Getting your serotonin levels right

Serotonin is a chemical messenger which is found in the brain and the digestive system, and which is relevant to whether or not we get a good night’s sleep, have a well-regulated appetite, and feel contented or have a general sense of well-being. When our serotonin levels are low we may experience a number of symptoms including insomnia, feeling low, having a ravenous appetite for carbohydrates or a lack of satisfaction even when we’re full. Some people can also find themselves being impulsive or having an increase in bulimic or self-harming urges.

Of course, all these symptoms can have other causes, too, but for people who have difficulties with food, low serotonin is often involved in these symptoms. A combination of genes, childhood stress or present stress, our menstrual cycles, and repeated dieting can all play a part in creating this situation. For some women, their serotonin levels plummet before their period starts; for many women, just going on a moderate diet for three weeks can lead to a significant drop in this feel-good chemical (more women than men are affected by dieting in this way). Because the bodymind system knows from experience that carbohydrate-rich foods can provide a serotonin boost, the result is often a craving for bread or other baked goods: an unhappy irony where the serotonin imbalance has been caused by the intention to stick to a low-carb diet. Many people then blame themselves for having no willpower, but in fact it doesn’t make sense to think about this situation in terms of willpower. These cravings can be overwhelmingly strong and for a good reason: your bodymind system is doing all it can to bring you back to functioning at your best and to feeling good again.

Science is still finding out about the effects of low serotonin and how it relates to difficulties with food, but it’s possible that all of the following symptoms are related to it. As a starting point for exploring whether your serotonin levels may be low, score your experience in the past week for each symptom on the list, where 0 is not experienced at all and 10 is experienced very intensely or experienced all of the time. Put each score in the column labelled ‘Week 1’.

Screen Shot 2016-06-22 at 4.47.24 PM

Now reflect on your scores. Are there any surprises for you? Does your experience of these items fluctuate through the week? Overall are things worse or better than you expected? See if you can identify another possible cause for the high scoring items; if you can’t consider whether they might be symptoms of low serotonin.

Take action
If low serotonin may be affecting your eating, here are some steps to consider:

  • Put aside any plans for weight loss for now, and focus instead on sorting out any difficulties with food (such as compulsive eating) first.

  • Avoid experimenting with a low-carb eating style such as paleo: commit to sorting out any difficulties with food (such as overeating) first.

  • Starting with right now, notice one thing that is positive in your life. Then plan to do this noticing practice at the same time or in the same situation every day. Over time, this kind of realistic but positive approach will support your brain’s serotonin levels.

  • As serotonin levels go up when our eyes are exposed to morning light, Dr Libby Purvis suggests getting out into daylight at the same time in the morning every day for an experimental period of 4 weeks.

  • If low serotonin is an acute issue for you, consider supporting your bodymind system with a supplement such as 5HTP. Some GPs prescribe 5HTP, others don’t. If your GP doesn’t, seek advice from another health practitioner such as a good naturopath to find out whether it’s right for you.

  • If you have been experiencing low serotonin for a while, consider supporting your bodymind system with anti-depressants. Talk it through carefully with your GP and stay in touch with them if you decide to give it a go: some people feel much better on antidepressants and others feel worse.

  • To find out whether your serotonin levels are cyclical, and to monitor whether they are changing in response to the action you’re taking, put a reminder in your diary to score yourself again at weekly intervals for at least 4 weeks. (To avoid being influenced by your previous scores, cover these up first.)