Most adults in the United States, especially those that struggle with insomnia from time to time, are familiar with the word “serotonin.” The term conjures up a type of late-night infomercial catchall for the sleep deprived. In fact, serotonin is much more than that.
Most of the public’s awareness of serotonin revolves around not having enough of it, but having too much serotonin in the body can actually be fatal.
Serotonin Syndrome, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, most often occurs when two serotonin-producing medications are taken at the same, releasing too much of the chemical into the brain.
The vast majority of serotonin, a naturally occurring neurotransmitter, is found in the gastrointestinal tract.
Having the right levels of serotonin is important for a number health reasons, including:
- Mood regulation
- Memory functions
Cause of Serotonin Syndrome
The most common cause of serotonin syndrome is mixing two drugs or medications that spike a person’s serotonin to dangerous levels.
It can also occur when a patient increases the dosage of an existing medication they’re using, unwittingly creating toxic levels of serotonin.
There are a lot of prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications that increase serotonin levels.
The most common prescription drugs for this are antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These include brand name medications like Zoloft, Lexapro, Paxil and Prozac.
An estimated 16 million adults will struggle with depression every year, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). SSRIs are often the very first medication that physicians prescribe in these cases.
Other prescription meds that increase serotonin include monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), migraine and nausea prescriptions, as well as painkillers and some cough depressants.
Easily purchased OTC supplements, such as ginseng and St. John’s Wort, are also known to increase serotonin levels.
This is not limited to prescription medications, and can also be caused by illegal street substances used recreationally that increase serotonin levels.
Illegal stimulants like MDMA, cocaine and heroin flood the brain with the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin too. This is one of these reasons these drugs are so addictive and why polysubstance-abuse is extremely risky.
Symptoms of Serotonin Syndrome
Symptoms related to serotonin syndrome are not just uncomfortable, they can be deadly. Some of these symptoms include the following:
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid blood pressure change
- Sweating or shivering
- Increased body temperature
- Insomnia and agitation
- Nausea or vomiting
- Loss of consciousness
While these are only some of the symptoms associated with increased levels of serotonin, it’s important to understand that some of them are often the normal side effects of using illegal drugs.
Because of this, the symptoms might be overlooked and not identified as something irregular or more severe until it’s too late.
Treatment for Serotonin Syndrome
The symptoms of serotonin syndrome can present as quickly as a few minutes after taking a drug or medication, or can take as long as several hours.
If caught and diagnosed in time, the normal course of action is to discontinue one or all of the medications until the symptoms subside, usually within 24 hours.
One of the reasons there are few, if any, statistics related to serotonin syndrome is that when there’s a fatality, it’s simply categorized as a drug overdose without including any other specifics.
Becoming educated about the types of medications and combinations of drugs that increase serotonin levels is a key to avoiding serotonin toxicity.
It also means that patients need to be upfront and honest with their physicians about any recreational drugs, supplements or other prescription medications they’re taking to avoid a deadly mix with prescribed medications.