What Is Serotonin Deficiency?

Low levels of serotonin can cause several behavioral and emotional disorders including depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

depression serotonin deficiency

Some safe and healthy ways to increase serotonin include exercise and getting outside in the sunlight, especially in the winter.

© Ian Allenden | Dreamstime.com

Serotonin is an important brain chemical that relays messages in your brain, called a neurotransmitter. [1,2] Serotonin is also a hormone. Hormones are chemical messengers that travel through your body. Although serotonin has effects on your whole body, according to the Endocrine Society, serotonin is the key hormone that stabilizes your mood and promotes feelings of happiness and well-being. [3] It is not surprising that serotonin deficiency may contribute to depression. [2,3]

Too much serotonin can also be a problem. This condition – called serotonin syndrome – can be caused by prescription medications, herbal supplements, diet supplements, and illegal drugs that increase serotonin. Too much serotonin overstimulates your brain and your body. A severe reaction can be life-threatening. [1]

Symptoms of Serotonin Deficiency

Serotonin deficiency is not a disease in itself. It can contribute to symptoms of depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and anxiety. Signs and symptoms might include:

  • Low mood and energy
  • Sadness or hopelessness
  • Loss of energy and enthusiasm
  • Changes in sleep or appetite
  • Anxiety or irritability
  • Obsessions (repeated thoughts that cause anxiety)
  • Compulsions (repeated behaviors caused by obsessive thoughts)
  • Thoughts of death or suicide [3,4,5]

Symptoms of Serotonin Syndrome

Too much serotonin can affect many body functions and can range from mild to life-threatening symptoms. These can include:

  • Restlessness
  • Confusion
  • Muscle twitching
  • Muscle tightness
  • Heavy sweating
  • Headache
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • High fever
  • Seizures
  • Loss of conciseness [1]

Drugs that cause serotonin syndrome include antidepressants that work by increasing serotonin, prescription pain medications, amphetamines, cocaine, herbal supplements (St. John’s wort, ginseng, and nutmeg), and the over-the-counter cough suppressant dextromethorphan. Some people are more sensitive to serotonin than others. You may be at risk for serotonin syndrome if you combine supplements, herbs, or drugs that increase serotonin. [1]

In most cases, serotonin syndrome goes away when the drug or drugs that are causing it are stopped. If you start any drug that increases serotonin or use an herb or supplement that raises serotonin, be aware of the possible danger and call your doctor right away or go to an emergency room if you have symptoms of serotonin syndrome. [1]

Treatment for Serotonin Deficiency

There is little evidence that increasing serotonin has any benefits for people who do not have depression. [2] Tryptophan is an amino acid (a protein building block) that your body uses to make serotonin. You may have heard that taking tryptophan as a supplement or increasing tryptophan foods like poultry, soy, nuts, or salmon can boost serotonin. According to the National Institutes of Health, there is not sufficient evidence to say that tryptophan is effective for treating lack of energy, poor attention, depression, anxiety, or insomnia. [6]

Some safe and healthy ways to increase serotonin include exercise and getting outside in the sunlight, especially in the winter. [2] Because symptoms of serotonin deficiency may indicate a mental health disorder, you should not try to treat these symptoms on your own with supplements or herbal medications. There is little evidence that diet or supplements will help, and some of the supplements can be dangerous. Talk to your doctor. Mental health disorders are serious illnesses that can be treated. [3]



  1. Mayo Clinic, Serotonin syndrome
  2. Medical News Today, 4 scientifically proven ways to increase serotonin
  3. Endocrine Society, What Is Serotonin? 
  4. NIH, Depression Basics
  5. NIH, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  6. MedlinePlus, L-Tryptophan

As a service to our readers, University Health News offers a vast archive of free digital content. Please note the date published or last update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Chris Iliades, MD

Chris Iliades has an MD degree and 15 years of experience as a freelance writer. Based in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, his byline has appeared regularly on many health and medicine … Read More

View all posts by Chris Iliades, MD

Comments Comments Policy
  • I have all of these symptoms. I especially have problems with impulsivity, feelings of agression andaggitation. I am constantly nervous and have panic attacks. I also have been diagnosed with type one bipolar disorder.

  • I have all these symptoms and have had depression for 32 yrs. after menopause I crave sweets and feel better once I have a mouthful, but it only lasts an hour or so. I have panic attacks that are so bad that I black out. I’m always tired and fall asleep at anytime. I really sick of being fat and overweight.

  • I recently had test done and Serotonin came back low. After reading about it I have all of this, it explains my insomnia, depression, and self-harming tendencies that we have never been able to fix. I am very hopeful that treating this will help, I had no idea it was even linked to TMJ!

  • Another way to naturally build your serotonin levels without having to buy amino acid supplements is through the nutritional program designed by Dr Kathleen DesMaisons (www.radiantrecovery.com). I have had immense success by following the steps of her program and changing my diet and raising my serotonin levels. It’s changed my life!

  • My daughter has all of the above. She has recently been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and panic disorder. Her psychiatrist tells us that she has low serotonin levels and she is now on SSRI drugs. Can you tel me more about the body’s store of serotonin being restored back to healthy levels through a natural health protocol involving the use of a specific amino acid supplement.(as mentioned in your article) ?

  • Take L tryptophan with B6 1000mg to 2000mg per day. DO a 90 course your daughter will be different in a postive way. Also iodine and heavey metals play and imortant role in this and lastly your gut. Do research and if you need more info email me.

  • Recently I’ve been living in a house that we came to discover had a severe mold issue after multiple hospital visits with pneumonia. We’ve had testing done to see about mold and other toxins and things in our body, one of the things that showed up for me was that my brain chemicals specifically Gaba and serotonin are very low. Apparently the brain chemical norepinephrine is higher now and me trying to balance things out I suppose. I don’t know what doctor to turn to my internal medicine guy doesn’t know what to do and neither do I I would appreciate any ideas you might have thank you in advance.

  • I have unexplained pins,needles and numbness in the arm and legs and extend to the face. This is also accompanied by heaviness of the tongue and painful swallowing. I also get neck tension & headaches and annxiety. Waiting for serotonin results. Hope for a diagnosis and cure

  • my sister has depression,anxiety,panic attacks just to name a few, since 1990 after my father passed away, she is aon several meds., cries very emotional and lonely I can’t see any beneficial changes in her I feel bad for her and get together with her as much as possible, would love to recieve your book ,on depression and I would love to see what it has to offer! when dealing with a depressed person it’s like walking on eggs! her meds . make her sleep for long periods so she tries to prolong taking certain ones as long as possible, love your professional inputs and articles! m ansara

  • You could add to the list of symptoms increased religiosity, spirituality or magical thinking. Those are also associated with lowered serotonin levels.

  • I have had insomnia,anxiety,cravings,low self esteem. I finally got will power to eat right, so losing inches,yet still not happy,very tired during day, I’m in bed ,9:30, up 5 mabey. But no motivation, no focus on anything. not much happiness yet.

  • I’ve been an absolute MESS for close to 30 years..Doctor after doctor.HORRIBLE cronic constipation,grinding my teeth,Tinitis,[One of the symptoms..] headaches,insomnia,stomach pain,dry mouth,difficulty breathing,obesity,terrible joint pain,the list goes on..I JUST started taking L-Tryptophan SEVEN HOURS ago,I feel better already..I made one bad mistake,I was so bad for so long,I took 4 capsules instead of 2,WORST stomach cramps I’ve ever had.. TRY THIS..May have saved my life..

  • The popular serotonin-as-the-happiness-molecule theory was launched and marketed by corporate medicine.

    Yet a sizable volume of sound research studies demonstrated that increasing serotonin and tryptophan either with drugs or supplements (not food because food’s unlikely to significantly raise tryptophan or serotonin in the brain) is linked to brain dysfunction, stress hormone release, cognitive deficits, inflammation, impaired blood circulation in the brain, hypertension, cancer, and other less than “happy” effects – search online for the scholarly report”Tryptophan Side Effects: L-Tryptophan Is Far From Harmless”

    The “serotonin-happiness” mantra, just like the mechanistic simplistic “chemical imbalance” idea, are almost entirely all-too convenient inventions of the medical-pharma business, which allowed them to sell their highly profitable antidepressant drugs, such as SSRIs, while causing massive human destruction. And for agents of the natural medicine industry to sell tryptophan and 5HTP supplements.

  • hi my doctor said my serotonin level is low and thats why my legs are hurting he gave me depression pills and i took them my legs stopped hurting i stopped taking the pills because i felt weird on them and my leg pain is back can someone help me

  • I have been having all of these symptoms! The past few months I’ve been clean, I used to do Molly A lot. (Please don’t think I’m some crazy drug addict, I’m not i did it for a month and it completely ruined my life)I started to realize i wasn’t myself anymore, I can’t sleep anymore I constantly think people are judging me I’m so shy when i NEVER used to be like this. I’m constantly grinding my teeth. I’m ALWAYS sweating, i feel like I have weird breathing habits. I have trouble sleeping, i either don’t eat for days or I eat non stop! Me and my boyfriend used to be so close, the best of friends and now all we do is fight and half the time it’s just me overly stressed and overwhelmed about everything that i take it out on him. I just want to be normal again 🙁 I’m so sick of feeling so down and overthink about everything and constantly stuck in my thoughts I’m not interested in any of the hobbies that i had i don’t hang out with my friends anymore i barely talk to my family anymore. I want to get help but i don’t even know where to start or who to talk to, I’m only 20 years old and i just need some guidance.

  • My serotonin is depleted after long history of coffee abuse. I could really got high on coffee. But then due to media stories of anti-cancer benefits of coffe I started abusing it and forcing intake (3 cups a day was quite hard at start). After some time all pleasure from workouts coffee, recreation or even rest simply vanished. My body was in a constant up state with constant memory loss and anhedonia. Got somewhat better after dropping all carbs to vegan-non processed food diet and dropping coffee and forcing myself to workouts, especially long bike/orbitrek runs (10km+) and static strength exercises. tryptophan improved mood, 5htp I’m not sure. I guess they work best when taken separately. Without dropping coffee its a fools game, with dropping all sugars except fruits, dropping beverages and processed foods it is a long run to take. I require around 8-9 hours of sleep time, had kinda like ibs symptoms and teeth grinding through my whole life. It is a multi-front campaign. IBS symptoms almost completely vanish if you cut all sugars and coffee and do some heavy strength workouts. Other good practices – better to take herbs than chemicals, better take protein powder (either animal or plant) than meats, better blend fresh fruits than buy sweets and juices, better eat nuts than crackers or chips. Salt is actually necessary in small doses. No animal-based foods, first of all meats are incredibly over-processed up to the point you can call alot of what you can buy a trash food (not that meat is wrong on a principle of some sort), same about dairy which is pumped with preservatives sugars, etc. Sweating, breathing “arythmia” is all a problem with lack of cardio and strength- do the soak-runs of 12km 3 times per week for at least a month, practice plank-type exercises with 3-5 minutes in one position, same about weigthened exercises. take b vitamin suplements, omega-3 (greenland shark oil), drink around 2 liters of water daily, if you feel to weak take DHEA, sulbutiamine (very rarely, tolerance builds quickly) or amp citrate (like sulbutiamine tolerance builds rapidly). Practice fasting -like 6 days of undereating, one day of overeating with all the beverages you normally want to eat

  • more of that – take d3 supplement (6000 units daily max), practice sunbathing and outdoor activity when the sun is clearly visible, perform forced relaxations – lay down for an hour during day to rest after and before work and do nothing try to forget about everything for an hour and even try to sleep if you need to, if you can’t – meditate then.

  • This has been a most informative site. Just reading about the possibility of increased happiness has given me a boost. Thank you so much !!

    • Thank you Gregory for your comment. There are a lot of ways to increase level of serotonin for example B vitamins supplements or exercise.

  • Tremendous things here. I am very glad to look your article.

    Thank you a lot and I’m looking forward to touch you.
    Will you please drop me a e-mail?

  • hey there, i know i am kind of late but still i wanted to share. i was planning doing research related to serotonin. i’ve read that peppermint essential oil helps to boost memory and mood;helpful to overcome depression. doing exercise also helpful especially a heavy one. do expose yourself to sunlight. and drink some milk. hope you all will be recovering. remember,do more physical activity instead of taking lots of drugs. thankyou.

  • I have never smoked, nor had an ash tray in my home, if someone wanted to smoke I would tell them to do it outside. I was shocked when diagnosed as COPD. I know the place I last lived in allowed smoking I know I can go to find a lawyer too. I was very upset because the Pulmonary Dr.

  • Me and my daughter both have these problems. at time the can become so over whelming you feel hopeless. this is the answer to our pray

  • We have got a lot of help from doctors who practice what they call functional medicine. They test serotonin levels by a urine sample. They run lots of other tests to get to the root cause of your problem. The one we go to saved my daughter’s life, literally, when other doctors couldn’t find the problem.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Enter Your Login Credentials
This setting should only be used on your home or work computer.