Affectionately dubbed the “happy hormone”, serotonin is commonly known to play a leading role in regulating your mood but it’s also crucial for appetite, digestion, sleep, memory and even sexual desire and function. Low levels can lead to anxiety and depression – something that’s fast becoming a modern epidemic, affecting one in five
adults in the UK and leading to a dangerous dependency on serotonin-boosting antidepressants with dubious side-effects. But what if you could harness the potent power of serotonin naturally, simply by exercising? With the help of the leading minds and motivators in fitness, we did just that.
“A lack of sunlight, vitamin D, exercise and key nutrients in the diet can all cause serotonin levels to dip,” says trainer and nutritional therapist Gideon Remfry MSc, a leading expert in the field of integrated health, specialising in how exercise reduces oxidative stress and influences the production of neurotransmitters. “It’s naturally possible to up-regulate levels, helping boost mood, increase willpower and productivity and even improve relationships.”
The first step, Remfry explains, is to stimulate the senses. “When sunlight hits the iris of the eye it triggers the neural mechanism or biosynthetic pathway
that up-regulates production of serotonin,” he says. It’s a similar story with touch and taste. “Everyone thinks of serotonin as a chemical messenger in your brain but it’s in your blood and connective tissue and we’re learning a large amount – potentially as much as 90% – is produced in the gut.” Therefore it’s vital to keep your gut bacteria happy. How? By feeding it a nutrient dense diet, protein and (the best bit) chocolate
“Food-wise we know the precursor to serotonin is tryptophan, an amino acid present in protein-rich foods such as salmon, turkey, eggs, nuts and seeds,” Remfry elaborates. “Consuming tryptophan in conjunction with carbohydrates helps your body utilise it more effectively. And using chocolate as the delivery system has the added benefit of activating the ‘reward mechanism’ in your brain, which is interlinked with other feel-good endorphins.”
As a landmark US study
in 2004 found, human touch can be similarly powerful for promoting serotonin, as well as fellow neurotransmitter dopamine, and reducing the stress hormone cortisol. In the trial, pregnant women suffering depression who received two 20-minute massages per week from their partner for 16 weeks reported lower anxiety, depression and leg and back pain. They also saw significant spikes in serotonin and better scores on neonatal assessments, benefiting both mother and newborn.
“Touch creates trust and closeness in a similar way breastfeeding stimulates the neural transmitter oxytocin, promoting a strong bond between mother and baby,” Remfry explains. “All this sensory stimulation activates the same serotonin-producing pathway you experience when sunlight hits your eyes and skin.”
Stretch, Sculpt and Smile
Uniting these factors in a fun workout setting was the next task, which led us to yoga teachers and soul sisters Alex and Maddy Weaver. “Our philosophy to fitness is you stretch, you sculpt and, above all, you smile,” says Maddy, who will be leading our serotonin-boosting workout with Alex at this year’s Balance Festival.
The 30-minute workout begins with you lying on an exercise mat, visualising positive memories as light floods the studio and calming music washes over you. Next you flow through a challenging vinyasa yoga-inspired sequence that gradually builds to a moderate intensity – around 60% of maximum heart rate, shown to be the optimum range for up-regulating serotonin – mixing in bodyweight moves and partner drills involving touch and interaction.
The class is designed to challenge your brain as much as your body, with the skillwork involved in learning the flow sequence, stimulating a process called neuroplasticity. “It helps the brain to be a better learner,” says Remfry, comparing the skill element with mind game puzzles that reduce symptoms of cognitive decline, including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
“The multiplying effect of aerobic exercise and learning a skill builds something called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)
, a protein that helps with this neuroplasticity and neurogenesis – the development of new neurons. So you’re boosting serotonin, dopamine and BDNF – all really powerful chemicals for feeling good and thinking better.”
The Pursuit of Happiness
Mind well and truly altered, the workout concludes with a guided meditation, restorative gong bath (no class in 2019 would be complete without one) and a well deserved combo of chocolate and protein as your reward. “Cortisol can be elevated at the end of the workout so totally immersing yourself in the sound and vibration of the gong bath is really healing and creates a deep sense of peace, wellbeing and relaxation,” says Alex.
“We’ve had such a great response trialling the class,” adds Maddy. “There’s a lot of laughter, there have even been a few tears, but it’s all been really positive. I just hope people enjoy the class as much as we have coaching it.”
Whatever happens to your chemical make-up during those 30 minutes, Remfry insists you’ll leave feeling rejuvenated and ready for more. “Exercise is like an opiate – a feel-good opiate,” he says. “When you combine the endorphin rush you get from exercise with positive emotions of fun, learning a skill and associating the activity with reward, you’re creating a powerful bedfellow for adherence to exercise that will, ultimately, keep you coming back for more.”
Still need convincing? “Just come along,” says Alex. “We promise you’ll have an awesome workout, you’ll enjoy it, and you’ll even get chocolate! So what have you got to lose?”
Your Happy Hormone
What is serotonin?
A neurotransmitter, rather than a hormone, produced in the intestines and brain which relays signals between nerve cells and regulates their intensity.
Why is it important?
It has an impact on mood, sleep, productivity, appetite, sexual function and relationships. Deficiency is associated with anxiety and depression.
What are normal levels?
Generally, the normal range for serotonin levels in your blood is 101–283 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL).
How can I tell if levels are low?
Symptoms include feeling sad or depressed, low energy, negative thoughts, feeling tense and irritable, craving sweets, and having a reduced interest in sex. Other serotonin related disorders include anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, irritable bowel, obesity, chronic pain and migraines.
How do antidepressants boost levels?
Antidepressant drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are designed to prevent serotonin being reabsorbed, helping elevate mood. However, adverse side-effects range from nausea and insomnia to sexual dysfunction and suicidal thoughts. In 2016 there were 64.7 million prescriptions for antidepressant drugs in England, more than double
the 31 million prescribed in 2006.
How can I boost it naturally?
Through exposure to sunlight, regular moderate-intensity exercise, consumption of foods rich in tryptophan, and stimulation of the body’s reward mechanism with taste, touch and sound.