Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that carries signals between the nerve cells in your brain, as well as between nerve pathways and muscle tissue. The largest concentrations of serotonin in your body will be in your brain, your blood platelets and your digestive tract. For many years, physicians and biochemists have believed that serotonin plays a significant role in regulating your moods. Serotonin deficits have been linked to depression, although physicians have not conclusively determined if serotonin deficits cause depression, or depression leads to Serotonin deficits.
The Role of Serotonin
Although serotonin is present in blood platelets, it will not cross your blood-brain barrier. This means that your brain needs to manufacture its own serotonin neurotransmitters. Ecstasy, LSD, and other mood-altering drugs cause massive boosts in serotonin levels in your brain, leading to the high levels of euphoria that users of these substances often experience. This connection between euphoria and high serotonin levels gives credence to the potential causal link between low serotonin levels and depression.
Individuals who suffer from depression can benefit from a class of pharmaceuticals known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or “SSRI’s”. Serotonin will generally be re-absorbed into an individual’s brain or bloodstream after it transmits signals between nerves. SSRI’s prevent that re-absorption, causing a serotonin excess in that person’s brain, which in turn elevates his or her mood. SSRI’s are available only by prescription, with Zoloft and Prozac being the most commonly-prescribed SSRI’s.
Serotonin in Recovery
SSRI’s are generally not thought to be addictive in the same way that other abused substances, such as opiates and methamphetamines, are addictive. Yet any substance that alters brain chemistry has a potential to create a psychological connection that mirrors addiction. In simple terms, SSRI’s facilitate an excess of serotonin in an individual’s brain, which makes that person feel good. Over time, that person becomes accustomed to feeling good and relies on the SSRI to maintain that feeling. If that person suddenly stops taking SSRI’s, his brain chemistry and metabolism will need time to readjust to lower serotonin levels. He might experience dizziness, excessive perspiration, and other flu-like symptoms, but rarely if ever will he get the same type of cravings for the drug that accompany withdrawal from genuinely addictive substances.
Higher serotonin levels are associated with elevated moods, but too much serotonin can cause problems as well. When serotonin levels are raised too rapidly or excess serotonin collects in a person’s brain, he can experience agitation, headaches, high blood pressure, nausea and vomiting, and confusion and hallucinations. This suggests that individuals have some median or ideal level of serotonin that will modulate their moods and prevent depression. Currently, finding that ideal level is more of an art than a science.
Depression and other psychological disorders affect a large portion of the population. Some individuals who suffer from depression will turn to addictive and dangerous substances to elevate their moods, while others might become overly-reliant on SSRI’s.
If you suffer from depression and have become concerned over your use of pharmaceuticals or other substances to fight that depression, please call the Last Resort Recovery Center at 512-360-3600.
We can provide a confidential consultation and give you more information on the role that serotonin plays in modulating your moods, and your options for different therapies to address your depression symptoms.