This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Where's Our Serotonin? Why?

"Did you know that women have a quarter of the amount of naturally occurring serotonin in their physiology than men do?"

I wrote the above question in an entry back in April '08 when I was embarking on my detox. Davka wrote a comment to that post that I never answered and I would like to now. She wrote:
"wow- i can't believe that about the serotonin. i'd like to know the details of the study- maybe its a nurture thing instead of a nature thing. maybe we are all depressed because we live in a patriarchy? probably not"

Good question!
My doc, a funny, wise, opinionated old codger, postulates that the reason behind the lower levels of serotonin are evolutionary: nature - not nurture. I'm sure it's at least a little of both, like it always is. His idea is that the serotonin disparity between the sexes came from when we were still hunter/gatherers.

Science break: We're all aware that we lived in hunter/gatherer societies for a long ass time right? Science tells us that Homo erectus (why is that still funny?) evolved about 3.2 million years ago. Those erect humans did not learn to cultivate plant life until 10,000 years ago. So here, "long ass" = 3,190,000 years. Right, my brain doesn't comprehend that either.
In the human tribes men, typically, were the hunters. Why was this the way? It probably has everything to do with birth: since the lady birthed the baby, she had to stay with the baby. And wild cat hunts are, as we all learned in first grade, no place for babies. I'm just guesstimating here. I am curious about what history exists to read on this subject, so if anyone knows of a good book tell me the name and I'll add it to my reading list.
So the men were the ones out hunting the meat to feed themselves and their tribes. The hunting these men did, over long periods of time, helped them evolve strong coping mechanisms so they could track, stalk and kill their prey. One of the coping mechanisms they developed a cache of was probably the compound serotonin. Serotonin doesn't only make us happy, it desensitizes us by cushioning our nervous system from the stresses of the world. It also keeps us sharp and physically healthy.
That is the origin of my doctor's theory on why women have a quarter of this happy compound readily available in the make up of their brains than men do. My doctor credits this "lack" of serotonin with enabling women to be more sensitive to the world around them. We are more acutely aware of stresses, he theorizes, which is why we often suffer more from depression, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and a slew of other hormone, serotonin and stress related symptoms.
I would venture to bet the Davka is a bit right on too, which her assertion that perhaps it is the culture we live which trends us toward depression as well. Women in modern culture are given far less respect then they were afforded when the human body was evolving. Cartoons love to characterize that time as a time of cave men dragging their women around by the hair but that is an asinine way to view the way it was.
The people of that time had to really struggle for survival. Every man, woman, child and other gendered person (and they definitely fucking existed then, they were respected then as well) has to pull their own weight so the tribe didn't starve or get taken over. The women had to do the bulk of the work at any place the tribe set up to stay for a time because the men were out hunting. What were the other gendered people doing? Being medicine people and shamans historically. True, I'm probably mixing my time periods severely, but I couldn't leave that important part out. Trans people were mega respected in many (if not most) indigenous tribes.

Back to the previous subject, (bio-) women and serotonin. How do we protect and build our serotonin reserves naturally? You've heard the answers before. Here's one that is not listed as often as it should be (though I think, in time, it will be): Positive Mental Attitude.
Controlling, or more accurately, directing one's mental process is key to helping women stay happy and healthy. I swear to all that is holy: becoming aware of, and learning how to direct and re-direct your own mental habits, is the grail of well being. Monks have been saying this shit for thousands of years.

The other, more common, ways to keep you stores of serotonin safe from stress are as follows:
  • get unfiltered sunlight as much as possible. This has nothing to do with getting a tan. It helps if you leave your sunglasses off for at least 10 minutes of this sun soaking because more of the good stuff will get into your system through your retinas than any other way.
  • eat as many fresh fruits and veggies as possible.
  • Good fatty acids from fish, seeds and nuts are helpful in protecting the serotonin you've already got. Taking fish oil supplements help too.
  • Don't worry about the good carbs. My body, for one, craves carbohydrates like nothing else when winter comes - partially I suspect to my heritage being drawn from the cold climates of Britain and Eastern Europe. Eat as many potatoes, squash, whole grain breads, chips, and cereals as your body desires. This is a major boost to serotonin, but short and non-sustaining, so don't make it your first or only line of defense.
  • Dark chocolate and red wine help, but in small portions.
  • Vitamin B and St. John's Wort help make fresh serotonin more quickly.
  • Exercise, laugh and have orgasms. These are the physical triple threat to feeling down.
  • Once again, Do Not Guilt Yourself. Learn to re-direct negative thinking. If you're walking around thinking about how lonely, lazy, fat, or cold you are then you're only going to feel those things more acutely. Instead, notice that thought and reverse it. Tell yourself you're doing a great job, you've accomplished a, b and c today. (No matter how small! If you're having a tough time and can only think of "I cleaned the cat box" today, run like hell with it. Compose an ode to yourself on the amazing vigor you showed while doing such an unsavory chore.)
I encourage you to look all this stuff up if you need the "why" of why my suggestions work. You can also read my doc's book if you like.

Be Well, Be Love


pulley-whipped said...

not to contradict the greatness of this post, but the whole hunter/gatherer thing is a myth. from an interview with faye flam:

I had a long interview with an archaeologist, James Adovasio, who co-wrote a book on the topic called "The Invisible Sex." He exploded all of these myths. From what we know from archaeological records, and modern people that hunt and gather, women were pretty independent. They could get fish, small animals and plants on their own. They really weren't dependent on men -- at least to eat, anyway. The idea that somehow in the old days the men's hunting was so terribly important is a myth. Our picture of prehistoric man was built up during the late 1800s, so it was a reflection of what men thought life should be more than what it really was.

That opens the way for a lot of interesting evolutionary forces. If women aren't dependent on men then they can afford to be picky, they can decide to only mate with the men who are skilled singers, attractive or good fathers. It puts men under an evolutionary pressure of a different kind.

ShanaRose said...

Hm!! How funny that you just read that book to find that quote!

That quote does bring up a lot of interesting questions, as well as a smack in the head of the English Major. How could I forget that the people who write the so-called [his]tory do not have a lock on the truth of the way things were?

So how were things? Are there only archeological/anthropological answers? If women were just as efficient (and why wouldn't they be? would babies really hold them back so much?) at survival then how would they decide to pair? Were there smaller tribes within groups of friends, partners and/or lovers? They would have to be careful not to have so many babies they couldn't feed themselves, wouldn't they? What kind of birth control methods were being used?

More importantly, what the fuck about our serotonin? Do we REALLY have 1/4 the amount men have? If so, why? Could it just be the nurture/patriarchy aspect, as Davka tossed out in the beginning? Is my doctor just riding the bandwagon that most of the media/consumer markets ride; the one that markets to women based on the predication that we are not happy, healthy or good as is? Is Inga Muscio right; that out disrespect of our moon cycles causes the disconnect and unhappiness?

Readers? Answers? Further questions?

pulley-whipped said...

well, to complicate things further, according to WebMD, women actually produce MORE serotonin in our brains, but the neurotransmitters that ship them off to that "happy place" don't work as well in women.

However, a study published in September 2007 in the journal Biological Psychiatry showed there might be a huge difference in how men and women REACT to a reduction in serotonin -- and that may be one reason why women suffer from depression far more than men. Apparently men with low serotonin become impulsive and women become depressed. So maybe it's really the ways in which women respond to serotonin, rather than having less of it, that matter? i think there must be an evolutionary reason too though!

ShanaRose said...

You know, I do remember that doc. said women's brains weren't as good as processing or accessing the serotonin - so that stands.

As for men becoming impulsive where women become depressed, that seems to stand up to our conditioning pretty well doesn't it? If you think about popular culture, marketing and behavior it's easy to see. Men get upset - what are they frequently portrayed as doing? Going out getting smashed, getting in fights, having nsa sex, pulling stupid hijinx. Women get upset - what's their behavior portrayed as? Eating pints of ice cream, drinking bottles of wine, crying, singing terrible Carole King karaoke loudly, whining to friends, staying in bed for days and days on end despite being on a Mexican resort vacation, etc. So the ways in which the sexes react seem to be the result less of any medical programming than it is a result of societal programming.

pulley-whipped said...

and you even managed to throw in a sex and the city reference..nicely done.

ShanaRose said...

Here's the non-answer from Dr. E:

"Interesting debate. Something like 75% of users of anti depressants are women and since antidepressants do only one thing in the body, namely raise serotonin levels in the brain, then something is amiss with the female serotonin level in terms of its ability to deal with stress. Without stress, there's nothing wrong with low serotonin--probably helps with female intuitive skills. The "why" of the female low serotonin is anyone's guess. With a little imagination, we can posit a variety of possible scenarios"

Tara said...

I was going to say that about hunter gatherers too. There were even tribes where they thought men were too emotional and sensitive and left the guys home with the babies. When God Was A Woman is a book that covers the woman-poaitive side of things, but many of the examples are from the begining of the ag period.

I blame the patriarchy (of course) but also our modern diet and toxins. Seretonin production and usage is really tied into hormonal stuff, and most women today are hyperestrogenated. Hell, the fish are hyperestrogenated from women peeing out so much estrogen.

ShanaRose said...

I'm glad you picked up the food and hormones point Tara!! We hadn't covered that yet. I have a friend reading a book, I believe called the PMS diet, currently and she's working on all of her pals to read it for similar reasons. PMS and low serotonin are effectively the same things. And you're dead on about serotonin being linked with hormones, that where my doc said "they're like two cars on the same roller coaster train".

It always comes back to food somehow, doesn't it?