Debunking 5 Common Myths About Serotonin

health Feb 20, 2024

Serotonin is commonly referred to as the "happy hormone."

However, the idea that higher levels of serotonin equals increased happiness is just not true. Recent studies challenge the reputation of this neurotransmitter, revealing a dark side to serotonin's effects.

I’m debunking 5 common myths about serotonin in today’s blog:

  1. Serotonin is strictly “the happy hormone”
  2. All mood disorders are caused by serotonin deficiency
  3. More serotonin means a better mood
  4. Serotonin supplements are perfectly safe 
  5. Serotonin resides mainly in your brain

It’s time to discover the truth about serotonin so you can step beyond the serotonin stereotype and understand its nuanced role in the body.



Myth 1: Serotonin is Strictly “The Happy Hormone”

Serotonin is a chemical messenger that transmits signals between nerve cells throughout the body. It plays a complex role in your body's functions, impacting sleep, mood, and even behavior. While serotonin is primarily associated with mood regulation, recent studies reveal a more intricate role. 

For example, serotonin usually relaxes blood vessels (vasodilation), but in some cases, especially with higher amounts or in certain vessels, it can narrow them (vasoconstriction). The narrowing of blood vessels might contribute to increased blood pressure or reduced blood flow, impacting overall cardiovascular function. (1)

Studies suggest that high serotonin levels in platelets are associated with coronary artery disease and cardiac events, especially in younger age groups. (2)

Serotonin also has complicated effects on tumor growth. While it stimulates growth in some aggressive cancers, lower doses can hinder tumor growth by reducing blood supply in others. (3)



Myth 2: Serotonin Deficiency is the Root Cause of All Mood Disorders

Around six decades ago, the idea emerged that low levels of brain serotonin might lead to depression. However, recent scientific discoveries have unveiled complexities in depression beyond this theory.

Certain antidepressants, known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), increase serotonin levels in the brain. SSRIs are often prescribed to help with symptoms of depression or anxiety.

While these medications help many, around one-third of individuals with depression find little relief from SSRIs. Although they are designed and marketed to rapidly boost serotonin, these drugs often take weeks to show any significant effect on mood. (4) 

This paints a more nuanced picture than pharmaceutical narratives might suggest. Serotonin's role in mental health is undeniable, but the reality is far more complex, with much left to explore.



Myth 3: Increasing Serotonin Guarantees Improved Mood

While serotonin is involved in mood regulation, simply boosting serotonin levels doesn't always guarantee a better mood. The relationship between serotonin and mood is complex.

Because serotonin plays a role in stress reactions, links have been found to the suppression of emotions. This unexpected effect challenges the notion of serotonin being the primary contributor to a positive mood. 

Research has shown serotonin can block GABA receptors. Serotonin affects how your brain's circuits work together. This is similar to adjusting the volume of a conversation.

GABA typically acts as a calming agent in the brain, so when serotonin interferes with these receptors, it disrupts this calming effect. This could contribute to unexpected emotional suppression. 

When under stress, too much serotonin can actually “turn off” or numb positive emotions like love and empathy. Scientists have even linked SSRIs with violence and cannibalistic behavior in certain animal studies. (5)

Some studies link alterations in serotonin levels (or the way serotonin functions in the brain) with PTSD symptoms, such as intrusive memories, emotional numbing, and heightened arousal. However, the exact mechanism of these effects is not fully understood. Serotonin's role in these conditions is still an area of active research and concern within the scientific community. (6)



Myth 4: Melatonin and Serotonin are Harmless Sleep Aids 

Serotonin and melatonin are interconnected in your body's natural sleep-wake cycle. Serotonin sets the stage during the day, and its conversion into melatonin starts the sleep process at night.

During the day, serotonin levels should increase, helping regulate mood, appetite, and sleep. As the day ends and darkness falls, the body converts serotonin into melatonin, signaling to the body that it's time to wind down and prepare for sleep.

What happens when this system is disrupted? 

A study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine reveals that using smartphones in bed, especially before sleep, is connected to worse sleep quality, longer time to fall asleep, and shorter overall sleep duration. Disrupted sleep patterns from phone use may change neurotransmitter levels, like serotonin. This could impact mood and overall wellbeing. (7)

Melatonin has become a popular sleep aid for children and adults. This over-the-counter supplement is popular and easily obtainable. A study by The University of Colorado Boulder found that nearly one in five children are taking melatonin for sleep. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine emphasizes that melatonin should be used under the guidance of a healthcare professional and only in cases of diagnosed sleep disorders. (8,9)

There is a good reason to use supplements like these with caution.

Serotonin toxicity or serotonin syndrome can potentially occur when too much serotonin accumulates in the body. Taking medications or supplements, including melatonin or tryptophan, may lead to symptoms like agitation, confusion, and rapid heart rate. In severe cases, it can be life-threatening. About 7300 diagnosed cases of serotonin syndrome occur each year, and about 100 of these cases result in death. (10)



Myth 5: Serotonin is Found Only in the Brain

Did you know that only 1-2% of your serotonin is found in your brain? 

Contrary to popular belief, serotonin isn't confined to the brain alone. It is present throughout your whole body. Around 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut. An additional 8% is found on platelets in the bloodstream. (11)

Serotonin's reach extends far beyond just mental wellbeing. Its influence ripples across your entire body, highlighting the importance of striking a quality balance rather than chasing quantity. Prioritizing factors like gut health is one of the best ways to bolster this balancing act.



Nurturing Serotonin Balance with Simple Lifestyle Choices

Science's ongoing exploration of serotonin reveals its complexity beyond the simplistic 'more is better' belief. Instead, it emphasizes the crucial importance of balanced serotonin levels for optimal health. 

The good news is there are natural methods for optimizing serotonin levels.

Here are 5 simple ways to support balanced serotonin levels in your daily life:

  • Supporting a healthy gut with a balanced diet rich in fiber and fermented foods can positively influence serotonin levels. (12)
  • Exercise stimulates serotonin production by increasing the availability of tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin, which can positively impact mood and overall wellbeing.
  • Sunlight exposure increases serotonin production, regulating the body's internal clock (circadian rhythm) and supporting better mood and sleep.
  • Positive social interactions and nurturing relationships can elevate mood and indirectly impact serotonin levels, promoting a sense of wellbeing.
  • Practices like meditation, deep breathing, and mindfulness reduce cortisol (stress hormone) levels and promote a more balanced mood.

Your physiological and emotional realms are diverse. I hope that by understanding these complexities of serotonin's influence, you have a newfound appreciation for your body’s intricate balance. I desire to empower you to support this balance and lifelong wholeness of body, mind, and soul. 



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1. Divergent effects of serotonin on coronary-artery dimensions and blood ... Accessed January 2, 2024.

2. Shimabukuro, Michio. “Serotonin and Atheroscelotic Cardiovascular Disease.” Journal of atherosclerosis and thrombosis, March 1, 2022.

3. M;, Sarrouilhe D;Clarhaut J;Defamie N;Mesnil. “Serotonin and Cancer: What Is the Link?” Current molecular medicine. Accessed January 2, 2024.

4. Kennedy, Sidney, Roger McIntyre, Angelo Fallu, and Raymond Lam. “Pharmacotherapy to Sustain the Fully Remitted State.” Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience : JPN, July 2002.

5. Peters, Joseph R, Elise F Granek, Catherine E de Rivera, and Matthew Rollins. “Prozac in the Water: Chronic Fluoxetine Exposure and Predation Risk Interact to Shape Behaviors in an Estuarine Crab.” Ecology and Evolution, September 30, 2017.

6. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Reveals an Imbalance between Signalling Systems in the Brain.” ScienceDaily, December 1, 2015.

7. Melatonin Natural Health Products and Supplements: Presence of ... Accessed January 2, 2024.

8. “Study Finds Melatonin Use Soaring among Youth.” ScienceDaily, November 13, 2023.

9. “Health Advisory: Melatonin Use in Children and Adolescents.” American Academy of Sleep Medicine – Association for Sleep Clinicians and Researchers, March 13, 2023.

10. Sameer S Khan, MD. “Serotonin Syndrome.” Practice Essentials, Problem, Management, January 4, 2023.

11. Biochemistry, serotonin - statpearls - NCBI bookshelf. Accessed January 6, 2024.

12. MD, Eva Selhub. “Nutritional Psychiatry: Your Brain on Food.” Harvard Health, September 18, 2022.


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