Serotonin, anxiety - food myths and facts

The serotonin anxiety connection has created interest since it was first discovered that drugs increasing serotonin in the brain not only can a relieve severe depression but also seem to help reduce some forms of anxiety.

Like many drugs though, the effects can be a bit hit and miss, and the problem has to be severe to justify the potential side effects. It’s interesting (and a little mysterious), that the following are possible side effects of using these SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) to increase brain levels of serotonin: anxiety, nervousness and difficulty sleeping! Not the kind of list most anxious people want to see!

These symptoms usually pass after a while, but it does raise the question, what exactly are these drugs really doing?

It’s not surprising then, that there’s a lot of interest in finding other ways of increasing brain serotonin, given that it seems clear there is a serotonin anxiety connection.

Trying to find a way of increasing serotonin levels through food has been one area that has led to a few misconceptions.

There’s a widespread belief that bananas will increase brain serotonin levels. Whilst this popular myth comes from the fact that bananas are one of the few foods that actually contain serotonin, anxiety states aren’t likely to be reduced because of that. Serotonin in the general blood stream can’t cross into the brain (through what is known as the blood-brain barrier).  So, whilst bananas are a generally healthy, satisfying and sustaining food for anxiety sufferers, this is not because their serotonin is absorbed by the brain. (1)

A similar belief is held about turkey.  That sleepy, satisfied feeling you may have after a turkey Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner is due more to the size of the meal you had and the fact that proteins take a lot longer to digest than most other foods (one of the reasons that cats sleep so much). Whilst turkey is one of the highest sources of tryptophan (a protein building-block, called an amino acid, that is necessary for the body to produce serotonin), this particular amino acid has to compete with all the other amino acids in turkey, which are in greater quantities and keep tryptophan absorption low. The net result is that tryptophan levels remain pretty constant in relation to the other amino acids(1). And that means, serotonin levels aren’t especially affected. As tryptophan is usually found along with other protein building blocks in meat, the same thing applies for most other meats. 

It has long been known that milk has soothing properties. If you’ve ever seen the blissed-out appearance of a baby after breast-feeding you will know for sure that something in milk can produce feelings of well-being.  There are many ingredients in milk that probably combine to produce this effect, including B vitamins, calcium and potassium. Scientists have isolated one protein in milk -Alpha-lactalbumin – that may play a part in this. It contains a bit more tryptophan than most proteins, but whether this is the cause of its mood improving effects in some circumstances is debatable, given that we now know that having more tryptophan won’t necessarily increase your serotonin levels(2).  

There are claims that a patented product called Lactium, derived from some of the protein in milk, can help in coping better with stress, though there’s not much in the way of research supporting this.

Rather than paying for derivatives from milk that may or may not be beneficial, much more economical and perhaps just as effective, is the age old remedy of warm milk before bed for improved sleep. If your sleep is better, you will tend to cope better with stress.

By increasing serotonin, anxiety levels may decrease but it's only one of many pathways

Serotonin is just one of the many chemicals the body produces in the play between stimulation and relaxation, anxiety and ease. There may be many pathways by which, through increasing serotonin, anxiety levels are reduced. It is really all about balance.  Following an easily digestible, sustaining diet that avoids stimulating foods (such as the ayurvedic recommendations here) is part of a big picture approach to reducing anxiety levels. This includes giving some attention to other equally important lifestyle principles, along with understanding why the brain produces anxious feelings and the logical ways that you can prevent this

(1)Young, Simon N. 2007 'How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs', J Psychiatry Neurosci. Nov 2007, 32(6): 394–399.

(2)Markus CR, Olivier B, de Haan EH 2002 'Whey protein rich in alpha-lactalbumin increases the ratio of plasma tryptophan to the sum of the other large neutral amino acids and improves cognitive performance in stress-vulnerable subjects', Am J Clin Nutr. Jun. 2002;75(6):1051-6.

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