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August 11, 2014

Serotonin Deficiency: Do You Suffer From It?

serotonin deficiencyWhat is Serotonin?

Serotonin is one of the major neurotransmitters and is largely found in the brain and gut. Serotonin protects against depression and anxiety and up to as many as 80% of adults may have a serotonin deficiency – one reason why we should all be aware of this important compound. How can you tell if you have a low serotonin level?

You Might Have Serotonin Deficiency If…

  • you tend to be a negative person.
  • have low self-esteem and lack confidence.
  • you are shy and fearful.
  • you worry or are anxious frequently.
  • you dislike dark weather or suffer from seasonal affective disorder.
  • you dislike hot weather.
  • you having recurring thoughts especially when trying to sleep.
  • you tend to be obsessive and unable to make transitions.
  • you tend to be irritable or angry.
  • you experience panic attacks.
  • you wake up at night, wake up too early, or have restless sleep.
  • you like sweet or starchy foods.

Why Do So Many Have Serotonin Deficiency?

Why are so many adults deficient in serotonin? Here are several factors that contribute to serotonin deficiency:


Diet is a key factor in nearly everything health related. Neurotransmitters are made from amino acids, and amino acids are found in protein. The diet of many Americans is relatively deficient in protein. Tryptophan is the necessary amino acid that ultimately gets converted into serotonin. And, compared to other 21 amino acids tryptophan is not nearly as abundant. Tryptophan is found in beef, turkey, pork, chicken, eggs, and dairy.

One reason why tryptophan is relatively rare compared to the other amino acids has to do with how animals are fed. Animals are fed corn nowadays rather than being grass fed. Corn is low in tryptophan. Wild game is higher in tryptophan. On top of that we tend eat low tryptophan carbs like bread and pasta. Not eating enough healthy fats is also a factor as fats make tryptophan more available to the brain. Fat is not fatal.

We’ve become a caffeinated society.  And, caffeine along with aspartame (NutraSweet®) are anti-serotonin substances. Avoid them as much as possible.


Stress is a killer and chronic stress depletes the brain of serotonin as well as many vitamins. Each of us needs to find ways to manage stress better – because you sure cannot avoid it entirely.


In one study exercise was as effective as Zoloft and Paxil (antidepressants) in the treatment of depression. When the body is exercising it needs amino acids for muscle repair. Here’s what’s interesting. Normally, tryptophan does not readily cross what’s called the blood-brain barrier in the presence of other amino acids.

During exercise those other amino acids are diverted to the muscles enabling tryptophan to cross from the blood into the brain more readily. Exercise increases oxygen delivery and that facilitates serotonin production.


Certainly mood disorders run in families but that does not make developing a mood disorder inevitable. Tendencies to such disorders can be minimized by diet and exercise and stress management.


Light stimulates serotonin production. People low in serotonin will frequently find that low serotonin symptoms become more apparent beginning in the late afternoon. Having lived in the Southwest and Southeast and having grown up and now living in the Midwest again, I would say there is a difference in outlook/attitudes between those who live where there is abundant sunlight and those who live where it is more cloudy.

Sunlight stimulates production of vitamin D and vitamin D is an important co-factor in the production of neurotransmitters. So in addition to eating a serotonin friendly diet taking vitamin D supplements can help prevent low serotonin. Lamps are available to sit under to mimic the effects that natural sunlight has on the brain.

Don’t forget about life style changes if you suffer from serotonin deficiency. Serotonin deficiency is common, but it can be managed and prevented with changes in lifestyle. If lifestyle changes are not enough there are plenty of presciption medications that can modulate and improve serotonin levels – but they all have side effects. Lifestyle changes do not!

Reference: The Mood Cure by Julia Ross.

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Dr. Joe Jacko

Dr. Joe is board certified in internal medicine and sports medicine with additional training in hormone replacement therapy and regenerative medicine. He has trained or practiced at leading institutions including the Hughston Clinic, Cooper Clinic, Steadman-Hawkins Clinic of the Carolinas, and Cenegenics. He currently practices in Columbus, Ohio at Grandview Primary Care. Read more about Dr. Joe Jacko

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