Serotonin Linked with Mood, Sleep, Gut Heath, Thyroid, and More

July 24, 2018 | Linda J. Dobberstein, Chiropractor, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

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Serotonin Linked with Mood, Sleep, Gut Heath, Thyroid, and More
Serotonin is one of the body’s most powerful neurotransmitters, deeply involved with vital functions throughout the body. Although serotonin has been studied for decades, it impacts many areas of health and remains mysterious. Several nutrients, healthy gut flora, and methylation are critical to serotonin production and function. Imbalances in any of these areas can disrupt health and lead to poor mood, sleep issues, and more. Keeping your gut flora and nutritional status optimal goes a long way to keeping serotonin levels balanced in the brain and body.

Serotonin and Mood

If serotonin is out of balance and lacking, you may feel sad or down for no reason, not enjoying life, or have feelings of inner rage, unprovoked anger or paranoia. Worry, anxiety, fear, phobias, obsessive compulsive, rumination, impulsiveness, and self-destructive thoughts or actions may occur. You may feel overwhelmed or have lost interest in hobbies, favorite activities, foods, friendships, and relationships.

Sleep problems, light sleep, increased pain sensitivity, chronic headaches, backaches, premenstrual syndrome/PMS, and fibromyalgia may be experienced. Craving and use of sugar, carbohydrates, alcohol, or marijuana may occur. There may be dislike for cloudy, rainy days or feeling worse when daylight hours are decreased. A classic thought for those who may have inadequate serotonin “I have a great life, spouse, family, job, but I am depressed and have no joy in my life”.

Serotonin Affects the Body

A recent article identified that the neurotransmitter acetylcholine is more than just a memory neurotransmitter. Just like acetylcholine, there is much more to serotonin than mood. Serotonin is also directly involved with gut health and function. In fact, more than 90 percent of serotonin in the body is found and produced in the intestinal tract. The remaining 10 percent is produced in the brain. Serotonin in the digestive tract regulates appetite, gut motility and bowel movements. Serotonin function is involved with bone health, heart health, blood platelets, kidney function and sodium regulation. Immune system signaling with T-cell, mast cell, macrophages function and immunomodulation use serotonin. This mysterious neurotransmitter also affects the thyroid gland.

Serotonin Thyroid Gland Function and TSH Signals

Serotonin helps stimulate thyroid cells or thyrocytes to work. It activates thyroid cell survival and apoptosis or cell death in the thyroid. Imbalances of serotonin in the brain affect thyroid hormones and can be a hidden cause of thyroid symptoms when thyroid lab tests are in the normal range. Impaired serotonin levels cause lower TSH and T3 levels. Ideal TSH levels are between 1.8 -2.0. A TSH score below 1.0 may be related to insufficient serotonin function. The serotonin-thyroid connection lies behind the depression that often occurs with dysfunctional thyroid function. Other symptoms of poor thyroid function may include weight gain, carbohydrate cravings, and constipation, etc. The problem is not the thyroid gland or lack of essential thyroid nutrients, rather the lack of serotonin signals causes the thyroid symptoms.

Brain-Gut Axis and Serotonin

Serotonin plays a fundamental role in the link between the brain and the gut. Serotonin is used to communicate between receptor sites in the brain and gut. This connection is a two-way system known as the brain-gut axis. This crucial pathway starts development during pregnancy and then relies heavily on inoculation of beneficial flora with vaginal delivery and breastfeeding after birth and during infancy. During childhood and throughout one’s lifespan, diversity of healthy gut flora for brain-gut axis function is required.

If this system is stressed during early life with immune stress, antibiotic usage by mother during birth, lack of inoculation, or childhood antibiotics, significant stress occurs to the gut flora and serotonin functionality. Long-term negative consequences may occur lasting for a year or more. Even lifelong challenges to the immune system with imbalanced gut flora may occur. Breakdown in the gut-brain axis can cause lasting effects hampering immunity, metabolism, and endocrine function, which can lead to obesity, behavioral problems, allergies, immunity, autoimmunity, and other diseases.

Healthy Brain-Gut Axis Requires Probiotics, Prebiotics, and Exercise

Restoration and remodeling of the brain-gut axis and healthy serotonin function occurs with beneficial bacteria, dietary fibers, and prebiotics such as FOS (fructoligosaccharides). FOS is a type of carbohydrate fiber that works to enhance the growth and establishment of beneficial bacteria in the intestinal tract. Prebiotics have been shown to help de-stress the gut-brain axis which in turn improves behavior and mood.

Recent research shows that use of probiotics, prebiotics, and exercise in childhood and especially during adolescence is critical to help the gut-brain axis become stress resistant. The brain-gut axis is most amenable to change and healthy maturation during adolescence. To get our children’s health on to a good track, we must be diligent about prebiotic and probiotic-rich sources through diet and supplementation. This research shows what happens with the brain-gut axis in childhood and adolescence has lifelong consequences.

Beneficial Bacteria, Fatty Acids, Fiber for Serotonin Production

Several nutrients along with healthy gut bacteria are needed for the production and function of serotonin in the body and brain. Deficits or impairments along the production line and imbalanced gut flora are two significant reasons for changes in serotonin. Earlier we saw that prebiotics are essential for serotonin and brain-gut axis function. Beneficial flora like Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium longum, Streptococcus and Enterococcus produce and help upregulate serotonin transport in the gut.

Serotonin resides in the gut wall inside mucosal cells and nerves. One of its main jobs is to signal and stimulate bowel motility through a group of neurons called the colonic motor migrating complex (CMMC). The CMMC pushes bowel material down the digestive tract. For this to occur, it requires short chain fatty acids and healthy gut flora to affect serotonin and the CMMC.

Short chain fatty acids (SCFA) help gut flora regulate homeostasis and production of serotonin. If SCFA are out of balance, bowel motility changes becoming sluggish, constipated, or more significant motility disorders may develop. Our body produces SCFA when beneficial bacteria ferment on dietary fiber. Soluble and insoluble fibers, like oat bran, whole grains, and a special plant-based carbohydrate arabinogalactan are necessary for the production of these special fatty acids. This is a highly important process for keeping the gut-brain axis and serotonin healthy on a daily basis.

B Vitamins, Tryptophan, and Methylation

Several B vitamins are co-factors for serotonin. These include vitamin B3/niacin, B6/pyridoxal-5-phosphate, B12/methylcobalamin, and folate. Tryptophan is the essential amino acid for serotonin production. This amino acid is found in poultry, red meat, fish, dairy, eggs, seeds and nuts, oats, beans, lentils, wheat germ, and others. Methylation is required for serotonin production.

Methylation is a biochemical process that occurs in cells. It is the transfer of four atoms – one carbon and three hydrogen atoms (CH3) from one substance to another. Healthy methylation is required for neurotransmitter production including serotonin, dopamine, and others. It is also required for DNA production, detoxification, histamine management, estrogen metabolism, eye health, cellular energy, liver health, and fat metabolism.

A diet rich in green leafy vegetables, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, legumes (peas, beans/lentils), rice, etc provides necessary nutrients for methylation. B vitamins, magnesium, choline, glutathione and several other nutrients are needed for methylation. GMOs, Round-up/glyphosate, altered gut flora, unhealthy diets, and antibiotics impair methylation which then can impair serotonin, etc.

Approximately twenty-percent of the U.S. population has a significant genetic defect of the MTHFR gene that adversely affects the methylation process and impacts health. As many as 30-50 percent of the population may carry the gene mutation, but may not have symptoms or significant changes in health. This makes it even more important to supplement the diet with coenzyme B vitamins and premethylated folate.

Critical Need for Magnesium

Researchers have found that when magnesium is lacking in the brain, serotonin is reduced in the central nervous system. Stress, processed foods, lack of sleep, poor gut health and malabsorption, and conventional agricultural practices have contributed to depletion of magnesium levels in our food supply and ultimately affects tissue stores in the body. Magnesium is critical for serotonin production.

Other Important Support

Exercise and exposure to sunshine are also vital to serotonin production. Coenzyme Q10 and vitamin D help the body naturally produce serotonin. Diets high in processed foods and sugar create further stress on the serotonin production and function.

Your body needs several things for normal serotonin production and function in the body. Healthy gut flora, fiber, prebiotics, B vitamins, magnesium, coenzyme Q10, vitamin D, exercise, sunshine, and whole foods help support this natural process.

Modern life stress, starting very early in life affects serotonin and the brain-gut axis, rendering one more susceptible to life-long disorders of behavioral and mood problems, autoimmune disorders, heart disease, obesity, and so much more.

Health is not just the absence of disease. Health is about keeping optimal function and quality of life as much as possible. A key area of this relates to serotonin and the brain-gut axis. If you can relate to the thought mentioned earlier – “I have a great life, but I am not enjoying things”, work on these various areas to naturally support healthy serotonin production.

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