contributor of wellbeing and happiness.(1)

Serotonin is one of many neurotransmitters which are in charge of sending signals through the synapses of the brain, and is understood to illicit a calming feeling throughout the nervous system.  Although an important chemical for the brain, 90% of serotonin found in the body is within the gastrointestinal tract allowing your digestive process to directly communicate with your nervous system.  Given this direct connection, the term “gut feeling” may now have more relevance as you may experience an emotional feeling in your gut when there is a shift in mood or you begin to over think or worry.  Understanding the myriad effects of serotonin can help explain why it is so important for daily function.

Serotonin is known to have an effect on, but not limited to the following:

  • Sleep
  • Arousal
  • Appetite
  • Aggression
  • Impulse control
  • Mood
  • Sexual desire
  • Memory
  • Endocrine control   

Given this list, it is no wonder that SSRI medications, (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) are the dominant class of antidepressant drugs, quadrupling in use from the 1990’s to the 2000’s.(2)  

Treating depression is both personally and professionally a complicated and multi-step endeavour.  Making sure the body is ingesting and digesting foods while also converting and transporting the amino acids, vitamins and minerals needed to produce neurotransmitters like serotonin, takes being consistently attentive to one’s diet.  I would like to highlight some of the steps that can be taken to naturally increase serotonin production here while moving on to feature a little known plant that can be an extremely effective tool in combating depression without the use of pharmaceuticals.

The essential amino acid required for serotonin production is tryptophan, commonly found in meats like turkey while also found in pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds, among other foods.  Essential vitamins and minerals are needed in order to convert tryptophan to serotonin in the brain. Although obtaining these from foods is always optimal, supplementation may be needed to boost production to noticeable levels.  

Required for conversion of tryptophan to serotonin:

  • Vitc
  • Vit D
  • B3, B6
  • Iron
  • Methyl Folate

Recommended lifestyle and diet shifts for serotonin production:

  • Add fermented foods and drinks – for B vitamins
  • Get daily exercise – scientifically shown to boost serotonin
  • 20 min walk in the morning sun – Vit D
  • Reduce stress – the stress hormone cortisol directly affects serotonin
  • Reduce or eliminate sugar – Low serotonin can cause sugar cravings
  • Focus on emotional healing – giving yourself time to relax is the first step in helping serotonin production.  Mood induction practices have shown to be directly correlated with serotonin production; positivity causes an increase while negativity caused a decrease.(1)

While utilizing a multi faceted process to improve mood and overall brain function is optimal, the need for pharmaceuticals have been useful for treatment of severe depression, anxiety disorders, panic attacks and personality disorders.  The use of these drugs may not always be necessary in cases of seasonal, low level, or situational depression. As always, if considering a switch in your medication routine, you must consult with your prescribing physician. The following suggestions may counteract or intensify the effects of SSRI medications and should be used with caution if used together.  

Sceletium tortuosum, known as “Kanna”, is a succulent plant commonly found in South Africa which when consumed has various effects on the body including; pain relief, reduced hunger, mood elevation, decreased anxiety. Kanna, whose first recorded usage dates back to 1662, has had many studies performed on it that has revealed some of  it’s pharmacochemical properties. Several alkaloids isolated from this plant are thought to be responsible for the psychoactive effects observed from its use. Mesembrine, mesembrenone, and mesembrenol all function as serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Similar to pharmaceuticals, they block serotonin transporter and increase the activity of the serotonin that is already available in the brain.  In addition to blocking the serotonin reuptake receptor, they are also known to inhibit the enzyme phosphodiesterase 4 (PDE4). The PDE4 enzyme is known to regulate long-term memory, wakefulness, and mood. PDE4 inhibitors are a class of drugs that are used for neuroprotective, anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, and anti-inflammatory effects.

Personal experiences with kanna have shown it to be an efficient mood enhancer, mental focus tool as well as giving a boost of clarity in stressful situations, allowing one to focus on the task at hand and not be taken aback by pitfalls or changes in plan.  Daily dosages of Kanna have been studied and tolerated up to 25gm per day with no adverse effects.(3) Multiple brands are manufacturing products under various names such as Zembrin or Kanna affects. Once again, if you have already been prescribed and are currently taking SSRI medications for depression, consult your physician before experimenting with Kanna.  This article is not meant to be used as a diagnostic tool for depression or other mood disorders.

1.Young SN (2007). “How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs”. Rev. Psychiatr. Neurosci. 32 (6): 394–99. PMC 2077351.

2.https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-rise-of-all-purpose-antidepressants/

3.Nell H, Siebert M, Chellan P, Gericke N (2013). “A randomized, double-blind, parallel-group, placebo-controlled trial of Extract Sceletium tortuosum (Zembrin) in healthy adults”  Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (New York, N.Y.). 19 (11): 898–904.