The Importance of Serotonin

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It was once thought that our brains and nervous systems were like an electrical wiring grid, but research now tells us that they are much more complicated than this. The brain and nervous system may be more like a complex hologram than a simple electrical schematic.

Lack of enough serotonin is thought to play a role in depression, anxiety, mania and other health conditions.

Many chemicals are involved in the transmission of nerve impulses, messages, and the other complicated functions of the nervous system. Our nerve cells, or neurons, aren’t a continuous “wire.” Rather, there are gaps, called synapses, between them. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that carry the nerve signals across those gaps. And once they have carried a signal from one neuron to another, they are either reabsorbed back into the neuron that initially released them (a process known as reuptake) or metabolized by enzymes. Not all neurotransmitters are involved in helping electrical signals pass from neuron to neuron, though. Others are used to signal some other physiological response, such as secretion of a hormone or other chemical messenger. It can all get very complicated indeed, with a virtual cascade of chemicals and resulting physiological changes and effects. We still aren’t even close to fully understanding the complicated workings of the nervous system.

For fibromyalgia, probably the most important neurotransmitter is serotonin. Serotonin is the “mood chemical” that produces feelings of well-being and happiness. It also helps regulate appetite, sleep, and, yes, pain perception. It was low serotonin levels that contributed to the anxiety and sleeplessness that Molly suffered from.

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There are also other agents, such as supplements, that have been shown to improve sleep overall for people and patients with fibromyalgia. Before taking any supplements, please talk with your doctor, nutritionist, or other healthcare practitioner to see if they are right for you.

  • Vitamin D. Vitamin D can reduce pain in patients with conditions such as fibromyalgia, and it has also been shown to improve sleep hygiene in patients with fibromyalgia [10]. It is recommended to get your vitamin D levels checked at your doctors, as it can depend on your geographic location, exposure to sun, and time of the year.
  • Melatonin. Melatonin is a natural hormone that the body produces to regulate sleep cycles, but the production of it declines as we age. As a result, taking it in supplemental form can benefit people with fibromyalgia by improving sleep quality and reducing fatigue, as well as reducing pain.
  • 5-HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan). 5-HTP is converted to the hormone serotonin in the body, which helps us fall asleep. Clinical evidence has shown that taking 100 mg of 5-HTP orally three times a day for 30 to 90 days can improve pain, tenderness, sleep, anxiety, fatigue, and morning stiffness in people with primary fibromyalgia syndrome.
  • Botanical Herbs. Herbs have been used as remedies to improve sleep for decades, and some of the most researched and well tolerated are below. One can find them individually packaged in supplements, or often in combination supplements.
    • Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
    • Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
    • Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)
    • Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
    • Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
  • L-theanine. L-theanine is a compound found in tea leaves and has been shown to promote relaxation, decrease stress, and relax the mind to promote better sleep, without causing drowsiness or acting as a sedative.
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When working with a healthcare provider to improve sleep with fibromyalgia, the first step to any therapeutic approach would be to get the patient’s sleep history. This includes factors about their sleep hygiene: Activities done before bed (physical exercise), attitude towards sleep (anxiety present), daytime activities that can impact sleep, dietary and lifestyle factors (caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine use), medications that affect sleep, and any other sleep-disrupting disorders

As we’ve seen, sleep is vitally important, because if you don’t get adequate rest, then the body simply does not have the opportunity to repair itself, resulting in more stress on all the tissues and organs of the body. This includes the brain and nervous system. This lack of repair and rest results in dysfunction of that tissue or organ, and it also causes you to feel profound, unrelenting fatigue. You can learn more about fibromyalgia by reading Symptoms of Fibromyalgia.

David M Brady

Dr. David M. Brady has over 30-years of experience as an integrative practitioner and over 25 years in health sciences academia. He is a licensed naturopathic medical physician in Connecticut and Vermont, is board certified in functional medicine and clinical nutrition, and is a Fellow of the American College of Nutrition. He was the long-time vice president for health sciences and director of the Human Nutrition Institute at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, where he continues to serve as director and professor emeritus.

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