‘Happiness’ hormone protects against disease-causing bacteria, so boost it

Even though there are decades of scientific evidence supporting the mind-body connection, it’s still easy to forget just how closely your mental and emotional state impacts your health. So, here’s a reminder…

Research conclusively determines that a positive mental state makes you healthier. It’s linked to a variety of important health outcomes, including:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Lower risk of heart disease
  • Better body mass index (BMI)
  • More balanced blood sugar levels
  • A longer life

Why does your mental state make a difference?

Well, there are a lot of reasons. Put simply, your body perceives negative emotions as stress… which triggers the fight or flight response. The fight or flight response pumps up your body’s production of the stress hormone cortisol and reduces the production of other hormones. This has far-reaching consequences for your hormone balance as well as a long list of other critical bodily functions… including your immune function.

And it turns out, the connection between your immune system and emotional state is strong enough that it could defend you from pathogenic gut bacteria that can make you seriously sick…

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Serotonin goes to bat against E. coli

A new study from researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center found that the brain chemical (also considered a neurotransmitter and hormone) tied to happiness and well-being — serotonin — can reduce the ability of some intestinal pathogens to cause deadly infections.

Now, most people think of serotonin as solely a brain chemical. But the truth is, about 90 percent of serotonin is produced in the gut. Do you know what else is in the gut? Trillions of bacteria — some good, some bad. Unfortunately, among the bad bacteria are pathogenic strains that can cause serious and even fatal infections.

In the study, researchers took a strain of this pathogenic bacteria — Escherichia coli O157 — and tested serotonin’s impact on it. Escherichia coli O157 is a species of bacteria that causes foodborne infections that sometimes even turn deadly… so it’s nothing to mess around with. Researchers grew this dangerous bug in a petri dish, and then exposed it to serotonin.

After being exposed to serotonin, they looked at Escherichia coli O157’s genes, and they saw that serotonin significantly reduced the expression of genes that this bacterium uses to cause infections. They also used human cells in their tests and found that after being exposed to serotonin, the bacteria could not cause lesions on the cells linked to infection.

Researchers wanted to make sure their findings held true in living creatures, so they performed tests on mice as well. Researchers exposed mice to Citrobacter rodentium, a mouse gut bacterium comparable to E. coli in humans. The mice used in the study were also genetically modified to either produce extra serotonin or very little serotonin in their gastrointestinal tracts. Guess which mice fared better against that pathogenic bacteria? The ones that produced a lot of serotonin.

Those mice were less likely to become colonized by C. rodentium or if they were colonized by it, they only got mildly sick. Researchers also found that treating mice with a drug that increases serotonin levels known as fluoxetine (Prozac) prevented them from getting sick from this bacterium too.

On the other hand, mice who were modified to produce very little serotonin got very sick when exposed to C. rodentium — many of them even died.

Researchers also figured out that both E. coli and C. rodentium have a serotonin receptor on their surfaces. This receptor is known as CpxA, and it’s present on the surfaces of many other gut bacteria too. Researchers say this means the happiness chemical — serotonin — could have a bigger impact on gut bacterial health than we ever realized.

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How to supercharge your serotonin production

So, how do you get more serotonin flowing so you’re less susceptible to dangerous bacterial infections?

There are a few ways to encourage the production of serotonin in your brain and body, like:

  • Eating tryptophan-rich foods. Tryptophan is an amino acid that’s converted to serotonin in your body. Some foods that contain tryptophan include chicken, turkey, eggs, fish, cheese, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, milk, tofu, soy and chocolate.
  • Exercising. Getting your sweat on also causes your body to release tryptophan, which eventually gets converted into serotonin. So, make sure not to slack off on your exercise regimen if you want to stay safe from pathogenic bacteria — especially aerobic exercise that gets your heart rate up. That seems to produce the most tryptophan.
  • Spending time in the sun (without overdoing it). Just like some good old-fashioned sunshine can get your vitamin D levels up, it can get your serotonin levels up too. Researchers suspect that your skin may be able to synthesize serotonin, like it synthesizes vitamin D. But be careful not to overdo it. Too much time in the sun unprotected can lead to premature skin aging and skin cancer.
  • Doing things that make you feel happy. Serotonin is the happiness chemical, after all. So, make a list of activities that bring you the most joy and do them more often. Watch a funny movie, go for a bike ride, play catch with your dog — anything that boosts your happiness and well-being will boost your body’s production of serotonin too.

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  1. Happiness might protect you from gastrointestinal distress — MedicalXpress.
  2. The Serotonin Neurotransmitter Modulates Virulence of Enteric Pathogens — Cell Host and Microbe.
  3. How Do Thoughts and Emotions Affect Health? — University of Minnesota.
  4. Positive Emotions and Your Health — National Institutes of Health.
  5. How to Build Good Emotional Health — Healthline.
  6. 6 Ways to Boost Serotonin Without Medication — Healthline.
  7. What Is Tryptophan? — Healthline.
  8. How to Hack Your Hormones for a Better Mood — Healthline.
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.