Serotonin is a 5-hydroxytryptamine neurotransmitter, and depletion of serotonin has been shown to contribute to migraines.1
Serotonin taken orally does not pass into the serotonergic2,3 pathways of the central nervous system because the brain cannot absorb serotonin from the bloodstream, and it does not easily cross the blood-brain barrier. However, tryptophan and its metabolite 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), from which serotonin is synthesized, can and does cross the blood-brain barrier with ease.4 These agents are available as dietary supplements and may be effective serotonergic agents.
Drugs may hinder the natural use/loss of serotonin, activate receptors, or mimic the effects, (these are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, serotonin agonists, serotonin antagonists, serotonin releasing agents), but drugs do not increase the supply of serotonin. So although drugs may temporarily help symptoms, they do not provide a cure for the migraine origin or solve the issue.
Serotonin Function in Relation to Migraine
- Serotonin plays an important role as a neurotransmitter in the modulation of anger, aggression, body temperature, mood, sleep, human sexuality, appetite, and metabolism, as well as stimulating vomiting.
- Serotonin is found extensively in the gastrointestinal tract; about 80-90% of the body’s total serotonin is produced in the gut.5
- In the blood, the major storage site is platelets, which collect serotonin for use in mediating post-injury vasoconstriction.6
- Serotonin depletion can be triggered by rapid or ongoing fluctuation in hormones, weather, food intolerances, stress, leaky gut, microbiome issues, and more.
How does one naturally increase serotonin levels?
- Serotonin levels may be increased by supplement of 5-hydroxitryptophan (5-HTP) and tryptophan. However, increasing foods rich in tryptophan (i.e. meats, proteins) does not increase serotonin levels, due to competition with other amino acids. What is required to increase serotonin production is an increase in the ratio of tryptophan to phenylalanine and leucine. Fruits with a good ratio include dates, papaya and banana. Foods with a lower ratio inhibit the production of serotonin. These include whole wheat and rye bread.7,8
- Much research has indicated that vigorous aerobic exercise improves mood, believed to be facilitated by an increase in serotonin levels. Research also suggests that eating a diet rich in whole grain carbohydrates and low in protein will increase serotonin by secreting insulin, which helps in amino acid competition. However, increasing insulin for a long period of time can sometimes onset insulin resistance, which is related to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and lower serotonin levels. It is also believed that muscles use many of the amino acids except tryptophan, allowing men to have more serotonin than women. Massage therapy has also been shown to help improve migraine frequency due to reducing stress and muscular triggers.9
- Bright light therapy is another popular method which prevents the conversion of serotonin to melatonin. A similar effect is obtained by spending more time in natural sunlight. Recently, acupuncture has been shown to stimulate the release of serotonin levels in lab animals.
- The American Migraine Prevention Study (AMPS)- a consumer driven study sponsored by Dynamic Health Resources, which found that a specific customized nutritional coaching protocol is successful in helping most participants naturally overcome serotonin deficiency. Learn More.
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2Serotonergic – Wikipedia
3Allocca, J., Carvalho, J. J., & Huffman, K. (August 2006). American migraine prevention study. https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00363506
4Sahelian, Ray. 5-HTP: Nature’s Serotonin Solution. Avery, 1998.
6Feldberg W, Toh CC (February 1953). “Distribution of 5-hydroxytryptamine (serotonin, enteramine) in the wall of the digestive tract”. The Journal of Physiology. 119 (2–3): 352–362.
6SERUM VASOCONSTRICTOR (SEROTONIN) (jbc.org)
7How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs (jpn.ca)
8Strasser, Barbaraa; Gostner, Johanna M.a; Fuchs, Dietmarb. Mood, food, and cognition: role of tryptophan and serotonin. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care 19(1):p 55-61, January 2016. | DOI: 10.1097/MCO.0000000000000237
9Tiffany Field, Maria Hernandez-Reif, Miguel Diego, Saul Schanberg & Cynthia Kuhn (2005) Cortisol Decreases and Serotonin And Dopamine Increase Following Massage Therapy, International Journal of Neuroscience, 115:10, 1397-1413, DOI: 10.1080/00207450590956459