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Serotonin deficiency is the condition that results when the body’s levels of serotonin are too low. Technically, serotonin is a neurotransmitter – a type of chemical that is responsible for carrying messages to different parts of the brain. Serotonin is created by the brain, but is stored mostly in the gastrointestinal tract and bloodstream. It is responsible for regulating moods, sleep patterns, appetite, body temperature, and libido.
When serotonin levels fall below normal, the person experiencing the serotonin deficiency may have psychological and emotional problems. These problems can include clinical depression, anxiety, worry, panic attacks, and even bipolar disorder. Serotonin deficiency can also cause inability to concentrate, fatigue, changes in sleep and appetite, irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, bulimia, and anorexia.
Serotonin deficiency can be caused by several factors. Some things that can cause low serotonin levels are lifestyle factors like prolonged stress, a diet lacking in protein and vitamins, and the use of drugs that damage the nerve cells responsible for making serotonin. Other factors, like poor metabolism, hormonal changes, and genetic mutations, are beyond a person's control.
Doctors typically diagnose serotonin deficiency by assessing the patient’s symptoms. They also typically will evaluate the effects of medications that increase serotonin. If the patient exhibits several serotonin deficiency symptoms that improve when the patient is treated with medications that raise serotonin levels, the patient is diagnosed with serotonin deficiency.
Serotonin deficiencies are treated using several classes of medications that increase serotonin. The two most popular are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), both of which work by stopping the brain from absorbing serotonin, thus leaving more serotonin available for the body to store and use. A third class is monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). These are one of the oldest classes of drugs used to raise serotonin, but MAOIs are usually used as a last resort because of the negative side effects. MAOIs work by stopping monoamine oxidase from metabolizing serotonin, allowing more of the chemical to remain in the body.
There are also some non-pharmaceutical ways to raise serotonin, though they may not raise serotonin enough to be effective in serious cases. Getting plenty of rest, exercising, and exposure to sunlight help increase and maintain serotonin levels. Eating balanced meals and including protein, vitamin B, calcium, and magnesium as part of a regular diet can also help, as the body uses all of these substances to make serotonin. Avoiding alcohol, sugar, caffeine, and recreational drugs helps maintain serotonin levels, and is usually recommended even for patients using medication to treat serotonin deficiency.
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