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The Upside of Low Serotonin

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A new patient visited our center recently, writing on our intake form “need to get my serotonin higher.” She’d read The Triple Whammy Cure and felt that she’d been making progress on her own. However, she was still mildly depressed, craved carbs, and had low energy. If you’ve read my book, you all know the rest.

She was my first patient ever to refer to the neurotransmitter (brain chemical) serotonin by name. And even with tens of thousands of copies of my book out there, I still feel the need to remind you that while stress-buffering serotonin is intimately involved in a constellation of low-serotonin disorders (including obsessive thinking, depression, anxiety/panic, compulsions/phobias, PMS, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, headaches, irritable bowel, and seasonal affective disorder, or SAD), getting well is not simply a matter of raising serotonin, but of lowering stress as well.

Let’s also take a moment to note the positives of being on the low end of the serotonin curve. We know that a woman’s stress-buffering serotonin level is much lower than that of a man’s, and therefore she’s more biochemically vulnerable to stress. And because virtually every place on the globe–from a busy Loop office to a village in rural India–is more stressful for women than for men, more and more women feel chronically unwell, not because of any actual illness, but simply because relentless stress is slamming their minds and bodies.

In an imaginary world, one in which there is no stress, a woman’s low serotonin has real advantages. Consider: with low serotonin comes a degree of sensitivity that the vast majority of men simply lack.

Women are far more sensitive to colors, textures, sounds, and aromas (many women are sickened by the perfume samples tucked into magazines). Far more women get side effects from medications than men. How is this sensitivity to sensations a good thing?

Because having low serotonin applies to emotional life too. Women “get it” in ways that are virtually unknown to men. Women can read people and situations. They respond to negative or positive energies from a person, group, or place. Because women are generally much more in touch with their feelings than men, most women communicate with each other on a far deeper level than men could ever imagine. Many women find male conversation startlingly emotionless and fact-oriented. And, interestingly, it’s the depth of female friendship and mutual support than some psychologists believe is contributing to the longer female lifespan.

You might as well call this heightened degree of sensitivity what it is: intuition. This is certainly a word we more often apply to women than men. By their teen years, women realize boys and boyfriends really are perceiving everything with less depth. Eventually, women discover the word “clueless” and shake their heads knowingly at each other. I’ve heard “He just doesn’t seem to be in touch with his feelings” more often than you’d believe. That’s a typical man’s high serotonin for you. Over-buffered–not only to stress (a good thing), but often to the world around him.

Two groups are starting to be studied for low-serotonin issues: artists of both sexes and gay men. While I’m treading into the land of generalizations here, both groups are generally in touch with their feelings and often find communicating with women more comfortable than with straight (and sometimes threatening) men.

Let’s end on another curious issue: the effect of too much serotonin. Part of the female response produced by low serotonin includes sensitivity to medications. When I’m caring for a woman taking antidepressants, it’s quite easy to determine when the dose is too high. I hear, “I’ve become a zombie. I’ve lost touch with my emotions. Yes, I’m less depressed, but I’m not laughing either. I don’t like it. It doesn’t feel like me.”

I explain to my patient what has happened–that her serotonin is too high and she’s become over-buffered. She’s not responding to a world she’s known her entire life. I add that this is the way most men feel throughout their lives.

“You’re not serious?” she says.

“Yep. Welcome to Guyville.”

“You, Dr. Edelberg?”

“I’m about as intuitive as a concrete block. I need explanations for the glaringly obvious. Just ask my wife.”

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3 comments on “The Upside of Low Serotonin
  1. Nellie Moore says:

    Thanks for the great article! I did not realize that serotonin is lower in women in general. As I work with my psychiatrist and begin to look at reducing my meds. in favor of other holistic options I’ve been looking at foods that contain or support serotonin. It’s good to know that it can be too much of a good thing.

    It also explain’s a lot to me about my husband (smile). Men are wired different. Women are wired different. I like my intuitive abilities. I think I’ll keep them!

    Thanks a bunch!

  2. Alex says:

    I think this is a far too simplistic view, for instance men’s and women’s behavior can be related to testosterone,dopamine,estrogen,etc.

    Serotonin for instance antagonizes dopamine, but when women are nursing,pregnant,and breastfeeding dopamine is antagonized. This is no real way to measure serotonin, sure we can measure certain areas of the body that is,but we can’t really figure out which receptor of the brain contains which amounts. Serotonin can have different effects on the body depending on which neuron is hit.

    We can agree that SSRIs and many pharma drugs are bad for you and are based on questionable science, but too generalize is too simplistic, on other natural food blogs they will talk about “natural ways to raise” serotonin, with sam-e,st john’s worth,etc

    So it can confuse folks, SSRIs are different from agonists,ssris can shrink neurons and make the body less sensitive to serotonin and bully it, whereas agonist can directly stimulate neurons but don’t effect reabsorption.

  3. Alex says:

    Also women can be moody, and women admit it, women are human beings just like men and be very sensitive at times, but very insensitive. It’s hard to realize what role serotonin plays, for instance if serotonin is supposed to make one calmer and less hyperactive, wouldn’t women have more serotonin?

    I do agree about men and women being wired differently but its not so clear-cut that its serotonin.

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