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What is 'serotonin syndrome'?5-9
Serotonin syndrome is the consequence of excessive stimulation of the central nervous system and peripheral serotonin receptors. It can arise due to taking medication, illegal drugs or dietary supplements, and normally occurs when two drugs that affect serotonin levels are taken at the same time i.e. taking migraine medicine alongside antidepressants.
Carcinoid tumors can cause excessive levels of serotonin. These are cancerous and are commonly found in the GI tract. The tumors cause too much serotonin to be released. Most carcinoid tumors have no symptoms, and so they are often found when tests or procedures are carried out for other conditions.
Serotonin syndrome leads to excessive nerve activity. Symptoms can occur within a few hours of the substance, inducing the condition, being taken. It is potentially life-threatening, and signs and symptoms include:7
Excessive levels of serotonin can occur through taking two different kinds of serotonin-boosting medication, such as antidepressants and migraine medicine.
- Agitation and restlessness
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Pupil dilation
- Loss of muscle co-ordination
- Muscle rigidity.
If the case is severe then serotonin syndrome can be life threatening. It can lead to high fever, irregular heartbeat, seizures and unconsciousness.
Serotonin syndrome cannot be diagnosed by a single test, and as many other conditions share similar symptoms, a health care provider will attempt to rule these out before diagnosing serotonin syndrome.
If diagnosed, treatment will focus on attempting to restore normal serotonin levels. If symptoms are minor then stopping the medication that began the problem could be enough to make the symptoms go away after a few days.
More extreme forms of serotonin syndrome may require treatment in hospital. Depending on the degree of the symptoms, various medications can be given to relax or paralyze the muscles, control heart rate and blood pressure and in some cases block the production of serotonin.
Oxygen can also be given as can fluids intravenously, in order to maintain normal levels of oxygen in the bloodstream and to treat fever and dehydration.
Natural ways to boost serotonin levels11
As well as SSRIs and illegal drugs, there are believed to be other ways to increase the levels of serotonin in the body.
Legumes such as chickpeas may have rich amount of trytophan, the key component of serotonin.
- Mood induction: alterations in thought, either through psychotherapy or self-induction, could increase levels of serotonin if the interaction between serotonin synthesis and mood is a two-way relationship.
- Light: already used as a treatment for seasonal affective disorder, a few studies have suggested that it can be used to treat depression as well.
- Exercise: exercise has an antidepressant effect, and some research has suggested that it can increase brain serotonin function.
- Diet: foods that have higher levels of tryptophan than others could be linked to improved mood and cognition, possibly due to increased serotonin levels.
These are all areas that require further study, as current knowledge remains speculative.
There is a lot that is still unknown about serotonin. The difficulties surrounding the study of brain functions means that it will be some time before a full knowledge of serotonin can be acquired.
Taking certain medications prescribed to treat depression, anxiety and other mental-health problems during pregnancy has been linked to a higher risk of autism and developmental delays in male children, according to a study published in Pediatrics.
New research from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO, and the University of Pennsylvania finds that a commonly prescribed antidepressant may be effective at slowing onset of Alzheimer's disease.
Researchers from the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, NH, recently investigated the role of serotonin on breathing responses in sleeping infants. The findings, published in Experimental Physiology, offer a new avenue of research into sudden infant death syndrome.