Serotonin is a funny one. Although the prevailing sentiment is that we want to “increase serotonin,” it’s not that simple. There’s no indication that more serotonin is necessarily better in every situation, or even generally. The link between serotonin and “happiness” or “mood” isn’t so clear-cut as the experts would have you believe, either. So while I am going to tell you how to “boost” serotonin levels because serotonin is a vital neurotransmitter, I plan on sticking to foods, supplements, and behaviors that promote physiological levels of serotonin. Boosting serotonin beyond what the body is designed for may not help you, and it may have unpleasant and unwanted effects. Is Serotonin a Mood Booster? Yes and no. For evidence, I submit two items. The first is clinical research and the second is pure anecdote, albeit personal anecdote. Everyone has heard of SSRIs, or selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. The most common form of antidepressants, their purported mode of action is to reduce the re-absorption of serotonin by neurons which increases the circulating concentration of serotonin in the brain. They increase brain levels of serotonin so it’s able to act longer. The evidence in favor of SSRIs in treating depression is mixed. Not everyone benefits, and it often takes several months to take effect. But they do help some people. In recent years, depression studies have pitted SSRIs against another drug—tianeptine—that does the opposite: increases the absorption of serotonin by neurons and decreases the concentration of serotonin the brain. If the “serotonin=happy” hypothesis is correct, tianeptine shouldn’t improve depression. It should worsen it. But that’s not what happens. Both tianeptine, which lowers brain serotonin, and SSRIs, which increase it, have been shown to improve depression symptoms in patients with clinical depression. If anything, tianeptine might even be more effective. This doesn’t mean that serotonin has nothing to do with depression, or that it’s bad for depression. It just means that the story is a little more complicated than we thought. Now the anecdote. Back when I was doing some research for a new probiotic supplement, I tried one that had been shown to increase serotonin levels: B. infantis. This is how I do things usually. Most all my products are created to solve a problem in my own life. I figure that if something appeals to me or fixes an issue affecting me, it will help others too. So this time, I added the powder to a smoothie and down the hatch it went. About half an hour later, I got the distinct sense of what I can only describe as emotional numbness. There was just this big blank emptiness in my heart and mind. I felt robotic, except I was a robot who had memories of what it was like to feel. It was a very uncanny, unnerving feeling that I don’t ever want to feel again. Maybe the dosage was too high. Maybe I shouldn’t have been taking a probiotic strain meant for human infants (B. infantis is present in infant guts … Continue reading “12 Ways to Boost Your Serotonin”
Humans are hardwired to crave certainty. Psychologists argue that it’s an innate need, programmed into our biology and reinforced through evolution. Understanding our environment allows us to predict, with some degree of accuracy, what will happen in the future. From an ancestral perspective, certainty allows us, theoretically, to avoid danger, reap desired rewards, and ensure survival.
The need for certainty is a central tenet of psychology. Human development is all about testing and forming theories about the environment, from toddlers throwing objects and learning about physics, to young children acquiring theory of mind, to adolescents pushing social boundaries. Even our language reflects this. Consider how many words we have around the concepts of agency, self-determination, personal freedom, and free will, especially in more individualistic societies.
At its crux, the need for certainty reflects a desire to control and master the environment. We assert control through our choices, whether that’s deciding what to eat for breakfast, opting for the highway or surface streets on our commute, or choosing whom to marry. Every decision, from mundane to life-altering, depends on our ability to weigh the odds of getting a favorable outcome. We can only do that if our world is predictable, at least to a degree.
Raise your hand if you’ve been feeling a little overwhelmed. Aside from the fact that being in the middle of a pandemic makes everything more stressful, you’ve got work obligations and family commitments, then there are food choices to make, at-home workouts you think you should be doing, and non-stretchy pants you’re feeling bad for not fitting into. It’s a lot. I get it, and it’s totally normal to feel overwhelmed. That said, staying in a state of overwhelm is a choice. Yep, you heard me, it’s a choice. And if you’re ready to get out of the seemingly relentless spin cycle of life (and the tight chest and racing mind that come with it), stick around. I’ll be unpacking the real reason you get overwhelmed — spoiler alert, it’s not because your to-do list is too long — plus, four things you can do to change it. Why Do I Get Overwhelmed? I’ll give you an example from my own life. As a health coach, I’ll often hear my clients say that they just can’t do it. They can’t swap out their toast and cereal for breakfast. They can’t make time to get outside. They can’t get to bed earlier. They can’t…fill in the blank. In my opinion, “I can’t” statements reflect limiting beliefs. They aren’t real; they’re just stories we tell ourselves, and identities we accidentally end up identifying with. It’s not that you can’t, it’s that something is holding you back. I find that most of the time, when I dig a little deeper, that thing is fear. Types of Fear That Cause Overwhelm: Fear you won’t be able to handle it Fear of getting it wrong Fear you won’t get it done (on time) Fear that you’ll be judged Fear of the consequences Fear of not being in control Fear of being embarrassed Fear that you don’t really deserve it Whether you’re experiencing worry, stress, or complete overwhelm, fear is usually at the helm, just FYI. But the goal here isn’t to be fearless (there actually are some benefits to fear), it’s to not let it rule your life. Anything that threatens your place in this world, i.e. your self-worth, can elicit a fear-based reaction. I’m sure you’ve heard of the fight-or-flight response, right? When you experience something that feels scary and stressful, the amygdala (the part of your brain that handles emotional processing) releases a rush of chemicals into the body. The stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol flood your system, preparing you to fight or flee. Not only that, the amygdala instantly shuts down the neural pathway to your prefrontal cortex which temporarily impairs all rational thinking, making you feel disorganized and out of control. So, It’s All in My Mind? Believe it or not, you’re causing this cascade of physiological effects by your thoughts alone, even though there’s no real danger other than the perceived consequences of what would happen if you failed or were embarrassed or weren’t able to keep tabs on all … Continue reading “What it Really Means When You’re Overwhelmed (and 4 Ways to Move Past It)”
I belong to a ladies’ trail running community online. These women are cool, badass humans who perform amazing feats with their bodies. Last month, someone asked the group if they ever struggle with body image. The responses were overwhelmingly affirmative. Hundreds upon hundreds of women responded, “Yes! Me. Every single day.” Only a very few said no.
It was eye-opening and also woefully unsurprising. Most adults I know struggle with body image on some level.
Those of us who are parents would love to spare our children from this emotional baggage, but how do we help our kids develop healthy body image in today’s world? We’re up against massive biological and, especially, social forces. Humans are hardwired to see — and judge — faces and bodies, looking for signs of friendliness, similarity, and fertility. Our early survival as a species depended on it.
The modern diet and beauty industries have taken these natural propensities and exploited them to the nth degree. They bombard us with messaging, both subtle and overt, telling us we must do everything in our power to be as physically attractive as possible. No amount of time or money is too much to invest in the quest for beauty and the “perfect” physique. Oh, and definitely don’t show any signs of aging. The wrinkles, gray hair, and natural softening of the body that comes with growing older? Not allowed! Obviously, if you fail to live up to the ever-changing ideal, it is 100 percent your fault.
Short of moving to the woods and disconnecting from society entirely, we can’t keep our kids from being exposed. Our best hope is to help them develop a healthy body image early. Give them a strong foundation so when they inevitably get caught up in Hurricane Diet Culture, they may waver, but they’ll stay standing.
The strategy is two-fold: First, do your best not to repeat and perpetuate the culture that creates insecurity and negative body image. Second, teach kids to trust, respect, and appreciate their bodies regardless of appearance.
Feel like you’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders? I can totally relate. If the struggles of living in an overly busy, stressed out society weren’t enough, the fear of navigating it all mid-COVID is the proverbial icing on the cake. Whether it’s the overwhelm of managing day-to-day tasks or deciding to get a handle on your mental or physical health, it can be hard to go it alone. Which leads me to the question: why do we feel compelled to do it all ourselves? Do You Have a Do-It-All-Myself Mentality? I ask my health coaching clients this question anytime I can feel them slinking back into their old patterns of avoiding asking for help. We sort of live by this notion that we should all be able to handle anything that comes our way. And if we can’t handle it ourselves, well, that’s a sure sign (at least in our own minds) that we’re weak, incompetent, or somehow unworthy of achieving success in that area. New health diagnosis? Sure, no problem. Relationship problems? Got it all under control. Global pandemic like we haven’t seen in our lifetime? No freakin’ sweat. The trouble is, asking for help can bring up similar, uncomfortable feelings. Research done in the fields of neuroscience and psychology confirm that there really are social threats involved in doing so. In fact, researchers found that an emotionally painful threat activates the same parts of the brain as physical pain does — which of course gives us even more reason to avoid asking and continue struggling in silence. Reasons You Avoid Asking for Help You may avoid asking for help for several reasons: You’re unsure where to turn You don’t want to be seen as weak Fear of being rejected Showing vulnerability Not sure how to ask Feeling like a burden Worrying people won’t like you Relinquishing control Admitting you can’t do it all Feeling like your problems are less significant You grew up with a pattern of being let down in childhood There’s no shortage of reasons why it feels hard to ask for help, but here’s where it gets wild. Studies show that people actually like helping other people — they get a huge benefit from it. Nothing we do as humans proves to be as fulfilling as lending a hand to someone else. To test this theory, researchers had participants write either a supportive note to a friend or write about their route to school or work before undergoing a lab-based stress task. Physiological responses like heart rate, blood pressure, salivary alpha-amylase, and salivary cortisol, as well as self-reported stress were collected and measured throughout the experiment. They found that participants who had written the supportive notes had lower sympathetic-related responses than their counterparts who just wrote about their routine. Asking for help makes people like you more too. This concept is called the Benjamin Franklin effect and is based on cognitive dissonance theory, which refers to “a situation involving conflicting attitudes, … Continue reading “How Do You Start Asking for Help?”
Last year, an article in the New York Times described “The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting.” That word struck me at the time and has stuck with me ever since. Speaking as a mom of two, the expectations and pressures weighing on parents can indeed feel relentless.
It’s not enough to keep our children clothed and fed, get them to school, and take the occasional family vacation. Parents today should provide optimal nutrition from birth and ensure that kids have the best educational opportunities. We’re told to enroll them in sports, extracurriculars, and tutoring to give them a competitive edge for college, then we’re obliged to volunteer as assistant coach, snack mom, and classroom parent. By the way, you’re already saving money for college, right?
Don’t forget, we’re also in charge of arranging playdates, monitoring screen time, and searching Pinterest for unique birthday party ideas and fun hijinks for the Elf on the Shelf.
No wonder parents are succumbing to burnout.