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Seratonin: The chemistry of Well-Being

 

More than 100,000 chemical reactions go on in your brain every second! The brain is also a radio transmitter, which sends out measurable electrical wave signals. In fact the brain continues to send out these signals for as long as 37 hours after death!

Among the brain's many jobs is to be your own chemist. The brain produces more than 50 identified active drugs. Some of these are associated with memory, others with intelligence, still others are sedatives. Endorphin is the brain's painkiller, and it is 3 times more potent than morphine.

Scientific research over the last several decades has led to the revolutionary discovery of opiate-like chemicals in the body that associate with opiate specific receptors in the brain and spinal cord, including Serotonin, a hormone manufactured by your brain.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, involved in the transmission of nerve impulses. It is manufactured in your body using the amino acid tryptophan. It is manufactured in your body using the amino acid tryptophan. Release of serotonin or other drugs (depending on the type of nerve) causes the other nerve to fire and continue the message along the "cable"..

The neurotransmitters are dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. At the neurochemical and physiological level, neurotransmitters are extremely important, since they carry impulses between nerve cells. The substance that processes the neurotransmitter called serotonin is the amino acid tryptophan. It increases the amount of serotonin made by the brain.

Certain aminos cause you to have better feeling of well being. Serotonin is a chemical that helps maintain a "happy feeling," and seems to help keep our moods under control by helping with sleep, calming anxiety, and relieving depression. The brain also makes Dopamine, which makes people more talkative and excitable. It affects  brain processes that control movement, emotional response, and ability to experience pleasure and pain. All of these chemicals are natural chemicals that affect our bodily processes.

Besides being involved in the process of addiction, low Serotonin levels are believed to be the reason for many cases of mild to moderate depression which can lead to symptoms like anxiety, apathy, fear, feelings of worthlessness, insomnia and fatigue. We are learning that depression is related to and a number of other health issues. Depression is the nation's most prevalent mental health problem, affecting about 15 million Americans who spend about $3 billion a year on drugs to battle it. Almost all of these medicines target either serotonin or norepinephrine, brain chemicals which are neurotransmitters.
 

"Research over the past two decades has shown...that depression is an important risk factor for  heart disease along with high blood cholesterol and high blood pressure."    - National Institute of Mental Health
A whole new class of antidepressant medications has been developed that affects chemical messengers within the brain (the neurotransmitters). These medications are believed to work by regulating the release or action of Serotonin. Those drugs do help many patients, but they can cause serious side effects, and some 20 percent of patients get no help from today's medicines.

People seeking these medications normally indicate a feeling of being more or less in a state of depression. They may feel emotionally numb, "nothing feels nice," and/or vague aches and pains or perhaps the sensation of "aching all over," and almost invariably have a sense of some isolation.

Some people do not admit anger, sadness or guilt; instead they withdraw and hide from society. They lose all interest in things around them and become incapable of any pleasure. Things appear bleak and time passes slowly for them. They are typically angry and irritable. They often try sleeping off their depression or do nothing but sit or lay around. In most people depression is not severe. They can still function, but do so at a lower capacity and at a slower pace.

Symptoms of depression include chronic fatigue syndrome, insomnia or sleeping frequently and for excessive periods of time, loss of appetite or a ravenous appetite, headaches, backaches, colon disorders, and feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy. Many think of death and consider suicide. Depression may be caused by tension, upset stomach, stress, headache, nutritional deficiencies, poor diet, sugar mononucleosis, thyroid disorders, endometriosis (linked to depression in women), any serious physical disorder, or allergies.

Some people become more depressed in the winter months when days are shorter and darker. The sun and bright light seem to trigger a response to a brain hormone known as melatonin (produced by the pineal gland), which is, in part, responsible for preventing the "blues." Stay in brightly-lit rooms on dark days. Research reveals that two hours of morning sun is very effective in lifting depression. The evening light had comparatively little results.

Depression begins with a disturbance in the part of the brain that governs moods. Most people can handle everyday stresses; their bodies readjust to these pressures. When stress is too great for a person and his adjustment mechanism is unresponsive, depression may be triggered.

In recent years anti-depressants are among the most widely prescribed medications, in spite of their side-affects. The presumption is that a chemically induced sense of well bring is better than none. Withdrawal from these medications can be particularly hazardous and must be managed carefully. Scientists have long hunted another way to attack depression.

It has been discovered that some foods influence the brain's behavior, and the brain's neurotransmitters, which regulate our behavior, can be affected by what we eat. Research is showing that some foods such as bananas and turkey have proteins that help to create the chemical seratonin. So, diet may contribute to depression, especially poor eating habits and constant snacking on junk foods.

We really do not know the triggers for hunger or appetite. It seems that serotonin is involved, but where and how are currently unknown. Serotonin release is triggered by a carbohydrate load (sugar, etc.) and there are many who feel that eating Carbohydrates under stress is aimed at this serotonin release.

When the brain produces serotonin, tension is eased.  When it produces dopamine or norepinephrine, we tend to think and act more quickly and are generally more alert. Eating carbohydrates alone seems to have a calming effect, while proteins increase alertness. Complex carbohydrates, which raise the level of tryptophan in the brain, have a calming effect.

Protein promotes the production of dopamine and norepinephrine, which promote alertness. Protein meals containing essential fatty acids and/or carbohydrates are recommended for increased alertness. Salmon and white fish are good choices. Avoid foods high in saturated fats; consumption of port or fried foods, such as hamburgers and French fries, leads to sluggishness, slow thinking, and fatigue. Fats inhibit the synthesis of neurotransmitters by the brain in that they cause the blood cells to become sticky and to clump together, resulting in poor circulation, especially to the brain.

A balance is achieved when the diet contains a combination of these two nutrients. A turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread is a good combination: the turkey is high in protein and tryptophan, and the whole wheat bread supplies complex carbohydrates.

Consume more carbohydrates than protein if you are nervous and wish to become more relaxed or eat more protein than carbohydrates if you are tired and wish to become more alert. A depressed person who needs his spirits lifted would benefit from eating foods like turkey and salmon, which are high in tryptophan and protein. Beware: The body will react more quickly to the presence of sugar than it does to the presence of complex carbohydrates. The increase in energy supplied by the simple carbohydrates is quickly accompanied by fatigue and depression.

Tyrosine is also needed for brain function. This amino acid may be good for those who have prolonged and intense stress. Uncontrollable stress may thereby be prevented or reversed if this essential amino acid is obtained in the diet.

Vitamin C is required for the conversion of the amino acids L-tyrosine and L-phenylalanine into noradrenaline. The conversion of tryptophan into seratonin, the neurohormone responsible for sleep, pain control and well being, also requires adequate supplies of vitamin C.  An herbal remedy has become popular. St. John's Wort contains an ingredient called "Hypericin, which prevents too much of the MAO (Mono Amine Oxidase) activity from being released and destroying Serotonin.

Heredity is a significant factor in depression. In up to 50 percent of people suffering from recurrent episodes of depression, one or both of the parents were depressives. But the ability to be healthy and happy appears to be related to several simple techniques that are all related to relaxation, exercise, and nutrition. The interesting thing about these techniques is that research is beginning to show us how they impact us at a very basic level--our chemical processes.

Not just our diet, but out thoughts, our emotions, and our behavior all effect body chemistry. For instance, relaxation produces the chemical norepinephrine with which low levels are implicated in depression. Also, exercise has been shown to produce another chemical known as endorphins, which help with depression, anxiety, sleep, and sexual activity.  So, besides eating certain foods, relaxation, exercise, and are things that we do that can also affect the level and activity of these chemicals. Thomas Jefferson wrote that most people feel about as happy as they make up their minds to be. And indeed, a positive attitude is invaluable.

Most people never heard of serotonin management, or even considered it at all except for medications. Serotonin management amounts to paying attention to the little things that make you feel good and systematically including them in your daily routine. We know, instinctively, that pampering ourselves is a door to a sense of well being, but we may not take time to schedule pleasant surroundings, favorite music or food, or even quality time with loved ones into our daily agenda.

Just getting out of bed and into a warm shower elevates serotonin levels, making it easier to get into a positive, constructive frame of mind. And generally speaking, depression if it is mild enough can sometimes be managed without prescribed medications. Aerobic exercise, watching your carbohydrate & alcohol consumption, getting up early and moving, even if you don't feel like it, forcing structure on your life, using meditation and imagery (if can concentrate, which depends on how depressed you are), and seeking a support group or psychotherapy, have all proved helpful.

A group of psychologists did an on-going survey about happiness. When asked to rate their over all level of happiness, on a scale from 1 to 10, most people indicated about 6.7 or so. Interestingly it was discovered that a divorce, or serious injury, even the loss of a limb, caused this level to go down a point or two, for a year or two. But then it usually came back to about 6.7.

Falling in love or winning the lottery caused the level of happiness to go up a point or two for a year or two, but then it went back to the previous level. What this implies is that a slight increase that could be sustained, was more significant than more dramatic life events.  In other words if you find small things that make you feel good, and do them on a regular basis, your overall level of happiness is greater than if you fall in love, win the lottery.

Seemingly little things that taste good, smell good, or delight the senses can be very significant when systematically included in your daily routine. Violets for the soul may be one of your best investments, especially if you consider the fact that people who feel good are significantly less likely to tardy, absent, ill, or involved in accidents of all kinds.

If you are in the habit of worrying about things, then put some boundaries on it. Actually take 10 or 15 minuets and really worry, then let it go and do something constructive for an equal period of time. Recogize that there are two kinds of worrying: conceptual, which is goal-oriented, and reactive, which is mostly destructive. Productive worrying seeks a trial soultion to the problem, while non-productive worrying usually seeks to blame or condemn. Attitude counts for a lot here. Is your cup half empty or half full? Most fearfull worry is wasted obsession with unfounded or un-realistic outcomes. Dissappointment is usually the product of poorly managed expectations.

Taking time to smell the flowers implies a willingness to be spontaneous. A talent like this one is something that some just have while others must learn. Make a detailed list of little things that you enjoy and include them in your activities. Actually schedule a time of day to go for a walk, create or listen to your favorite music, read a poem, meditate, spend qualty time with family and friends, paint, excercise, or just play. Make a pact to try it, just for a few weeks, then see if your over-all well being is not improved.

 

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* Note    These pages are editoral in nature-- no medical advice is given or implied.

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