Serotonin: understanding the effect in our health

Serotonin and Substance

What is serotonin?

Serotonin is created by a biochemical conversion process which combines tryptophan, a component of proteins, with tryptophan hydroxylase, a chemical reactor. Together, they form 5-hydroxyltryptamine (5-HT), also referred to as serotonin.

Serotonin is most commonly believed to be a neurotransmitter, although some consider the chemical to be a hormone.

What is serotonin syndrome?

Drugs that cause your serotonin levels to climb and collect in your body can lead to serotonin syndrome. The syndrome presents itself typically after taking a new drug or increasing the dose of an existing medication.

The symptoms of serotonin syndrome include:

  • shivering
  • diarrhea
  • a headache
  • confusion
  • dilated pupils
  • goose bumps

Severe symptoms can include:

  • twitching muscles
  • a loss of muscle agility
  • muscle stiffness
  • a high fever
  • rapid heart rate
  • high blood pressure
  • an irregular heartbeat
  • seizures

There aren’t any tests that can diagnose serotonin syndrome. Instead, your doctor will perform a physical exam to determine if you have serotonin syndrome.

Often, serotonin syndrome symptoms will disappear within a day by taking medication that blocks serotonin or by replacing the drug that’s causing the condition in the first place.

Serotonin syndrome can be life-threatening if left untreated.

What role does serotonin play in our health?

As a neurotransmitter, serotonin helps to relay messages from one area of the brain to another. Because of the widespread distribution of its cells, it is believed to influence a variety of psychological and other body functions. Of the approximately 40 million brain cells, most are influenced either directly or indirectly by serotonin. This includes brain cells related to mood, sexual desire and function, appetite, sleep, memory and learning, temperature regulation, and some social behavior.

In terms of our body function, serotonin can also affect the functioning of our cardiovascular system, muscles, and various elements in the endocrine system. Researchers have also found evidence that serotonin may play a role in regulating milk production in the breast, and that a defect within the serotonin network may be one underlying cause of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).

Serotonin Deficiency Symptoms

With the advent of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) antidepressant medications that work by increasing serotonin levels this brain chemical has become a household word.

Depression and the accompanying loss of pleasure are the most widely known signs of low serotonin, but they are certainly not the only ones.

Other serotonin deficiency symptoms include:

  • anger
  • being unusually sensitive to pain
  • carbohydrate cravings and binge eating
  • constipation
  • digestive disorders
  • feeling glum from lack of sunlight
  • feeling overly dependent on others
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • hypervigilance
  • insomnia
  • joylessness
  • low self-esteem
  • migraines
  • poor cognitive function
  • tinnitus

Serotonin and Depression

It is unknown precisely what causes depression. It is thought to be likely that an imbalance of neurotransmitters or hormones in the body can lead to the disorder.

An association has been made between depression and serotonin, although scientists are unsure whether decreased levels of serotonin contribute to depression or depression causes a decrease in serotonin levels.

Although it is possible to measure the level of serotonin in the bloodstream, via a serum serotonin level test, it is currently not possible to measure serotonin levels within the brain. Researchers do not know whether serotonin levels in the bloodstream reflect the serotonin levels in the brain.

It is believed that medication such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that can affect the levels of serotonin in the body work as antidepressants and are able to relieve the symptoms of depression. It is unknown precisely how they work, however.

What is the bottom line?

Serotonin affects every part of your body. It’s responsible for many of the important functions that get us through the day. If your levels aren’t in balance, it can affect your mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Sometimes, a serotonin imbalance can mean something more serious. It’s important to pay attention to your body and talk with your doctor about any concerns.

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