Serotonin, Sleep, and Depression: Look to Your Neurotransmitters for Help

Dr. Doni explains how our neurotransmitters work and the myths and facts about how supporting this "stress messenger" can help you recover from burnout.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is essential for sleep, energy level, focus, appetite, and digestion. Dr. Doni dispels some of the many misunderstandings about serotonin and neurotransmitters so that you can use natural approaches to rebalance your levels and unlock the key to your well-being.

Serotonin is known for regulating circadian sleep and wake rhythms and improving mood and fatigue. In this article, Dr. Doni explains how our neurotransmitters work and the myths and facts about how supporting this “stress messenger” can help you recover from burnout.

Serotonin: An Introduction

Best known for how it affects mood, serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is also essential for sleep, thought processes (focus and motivation), energy level, appetite, and digestion. There are many misunderstandings about neurotransmitters and serotonin, which I want to address in this article. By understanding neurotransmitters and knowing you can address them using natural approaches, you are unlocking the key to your well-being.

What are Neurotransmitters?

Neurotransmitters can often seem like a mysterious and confusing term meant for someone with a degree in brain surgery, when in fact they are quite simply the naturally produced chemicals that our bodies use to send messages between nerves. That’s why I like to call them “messengers.”

Our mood is profoundly affected by how efficiently these messengers communicate throughout our nervous system.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of neurotransmitter: Those that calm, and those that stimulate. Ideally, we want a balance of the two. Serotonin is a calming neurotransmitter.

During the day, we need stimulating neurotransmitters to give us energy and we also need calming neurotransmitters to counterbalance stress. Conversely, we want our bodies to make less of the stimulating neurotransmitters at night, so we can sleep soundly. 

Neurotransmitters Under Stress

When we are under stress, however, we want our bodies to make more of both: Stimulating neurotransmitters to help us think quickly, and calming neurotransmitters to help us recover from the stress.

The problem is when we are under stress for long periods of time, then we have a high demand for neurotransmitters for a long time. With that kind of demand, we become susceptible to imbalances in our neurotransmitter levels. Too much or too little of ANY neurotransmitter can lead to health issues related to mood, sleep, energy, and focus.

Here’s the first myth that I want to clear up: That we all respond the same to stress.

The truth is that the way our bodies (and brains) respond to stress is unique to each of us as an individual. It is based on our genetics and our past stress exposure.

For example, when under stress, some of us may use up serotonin more quickly and become depleted. Others may use serotonin more gradually. Depending on how your body responds will determine how likely you are to become depleted in serotonin.

Stress is the most critical factor in neurotransmitter balance. That’s because our bodies are designed to modify the production of neurotransmitters whenever we are exposed to any kind of stress.

Stressors that Disrupt your Neurotransmitter Balance

  1. Emotional and/or physical abuse or trauma
  2. Life changes, such as deaths in the family or divorce
  3. Financial and work stress
  4. Consuming unhealthy food substances, such as high fructose corn syrup, MSG, and food additives
  5. Substance abuse and/or excess consumption of alcohol, caffeine, or sugar
  6. Gluten, which is known to trigger an inflammatory response in the body that leads to imbalanced neurotransmitters
  7. Exposure to pesticides, herbicides, pollution, chemicals (such as in personal care and cleaning products), or heavy metals – all of these can impair the proper production and breakdown of neurotransmitters
  8. Oxidative stress, due to chronic infection, inflammation, and insufficient antioxidants
  9. Digestive issues, including imbalanced bacteria in the intestines (known as dysbiosis), leaky gut (intestinal permeability), poor digestion, and malabsorption (inability to absorb nutrients well)

Where Does Serotonin Come From?

Myth number two: That neurotransmitters are made in the nervous system and can only be influenced by medications.

I really want to emphasize one thing: Our bodies MAKE neurotransmitters. They don’t come from pills.

Research discovered that 95 percent of serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. This means that if your digestion is not healthy, you are probably not producing enough serotonin. The remaining 5 percent of serotonin is made in the brain. Source: The Expanded Biology of Serotonin

Serotonin is made from the precursor amino acid tryptophan. In our diet, we consume tryptophan in protein. It is converted to 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) and then to serotonin with the help of nutrients such as vitamin B6.

If you have a deficiency of serotonin, it could be from not eating adequate protein, from having digestive issues, or it can be from using it up too quickly (with stress) or having a fast metabolism of serotonin.

No matter the reason you became depleted, your body can make more serotonin when it has the right nutrients.

What Does Serotonin Do (and How Do You Know If You’re Low)?

Serotonin which affects a variety of functions and behaviors, including memory, fear, the stress response, addiction, sexuality, breathing, and body temperature.

If you have low serotonin, you might:

  • feel anxious, depressed, or moody
  • have sleep issues or feel fatigued
  • feel impulsive
  • have a diminishing appetite
  • experience nausea and digestive issues
  • crave sweets and carbohydrate-rich foods
  • feel irritable and angry
  • feel “blah” and unmotivated
  • experience “burnout”

Serotonin Isn’t Always the Cause of Depression

Myth number three: There is a myth or misunderstanding that all depression is caused by low serotonin and everyone with low serotonin has depression. I would like to dispel this myth. When I meet with a patient who is experiencing depression, I always want to evaluate all the possible causes, including serotonin.

For example, a person experiencing depression might have imbalances in other neurotransmitters, like dopamine.

Depression can also be caused by high or low cortisol levels. Irregular cortisol can, in turn, increase the likelihood of leaky gut and imbalanced gut bacteria, which can also cause low mood, anxiety and brain fog via what’s known as the gut-brain axis.

Low thyroid function is yet another potential cause. As are nutrient deficiencies, other hormone imbalances, loss and trauma, inflammation, toxin exposure, and many other possibilities.

What to Do: Test, Don’t Guess

Instead of assuming serotonin is the problem, I recommend doing a full range of tests and health panels to get a comprehensive picture of what is really going on.

  • Blood work to check hormone and nutrient levels
  • Food sensitivity panel to assess for gluten sensitivity and leaky gut (blood)
  • Neurotransmitter panel (urine)
  • Cortisol at 4 times in a day (urine or saliva)

Depending on your case, we may also need or want to check:

  • Femal hormone panel (urine)
  • DNA analysis of microbiome (stool)
  • Genetic panel (saliva)
  • Mycotoxin panel – for mold toxins (urine)
  • Organic acid panel – metabolism of nutrients and antioxidants (urine)

These are panels I consider when I meet with patients one-on-one (online or in person) and explain in my group online programs. These are not tests you’ll usually hear about or have done in your standard medical visit.

Can You Boost Serotonin Without Medicine?

The answer is a resounding, yes! It is possible to increase serotonin levels without taking medicine.

Let’s start by using my C.A.R.E. method to discuss ways to support serotonin production naturally.

C: CLEAN EATING

Neurotransmitters in general and, in particular, serotonin, are made from amino acids, which we get from protein. So, it is important to include adequate protein in your diet. To support serotonin, you can choose foods high in tryptophan such as turkey, salmon, nuts, and seeds.

Serotonin production also requires that we get some carbohydrates and B vitamins. At the same time, if your serotonin levels are really depleted, you’re not going to be able to eat enough to raise the levels, so we need to move to clinical nutrition and supplements (see below).

A: ADEQUATE SLEEP

The truth is that so much restoration occurs in our bodies when we sleep. It’s important for our bodies to experience hours when cortisol is low, and we need adrenal reset overnight to achieve that.

I suggest at least seven and a half hours of sleep to support your adrenals, with nine hours being ideal, as often as possible. A lot of good stuff happens when we sleep. For one, melatonin, known as our sleep hormone, increases when our brain perceives darkness. Melatonin is made is the pineal gland from serotonin, so if you are low on serotonin, your body may not have enough precursor nutrients and amino acids to make melatonin.

R: RECOVERY ACTIVITIES

Spending time in the sunshine (at least 10 to 15 minutes a day) appears to help increase serotonin levels. Source: Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience

Dance, laughter, and meditation all naturally increase serotonin levels.

E: EXERCISE

One natural way to increase your serotonin is with exercise. When you walk around the block, bicycle, run, or do yoga your body releases more tryptophan, the amino acid your brain uses to make serotonin. This boost in serotonin and other neurotransmitters is why many people get that feeling of euphoria that some call a “runner’s high” after a heavy workout. Source: American Psychological Association

Wait! I’m Already Doing C.A.R.E. and Still Have Low Serotonin

If you know that are already past the point of managing your serotonin with sunshine, superfoods, and exercise alone, then we can use amino acid therapy.

If you're feeling chronically tired, anxious, distracted, and/or having trouble with sleep – it could be that your neurotransmitters are out of balance!First, we need to measure your serotonin levels. This is done with a urine neurotransmitter panel you can collect at home and mail in. Then, once we have your results, I will be able to see all your neurotransmitter levels (not just serotonin). Then I can help to create a plan to rebalance them using nutrients (amino acids) and herbs (if needed).

It is also important to follow a specific sequence to bring your neurotransmitters back to balance and to modify doses based on your body and your genetics. So, you see this is NOT a one-size-fits-all approach.

You can try tryptophan as a supplement but that is not my preference because it requires two steps to get to serotonin and it can go down a different pathway, which doesn’t support serotonin.

My recommendation (after creating your unique rebalance plan) often includes using 5-HTP as a supplement.

CAUTION: While you can get 5-HTP over the counter and take it, I caution you because it is possible to feel worse. It is in your best interest to work with a practitioner who can check your levels, suggest an appropriate dose for you, and help you monitor how your body responds.

IMPORTANT: It’s possible for the body’s serotonin levels to become too high, especially if you are taking an SSRI or SSNRI (anti-depressant) medication. This can cause symptoms like increased nervousness, agitation, restlessness, insomnia, nausea, diarrhea. If you experience any of these symptoms, please seek immediate help from a medical professional.

Next Step: Take Action

To get my help with rebalancing your neurotransmitters and addressing serotonin, schedule a one-on-one Health Breakthrough Session with me. In this appointment I will review your case and outline a protocol for what your body needs to recover from stress now.

There’s so much more that I want to share with you about serotonin, sleep, depression, GABA, dopamine, cortisol, adrenaline and yes, stress! Pre-order my new book now: Master Your Stress – Reset Your Health (available May 3, 2022).

Master Your Stress, Reset Your Health by Dr. Doni WilsonHere’s an excerpt from the book that I think will get you excited about refining your current perspective about stress. By learning to shift into calm and flow, you will release anxiety. You will start to recover your energy, restore, and rebalance your brain and body, have more freedom, and easily maintain your resiliency.

So, why is it that in our modern society we allow ourselves to race through each day as though everything must be completed before we hit the pillow, when we know the health risks of stress? After all, feeling stressed has been shown to increase the risk of a heart attack by 27 percent, which is the same increase that occurs from smoking five cigarettes a day.

And studies show that when people know about the effects of stress, they tend to stress about stress, compounding the situation! 

What’s just as bad is to ignore stress and power through. Acting invincible gets us nowhere. Even if we don’t think we’re stressed, we do still have a stress response and stress hormones. After all, we are not living in robot bodies. We are living in human bodies. By understanding the stress response and human need for stress recovery, we can stop being run by old patterns and change the effect that stress has on us.  

—Dr. Doni
10th March 2022


Disclaimer: This specific article and all other Content, Products, and Services of this Website are NOT intended as, and must not be understood or construed as, medical care or advice, naturopathic medical care or advice, the practice of medicine, or the practice of counseling care, nor can it be understood or construed as providing any form of medical diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease.

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