How to Optimise Brain Serotonin
Optimising serotonin is critical to success in every area of our life, and here is why:
Everything below the line we lose, and everything above the line we gain.
As we’ve learned, serotonin has a friend, dopamine, and both key executive neurotransmitters when optimised allow us to consistently do our best work in a state of flow.
In other words, no dopamine itches to scratch. In a few pages looking through the lens of the research, I will provide a simple framework called: The 5-Laws Of Serotonin Optimisation.
If we’re not serotonin optimised, we’ll experience loss of trophic support. Well, when the PFC powers down, that’s not fun. Is this relatable?
- Lower frontal metabolism (PFC) makes that book harder to comprehend, and we find ourselves re-reading a page or paragraph to help it “sink in.”
- Harder to plan and think, we’re kind of distracted, and the phones constant notification isn’t helping, but we can’t turn it off! Realise, if you’re doing your best work, you’ll happily turn notifications off or put it in flight mode as I do.
- Becoming increasing impulsive and thinking about our automatic coping strategies such as a coffee break or checking email and social media.
Social behaviour: We arrive home and feel it’s okay to be short and snap to our loved ones. Maybe we retreat home because we don’t feel like dealing with people, we’re a little anti-social. Understand, it’s not you because when you have energy and feel good, we do good by others; it’s our brain in defense mode.
Executive control: That project we’re working on, it looking kind of crappy.
Impulse control: Our brain whispers, “Hey, we can do this tomorrow. Now’s not a good time.” Or, it says, “Go ahead and have that burger. It’s ok. We can get back on track tomorrow.”
Mood: All over the place and feeling anxious or pissy for no reason.
Appetite control: Oh crap, we’ve got cravings because we lack gene fuel, and our cellular intelligence is giving us a sign that yes, something is lacking. But because we have lost trophic support, the mesolimbic system pushes us to pick up our phone and order that damn pizza using the Uber Eats App.
Sensory filtering: Distracted and can’t focus and checks social media; an email pops up in notifications of a thing you want to buy, and it’s discounted at 30% (I’ve been there).
Memory: Comprehension is not on point, and both short and long-term memory is out to lunch. Maybe coffee and a snack will help? No, not so much.
Understand, it’s not you. It’s a state of lack, inflammation, or both, positioning your physiology to stress mode.
Key points to understand moving forward.
Tryptophan creates serotonin via an enzyme called TPH1 (body) and TPH2 (brain) (Tryptophan Hydroxylase), and around 90% of serotonin is created for the peripheral (body) and exerts its effects on the body like this:
Introducing The Tryptophan (Serotonin Steal):
By the way, to create serotonin, optimal levels of vitamin D is required because it’s a vitamin D dependent enzymatic reaction, and serotonin for the peripheral has first preference because it’s part of homeostasis and the stress response.
Your PoS isn’t required to be fully operational to keep you alive, so it can be running with a low metabolic rate, and you’ll be okay, and you will call this normal, it’s not.
And as you know, where the blood flows, the brain grows. If it’s not flowing to the PoS, you’re missing out.
When I realised that the PoS is required to build beautiful relationships and a legacy for my family and to live on my terms, I really took notice of the biohacking space.
Recall, before October 2017 and at 46 years of age, I had no clue that the following could steal tryptophan and crash trophic support:
How to Optimise Brain Serotonin.
I tend to think of serotonin as a proxy to consistent performance because this neurotransmitter exerts a lot of its power in our PoS. Delaying gratification, choosing to do the right thing in a difficult situation, EVEN if it terrifies you.
Here’s the interesting thing; fear is cloaked as excitement; whether you’re in a fight or having sex, scientists say neural imaging couldn’t discern a difference—it’s your perception of the situation. So, get on the roller coaster and enjoy the ride!
The majority of the mishaps we experience are set in motion by P2s such as a mineral imbalance or lacking vitamins that fuel genes and enzymes. Emotional stress is intensified by P2s as we know, and tryptophan is diverted down another pathway called kynurenine.
Tryptophan does a LOT in our body; however, I won’t wax on about what it does, just realise that it’s a key amino acid. When the tryptophan steal is set into motion, the brain’s serotonin levels plummet over four to five hours; that is if they aren’t already due to chronic inflammation.
Let’s explore how and why this happens by reverse-engineering the creation of serotonin in our brain.
Question one: How does serotonin arrive in our brain?
Answer: As Tryptophan is converted into serotonin by a biochemical reaction via an enzyme called tryptophan hydroxylase 2 (TPH2). To convert tryptophan into serotonin we need the following fats, vitamins, minerals, and ions to be in our system: Vitamin D, B6, NAD+, NADPH, minerals, and iron (however, that won’t optimise the entire system; this is what it takes to ensure the genes, transcription factors and enzymes have the fuel to do work and make serotonin).
If you want elite status, you need an optimal omega-6-3 ratio:
The omega-3 HUFA’s docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are involved in the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin and the regulation of its metabolism to melatonin and breakdown. EPA increases serotonin release from presynaptic neurons by reducing the inflammatory E2 prostaglandin signalling, which can be triggered by a high omega-6-3 ratio. R
The omega 6 HUFA arachidonic acid (AA) increases E2 prostaglandins signalling, whereas EPA and DHA resolve the inflammation as it happens. You can think of it like this; AA is like a highly inflammatory dude, emotionally reactive with a hair-trigger, while EPA and DHA are the CEOs and are there to quickly resolve inflammation. Magnesium, like calcium, is involved in the conduction of nerve impulses, so having minerals at optimal levels is critical too.
DHA influences serotonin receptor action by increasing cell membrane fluidity in postsynaptic neurons. DHA also assemblies more synapses with more nerve endings, which in turn produce more serotonin, making EPA and DHA critical to executive control, stable and positive moods, and impulse control over its subordinate, dopamine. R1, R2
Refresher: Our genes have what’s called SNP’s; a single nucleotide polymorphism, this is what separates the average and elite. Some people have fast working genes, some normal and some slow. We all get a mixture.
People with elite performance genes have won the genetic lottery. They have an unfair advantage over us mere mortals; that is until you learn how to speed genes up, which you can, and I will reveal what the scientists have shown we can do to mimic elite genetics.
Let’s take a look at how this can affect us in innumerable ways.
Many studies now show that too much OR too little serotonin increases impulsive aggression, such as snapping at our loved ones and antisocial behaviours. Low serotonin causes depression and antisocial behaviours; we need balance.
Genes that influence serotonin:
1. TPH2: makes serotonin (inflammation slows this gene down).
2. MAO-A: degrades serotonin.
3. 5HTT: The serotonin transporter removes serotonin from the synapse when there is too much, so we don’t thoughtlessly snap at people.
4. Finally, OVER compensation of receptors; when there is consistently too much or too little, gene expression either deletes or inserts receptors to compensate. Supplements will affect receptor ratios, as we explored earlier.
Imagine for a moment we’ve unknowingly taken a supplement, which has the precursor to serotonin, and the THP2 gene has made a lot of serotonin. In four to five hours, it can build serotonin to levels where we become impulsively aggressive and snap at the littlest things.
There’s more trouble afoot. Supplements are changing gene expression by deleting serotonin receptors, so you need more serotonin (and tryptophan) to affect the same executive brain functioning. One more thing, recall that it also depletes dopamine, so we feel increasing crappy.
Or what about this scenario, which one of these genes is not working? Is it because of a lack of gene fuel? OR maybe we have a gene SNP that slows down one of these genes? We’re playing the lottery gambling with our brain’s executive performance.
What do you do?
Forget supplements for now. Your brain will naturally and automatically optimise itself when we eliminate, supply, and rebuild. Happy days are ahead!
Question two: How does it cross the blood-brain barrier?
Answer: On a protein transporter, a boat. That was easy, right?
Question three: How does tryptophan get a seat on the boat?
Answer: This is a four-part answer:
- The transporter, the
boat is a two-fold problem:
- When competing amino acids (CAA’s) aren’t too high. In other words, the ratio of Tryptophan to CAA needs to be optimal. R
- Free fatty acids are liberated by the rise in cortisol, and they also compete for a seat on the boat. To further compound the problem, if the GISR ratio is high, you guessed it, more FFA’s are in circulation and further diminish brain serotonin levels.
- P2’s are stealing tryptophan via the kynurenine pathway to lower inflammation or autoimmune responses such as and fighting infection or allergies.
- After the previous meal is consumed is lacking tryptophan, it can cause acute tryptophan depletion. R A collagen bar or shake can do this
- When we blindly take supplements (as outlined in point 1), tryptophan is outcompeted for a seat on the boat. R
Light Therapy: Bright light BLOCKS acute tryptophan depletion in the study:
“The mood-lowering effect of acute tryptophan depletion in healthy women is completely blocked by carrying out the study in bright light (3000 lux) instead of dim light.” R
That is so profound it needs repeating: “The mood-lowering effect of acute tryptophan depletion in healthy women is completely blocked by carrying out the study in bright light (3000 lux) instead of dim light.”
I use light therapy most days, and I feel more grounded and focused on those days. I even find myself giggling and smiling more, and yeah, I’m a 48-year-old man haha. These are some of the tools we can use to keep serotonin optimised. I will cover this later.
Question five: How do we get tryptophan into the system:
Answer: Through tryptophan-containing foods. Tryptophan is an amino acid; however, it’s found in chia seeds and other non-protein dominant foods too.
Herein lies the 5 Laws of serotonin optimisation:
Serotonin Law 1: Lacking the precursor to serotonin synthesis.
(1) Not surprisingly, if our brain lacks the precursor tryptophan, it cannot create serotonin or melatonin for sleep, and the brain’s power to cleanse the glymphatic system.
(2) If your blood has above housekeeping levels of inflammation OR too high cortisol, tryptophan will be diverted to the kynurenine pathway plummeting serotonin, and when that happens, dopamine is out to lunch. The bottom line, loss of trophic support.
as you can see, it’s a 2-fold problem. We must focus on eating the correct ratios of amino acids, so the tryptophan-CAA ratio is optimised. This isn’t difficult, thankfully.
Serotonin Law 2: Inadequate cofactors and omega-6-3 ratio.
If gene fuel is lacking for the process, serotonin cannot be synthesised for executive brain functioning. And we need the omega-6-3 ratio optimised. Why? As discussed in the previous sections, if your omega-6-3 ratio is high (details covered in leaver 2) you’ll have chronic low-grade inflammation, and much of the tryptophan is diverted to the kynurenine pathway. Your body will be continually putting out this fire, and if ANYTHING else comes into the system such as cheap-ass mayo, well, the PFC goes out to lunch.
Vitamins and pathways needed: Biopterin recycling (BH4) and optimal levels of NADPH, Iron, SAMe (melatonin synthesis), and B6.
Other considerations, synthetic vitamins. Synthetic vitamins such as folic acid compete for biopterin recycling (BH4), the first step synthesising neurotransmitters. These synthetic vitamins (allowed by our government) gum up receptors and slow the brain and metabolism down. There are other issues, too, such as reactive oxygen and nitrogen species (ROS – RNS), inflammation, and above healthy cortisol levels.
Other downstream effects: Melatonin, sleep, and the brain’s power cleanse. Decreased DHEA and testosterone.
Pathways to optimise for serotonin and trophic support are the #1 Pathways of Defense or 1-POD’s and pictured below:
Complex, huh? Not really, it’s surprisingly easy. Stay tuned.
Serotonin Law 3: Tryptophan becomes Jack in the final scene of Titanic.
Recall earlier when I discussed the ratio of tryptophan-CAAs? If competing amino acids (CAA’s) are too high, tryptophan loses its seat on the boat. In other words, the ratio of Tryptophan-CAA needs to be optimal.
Serotonin Law 4: The 3 fates of tryptophan.
Tryptophan has MANY roles and fates after it goes into the system, and depending on your cellular status, it will generally have three fates as follows:
(1) Protein synthesis – Very minimal role.
INSIGHT: Protein synthesis is zinc-dependent; if you’re low in zinc, you will have a low protein turnover including DNA and gene expression, muscle synthesis, stem cells, neurotransmitters, collagen, and you need zinc to make testosterone. Zinc is extremely important.
(2) Serotonin – Both for the brain and body.
(3) Kynurenine – This pathway has an essential role in human metabolism. If we have a high omega-6-3 ratio, the highly reactive dude AA will quickly start fires and divert tryptophan down the kynurenine pathway by something simple as getting angry because we were cut off in traffic, or we ate food with a P2 activator, or we simply lack mineral homeostasis.
Serotonin Law 5: Advanced support, next-level performance.
Again, I tend to use serotonin as a proxy of performance. I believe it’s a critical sensor because when we’re under stress, tryptophan is stolen. We feel its effects because it’s going to other systems instead of the brain to make the brains share of serotonin.