Sleep and the Serotonin Connection

Many of us know the problem of sleeplessness too well. We lay awake at night wishing that we could find the switch to turn our brains off so we can sleep. We toss and turn, watch the clock, and pray that sleep will take us over. But, sleep doesn’t come.

A night or two of sleeplessness every so  often may disturb us, but it isn’t going to ruin our health or contribute to a heart attack. But, chronic insomnia is another thing. The link between chronic insomnia and increased risk of accidents and health problems is strong enough that the US Center for Disease Control considers insomnia a public epidemic, today.

50 to 70% of Americans (or 1 in 3 persons) find it difficult to fall asleep at night and 60% of these persons have received treatment for the problem (U.S. Center for Disease Control). Although the frequency of insomnia in the United States appears to be slightly higher than in other countries, it seems that this variance stems more from the way other cultures define insomnia than from the rates of its actual occurrence (Insomnia: Prevalence, Impact, Differential Diagnosis and Evaluation).

Some people believe that because digital technology permits us to work round-the-clock we don’t get enough sleep at night. Although this may be a factor in increased rates of insomnia, it’s hard to believe that our lives are more stressful than the lives of our ancestors. The pressures of today and the past are just different.

Insomnia is not new to human beings. In ancient times, people have taken substances to sleep. Our ancestors used opium, hemp and bromide salts, and herbs like Valerian root to ready the body and mind for sleep rather than the sleeping pills of today. (Insomnia: Chasing the Dream:; May 2013).

Insomnia defin 3 copy

Definition of Insomnia

What is new today is research that shows that we can’t afford to ignore the destructive effects of insomnia to our lives, if we wish to live healthily and long (Medical News Today). The strain that continued loss of sleep can have on mind and body is destructive to our health, work productivity and well being ( If we don’t get enough sleep, we start to have problems thinking through  information that lets us solve problems through the day (working memory). When we are over-tired, decisions as simple as choosing what to have for dinner can become difficult to make. But, chronic fatigue can lead to serious errors in judgment that result in motor vehicle crashes, industrial disasters, and medical and occupational miscalculations (U.S. Center for Disease Control).

And, today, studies show that chronic sleeplessness may actually be the cause of some people’s depression (Insomnia and Depression: Cause versus Effect. People with chronic insomnia have a ten-fold risk of developing depression compared with those who sleep well (Epidemiology of Insomnia, Anxiety and Depression) and are also more likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and cancer (U.S. Center for Disease Control).

Even more disconcerting than these health data is one study that shows a link between insomnia symptoms and elevated risk of death. Scientists studied 23,000 men over a six- year-period. Even after controlling for other influences on our mortality (age, habits, and illness), follow up studies showed that men who reported having difficulty falling asleep had a 55% chance of increased risk of death due to heart-related causes when compared with men who did not report experiencing sleep problems. Also, men in the study who reported having sleep that did not physically refresh them had a 32% increased risk of death (Insomnia Symptoms Raise Mortality Risk).

The Sleep-Wake Cycle

thermostatMuch like the thermostat in our homes that switches to heat or cold depending upon how it is set, the brain has a sleep monitor called a hemostat that measures our sleep and wake cycle. We need at least 8 to 8.5 hours of nightly sleep, to function at our best. After approximately 15 hours of being awake, the brain switches on a small group of specialized cells that puts us to sleep. It is the electrical output of these nerve cells that activates the sleep cycle (The switch that says it’s time to sleep identified:

But, nothing is quite as simple as it sounds. Like the thermostat in our homes, the nerve cells of the brain’s hemostat are hooked up to a larger body system that can negatively affect its function. Illness, habits (e.g., nutrition, exercise, alcohol and drug use), and stress level can disrupt the chemicals needed to activate the specialized nerve cells that put us to sleep, helps us to stay asleep, and gives us a deep enough sleep to physically restore us. We may turn to herbs, drugs, food or drink to calm our bodies and minds. While this may immediately tone down wakefulness, it may not be enough to restore our bodies’ internal clock to normal.

Let’s Get Our Body Clocks Working Right

“Our body is like a clock, if one wheel is amiss, all the rest are disordered… with such admirable art and harmony is a man composed” (Robert Burton Quote in Restoring Restful Sleep, Harvard Health).

restful sleep image

Restoring Restful Sleep

Our bodies operate like a clock, especially when it comes to sleep. Although the sleep-wake cycle involves many factors, the nerve chemical serotonin is the main wheel in its system that if amiss lead to a wide-range of disorders. Serotonin regulates sleep, calms us, lifts and stabilizes our mood, and is used to make melatonin (sleep hormone) that controls the sleep cycle (Insomnia, Tryptophan, Serotonin, and Melatonin). Also, serotonin links the brain’s sleep and wake cycle to a natural 24-hour rhythm (; Feb. 2013). Need I say more to convince you of serotonin’s importance to our sleep and health?

The following nutrition tips helps to increase the amino acid tryptophan in the body that is used to make serotonin. Although you can find many supplements and herbs for sleep in health food stores today, the best approach to chronic insomnia is to eat a balanced healthy diet. Trust that your body will make the chemicals, hormones and enzymes it needs, if you feed it right. Taking supplements that you don’t need or in doses that are wrong for you can cause more harm than good.

Tip 1. Foods that are high in the amino acid called tryptophan (e.g., bananas and turkey) help the body to make serotonin. Many nutrition and health sites, such as, and provide lists of foods in each of the five food groups that are high in tryptophan.

Tip 2. Eat meals that are balanced in carbohydrates, protein and fat. Over time, diets that discourage carbohydrate intake can leave us feeling stressed, depressed and fatigued. Eating foods that are high in carbohydrates, like pasta and bread increase the brain’s serotonin level. This is one of the reasons we get sleepy when we eat a high-carb meal.

Tip 3. Studies also show that higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids (e.g., salmon, krill fish) in the diet leads to better sleep amongst many other health benefits. But, you have to get them through diet, as the body can’t make them on its own. As you know from my other posts, the omega fatty acids are also helpful in the treatment of mental health conditions negatively affected by inflammation, like depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder (The Role of Inflammation in Depression).

Tip 3. Caffeine, alcohol and drugs deplete nutrients from the body and interrupt the production of many neurotransmitters, like serotonin.

Tip 4. People who have food and environmental allergies often have chronic sleep problems. This is because histamine  (the chemical released in allergic reactions) increases in the brain. It takes over the brain’s chemical receptors so that serotonin cannot be released (Histamine H3 Receptors Inhibit Serotonin Release in the Brain). Anti-histamines lower histamine in the brain and body that not only reduces allergic reactions but also helps us to sleep. Thus, if you’re having trouble sleeping at night, check to see if allergic reactions are contributing to your sleep problem.

These are just a few helpful diet changes you can make to sleep better.  You don’t have to use drugs to get good sleep. Nutrition, exercise , and stress management and relaxation exercises, like mindfulness have been shown to increase serotonin in the brain and to benefit sleep and overall health (Boosting Serotonin Activity in the Brain; Top 10 Fitness Facts).

I hope you liked today’s post and took away something helpful for your life. If so, please let me know by selecting the Like icon that immediately follows. You can also Tweet, or Google+1 today’s post to let your friends know about it. Here’s to a restful sleep. Warmly Deborah.


18 Responses to “Sleep and the Serotonin Connection”

  1. avatar wajid ali says:

    Got some really informative stuff ma’am. The way you are working to give us information and making us aware is awesome. May you get strength to continue it in such a nice and lovely way. Thank you. 🙂
    regards Dr.Wajid ali

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Dr. Wajid Ali, I’m so glad. I’m always hoping to give what is needed on a topic. Your kind words mean a lot to me. Warm regards to you Dr. Wajid. Deborah 🙂

  2. avatar Rahman says:

    Thank you very much for your posts. They are really informative and encouraging. I appreciate your effort for the betterment of the people.


    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      You are very welcome Rahman. I’m so glad they give the information needed on the different topics. Thank you for being such a good friend. Warmly Deborah.

  3. avatar ashiq muhammad says:

    excellently excellent information about sleep problems. thanks

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Thank you Ashiq, I very much appreciate your kind words. Thank you for taking the time to comment today. See you here again. Warmly Deborah.

  4. avatar Said Hamid says:

    very nice and informative article

    thank you very much indeed

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      You are very welcome Said. I’m happy the article was informative. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment today. Warmly Deborah.

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Thank you Said for letting me know. Warm regards to you Deborah.

  5. avatar Adil Dawood says:

    It always feels good when u have some usefull information. I am sure this is much appreciated by everyone who reads it.

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Thank you so much Adil. I too love to find information that helps my life. So that I have provided that for you and others pleases me a lot. Best to you. Warmly Deborah.

  6. avatar Muhammad Talha says:

    Thanks alot doctor, your topic is excellent and informative for entire human beings.
    Kindly post some topic about Reducing Stress/How to reduce stress. As your posts are being considered too much in Pakistan.
    Warm wishes,

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      You are very welcome Muhammad Talha. Thank you for the kind words. I’m so pleased that I have friends like you in your country and that my work is well received. Warm regards to you and yours as well. Warmly Deborah.

  7. avatar sara says:

    nice info

  8. avatar Richard Lane says:

    You have been very informative. I have read a number of your articles and looking forward to more. Thank you for giving me insight.

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Richard, thank you. I’m so glad that you find my articles helpful. I look forward to seeing you again here soon. Warm regards Deborah.


Leave a Reply

Meet Dr. Deborah Khoshaba

She Has A Gift For You.

Psychology in Everyday Life on Facebook

Getting to Oz: The personal journey to your true self

So You Want To Date A Narcissist?

Sacrifices You Must Make, To Do So!

What behaviors are taking you hostage?

Make a choice to live freely, fully and creatively.

Love is Being Present

How To Get More Love Into Your Life

Our Sponsors and Support Mental Health Sites


All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only. This blog is not meant to professionally treat people psychologically. The owner of this blog makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The owner will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information. The owner will not be liable for any losses, injuries, or damages from the display or use of this information. These terms and conditions of use are subject to change at anytime and without notice.

PIEL is PayPal Verified

Official PayPal Seal