Serotonin's Role in Depression and Willpower (and how to make more)

Serotonin is a neurochemical that does so many different things in your body that it’s really tough to nail down its function precisely. Your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which primarily controls your personality and executive functioning, relies heavily on serotonin.

Your overall mood is greatly influenced by this neurochemical and like Goldilocks, levels need to be just right. Studies have connected low levels with physical and mental problems, and too much can be dangerous, leading to a condition known as serotonin syndrome.

Serotonin’s Role in Depression

Many studies have found higher levels of the neurochemical associated with positive moods and decreased levels correlated with lower moods. One theory, still widely believed, blames depression on too little serotonin. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Research supports the idea that serotonin plays a role, not only in the treatment of depression but also in a person’s susceptibility to depression, but the connection isn’t fully understood. One popular kind of antidepressant, Serotonin-Specific Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), alters the brain’s serotonin system by binding to the transporter, a molecule responsible for sucking serotonin out of the synaptic gap between neurons. This action allows the neurochemical to stay in the synapse longer, which was once thought to be a universal cure for depression.

However, if that were true, SSRIs would work for everyone, but they do not. Some people don’t respond to SSRIs, but have success with medications that act on other neurochemical systems, for example: dopamine, oxytocin, GABA, melatonin, endorphins, endocannaboids.

It used to be believed that depression was due to a deficiency of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Today, we know that depression is a complex illness with a basis in brain neurochemicals and thought patterns with many other contributing factors such as life events, environment, biochemicals, and heredity. (See: What Depression Looks Like In Your Brain)

Serotonin's Role in Depression and Willpower (and how to make more)

Serotonin’s Role in Willpower

You can also think of serotonin as the confidence neurochemical, flowing freely when you feel significant or important. You’re enjoying the effects of it when you feel respected by others, and your brain will seek more of the same by repeating behaviors that triggered its release in your past. The respect you got in your youth carved neural pathways in your brain telling it how to get respect today.

Sometimes, that can drive people to seek attention in not-so-healthy ways. The solution isn’t to try to rid yourself of your innate urge for status, because your brain needs the serotonin. Instead, you can develop your belief in your own worth, focus on your wins, and find other ways to get the serotonin you need.

Often, when we try to embark on a new habit or goal and falter after only a few steps, we blame ourselves for not having enough willpower. Having stick-to-it tenaciousness isn’t just a matter of willpower. It depends on how well your prefrontal cortex is paying attention and whether it has enough serotonin. With an ample supply, your brain can override the habitual, impulsive striatum — which always wants you to keep doing what you’ve been doing.

If you try to implement a new habit, you will need to change your brain to support the new routine. If you give up after a slip-up, you’re training your brain to give up as well. The key to altering a habit comes in that moment when you realize that you didn’t follow through with the old pattern. In that instance, if you’ll make the effort to remind yourself of your goal and bask in your accomplishment a little, you’ll enhance serotonin activity and reinforce the new, desired behavior in your brain. (Read more: Breaking Bad Habits In Your Brain)

Unfortunately, you don’t have an endless supply of serotonin. Each time you successfully inhibit an impulse, it makes it harder to overrule subsequent impulses. In The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, Alex Korb explains it like this:

Resisting impulses is like fighting an army of zombies with a limited number of bullets. Eventually you’ll run out.

To remedy this, you can create better habits which don’t rely on the power of your prefrontal cortex to overpower the striatum and ramp up your serotonin activity.

How to Naturally Increase Your Serotonin Supply

Think Happy Thoughts

Seriously. It may seem too simple, but studies show that positive self-reflection, recalling happy memories, and affirmative thoughts boost serotonin activity in your prefrontal cortex. Reflecting on past significant achievements allows your brain to re-live the experience. In your brain, there’s not much difference between real and imagined, and simply remembering a success produces serotonin. For this reason, gratitude and visualization practices alter your brain for the better. If you need a lift, take a few moments to reflect on a past achievements, happy times, or things you’re thankful for.

Soak in Some Sunlight

The ultraviolet rays in sunlight absorbed through your skin, promote vitamin D and serotonin productionResearch shows serotonin turnover increases with the amount of sunlight and even the brightness. Go outside on your lunch hour, go for a walk, or (my personal favorite) take a nap in the sun.

Serotonin's Role in Depression and Willpower (and how to make more)

Get a Massage

Studies show that getting a massage can boost serotonin levels by as much as 30 percent. A massage also decreases stress hormones and raises dopamine and oxytocin levels, which is all good for your mental health, and it just feels wonderful!

Move Your Body

Science confirms that exercise increases serotonin production and release. Movement ups the firing rates of existing serotonin neurons, which then results in increased release and synthesis of serotonin. Any movement: vacuuming, dancing, yoga, walking, will benefit your brain.

Psychotherapy Strengthens Serotonin 

A Finnish study found that psychotherapy for depression increased the number of serotonin receptors in the prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain and significantly boosted the number of serotonin transporter molecules in some people.

The Turkey and Banana Myth

There are a lot of myths circulating about foods increasing serotonin levels. The article,”How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs,” explains:

The idea, common in popular culture, that a high-protein food such as turkey will raise brain tryptophan and serotonin is, unfortunately, false. Another popular myth that is widespread on the Internet is that bananas improve mood because of their serotonin content. Although it is true that bananas contain serotonin, it does not cross the blood–brain barrier.

Science has determined that while purified tryptophan stimulates serotonin production, foods containing tryptophan do not.

brain image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/genphys/

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22 Comments

  1. So scraping my banana skins each morning you say won’t give me seratonin I have many naturopath friends who would dispute that, still interesting to read. Sunshine is so good I know for this and also music?

    • Suzie, my research says it does not cross the blood brain barrier to increase serotonin in the brain. It may increase it in the gut, which does have health benefits – mental included. I could not find definitive info on this.

    • Suzie, my research says it does not cross the blood brain barrier to increase serotonin in the brain. It may increase it in the gut, which does have health benefits – mental included. I could not find definitive info on this.

    • Suzie,

      A quick look on the internet just now showed music as increasing serotonin in many articles. However, I did not find it mentioned in the science I researched for this article.

    • Suzie,

      A quick look on the internet just now showed music as increasing serotonin in many articles. However, I did not find it mentioned in the science I researched for this article.

  2. I’d never heard about bananas…and even though it seems to have been deemed false, I will say hubby eats a banana every day and he’s probably one of the happiest people you’re ever likely to meet. Course that could also be put down to the fact that he keeps his thoughts on the happy variety. 🙂 Interesting read Debbie.

    • Elle, bananas have all kinds of good-for-you things! My research said it does not increase serotonin in the brain. I’m assuming it does in the gut, which is like a small brain and has mental health benefits.

    • Elle, bananas have all kinds of good-for-you things! My research said it does not increase serotonin in the brain. I’m assuming it does in the gut, which is like a small brain and has mental health benefits.

  3. Johannes Cilliers Reply

    Of course bananas work – have you ever saw a depressed monkey?

  4. Johannes Cilliers Reply

    Of course bananas work – have you ever saw a depressed monkey?

  5. Nice article. I’m reading a bit about 5-HTP, any insight about its effectiveness?

    • All I can tell you is that I took it for years to help with anxiety and depression. I do believe it helped me. Every person is different. I don’t take anything now. My lifestyle and mind are totally reformed to not need any of it. 🙂

  6. Raoroa Aslak Reply

    Hi,
    I found another interesting thing. In my case, I found asking for my rights, saying No for things that I do not like and saying yes to things that I like, are very helpful. In my position in life, being nice, is being perceived as weakness but it is the opposite. I regret that I am not assertive enough… But what is wrong with my claim. After all people all over the world do things that they do not like, and sure all of them are not depressed!…
    In my case, this affects who I truly am, it affects my genuinity and authenticity.
    In other words, be completely genuine and authentic… be your truth and and let the healing process begin… Good luck
    Thanks

  7. Debbie it is the scraping the skins of the Banana that give you more seratonin than just eating a banana. My naturopath who has done lots of his own research put me onto this. 🙂

  8. Pingback: Serotonin’s Role in Depression and How to Make More – The Best Brain Possible – Fun And Humor

  9. Pingback: 5 Ways To Improve Your Mental Health - The Best Brain Possible

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