Serotonin Robbers

By Nicolette Francey Asselin, M.D

1. Sparkless Days

Happiness determines how long we live and how strong our families are.

After returning from an overseas trip, I was fighting time changes and a cold that robbed me of hours of sleep. The day ahead appeared blurred, faint, colorless, and gray. The natural sparkle that generated my sense of enthusiasm and fired my first steps out of bed had vanished. Later, I sat down to my favorite routine, writing, but chapters I had written appeared dull, unexciting, and soporific. The sunless day weighed heavily on me, or even spicy food seemed bland, vapid, and savorless. Why such a low mood? My husband and I had just had a pleasant visit with my family in Europe, and no dark clouds were lurking on the horizon of our peaceful lives.

The next morning, as I lay in bed, again, trying to figure out how, why, and where ambition had vanished, the list of possibilities grew — but still, none could explain the lassitude and lack of blazes. Everything appeared flat for no discernible reason. Had this cold virus hacked my happiness and filched my active and enthusiastic temperament? How could a virus affect my mind, my judgment, and my body as well? Or was it a cumulative effect of sorts, an illness of another source, something ravaging me from inside? Were there feelings in me I was oblivious to, losses, or other upsets I had dismissed? Defeats or grief can strike one in more profound ways than one knows, but after reviewing recent circumstances, I could not think of events that gave rise to any deep sadness leading to this state of mind. I had seen death up close too often; this plight must be physical, caused by a lack of some natural ingredient in my body chemistry.

Was this frozen and leaden numbness going to stay with me? The forethought was frightening, but perhaps I could finally understand in my being and gut the meaning of “depression.” I had diagnosed it as a physician, but not truly experienced on a personal level — a life devoid of tone, gloomy and dull—. I now realized how fortunate I had been to see the world in abundant, varied hues and that I had taken this trait for granted. I was beginning to have a fresh appreciation for my constitution but also a better understanding of others born with fewer or no sparkles.

Art: IPictures / Fotolia

As I pondered, I remembered a conversation I had with a friend long ago. She had explained how a day without sunshine affected her mood. At that time, and during most of my life, the sun had little to do with my disposition; I was born with daily enthusiasm and had a good dose of whatever it took to keep me on even and level ground through many rainy days or long Swiss winters where I grew up. Nowadays, as I am approaching my seventies, I am still known as the five-foot-tall, three straw blonde who walks or bikes daily and carries a dose of enthusiasm to change the world — with a few followers in tow. But this situation, this emotional flatness, opened my eyes to what I have long known intellectually but hadn’t truly lived in my mind and body. So, what were these sudden changes and its causes — what the medical profession calls a differential diagnosis?


“Tryptophan Deprivation.”

This story is the first of a 4 part article series:

  • 1. Sparkless Days
  • 2. Portrait of the Robbers
  • 3. Tryptophan Deprivation
  • 4. Manufacturing the “Magic Powder”
  • References:

    (1) Simon N. Young, Ph.D., “How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs, Journal of Psychiatry Neuroscience 32, no. 6 (December 2007): 394–399.

    (2) Steven M. Opal, MD, and Vera A. DePalo, MD, “Anti-Inflammatory Cytokines,” Chest117, no. 4 (April 2000): 1162–1172.

    (3) Ronald S. Smith, “Chapter 7: Immunological Evidence Supporting The Immune-Cytokine Model of Depression,” Cytokines and Depression.

    (4) Jennifer C. Felger and Francis E. Lotrich, “Inflammatory Cytokines in Depression: Neurobiological Mechanisms and Therapeutic Implications.Neuroscience 246 (August 2013): 199–229.

    (5) Charles A. Dinarello, “Historical Review of Cytokines,” Eur J Immunol37 (July 2007): S34–S45.

    (6) Yiquan Chen and Gilles J. Guillemin, “Kynurenine Pathway Metabolites in Humans: Disease and Healthy States” Int J Tryptophan Res2 (January 2009): 1–19.

    (7) Andrew H. Miller, MD, Ebrahim Haroon, MD, Charles L. Raison, MD, and Jennifer C. Felger, Ph.D., “Cytokine Targets in the Brain: Impact of Neurotransmitters and Neurocircuits,” Depress Anxiety 30, no. 4 (April 2013): 297–306.

    (8) Meredith A. Greene and Richard F. Loeser, M.D. “Aging-related inflammation in Osteoarthritis,” Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2015 No; 23(11):1966–1971.


1 Comment


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.