What does serotonin have to do with eating disorders?
Serotonin is a chemical produced primarily in our digestive tract.1 Despite its humble beginnings in the gut, serotonin has the important job of deciding which brain cells to “turn off” (inhibit) during cellular conversations.
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By controlling which cells can “talk” during cellular conversations, serotonin can influence everything from our hunger to our anxiety.
Simply put, serotonin can control the conversations our cells have about many important body functions.
Why do people have different serotonin levels?
Our body needs certain amounts of serotonin to function optimally. However, not everyone’s body produces the “optimal” amount of serotonin.
One of the reasons people have different serotonin levels is our genes, which determine how much serotonin our bodies produce.2
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Genes are instruction manuals that we inherit from our parents that tell our body which protein parts are needed for our body to function at its best.
For many people, the use of serotonin produces an effective number of parts, making these people more resistant to certain disorders, such as depression.
However, not everyone inherits the same serotonin instruction manual. On the contrary, some people’s instruction manual tells their body to produce more (or less) serotonin-related protein than necessary, or to create distorted proteins.
These differences in protein production can lead to extreme increases or decreases in serotonin, disrupting specific biological (eg, digestion and stress) and psychological (eg, anxiety) functions that keep us healthy. .
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In addition to our genetics, our environment can also influence the amount of serotonin produced by our body. Who we socialize with, what and how much we eat, and how much we sleep can all impact our serotonin levels, as can stress, exercise, age, and sun exposure.3
Serotonin and binge eating disorder
Although we know that serotonin plays an important role in the development of eating disorders (ED), we don’t know exactly how.
People who eat excessively (eg, binge eating disorder (BED) and bulimia nervosa (BN)) tend to have lower than average serotonin levels.4 This makes sense considering that several characteristics of BED could be influenced by low serotonin.
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For example, low levels of serotonin contribute to depression5which is often co-diagnosed with BED.6 People who overeat have been found to experience increased reward when eatingsevenwhich means while eating could be a way to relieve depression.
Additionally, low serotonin has been linked to impulsivity and difficulty recognizing fullness.8both of which are typical of BED.seven One of serotonin’s main jobs is to tell us when we’re full, and when serotonin levels are too low, the satiety signal goes silent. If the satiety signal is too quiet for some people, they may continue to eat beyond what would otherwise satisfy them. This is especially true if they act on impulses to reduce depression (eg, eating).
Serotonin and food restriction disorders
The relationship between restrictive eating (eg, anorexia nervosa (AN)) and serotonin is a bit more confusing.
While some studies have shown that people with AN have lower than average serotonin levels, other findings suggest that people with AN have higher than average serotonin levels and that these unusually high levels are masked by starvation.4 Indeed, during food restriction, our serotonin levels drop.
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High levels of serotonin may help explain several symptoms of AN.
For example, high serotonin levels are often associated with anxiety, especially compulsions.9 Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is the most common anxiety disorder in AN, with the two disorders having possible genetic overlap. Anxiety may motivate people with AN to compulsively engage in ED behaviors that reduce anxiety, such as food restriction.
Another AN symptom that high serotonin levels could contribute to is perfectionism.ten People with AN typically have perfectionist personality traits which, together with anxiety and compulsion, could explain why these people engage in repetitive, yet destructive behaviors. The compulsive pursuit of perfection might reduce their anxiety.
Finally, high levels of serotonin are associated with behavioral compulsion, or the ability to stop yourself from doing something.11 People with AN are often rigid and restrictive, which helps explain why these people are able to stick to strict “rules” they have set for themselves, such as extreme calorie counting.
Serotonin and Lesser Known Eating Disorders
Unfortunately, we know very little about the role of serotonin in avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) and pica.
Nevertheless, pharmacological studies have shown that serotonin medications (e.g., SSRIs) reduce symptoms of ARFID and pica, possibly by decreasing meal and food-related anxiety, as well as compulsiveness.12; 13 However, more research is needed to understand these effects.
The Challenges of Drawing Conclusions About Serotonin and Eating Disorders
Despite the promise of these findings, it is too early to draw firm conclusions about the role of serotonin in erectile dysfunction.
One of the reasons for this is that we lack the technology to analyze specific molecular functions in people with erectile dysfunction. Animal models of ED can clarify some of these mysteries, but only to a certain extent. We need more precise technologies to fully understand the molecular aspects of EDs.
Also, since most research studies look at serotonin in people who are currently ill or have recovered from ED, it’s hard to determine what serotonin levels were like. before ED developed. In other words, did the atypical levels of serotonin contribute to the development of the DE? Or did having Does the ED change the person’s serotonin levels? Malnutrition and other side effects of an ED (eg, cardiovascular problems) can also make it difficult to study serotonin.
That shouldn’t be discouraging, though. Although we are still struggling to find the best ways to study serotonin in emergency departments, the limited evidence we have has demonstrated that serotonin is probably one of the most important chemicals involved in the development emergency services and its persistence. This alone can help guide future pharmacological treatments for erectile dysfunction, making the future of erectile dysfunction treatment bright.