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Serotonin is the chemical that makes us happy. Symptoms as diverse as migraines, frequent infections, depression, insomnia, memory loss, IBS, social phobia, aggression, and even loss of sexual preference might be signs of serotonin deficiency. Do you identify yourself with some of these symptoms? Read on to learn about the negative health and brain effects of serotonin deficiency.
What Is Serotonin Deficiency?
Serotonin is synthesized from the amino acid tryptophan by a short metabolic pathway consisting of two enzymes. First, tryptophan is converted to 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) by the tryptophan hydroxylase.
Serotonin is produced in the platelets of the blood and cells of the gut and distributed throughout the body to exert its effects.
This serotonin can’t cross the blood-brain barrier, while tryptophan and 5-HTP can. So, there is also serotonin production in the brain.
Any disruption of these mechanisms or damage to serotonin receptors can lead to a decrease in overall serotonin effects in the body.
When serotonin is lower than normal, it can result in impaired body functions and psychological disorders, which is known as serotonin deficiency [R].
You can learn more about serotonin and its beneficial effects in this post, while here we’ll focus on the causes and consequences of its deficiency.
Note from Joe:
There’s a growing position in the alternative health world that serotonin has nothing to do with mental health issues and that it’s something promoted by big pharma, etc. At SelfHacked, we can only look at what the available science says, so if you find conflicting or additional studies or something that is inaccurate, please do share. Thanks!
Potential Causes Of Serotonin Deficiency
Serotonin deficiency can be caused by:
- Mutations in the TPH1 and TPH2 genes, which metabolize tryptophan and are ultimately responsible for the production of serotonin [R].
- Mutations in the SPR gene, which codes for a key enzyme in serotonin production [R].
- Inherited defects that decrease BH4, a cofactor required for the production of serotonin [R].
- Serotonin receptor genes 5HT1A, 5HT1B, and 5HT2c mutations [R].
- Mutations in the serotonin transporter gene (SERT/SLC6A4), which takes serotonin into the cells [R].
- Mutations in the MAOA gene, which is responsible for breaking down serotonin [R].
Serotonin Depletion May Result In Bisexuality/Homosexuality
Interestingly, an animal study revealed that serotonin-deficient mice became more bisexual compared to controls.
This is not a bad thing (we didn’t include it under negative effects) nor does this imply that you can undo your sexual preference if you are gay or bisexual by taking serotonin since the body is quite complex and sexual preference is tied to more fixed brain structures. SelfHacked is apolitical, but we nevertheless found it and thought it was interesting to bring it down.
When animals were depleted of serotonin (by drugs or tryptophan-free diets), it increased a bisexual mating behavior (male-male sex) [R].
The lack of sexual preference seemingly has to do with a change in smelling pheromones. Males still had a sense of smell but seemed to gravitate toward other male pheromones [R].
In a similar study, female mice with serotonin deficiency preferred females over males [R].
A study on human males showed that heterosexual and homosexual men exhibit differences in neurotransmitter activity and respond differently to serotonin-increasing drugs [R].
Based on these studies, serotonin deficiency might be related to sexual preference in humans.
However, sexual preference is determined by many factors including neuronal structures in the brain which is not changeable by altering serotonin, so it’s unknown how much if at all, increasing or decreasing serotonin will change the sexual preference in the real world.
We can’t extrapolate from animal studies to humans. Also, the studies were only done on animals with severe serotonin depletion. We don’t know what would be the case in humans who only have a moderate deficiency.
Negative Health Effects Of Serotonin Deficiency
1) Serotonin Deficiency Leads To Digestive Tract Blockages
Muscle contraction in the gut (peristalsis) allows moving food and liquids through the digestive tract.
When serotonin levels are low, it alters the magnitude and length of muscle cell signals and decreases the amount of calcium released from the cells. Therefore, the ability of the digestive muscles to contract is impaired leading to blockages [R].
2) Serotonin Deficiency Impairs Blood Flow
Blood vessels need muscle contraction. Serotonin deficiency reduces the contraction of the blood vessels, therefore, impairing blood flow throughout the body [R].
3) Serotonin Deficiency Reduces Blood Clotting Ability
Serotonin plays a major role in clotting, which is internalized and stored in the platelets, where it can activate the clotting process. Thus, a significant decrease in serotonin can impair blood clotting [R].
A pilot study on mice showed that due to low levels of serotonin, bleeding was prolonged even in the smallest cuts and scrapes, which was reverted by serotonin treatment [R].
4) Serotonin Deficiency May Cause Constipation-Predominant Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Low serotonin levels in the gut impair the function of its muscles causing constipation-predominant irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Hence, muscle impairment reduces the motility or gut flow, making it more difficult to pass stools [R].
5) Serotonin Deficiency May Lead To Symptoms in Diverticulitis
Diverticulitis occurs when the bulging sacs that appear in the lining of your large intestine, or colon, get acutely infected or inflamed.
Altered gut flow is an important feature of diverticulitis, which can be caused by lower serotonin [R].
While alterations in serotonin do not appear to be responsible for the development of diverticulitis, decreased SERT expression and function might be caused by the inflammation and contribute to some of the symptoms [R].
On the contrary, patients with celiac disease had increased levels of serotonin in the gut [R].
6) Serotonin Deficiency Can Impair Fetal Development
Serotonin deficiency in pregnant women can severely impact fetal development, especially during early pregnancy.
During the zygote stage (fertilized egg), serotonin deficiency can impair cell division. After implantation in the uterus, it can impair the development of fetal organs, such as the brain, eyes, jaw, and blood vessels [R].
7) Serotonin Deficiency Impairs Immune System Function
Animal studies have shown that serotonin deficiency correlates with immune system suppression.
8) Serotonin Deficiency Disrupts The Biological Clock
Low levels of serotonin may disrupt our biological clock (circadian rhythm). Particularly, an animal study showed that the depletion of serotonin impaired the circadian rhythm and altered the number of sleep hours [R, R].
Serotonin-depleted mice slept more during the day than at night [R].
Serotonin deficiency also resulted in symptoms of depression, providing a possible link between serotonin, insomnia, and depression [R].
9) Serotonin Deficiency Can Increase Salty Food Cravings
An animal study showed that serotonin-depleted mice exhibited a higher craving for sodium, as they ingested more sodium than the controls [R].
10) Serotonin Deficiency in Anorexia Nervosa
5-HTP is involved in almost all the behavioral changes observed in anorexia patients.
Both genetic and environmental factors contribute to anorexia. Therefore, it is suggested that tryptophan supplementation may help anorexic patients [R].
Excessive diet restriction may lead to decreased brain serotonin stores.
Negative Brain Effects of Serotonin Deficiency
1) Serotonin Deficiency Leads To Major Depression
Other studies have shown that serotonin deficiency may cause a relapse in patients with depression, but does not affect healthy people [R].
2) Serotonin Deficiency Causes Generalized Anxiety Disorder
3) Serotonin Deficiency May Increase Likelihood Of PTSD
4) Serotonin Deficiency Leads To ADHD
5) Serotonin Deficiency Leads To OCD
While it’s unknown how they work exactly, drugs that increase serotonin levels work better in treating OCD than placebos. These drugs block the reuptake of serotonin in the brain, increasing the amount of available serotonin [R].
6) Serotonin Deficiency May Cause Panic Disorder
A panic disorder involves both the brain and heart since an increased heart rate is its primary symptom.
Taking serotonin reuptake inhibitors reduces symptoms of panic disorder by increasing the availability of serotonin [R].
7) Serotonin Deficiency Can Lead To Social Phobia
Some studies linked serotonin deficiency to social phobia.
A study (DB-RCT) of 77 people diagnosed with social phobia showed that serotonin-increasing drugs improved anxiety and depression and social phobia symptoms [R].
Moreover, a meta-analysis showed that serotonin-increasing drugs are better in treating social phobia than others like benzodiazepines or antipsychotics [R].
8) Serotonin Deficiency Increases Aggression
9) Serotonin Deficiency Causes Migraines
Serotonin plays a role in the onset of migraines, although the exact mechanism is still unknown. Recent findings indicate that a deficiency in tryptophan, a serotonin precursor, intensifies migraine symptoms [R].
10) Serotonin Deficiency Impairs Memory
A recent study showed that serotonin-deficient rats, due to a lack of one or both copies of the SERT gene, had significantly impaired object memory, while those that were not deficient showed high-functioning memory [R].
How You Can Increase Serotonin
Serotonin levels can be increased in multiple ways, but serotonin itself can’t cross the barrier and enter the brain to exert many of its effects, while tryptophan and 5-HT can.
Moreover, carbohydrate intake – acting via insulin secretion – leads to increased tryptophan levels, and, therefore, increased serotonin production. Conversely, protein intake seems to decrease serotonin synthesis [R].
Supplements that are good to increase serotonin include 5-HTP and tryptophan.
Drugs That Increase Serotonin
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are drugs that prevent the reuptake of serotonin outside of cells, therefore increasing serotonin availability [R].
Some examples are sertraline, fluoxetine, and paroxetine [R].
SSRIs treat effectively a variety of psychological disorders like depression, addictions, social phobia, anxiety, and OCD [R].
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