Boosting serotonin: a case study

Boosting serotonin: a case study

It started with my jaw. I’ve had an issue with teeth grinding at night for a long time and it has gotten worse lately.

While researching the issue I discovered the hidden cause for my grinding. Low serotonin production. Last week, I wrote about the connection between perfectionism, low serotonin and IBS.

Not only does low serotonin create perfectionist tendencies, it can increase sensitivity to pain and incidence of nausea.  Serotonin also regulates intestinal contractions and other automatic body functions.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of happiness, optimism and well being. While we think of it as a brain chemical, a majority of serotonin is produced in the gut.

That’s probably why modern medicine links IBS to low serotonin production.

I don’t think low serotonin is the cause of IBS but it can make some people more vulnerable to developing digestive issues. It can also cause a host of emotional issues that are often self-perceived as personality flaws.

What if your unpleasant thoughts, emotions and behaviors were a result of low serotonin production? In other words, it’s not really you, it’s just your chemistry.

This perspective gives me hope, because it means I can change the way I feel. If tweaking serotonin can relieve physical and emotional pain I am in luck. I don’t have any physical pain, but emotionally I’ve been feeling pretty challenged lately.

I can probably chalk it up to stress, but I’ve been in a bad mood for months.


When I originally healed my gut, I also restored my serotonin balance without realizing it. But over the years, I didn’t pay attention to maintaining it, so I did several things, unknowingly, to lower my serotonin production. When I started my own business, I had an amazing flood of excitement and energy, only to crash 6 months later. Dark clouds descended upon me.

The stress brought on by my business has shown me where I am still weak. But it has also reinforced where I am strong.

My digestion has remained rock solid despite the stress, but my mood has taken the hit. But I finally have the opportunity to heal it consciously and once and for all.


What causes low serotonin production?

In my case, I’m pretty sure it is genetic. Depression, compulsiveness and anxiety run in my family and were likely passed down.

While that’s the foundation I was born with, I have the knowledge to improve on my genetics.

People born with low serotonin can exacerbate the problem with a poor diet, lack of sunlight, lack of exercise and lots of stress.

A diet full of sugar, processed carbs, artifical sweeteners, caffeine, and alcohol deplete serotonin. Even someone born with healthy serotonin levels can deplete their production through a bad diet and chronic stress.

There’s a misconception that eating whole grains can raise serotonin. It only provides a temporary bump, but does little to stimulate the body’s natural production of serotonin.

Interestingly, people with low serotonin are also perfectionist and like to be productive.  We don’t let low serotonin slow us down, to get things done we simply reach for quick serotonin fixes like sugary carbs and coffee.  These crutches deplete us even more.

Lifestyle factors, such as not getting enough exercise or sunlight also lower serotonin production, but the biggest serotonin zapper of all is stress. If your reserves are already low, stress can clean you out.  Conversely, people with high serotonin reserves can handle a lot more stress without getting burned out.

It’s not fair, but knowing yourself and respecting your limits is the best thing you can do for yourself.


Symptoms of low serotonin

According to Julia Ross of “The Mood Cure”, when serotonin plummets, people can experience any of the following symptoms:

Panic attacks, anxiety, phobias
Pessimism, depression
Seasonal Affect Disorder (winter depression)
Sugar cravings (especially in the late afternoon)
Intolerance to hot weather
Muscle pain (fibromyalgia)
Shyness, low self esteem, feelings of guilt
Irritability, impatience, anger
Obsessive or compulsive behavior (control freak, perfectionist, workaholic)

Symptoms don’t always tell the full story. So if you’re curious about your serotonin levels you can get them tested by a doctor.


How to boost serotonin

Raising serotonin from a dietary perspective requires eating a high protein, high fat diet. The healthy fats should come from omega 3 sources like fish, nuts, avocados and saturated fat in pork, beef and dairy.

Amino acid therapy is often recommended for boosting serotonin, particularly 5HTP or Tryptophan. These are the precursor building blocks of serotonin.

Conversely, following a low fat, vegetarian diet (no matter how healthy), might compromise serotonin production and mood. For a vegetarian it’s hard to get enough protein and fat to rebuild serotonin reserves.

And because caffeine, artificial sweeteners, and refined sugar are the enemies of serotonin production, these should be avoided too.

Other recommended supplements are passion flower, GABA, St. John’s Wort, fish oil, B vitamins, melatonin (for sleep), magnesium for relaxation and SAME. Often, with supplements, dosage is important. Too much or too little can make all the difference so I always recommend working with a trained professional when taking supplements.

Also, everyone tolerates supplements differently. I had a really negative reaction taking SAME before. It caused a lot of anxiety, which is the opposite of what it’s supposed to do.

If you want to take the dietary route to boosting serotonin, foods highest in tryptophan are bananas, turkey, chicken, whole milk (avoid if lactose intolerant), salmon, eggs, halibut, shrimp, tuna and lamb.

Transitioning to a serotonin-boosting diet can be a challenge. Low serotonin stimulates cravings for sugar and caffeine. But eating regularly is just as important as eating right. Skipping meals is one of the worst things you can do for serotonin balance and I’ve been guilty of this for years.

Skipping breakfast is terrible for serotonin. And for years I had only coffee or tea for breakfast. I just followed the fact that I’m never hungry in the morning, not knowing that replacing food with caffeine was doing damage to my serotonin production.

I did not feel the damage I was doing to myself because I kept my life low stress. But once the stress kicked in from running a business, my moods and emotional health suffered. I had been trashing my serotonin reserves for years.

My healing plan:

Eat a breakfast rich in protein and fat within an hour of rising. No more coffee or black tea.

I also need to work less and rest more. Definitely harder said than done, since I feel compelled to work all the time.

I need to spend more time outside in the sun, watching my dog frolick in nature. This is truly grounding for me.

Natural light/fresh air, a meal schedule, exercise, and time away from my computer is my formula for rebuilding serotonin.

I also tried amino acids, both tryptophan and 5 HTP, and they did have  a slight calming effect, but they also gave me headaches and slight nausea.

Thankfully, because I follow the Paleo diet, I am already eating the ideal way for serotonin building. But eating regularly is my challenge.

As is  letting go of my workaholic compulsions. But I suspect the hardest things to change will make the biggest difference.

It’s a chicken and egg scenario. My low serotonin compels me to work all the time (remember it’s a symptom of low serotonin).  Yet, constant work stresses my body and mind and keeps my serotonin low.

It’s never easy to make tough changes, but I’m thankful for this opportunity to learn about my body and grow my knowledge, using my serotonin and mood as my teachers and guides.

And telling you about my journey keeps me accountable. I’ll definitely keep you posted. And I hope you’ve learned something to help you on your journey.

Here is my question to you. What have your health challenges taught you?


angelafavheadshotAngela Privin is proof that IBS is NOT an incurable disease or a disease at all. IBS is a body out of balance. It’s an invitation for change. After solving her own IBS mystery more than a decade ago Angela trained as a health coach to help others.

Angela uses both science and intuition to help people figure out what’s out of balance in their body. She works with lab tests, dietary changes, supplementation and nervous system rebalancing. Get help rebalancing your digestive system and solving your IBS mystery here.


  1. Wow, this was so amazingly helpful, Angela. I can’t tell you how true “people with low serotonin are also perfectionist and like to be productive. We don’t let low serotonin slow us down, to get things done we simply reach for quick serotonin fixes like sugary carbs and coffee.” was/is for me! I never knew my perfectionist, productive-obsessive tendencies + my java love affair could be affecting my serotonin levels. Thank you for sharing this!

    • Thank you for your comments. This was revolutionary for me when I learned this too. I just had to share the realization. Glad it resonated and gave you some insight.

  2. How timely! Thank you for this post. I too run my own business and it’s brutal balancing act between productivity and insanity! I’ve been doing research lately between stress and physical repercussions and what you have to say makes total sense. Serotonin deprived individuals unite! 🙂 Wishing you a blessed and relaxing week!

  3. Angela, this was so informative and makes so much sense. I think I pretty healthy and balanced but I do notice that I get so sleepy around 3 – 4 in the afternoon (right now). Don’t know if it’s my Mediterranean heritage or the coffee I reach for at this time. There’s so much to consider when trying to live a balanced life it’s a wonder any of us can function — or maybe we’re just functioning and we don’t really know what it feels like to be thriving for an extended period of time?

    • Thanks for your comment. Finding balance is an ongoing process of learning and adjusting. We idealize balance but it is a fleeting state by nature. We stay in balance by making a million little conscious and unconscious corrections. Its best to move towards balance without expecting it to be a destination. I am sure you are much better at that process than you think. Just don’t get overwhelmed or caught up about all the stuff you “should” be doing for balance.

  4. Thank you for this post Angela! I just started back on 5HTP after almost 2 weeks of 4-5 hours of sleep a night! I was having a hard time even retrieving information from my brain to communicate…it was brutal. The connection between gut health, digestion, perfectionism, diet and serotonin really resonates with me. I love Julia Ross’ books…I’m currently reading The Diet Cure. My main challenge is that I have hypoglycemia in addition to the low serotonin and gas/bloating AND nurse two children right now (age 5 months and 2 years). Eating strict paleo leaves me famished and I am waking around 4 am every night and cannot go back to sleep. I take 100 mg of 5HTP around 3pm and, again, another 100 mg around 9/9:30pm. If I can get to sleep early, at least I can get in a good 6 or, sometimes, 7 hour chunk at night. Do you have any suggestions for a hungry mama who nurses two littles trying to heal digestion/IBS? I eat lots of fats (animal, coconut oil, butter) and protein. My grain consumption is low, but I find that I’m starving when I avoid grains completely, but I continue to have the insomnia, hypoglycemia and gas/bloating. thank you for all your help. 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment and for reading. My sense is that the hypoglycemia is what is causing the hunger. Balancing blood sugar can be tricky. Do you exercise at all? That is a great blood sugar balancer, one of the best in the world. Also for insomnia yoga nidre is a great guided meditation that gives you the restorative benefits of sleep. Listening to that can give your body the repair and rest it needs. Have you tried melatonin and magnesium. Check with a naturopath before taking them in case there are contraindications while breast feeding. As far as the bloating/gas I would have to get a better picture of your diet and health history to help wiht that. I invite you to sign up for a free consultation so we can trouble shoot.

  5. Hi Angela, thanks for sharing this makes a lot of sense for me and I agree its directly related to gut function and I believe it’s more related to gut bacteria, atleast it is for me. The supplement I love for helping with stress is L-Theanine, I take this at night and it just zaps stress and relaxes you. It increases GABA and other neurotransmitters but it’s puts you in a relaxed state. Hope you’re feeling better soon!

    • Thank you so much for your insight. I learn so much from my readers! And thank you for the well wishes and for reading.

  6. The idea that low serotonin impels us to be busy all the time, which in turn depletes our serotonin, really resonates with me. As does the rest of this post! I’ve had low serotonin issues for decades, if not all my life, also likely genetic. I was on an SSRI for a long time, which did help, but I didn’t want to stay on it. Very important in getting off it was inositol, which is a B vitamin. I read a long time ago that it could take the place of SSRI’s, but it wasn’t available then. It’s easy to find now — I get it in Jarrow’s powdered form from Vitacost very cheaply. Omega 3’s are also especially important.

    I wish I were better at self nurture, but I’m not there yet, and I need PERMISSION to stop all the crazy running around and take care of myself. Perhaps all women need it. A wonderful book, The Chemistry of Joy, by Henry Emmons, was great for this, as is this lovely, sympathetic post. It’s inspiring me to buy his workbook to keep myself on track.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments Betsey. And thanks for telling me about what helped you and good luck in the workshop. I think that the challenge in life, the biggest challenge for most people is learning to love and take care of ourselves. It is a lifelong process of growth. So even when you are running around like crazy or doing something you think is bad for you, tap into deep compassion for yourself no matter where you’re at or what you’re doing. We are all learning, growing works in progress. Your comment helps and inspires me on my own path. And will likely do the same for others who read your comment and relate because it is their struggle too.

  7. 5-htp is the most powerful supplement I’ve ever used for my IBS. Makes me groggy though.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I am always fascinated with what works for people. Do you still use it? Thank you so much for reading and for your comment.

  8. i am curious abt Gelatin supplement. Is it a good idea (for digestion) to take it regularly if I don’t make bone broths? Thank you! I love your blogs even though I do eat grain.

    • Hi Urszula. I make desserts out of grass fed gelatin. You can also put the powder in smoothies or soups. Check out my pinterest board for gelatin recipe ideas ( I think gelatin is best taken in food form and yes it’s good for healing the lining of the digestive tract. So nice to hear from you. And thank you for the warm compliment.

  9. Thanks for sharing your story and the information on Serotonin. I have a friend who suffers from a lot of the symptoms and I think i’ll pass this on to her. Hopefully you and her can work through this successfully!! 🙂

    • Thank you Aimelie. I think that knowledge is power and I am sure with tweaking I will be able to figure out what works for me. Hope it is helpful for your friend too. Thanks for sharing and thanks for your comment.

  10. Angela,

    Good for you for taking your health in your own hands. I’m so happy you are healed. 🙂

    This may sound silly, but my secret for being happy and healthy is sleep. When I have the perfect amount of sleep, I’m so productive I sometimes scare myself!


    • Since “take your health in your hands in a tagline of this site, I had to do it. I am just so happy that I have discovered this information because now all the health pieces fit together. The best thing we can do for our health is to truly understand our body and mind. Thank you so much for your comment.

  11. Wow Angela, I agree with EVERYTHING you said. As a mental health professional I come across this with clients all the time – and I too am a victim to low serotonin levels. I am all the things you describe above – the perfectionist, workaholic, Seasonal Affective you name it 🙂 I’ve managed it all my life, but sun and exercise are imperative for me 🙂 Thanks for such a well written and insightful post.

  12. This is incredibly interesting, and makes a lot of sense. I’m a “why” person. I always want to know why certain choices affect us the way they do. Your explanation is clear and really helpful Thank you for sharing!

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  14. I’ve had low seratonin all of my adult life, some 35 years now. Twenty years ago I started taking Zoloft and it changed my life, with exactly the kinds of benefits that one would expect, i.e., greatly reduced anxiety, improved ability to deal with stressful circumstances and events, enhanced feelings of self worth, improved sleep, and the reduction of fibromyalgia symptoms. But I am realizing now the importance of addressing the underlying cause, in that I have never really dealt with the IBS symptoms which I have also experienced for most of my adult life. This article and many others exploring what Kris Kresser calls the “gut-brain axis” are particularly interesting to me in my current efforts to heal.

    • Hi John thank you for sharing your experience. Have you read my blog post about Yoga nidra? It will help support that gut-brain axis and rewire your brain so you will be more resilient to stress. It also does wonders for raising serotonin. I have been doing it quite often myself and it has made a huge difference for me. Good luck on your journey and keep educating yourself and trying different things. You have everything you need inside you to balance your serotonin levels.

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  16. Serotonin is created by carbs aka sugar yet you say to avoid these things and you also said you’ve been in a bad mood lately. It’s because you haven’t been getting enough. I agree that plain white sugar or other things that are processed that have things in them are not. However sugar is energy to human. The more sugar you have the more energy you will have. It’s just that it’s best to get it from fruit instead of plain white sugar or reaching for something that has sugar in it but is really a high fat bomb. I tried the paleo thing and I was at the point of being suicidal. Sugar is fuel to humans. The equivalent of gasoline to a car. I know if other people that tried paleo and their mood levels dropped as well. Humans are natural fruit eaters. Fruits and veggies that do not require to be cooked is our natural diet. Sugar might not be good on a high fat diet but that is because the fat blocks the insulin and the insulin has nowhere to go. You are bettering off lowering fat intake and greatly increasing carb intake. I’m not saving give up my meat if you think it’s OK to eat it, but cut back on it and have large fruit smoothies for breakfast and make sure you consume a lb of greens everyday with a large salad or in a smoothie. Peace.

    • Hi Dennis, thanks for sharing what works for you. That wouldn’t work for me or lots of other people. Just remember there is no on eway to eat for everyone. The idea is to find what works for you. Paleo works great for my body. I got over my mood issues when I made some tweaks. I ate plenty of fruit and starchy veggies on Paleo when I was struggling. I crave fat and do great with no grains. But obviously it doesn’t work for everyone, as you pointed out. Good for you for finding your personal food balance.