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Serotonin is the “feel-good” brain chemical. Too little of this vital neurotransmitter, which enables communication between brain cells, will have you suffering from serotonin deficiency symptoms: depression, anxiety, negativity, cravings for sweets and starches, insomnia, low self-esteem, poor mood, among others. What’s lesser known is that serotonin is also necessary for cognition, which includes learning, memory, language, problem solving, and decision-making.
Researchers have found that serotonin plays vital roles in the areas of the brain that regulate memory and learning, and they are looking at this system as a therapeutic drug target for mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s.
Older studies of autopsied brains of people who died from Alzheimer’s showed serious impairment of serotonin systems in the brain, which could, among other things, cause aggression or depression in individuals with mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s. (See also our post “What Does Serotonin Do?“)
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Watch for Serotonin Deficiency in the Aging Brain
As the brain ages, deficiencies in neurotransmitters such as serotonin are more likely to occur. Low serotonin is not so much a specific risk factor for mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s as it is a sign that overall brain health and function are compromised. Likewise, boosting serotonin production may not necessarily prevent mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s. Instead, low serotonin and the symptoms it causes should be seen as red flags that brain health is suffering, which increases the risk for mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s.
Serotonin deficiency symptoms include:
- Repetitive thoughts and obsessive thinking
- Low self-esteem
- Shyness, fears, phobias or panic attacks
- Cravings for sugar or carbohydrates
- Seasonal Affective Disorder (depression that’s worse in the winter)
- Feeling better after taking SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressant medications)
Many of the dietary and lifestyle pitfalls that increase the risk of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s can also deplete serotonin levels. These include processed diets based on sweets and starchy foods, lack of exercise, and chronic stress. But, the upside to this equation is the same factors that lower the risk of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s can also improve serotonin activity.
The aim is to lower inflammation in the body and brain, as inflammation blocks serotonin production. In fact, research increasingly shows depression to be a symptom of inflammation. Therefore, although diminished serotonin activity may be seen in patients with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s, it is most likely just one of many symptoms of a diet- and lifestyle-induced inflammatory process that has sabotaged and degenerated the brain to the point of memory loss and dementia.
What’s the take-away message here? Don’t let inflammation zap your brain!
Start employing strategies that can decrease your depression symptoms and protect your memory in the future. With adequate serotonin levels in the brain and its proper functioning, you will be positive, happy, flexible, and easygoing. And, you’ll also feel confident knowing you’re taking the appropriate steps to prevent inflammation in your brain, protecting your memory in the years to come.
For further reading on serotonin, see these University Health News posts:
- “4 Serotonin Supplements to Treat Depression, Anxiety, and Insomnia Yourself“
- “Serotonin Deficiency: A Root Cause of Your Depression Symptoms?“
- “Serotonin Deficiency: Is This Really a Cause of Depression?“
 Geldenhuys WJ, Van der Schyf CJ. Role of serotonin in Alzheimer’s disease: a new therapeutic target? CNS Drugs. 2011 Sep 1;25(9):765-81. doi: 10.2165/11590190-000000000-00000. Review. PubMed PMID: 21870888.
 Alzheimer’s disease and serotonin: a review. Neuropsychobiology 1986;15:133-142 (DOI: 10.1159/000118256)
Originally published in 2012, this blog is regularly updated.