Serotonin – the feel-good hormone
Serotonin is said to determine our emotions, moods, and affect. The physiology of serotonin implies it in the regulation of biological pharmacological actions in the body and alterations in serotonergic function may account for behavioural disturbances commonly observed in the elderly.

Mood is an affective state that differs from temperament or personality. It is not emotions or feelings that we have but has a positive or negative valence. A positive mood shows no stress and facilitates creative problem solving and careful, flexible thinking. A negative mood can manipulate how individuals interpret and translate the world around them and it can direct their behaviour. It also influences their judgement and perception of objects and events.

The limbic system sits under the cerebrum and is the major primordial brain network underpinning mood. It regulates biological functions in line with our mood, like accelerated heart rate and sweating triggered by feeling flustered. The hypothalamus modulates hormones associated with mood and survival. It controls autonomic functions like sweating, heart rate, breathing and sleeping. The hippocampus reminds us which courses of action lead to outcomes that match our mood. It has been shown to be shrunken in people prone to depression. The amygdala attaches emotional significance to events and memories.

In essence, serotonin is a regulator of smooth muscle in the cardiovascular system and the gastrointestinal tract, an enhancer of platelet aggregation, and a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system (CNS) in human beings. Serotonin is found in high concentrations in enterochromaffin cells throughout the gastrointestinal tract, in storage granules in platelets and throughout the CNS. Serotonin has multiple pharmacological actions in the body: Sleep – it controls the sleep-wake cycle, it increases slow wave sleep, accelerates sleep onset and increases the total sleep time. Serotonin has an influence on cognition, sensory perception, motor activity, temperature regulation, nociception, appetite, sexual behaviour and hormone secretion. Geriatric depression carries an increased risk of suicide, higher mortality, and the potential for future development of dementia, and up to 9.3% of those over 75 years of age are affected by depression.

It is obvious that serotonin plays a significant role in the emotional wellbeing of people – whether they are young or old! How much does it contribute to happiness and creativity in the life of people? Can’t we just buy serotonin tablets, take them every day and be happy? Unfortunately, serotonin taken in orally will be destroyed in the gastrointestinal tract and can not reach the bloodstream and brain in this way. Eating foods that contain the essential amino acid known as tryptophan can help the body to produce more serotonin. In the body, serotonin is formed through the metabolism of tryptophan, which is a serotonin precursor in the body.

Is there a way of increasing serotonin in the body without drugs? Well, there has been a lot written about, and research is done on ways to increase serotonin in the body. The following four suggestions have been best researched:

  • Alterations in thought – self-induced changes in mood can influence the synthesis of serotonin in the body;
    exposure to bright light – more than 3000 lux;
  • Exercise – the most consistent effect is seen when regular exercisers undertake aerobic exercises at a level with which they are familiar;
  • Diet – the ingestion of food containing tryptophan, for example, salmon, poultry, eggs, spinach, seeds, milk, soy products and nuts.


Compiled by Prof. Oppel Greeff, CEO of Medwell SA, Specialists in Home Health Care.

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