Dear Mark: Too Much Serotonin and Broccoli Sprouts

Inline_DM_06.05.17For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering two questions from readers. The first is more of a comment, but it brought up a few questions for me to address. Is “more serotonin” always a good thing? Is there such a thing as too much serotonin? And second, what’s the deal with broccoli sprouts? Are they good for us? Has the grungy hippy hawking sprouts next to your meat guy at the farmers market been right all along?

Let’s go:

All good tips everyone should follow and a good reminder, thanks Mark BUT … it’s not always about trying to load up on serotonin nor is it necessarily safe to do so in excess, it’s also about your ability to USE what serotonin is there, it needs to be transported to the appropriate receptors. I’ve discovered this the hard way over the years. I’m in my 60’s and only take one pharmaceutical, an SSRI, and I no longer beat myself up about needing a reuptake inhibitor to literally help stay sane (I would not wish the panic attacks I get otherwise on my worst enemy).

I agree. More serotonin isn’t necessarily “better” and can even be counterproductive. For instance, one important function of serotonin is to increase “social awareness.” Adequate serotonin allows us to gauge the room. It increases empathy, helping us place ourselves in another’s shoes—a necessary skill for reading a situation. It helps us decide whether caution is warranted.

Yet, too much serotonin can backfire. A recent study found that brains of subjects with social anxiety disorder made more serotonin and transported it more efficiently than control brains. More specifically, the anxious patients’ amygdalae—the section of the brain associated with the fear and anxiety response—were awash in serotonin.

That’s one reason why I didn’t discuss taking 5-HTP supplements to increase serotonin in the brain: It works too well. Your brain has a theoretically limitless capacity to convert 5-HTP to serotonin. More 5-HTP crossing the blood-brain barrier (which it does), more serotonin production in the brain. If there’s 5-HTP available, you’ll make serotonin.

Sounds good at first glance, yet 5-HTP supplementation consistently fails to beat placebo in randomized controlled trials of depression. Sometimes it even worsens depression and other conditions by depleting dopamine and norepinephrine. All those neurotransmitters play important roles, too. To isolate and obsess over a single one misses the boat. Besides, we have a reliable way to increase serotonin production on demand—and it doesn’t really help the conditions “high serotonin” is supposed to address.

That’s why it’s important to disabuse the whole notion that there are good and bad neurotransmitters (or hormones, or cholesterol, or…). We’re finally starting to understand that our bodies aren’t producing things like LDL to clog our arteries or insulin to make us fat. Everything our body makes has a purpose. We must also understand that it goes the other way, too: endogenous production of neurotransmitters, hormones, and other compounds has an upper limit. More isn’t always better or safe.

Luckily, it’s unlikely that you’ll overdo serotonin following the guidelines I laid out in the post, because those guidelines promote natural production and regulation of serotonin. 

Thanks for the comment.

Hi Mark,

What are your thoughts on sprouts? Not sprouted grains, nuts, beans, etc, but instead stuff like broccoli sprouts? Healthy, neutral, bad?

Thanks. I love broccoli sprouts and don’t want to give them up.

I’m a big fan of sprouts. Well, I’ll rephrase: they interest me greatly. They aren’t a regular part of my diet, but in the last few months I’ve been stumbling across information that makes me think they should be.

Luckily for you, broccoli sprouts show the most promise, particularly against oxidative stress. They are the single best source of the powerful phytonutrient sulforaphane or its precursor which converts to sulforaphane, having about 10x more than the next richest source, broccoli. What can sulforaphane-rich broccoli sprouts do for people?

They can reduce oxidative stress markers and improve liver function in people with liver abnormalities.

They increase the body’s detoxification of airborne pollutants.

They reduce the nasal allergic response to diesel exhaust particulates.

They reduce oxidized LDL and improve other heart health markers in type 2 diabetics.

They reduce inflammation in smokers exposed to infuenza virus, possibly by decreasing the amount of virus residing in the nose.

They reduce symptoms in autistic teens and adults, improving social interaction and verbal communication in about half the the people tested. That’s really, really cool.

More generally, the sulforaphane in broccoli sprouts activate detoxification and antioxidant pathways in the body. In other words, sulforaphane is a hormetic stressor—a plant toxin that elicits a protective, beneficial response in the organism.

It’s not a panacea, of course. In asthmatics, broccoli sprouts failed to reduce oxidative stress or improve lung function despite drastically boosting sulforaphane levels. And as a hormetic stressor, there’s probably an upper limit to the amount of sulforaphane we eat and frequency with which we eat it.

But broccoli sprouts are clearly helpful and powerful, and people have caught on and are figuring out ridiculous ways to eat them, like eating bread made out of broccoli sprouts. I’m sure that’s great and all, but why not have a salad or a smoothie? This preserves the sulforaphane, whereas heating degrades it.

If you want to get started with broccoli sprouts, you have a few options:

The aforementioned grungy hippy at the farmer’s market. Nice way to start and see if you even like broccoli sprouts, but $3-5 a pop will add up if you start consuming Rhonda Patrick-esque levels of sprouts.

Sprout your own. It’s apparently a simple process. Buy some seeds, get some jars, find a warm windowsill, and you’re good.

Get some broccoli sprout extract or powder. Many of the studies use supplements, so they should work.

I think I’ll give these a shot myself.

That’s it for today, folks. Thanks for reading!

I’d love to hear about your experiences with serotonin and/or broccoli sprouts?

Take care, all.


About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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27 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Too Much Serotonin and Broccoli Sprouts”

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  1. Oh man, I saw the title and got nervous you were going to say something bad about broccoli. Broccoli has been my favorite veggie for a long time.

    Never heard of broccoli pills and powder.

  2. Wife is awesome enough to sprout chic peas for boys and me. Then, she turns half the batch into the best homemade hummus in the world. Super high in folate (NOT FOLIC ACID, big diff)!! Great for methylation support.

    Use to sprout sorghum too… until another someone here pointed out that sprouted sorghum contains lethal doses of cyanide. Do sprout things but do not sprout sorghum.

        1. I’m posting from my smart phone, and left an emoji thumbs up in my previous comment, but apparently it’s not viewable.
          *Thumbs up*

          1. Gee, thanks. I lament the demise of comic appreciation. I will persevere.

    1. Liver ?, it is the cyanide on Broccoli sprouts that helps make it anticancer…same with sorghum. Thanks for the info on Sorghum I will be sprouting it next.

  3. If I sense Mark is going to talk about a certain food I like to put it in my mouth and then read what he says. I’m ready to spit it out if necessary. I swallowed this post quite well. Broccoli sprouts from the farmer’s market and from the very same hippy about whom he was talking. She must have turned up here in Niagara. I’ll try growing my own now as well.

  4. If they taste the same, the sprouts of broccoli can go to the same place as broccoli: to hell. Half-kidding aside, I wish I liked broccoli but I just can’t stand it. The smell, the taste. Thankfully, I love cauliflower and brussels sprouts for my cruciferous needs.

    1. Broccoli sprouts are a good bit more “mild” than broccoli. Also, there is a sort of blanching method (160 degree water for 10 minutes) that’s supposed to increase the available sulforaphane. This also lightly cooks them and makes them even milder. I usually make a smoothie with broccoli sprouts, a few frozen blueberries, and some water. I’m treating it like a “vitamin” so i’m not expecting the most delicious of tastes. Still, fairly mild tasting to me and nothing like really strong raw broccoli.

  5. I tried broccoli sprouts after listening to Rhonda Patrick interview some Ph.D. dude about the benefits of sulforaphane. I convinced myself that they tasted ‘tolerable’ even though, if truth be told, they’re repulsive. I guarantee you your ancestors did not eat broccoli sprouts 20,000 years ago. If they accidentally got some in their mouth while chasing down a megafauna, they immediately spit it out, just like an unknowing toddler will do if you insist he or she try some. It’s a built in natural response to poisonous things we should not ingest. I spent the better part of the afternoon on the toilet with diarrhea. NEVAR AGAIN.
    MAYBE, I’ll try a supplement just for the purported sulforaphane benefits.

    1. Our ancestors may not have eaten broccoli sprouts. But then, they also probably didn’t have air polluted by automobiles or “modern” sources of high oxidative stress to their bodies. Just saying sometimes we need more of some things just because our environment is different. Like consuming vitamin D pills if we live at a high latitude and work indoors. FWIW, i don’t find broccoli sprouts that strong, and you can also blanch them in hot water for a few minutes which lightly cooks them and makes them milder tasting (this is supposed to actually increase the sulforaphane you’re able to get from them as well).

  6. I’ve been on Cymbalta for years, and it’s an SNRI. It deals with norepinephrine as well as serotonin. Since I quit cold turkey, foolishly, 2 months ago, I’ve started taking amino acids to counteract some of my discontinuation syndrome,

    I decided to go with tryptophan because it’s a precursor to serotonin and other NTs as well. It’s not as free-wheeling as 5-HTP. I also take DL-Phenylalanine which is a precursor to both Dopamine and Norepinephrine. From what I can tell, there are benefits to taking amino acids “lower on the food chain” so to speak because your body can make what is needed.

    Eating primal is obviously a good step in all of this as well.

  7. Whew – I thought you said brussel sprouts, which might be a thing worse than death. I have to leave the house when The Mrs. cooks those. Brussel sprouts combust ALL of my serotonin. I’ll have to try the broccoli.

  8. The article about the SAD study was really interesting … and challenging … had to reach for the dictionary quite a few times LOL.

  9. Love broccoli and broccoli sprouts! For the ones that can’t stand its taste, maybe they can use a nutribullet, or similar food processor and make it as a juice. Just a thought.

  10. Can’t wait to share this with Hubby – all he thinks Sprouts do is stink the bedroom out, haha!

  11. So appreciate your discussion of serotonin, Mark – and the intelligence of our bodies generally.

    One of the best parts about *just* eating a simple, nutrient-dense primal diet is that it supports the body doing and getting what it needs (in a way we cannot “figure out” or “measure out” using numbers and our “thinking brain”). Sure, sometimes we need or at least benefit from extra support…but there’s such freedom and ease in trusting our body’s innate affinity for balance, wellness, healing.

  12. Are there food poisoning issues with broccoli sprouts like there is with alfalfa sprouts? I have avoided any sprouts for this reason.

  13. Funny, perception is amazing. I personally really like broccoli sprouts and add them to my salads liberally.

    Unfortunately sprouting them is sometimes a rather pungent process.

  14. We make our own sprouts on the kitchen counter, in a cheap plastic sprouter box we bought locally. You can also just use a jar, as Mark suggests. All you have to do is rinse them once or twice daily, it’s super easy. We buy a seed mix that contains broccoli, alfalfa, mung bean, and a couple other seeds that I can’t recall right now. We use the sprouts almost daily….they’re probably best in green salads, but you can eat them with just about anything. Sprouts are wuper high in folate, among other things. And I do not find the taste objectionable at all.

  15. For those interested in learning more about broccoli sprouts. Check out Dr Rhonda Patrick. She has a great video going into depth on the topic.

  16. I freeze my broccoli sprouts right in the clamshell they come in. I then add a quarter of the package of frozen sprouts to smoothies. Freezing might also boost the sulphrofane content.