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What is serotonin? It’s is a powerful brain chemical that profoundly affects your mood, so knowing whether you’re deficient is a key first step to overcoming troubling mood and impulse control problems. Having one or more of the eight serotonin deficiency symptoms discussed here will be a strong clue that you may indeed have a serotonin imbalance.
And what does serotonin do? Serotonin is one of the so-called inhibitory neurotransmitters that serve to balance any excessive excitatory (stimulating) neurotransmitter (like dopamine) firing in the brain.
- With adequate serotonin levels in the brain and its proper functioning, you will be positive, happy, confident, flexible, and easygoing.
- With low levels of serotonin, you will begin to display serotonin deficiency symptoms by becoming negative, obsessive, worried, irritable, sleepless, or depressed. (See also “Serotonin Deficiency: A New Target for Mild Cognitive Impairment and Alzheimer’s.”)
Serotonin Deficiency Signs
What does serotonin do for the body? Julia Ross, author of The Mood Cure, has an excellent mood type self-exam that can help you determine whether you have a serotonin or a dopamine (norepinephrine) deficiency. You may want to take the exam, or another serotonin levels test, but we’ll cover below some of the primary ways you can determine whether you have low serotonin symptoms.
1. Is your depression negative in nature? That is, are your thoughts frequently pessimistic, gloomy, distrustful, and cynical? With low levels of serotonin, depression feelings can be dark and gloomy.
2. Are you a woman? Women have depression more often than men and when they do, serotonin deficiency is more often a factor than in men. On the other hand, when men become depressed, they seem to more often have dopamine deficiencies where their depression is expressed as apathy or lack of interest or lack of the ability to focus.
This doesn’t mean that men can’t have too little serotonin and women can’t have dopamine deficiency—they can—but the general tendency is the other way around. A study published in September 2007 in the journal Biological Psychiatry showed that men and women react to serotonin deficiency in different ways. The men became impulsive but not necessarily depressed. Women, on the other hand, experienced a marked drop in mood and became much more cautious, an emotional response commonly associated with depression.
The researchers conclude this may be why more women than men experience anxiety and mood disorders, while more men experience alcoholism, ADHD, and impulse control disorders. The message here is that women should especially be alert to the possibility of serotonin deficiency if they have clinical depression.
3. Do you crave sweets and starches—foods like breads and potato chips and any sugar-laden choices? These foods temporarily raise serotonin levels and make you feel better, so your body craves them. In the long run, though, they actually deplete serotonin levels and cause significant weight gain. Our blog post This is Your Brain on French Fries describes this harmful effect of processed carbs on the brain, but serotonin depletion is one of the main biochemical reasons behind the effect.4. Do you have significant insomnia issues?
Serotonin deficiency symptoms include waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to go back to sleep and having to sleep in many different positions in order to feel comfortable.
5. Do you have feelings of low self-esteem? That is, you’ve lost your confidence and sense of self worth, and you easily become critical of yourself or feel guilty about something you’re doing or not doing.
6. Do you often feel worried or apprehensive or have panic attacks? False fear is a telltale sign of a lack of serotonin and can manifest itself as phobia, worry, or even excessive shyness. There is a connection between low serotonin and anxiety.
7. Do you sometimes exhibit aggressive or violent behavior, even thoughts of suicide? Studies show that serotonin deficiency in the brain is associated with an increased susceptibility to impulsive behavior, aggression, overeating, alcohol abuse, and violent suicide.
8. Have you had any of the following disorders: Fibromyalgia (unexplained muscle pain), TMJ (pain, tension, and grinding associated with your jaw), migraine headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, or asthma? Each of these conditions has low serotonin levels implicated as an associated cause, and studies have shown that raising serotonin levels improves the condition’s severity.
Do these serotonin deficiency symptoms sound like you? If so, it is likely your body has become depleted of adequate levels of this important neurotransmitter—serotonin. Restoring serotonin levels in the brain and making sure it is working properly are critical but doable steps in recovering from any of these conditions. Fortunately, the body’s store of serotonin can be restored back to healthy levels through a natural health protocol involving the use of a specific amino acid supplement.
If you still find yourself asking, “what does serotonin do?” or for more information on restoring your serotonin level, as well as more on low serotonin causes, see these University Health News posts:
 Walderhaug, E. et al. Interactive Effects of Sex and 5-HTTLPR on Mood and Impulsivity During Tryptophan Depletion in Healthy People. Biological Psychiatry, September 15, 2007. 62:6
Originally published in 2011, this post is regularly updated.