Serotonin Deficiency and Food Cravings
Written by: Kevin Cann
The more I meet with people and get to know them the more I have realized that we may have another epidemic here in America that is not often addressed, serotonin deficiency. Antidepressants are the most common medication prescribed in the United States (Olfson, 2009). Understanding the mechanisms on how antidepressants work can help us understand what is going on in our heads.
The most commonly prescribed antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI). They are prescribed not only for depression, but also for obsessive compulsive disorders, panic disorders, and even eating disorders. The way that these medications work is they increase the amount of serotonin at the serotonin receptor sites (Stahl, 1998). This in the short term may make us feel better by balancing out our biochemistry. The issue lies when our body fights back and begins to desensitize to serotonin and the medication dosage needs to be increased or medications need to be changed.
Certain foods can have a similar affect. When we eat a food high in sugar insulin gets released to quickly take it out of the bloodstream. Insulin removes all of the amino acids along with the sugar, except for one, tryptophan. Tryptophan is our precursor for serotonin and it now can enter the brain without having to compete with other amino acids. This can lead to increased amounts of serotonin in the brain (Ross, 2002).
Addiction can be linked to these neurotransmitter deficiencies. According to Kenneth Blum’s Reward Deficiency Syndrome, we will seek out substances that balance us out biochemically. For example, if we have low serotonin we will seek out substances that raise serotonin levels. High sugar foods are a way for us to do this. Blum also concluded in a study that glucose cravings are caused by a lack of dopamine receptors in the brain (Blum, 2006).
Serotonin and dopamine have a very complex relationship in the brain. A clinical review of SSRIs showed that these drugs inhibit dopamine (Damsa, 2004). According to this study, increased serotonin in the brain can lead to an inhibition of dopamine. If we are eating high sugar foods or have high insulin levels, and have enough leftover tryptophan in the blood, we will have high amounts of serotonin in the brain. If we are constantly eating high sugar foods throughout the day, perhaps our diet will mimic the SSRIs by leaving increased amounts of serotonin around the neuron for extended amounts of time, leading to less dopamine. According to Blum’s study this will lead to more sugar cravings. Over time of increased serotonin exposure, just like with SSRIs, we become desensitized to the neurotransmitter and mood disorders can follow.
So what can cause serotonin to become depleted? First, let us look at diet. High amounts of caffeine will eventually lead to serotonin issues. Caffeine combats adenosine. This causes a domino effect in our central nervous system. To respond to this we release serotonin and noradrenaline. Caffeine also increases serotonin concentration in the brainstem (Walton, 2002). This can lead to our neurons becoming desensitized to serotonin as well as decreasing dopamine. High sugar foods are also problematic due to the mechanisms described above.
Protein contains the amino acids that are our precursors for our neurotransmitters. Therefore, if we aren’t eating enough protein there is not enough of these precursors to make the neurotransmitters. Breast milk contains high amounts of tryptophan, infant formula does not. This could leave us predisposed to becoming serotonin deficient (Ross, 2002). B vitamins, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D are also required to make serotonin.
Serotonin is dependent upon light. This is where problems such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) come into play during the winter months. On top of serotonin being stimulated by light, vitamin D is required to make it, which we also get from the light. Chronic stress can deplete serotonin. We release serotonin to counter the stress response. Again, too much exposure to serotonin leads to us becoming desensitized.
So what do we do? For one, eat a diet with ample amount of nutrients and protein. Also, get some exercise! Exercise works similar to insulin in that it takes all the amino acids out of the bloodstream and shovels them into muscles except for one, tryptophan. Ever wonder why you feel better after working out? It can be even better by exercising outside in the natural light can help stimulate serotonin.
Signs and symptoms of serotonin deficiency are low-self esteem, insomnia, phobias, panic attacks, eating disorders, depression, anger, anxiety, shy, and obsessive behaviors as well as cravings for sweets and chocolates, cravings for sweets at night, and binge eating. If you experience a few of these symptoms chances are you are serotonin deficient and if switching up the diet to a paleo framework does not work seek the help of a qualified practitioner.
Walton, Christine (2002). Effect of caffeine on self-sustained firing in human motor units. The Journal of Physiology.
Damsa, C (2004). “Dopamine-dependent” side effects of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors: a clinical review.” UK Pubmed Central.
Olfson, Mark (2009). National patterns in antidepressant medication treatment. Archives of General Psychiatry.
Stahl, Stephen (1998). Mechanism of action of serotonin selective reuptake inhibitors: Serotonin receptors and pathways mediate therapeutic effects and side effects. Journal of Affective Disorders.
Blum, Kenneth (2006). Reward deficiency syndrome in obesity: a preliminary cross-sectional trial with a genotrim variant. Advances in Therapy.
Ross, Julia (2002). The Mood Cure. Penguin Publishing. London, England.
Kevin is owner of Genetic Potential Nutrition. He is a holistic nutritionist, wellness coach, and strength coach. He works with people fighting illness, to competitive athletes. Check out his site at www.geneticpotentialnutrition.