That tricky little bastard, serotonin.

One of the most important tools in the understanding-my-brain arsenal is pure science. It makes it all more manageable for me if I know why something is happening on a basic bodily function level.

In a previous post, I talked about having a chronic mental illness called dysthymia – it’s a chronic form of depression that I’ve had since I was 12 in which my brain doesn’t produce enough serotonin. I used to manage my body’s ability to produce enough of it – since it affects feelings of well-being, mood stabilization, and digestion (your body produces serotonin in your brain and all throughout your digestive tract) – with medications called SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). 

When I didn’t like the side effects I personally experienced with SSRIs – a feeling of emotional numbness, primarily – I weaned myself off (with medical supervision) and quadrupled down on nutrition, sleep, meditation, and exercise. I’ve since added acupuncture to the mix, which makes a massive difference for me personally.

However, I still dip. These past three or so days have me feeling in a pretty dangerous place, lack of serotonin wise. I’m glad I know why I’m feeling this way because it allows me to take a step back and view my emotions in a clinical light. The experience still sucks. Hardcore. But it helps me detach so that I can go into helping-myself mode.

One of the things that leads to serotonin dips is serotonin highs. When your body doesn’t make enough anyway and then you do things that make it surge, it cannot replenish enough post-surge.

Before I knew of the effects, I used to inadvertently do this to myself by over-eating carbohydrates and sugar alcohols (diet coke, chiefly). Breads, pastries, etc. cause your brain to surge with serotonin in the moment. For someone who can process bread (I found out later that I can’t) and self-regulate serotonin, that’s fine. For someone like me, that led me to a dip, which then led me toward searching toward ways to produce the same surge (which was normally bread – hello explanation of my early 20s weight gain).

When I broke up with bread, it was like dealing with a cocaine addict in withdrawals. Unfortunately, it’s because I truly was. What I had learned to lean on to create serotonin surges in my brain had to go away for my health, and I had to find ways to keep my levels at a more regular level rather than the surges and dips. This has been a long road, and one I don’t always get right. A few things I know have affected me over the last two weeks:

  • Actual sadness taxes your system’s need for serotonin. Your body wants to help you feel better. Two weeks ago, my friend killed two people and committed suicide. Two days later, another friend died of a heart attack. That’s a heavy lift for little ol’ depleted serotonin.
  • Lack of sleep creates a situation in which your body can’t possibly produce the brain chemicals you need, as your body can only repair itself when it’s asleep. A combination of that sadness, not wanting to think much, and being generally busy led to 3 or 4 hours of sleep nights. Not enough. Your body needs 7 to 9 to properly repair.
  • Eating things you don’t normally leads to surges and dips. While I was mostly good over the last few weeks, knowing that my system was leaning on nutrition more than usual, birthday BBQ weekend and it’s lovely s’mores messed me up here. It takes your body a few weeks, if not months, to self-regulate the healthy flora in your gut once you’ve thrown it off with food you’re intolerant to. Probiotic foods like kombucha, sauerkraut (hard pass for me), yogurt, etc. can help. Remember, serotonin is produced in the gut as well as the brain.
  • Alcohol, weed, etc. create temporary surges of serotonin, which – as we’ve been over – then leads to a dip if your body already cannot regulate its own levels. I’ll reiterate that it was birthday BBQ weekend. Self-explanatory.

So what do you do when you’ve realized you’ve created the perfect storm of a serotonin crash? Boot camp time:

  • Exercise is the number one and fastest road toward boosting good brain chemicals in even and sustained levels. High intensity interval training is best, but anything that really gets your heart going for twelve or more minutes will work. You’re not going to feel like exercising because you feel like hell. You have to, love. Don’t think, just do.
  • As mentioned earlier, probiotic foods to help boost healthy gut flora is key. Kombucha is my favorite and you can get it in most grocery stores these days. Coconut yogurts are my other fallback, as I can’t do dairy.
  • Lean heavily on strong nutrition – as much produce and clean protein (which lends to proper brain function) as you can manage. Stay away from sugar, breads, dairy, and too much caffeine, as they confuse your body’s ability to heal itself.
  • Adequate sleep – and as much of it as you can get without sleep aids, which don’t allow you to go into proper REM sleep – is crucial.

And as always, ask for help when you need it. Ask for help before it becomes unmanageable. Dysthymia and all mental illness, just like my type 1 diabetes, is a treatable medical condition and it is no use to anyone, least of all yourself, to have shame attached to it.

You can read more about serotonin levels and what affect them here.


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