Weight and Mental Health

How Does Serotonin Affect Weight?

Max Carmody, MSc

There are 2 major types of serotonin. Serotonin in the brain can curb cravings, shut down appetite, and make you feel more satisfied. However, the other type of serotonin, peripheral serotonin that may be increased in large part by eating a high fat diet, can actually lead to obesity, and diabetes.

What is Serotonin

Serotonin is a chemical that nerve cells produce. It sends signals between your nerve cells.It is believed that serotonin plays a role in regulating your mood. Serotonin is often called the “happy chemical”, because it is believed to contribute to well being and happiness. The intestines and the brain produce serotonin. Serotonin is also present in blood platelets, and is believed to play a role in the central nervous system. It’s present in animals, plants, and fungi. But, serotonin cannot cross the blood-brain barrier. The brain must actually produce any serotonin that it needs. Treatments for depression or other issues, rather than triggering serotonin directly, trigger reactions that boost serotonin levels in the brain.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood and the central nervous system, and effects many functions throughout the body. It may have an effect on bone metabolism, cardiovascular health, eye health, blood clotting, and neurological disorders. The relation between serotonin and many other bodily functions remains unclear. 

Serotonin plays a major role in mental health. One theory about depression, is that it stems from the imbalance of neurotransmitters like serotonin in the body. Doctors commonly prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors as antidepressants. One major example is Prozac. Apart from depression, doctors may prescribe drugs that regulate serotonin levels to treat other disorders, like bipolar, PTSD, bulimia, OCD, panic disorders, and migraines.

How Does Serotonin Affect Weight?

Serotonin is sometimes considered to be “nature’s own appetite suppressant”. It can curb cravings, and shut down appetite. It has the potential to make you feel satisfied even when you are not full. Serotonin affects the body’s melanocortin system, which is partially responsible for controlling body weight. It can activate some neurons that decrease appetite, and blocks others that increase appetite. If you really enjoy the carbs; serotonin can be especially helpful in reducing carbohydrate cravings. It is possible that low serotonin levels may cause your body to store more fat. Correcting a serotonin imbalance may help you to lose weight around the midsection, which is especially beneficial to health. Emotional eating is a big thing with a lot of people, too. I know that I personally have a propensity to eat when I’m feeling bad. As serotonin helps to stabilize your mood, you may find that you are less likely to go for comfort food.

However, it is not quite this simple. There are actually 2 types of serotonin. There is the main type of serotonin that we know of, that is known for its effect on mood and appetite. But this serotonin only accounts for 5% of the serotonin in the body. There is another 95%, called peripheral serotonin. Too much peripheral serotonin in the blood may inhibit brown fat that burns energy and glucose to make heat. This can lead to obesity and the development of diabetes. The high fat diet in the U.S. may lead to more peripheral serotonin levels in the average person. However, preventing the production of peripheral serotonin will not affect serotonin in the brain. If you would like to read a more general article about if mental health can affect weight, you can find one here that I wrote.

Foods Highest in “Good” Serotonin

There are certain foods that may help to boost the “good” serotonin in your brain. Serotonin is made from Tryptophan. So increasing tryptophan in your diet may help you to boost serotonin. One wonder food, that I eat very frequently, that can help you to boost tryptophan, is eggs. Especially the yolks have tons of tryptophan, and lots of other good minerals that are very healthy for you. Cheese is another good source of Tryptophan.

Pineapples have been shown for a long time to increase Serotonin. It’s better to get them while they’re fresh, however. Tofu is also great. Things made out of Soy are a great source of Tryptophan. You can substitute tofu for almost any protein, in almost any recipe. Salmon is especially good. It also helps to balance cholesterol, and lower blood pressure. Turkey, however, may be the best, everyone knows turkey for the Tryptophan, the stuff that knocks you out on Thanksgiving.

Other Ways to Increase “Good” Serotonin

There are a number of ways to increase Serotonin without either taking medication or adjusting diet. Getting more exercise is a great way to do it. Exercising triggers the release of Tryptophan in your blood. And it can decrease the number of other Amino Acids which can create an ideal environment for more Tryptophan to enter the brain. Aerobic exercise seems to have the most effect, such as swimming, bicycling, or light hiking. 

Bright light may help to naturally boost serotonin. Spending time in the sunshine especially seems to help with serotonin levels. It’s good to spend at least 15 minutes outside every day. And if you live somewhere cloudy or rainy, you can purchase a light therapy box. You can even take pure Tryptophan supplements if you want. Getting more probiotics in your diet may also help to increase serotonin. You can either take supplements or eat probiotic rich food, such as yogurt, or fermented food. Massage therapy is a great way to increase serotonin and dopamine. And who doesn’t love a good massage? Massage therapy can also help to reduce cortisol, which your body produces when stressed.

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