…there’s really not much question that some pharmaceutical pollution persists and does wind up in the water we drink. In 2008, the Associated Press published a series of investigative articles about pharmaceutical contamination in drinking water. The journalists uncovered test results that showed the water supplies for 24 major metropolitan areas had detectable levels of pharmaceuticals. Scientists from the Southern Nevada Water Authority and other organizations reported results in 2010 from a study analyzing drinking water from 19 treatment plants. Their tests found antidepressants, antipsychotics, antibiotics, beta blockers, and tranquilizers…
Harvard Health Letter, 2011
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed antidepressants, and while the benefits of antidepressants can be life changing to many, investigative articles, such as that the aforementioned quote arises from, bring new light to the importance of looking toward preventative Lifestyle Medicine. Indeed, with pharmaceuticals now found in our waterways, lakes, rivers, streams and killing fish, and whilst pharmaceutical pollution doesn’t seem to be harming humans yet, alarming clues from aquatic life suggest now is the time for preventive action. Most importantly, we believe that now is the time to more overtly begin to look toward the ways in which we can integrate small changes into our lives; specifically as a way of increasing our health and well-being, specifically natural ways to boost Serotonin, before pharmacological intervention is needed.
Obviously, prevention is preferable to early intervention; moreover, although population strategies are important, they are ideally supplemented with preventive interventions that can be used over long periods of time in targeted individuals who do not yet exhibit even non clinical symptoms. Clearly, pharmacologic approaches are not appropriate, and given the evidence for serotonin’s role in the etiology and treatment of depression, non pharmacologic methods of increasing serotonin are potential candidates to test for their ability to prevent depression.
Another reason for pursuing non pharmacologic methods of increasing serotonin arises from the increasing recognition that happiness and well-being are important, both as factors protecting against mental and physical disorders and in their own right.
Modern research within this area now highlights what traditional Ayurvedic lifestyle medicine has suggested for over 5000 years. That there are many natural ways to boost serotonin levels to increase positive affect (mood), regulation of circadian rhythm (sleep/wake cycles), as well as positive cognition and perception. Such includes, and indeed is not limited to:
- Savouring the moment
Below we outline these four non-pharmacological lifestyle changes that can be made as natural ways to boost Serotonin, or generally speaking a greater sense of well-being.
Practice Surya Namaskar (sun salutes) facing the morning sun.
Ayurveda recommends that when we practise sun salutes we face the rising morning sun, which raises from the east. Thus, even if you are not able to directly see the sun emerging from the horizon, ensure that you are positioned facing the east to capture the radiating energy.
Practice meditation facing the morning sun.
We also do the same with meditation. By making sure that we face East we ensure that the morning sun hits the pineal gland. When we practice in the early morning the sun has the capacity to balance serotonin, and when we practice in the late morning the sun has the capacity to balance melatonin production and the regulation of circadian rhythms.
Do not be afraid to expose your body to sunlight
It’s very important to maximise your exposure to the bright light of mid morning to increase serotonin. While Ultra-violet light (UV) can be a dangerous, in small and mindful bouts the sunlight that we receive during the height of the day, absorbed through the skin and the eyes produces Vitamin D. It is vitamin D that, while also assisting in muscular, skeletal, nerve, and immune health, also plays a vital role in promoting serotonin production.
Dr George Jelinek explains:
I looked at the benefits of sun exposure in autoimmune illness, and there was a very strong literature around getting adequate sun exposure, so I now get at least 10 to 15 minutes of as close to all-over sun as possible. And when I can’t do that I take vitamin D supplements, so I keep my vitamin D level at the high end of the normal range.
An ancient Ayurvedic remedy is to expose to the abdomen and apply a gentle massaging technique. This ancient remedy is inline with the recent evidence-based knowledge that 90 percent of our serotonin is produced in the gut. it is out gut microbes that are responsible for modulating serotonin levels, thus it is reasonable to theorise that the abdomen may be an important part to expose. And, while there is no solid evidence to consolidate this theory, it is not a far stretch to acknowledge a link between the benefits of sunlight to our autoimmune system, a system which is directly related to our microbiome health, and serotonin levels.
Abyangha: Daily Self Massage
Studies have shown that massage in general improves serotonin levels. One such study showed that women who received massages twice a week from their partners for four months, increased their serotonin levels by 30%. This highlights not only the benefits of massage on serotonin levels, but so too the benefits of relationship on serotonin levels.
Another prime example of utilising interactive / relational massage to increase serotonin levels is baby and infant massage. Supported by Ayurvedic tradition and modern research. Studies amongst a group of 1- 3 month old babies of depressed mothers who were massaged twice a week for 15 minutes for 6 weeks, showed that the infants’ serotonin levels were boosted by 34%.
Ayurvedic tradition has long highlighted that daily self massage is a vital element of self-care, and the relationship that we have with ourselves. This ancient technique re-illustrates the importance of massage as a preventative lifestyle medicine – a traditional remedy to promote improved mood, and thus heightened serotonin levels (and vice-versa).
Yoga and meditation practices that include methods of cultivating vagal tone have also been shown to enhance mood again through the gut-brain axis.
As with exposure to bright light, there has been a large change in the level of vigorous physical exercise experienced since humans were hunter-gatherers or engaged primarily in agriculture.68 Lambert68 argued that the decline in vigorous physical exercise and, in particular, in effort-based rewards may contribute to the high level of depression in today’s society. The effect of exercise on serotonin suggests that the exercise itself, not the rewards that stem from exercise, may be important.
It is no new news that exercise is a prime form of lifestyle medicine, so if you have a quiet spot in the sunlight, why not try a 15 minute sequence to boost your serotonin levels. If not, combine the effects of exercise and relationship on serotonin levels by joining a class. Even if you are in the presence of strangers, the simple act of positive social interaction can help to elevate mood.
Yoga classes are a prime example of a positive correlation between exercise and increased serotonin levels. Though we may not be aware of it, even a gentle yoga class that overtly integrates the body and the breath through mindful sequencing is known to be a natural way to lowering anxiety and regulating the stress response – a vital element in the appropriate modulation of serotonin reuptake.
Savouring the moment
While true presence and the ability to draw on a positive recollection of the past are within the foundations of Ayurveda, yoga, and meditation, the term savouring was introduced into the field of positive psychology in the early 2000’s, and as such has brought new light to the ability to intentionally cultivate positive memories and to draw on them in times of need.
[Savoring] involves responding to positive experiences with thoughts and behaviors intended to increase and potentially prolong enjoyment – i.e., strategies that up-regulate positive emotions. Examples of such cognitive and behavioral savoring strategies include thinking repeatedly about how pleasurable an experience is or how grateful one is for it; smiling or expressing positive emotions in other non-verbal ways; and sharing the positive event or experience with a friend. Individuals also vary in their perceived capacity to savor the moment, and such perceived ability to savor the moment has been found to associate positively with happiness and inversely with depressive symptoms.
Kiken et al., 2017
The ability to recognise a positive even, to savour the moment, and to intentionally remember the moment mindfully has been said in increase serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is a region just behind the prefrontal cortex that controls attention. Therefore savouring is two-fold, not only does it draw upon the past to affect the present, so too it draws upon the present to affect the future; when we mindfully cultivate a memory we integrate and embed the associated emotions into the whole of our being, this in turn integrates the same emotional affect into our physical make-up, affecting everything right down to the ability of our genes to determine our health and well-being (epigenetics).
Never underestimate the power of a positive memory! Most importantly what is vital overall in the recognition of these four notions of naturally increasing serotonin levels, is not that lifestyle medicine should or can replace pharmaceutical interventions, it is that these non-pharmacological techniques are ancient methodologies that have been used to prevent illness and disease, inclusive of mental illnesses, far before the advent of modern medicine. Therefore, why not make time to increase your sun exposure, add a little self-care, exercise with friends, and to intentionally remember the good times. If not for serotonin specifically, simply because it will enhance all aspects of your mind and body cultivating well-being.
References and Additional Resources
This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is a region just behind the prefrontal cortex that controls attention. The same study that found this also showed that remembering sad events decreased serotonin production in the anterior cingulate. Thus, remembering positive events has a two-fold effect: it directly increases serotonin, and also keeps you from thinking about negative events.
A study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found high concentrations of antidepressant ingredients and their byproducts in the brains of fish from the Niagara River, which connects Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. How is this happening? Apparently, the fish are literally swimming in drugs such as Zoloft, Prozac, Celexa and Sarafem and their metabolites.
A study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1999 and 2000 found measurable amounts of one or more medications in 80% of the water samples drawn from a network of 139 streams in 30 states. The drugs identified included a witches’ brew of antibiotics, antidepressants, blood thinners, heart medications (ACE inhibitors, calcium-channel blockers, digoxin), hormones (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone), and painkillers. Scores of studies have been done since. Other drugs that have been found include caffeine (which, of course, comes from many other sources besides medications); carbamazepine, an antiseizure drug; fibrates, which improve cholesterol levels; and some fragrance chemicals (galaxolide and tonalide).