Serotonin Myths: High Serotonin Blues, Part 3

This is Part 3 in a series on high serotonin. Check out Part 1 and Part 2 here.

Questions are one of the only things in life that come in unlimited quantities. Ask any four-year-old. I certainly found no shortage of questions when I started looking into the problems of high serotonin. Yes, I said high serotonin. While serotonin deficiency seems to be the blanket diagnosis these days, there's evidence that too much serotonin may be causing more problems than too little.

So, questions? Yep, there are plenty. Here are some of my own questions about serotonin, and what I've drummed up through a little out-of-the-box research.

High Serotonin Q and A

  • If serotonin deficiency doesn't cause depression, then what does?
There are a number of possible answers, but some of the top contenders are low thyroid function, dopamine deficiency, and hormonal imbalance (such as low progesterone/high estrogen in women). All of these can be interrelated and are largely affected by diet and lifestyle.

  • How do we treat mood disorders outside of increasing serotonin? 
Looking at some of the possible root causes above, some of the best ways to approach mood disorders and depression would be improving metabolic health and balancing hormones. Granted, that's easier said than done. But again, lifestyle and diet play an enormous role in these areas. (More on that in the future.)

  • Why do tryptophan, 5-HTP and St. John's Wort make some people feel terrible (like me), but make others feel better?
Believe me, this is a big question of mine. It obviously depends a lot on a person's specific metabolic state. But one interesting possibility is that high serotonin stimulates the release of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Both of these chemicals can boost your mood and energy in the short term, but can have negative side effects if levels remain chronically high.

  • What about light therapy, getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating well? Don't all these make you feel better because they raise serotonin levels?
No! That's a mainstream myth. Pretending that those things only affect serotonin levels is a great example of one-dimensional thinking. For example, being in the sunlight boosts thyroid function, exercising can raise dopamine levels, and eating enough protein can improve liver health. All of those directly impact your moods. And that's just a couple quick examples. The body is an incredible cascade of hormones, chemicals, energy and cells. Reducing it all to serotonin levels is ignoring the larger picture of mental (and physical) health.

  • How did our ideas about serotonin get turned so upside down? 
Short answer? Follow the money. Around the mid-20th century, there were some concerns about the possible side effects of large doses of LSD (which is a serotonin antagonist). Because LSD is essentially anti-serotonin, some took the idea and ran with it. Suddenly increasing serotonin levels became the shiny new treatment for mood disorders and depression. Pretty soon the pharmaceutical industry was up to its elbows in drugs for increasing serotonin, and pretty much stayed that way for the next several decades. It would be financial suicide for them to backpedal and suddenly question the entire mainstream concept of serotonin.

If you're anything like me, these brief answers may have triggered even more questions! In that case, you might want to read some interesting articles on serotonin from Dr. Ray Peat (with ample references) here and here.

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