Pharmaceuticals have their place, but try these four easy ways to raise your serotonin level naturally.
For some 40 years, SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) have been the gold standard in treating mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. In the simplest terms, SSRIs work to increase the level of serotonin available in the brain by blocking the absorption of serotonin in specific receptors.
An editorial review in the Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience considered 40 years of research into serotonin, SSRIs, and the treatment of depression. In part, the review concluded that there is a case to be made for increasing serotonin levels naturally to potentially prevent depression.
What is serotonin?
A biochemical neurotransmitter, serotonin, is important for mood regulation, among its other functions. Found throughout the body (brain, blood, intestines, and connective tissue), serotonin is essential for general health and well-being. Associated with positive mood, researchers have linked low serotonin levels to mood disorders, especially depression.
Research suggests it also plays a role in physical well-being.
Here are four ways to naturally increase serotonin levels.
Diets rich in omega-3, tryptophan, and vitamin D help increase serotonin.
While it’s impossible to eat serotonin-rich foods—there are none—it is possible to increase your intake of tryptophan. Tryptophan is the essential amino acid required for the production of serotonin, but the body doesn’t produce it. It has to be consumed as part of a healthy diet.
By increasing your intake of tryptophan-rich foods, you are supplying increased levels that can be converted to serotonin. You’ll find tryptophan in most protein-based foods or dairy proteins.
Ninety percent of the body’s serotonin is made in the intestines, and the remaining 10% is made in the brain. The best dietary combination is tryptophan-rich proteins and complex carbohydrates for a healthy diet and increased serotonin levels.
- Salmon and other oily fish are a source of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. They are also high in protein and tryptophan-rich. Just 2 servings a week supplies enough tryptophan for most people.
- Poultry, such as turkey, chicken, duck, or goose, is a well-known source of tryptophan. Think of the sated contentment you experience after your annual Thanksgiving turkey.
- Eggs. Not surprising when you think about the animals that produce eggs: chicken, turkey, etc.
- Spinach and other dark green, leafy vegetables are also a source of tryptophan, as well as iron.
- Seeds, nuts, and beans are also plant-based sources of protein and tryptophan, although the levels aren’t as high as salmon, poultry, or eggs.
- Milk, also a good source of calcium, is a dairy-based source of tryptophan.
- Soy products—tofu, soymilk, soy sauce—are another plant-based source of tryptophan.
A healthy gut is an important factor because a healthy gut function processes your food more efficiently, delivering nutrients where they are needed. This is why prebiotic- and probiotic-rich foods are part of a healthy diet.
Prebiotics are a dietary fiber that stimulates the growth of good bacteria in your intestine’s microbiome. Prebiotics are high in fiber and natural sugars. Examples of prebiotics include the onion family (leeks, onions, chives, shallots, and garlic), cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, cabbage, kale, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts), bananas, apples, and asparagus.
Probiotics, such as yogurt and fermented foods, contain live bacteria. Examples of other probiotic foods are sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, miso, kombucha, and pickles.
CBD supplements help raise serotonin too.
Researchers believe that cannabidiol (CBD) has potential benefits for depression because it has positive effects on the brain’s serotonin receptors.
CBD doesn’t directly boost serotonin levels. Instead, it seems to impact the serotonergic system (synapses that release and respond to serotonin) by affecting serotonin already in the system.
CBD’s properties allow it to bind with different types of receptors, but research shows that there appears to be a special relationship with the body’s serotonergic system. A 2014 animal study found that CBD’s affected receptors to produce positive antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects.
The complexities of CBD’s effect on the body’s systems make it hard to pinpoint which of its properties can be attributed to interaction on the serotonergic system. Current research suggests that some hemp’s effects as an antipsychotic, antidepressant, or mood- and sleep-stabilizer are attributable to its impact on the serotonergic system.
One of the benefits of CBD vs. SSRIs is that CBD appeared to produce more immediate and sustained effects in a 2019 animal study. SSRIs can take up to 6 weeks before the effects are felt.
CBD tends to have fewer side effects than most antidepressant medication.
Common side effects of SSRIs include sleeplessness, weight change, loss of libido, and agitation. CBD has not shown similar issues.
Exercise to increase brain serotonin levels.
Exercise is often touted for its immediate mood-boosting effects—through the release of endorphins—also, for its role in promoting physical health. It may also decrease the risk of depression through the management of stress or pain.
An additional benefit is that exercise may raise brain serotonin. Several studies have shown that regular exercise has been shown to increase serotonin production and release. Aerobic exercise, such as running, biking, swimming, or dancing, is likely to boost serotonin.
Yoga has the added benefits of breathwork and meditation, and many find it a peaceful exercise activity to start or finish the day.
Bright light lifts your mood and naturally increases serotonin.
Seasonal worsening of psychiatric symptoms has been described for several mental health issues, including mood and anxiety disorders. There is a clear link between seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and serotonin.
The effects of sunlight by way of the retinoraphe tract (the link connecting the retina to the central nervous system) are a likely explanation for worsening mood. Research suggests that the effects of sunlight on the skin might also impact serotonin levels.
The positive correlation between serotonin production and release and the amount of sunlight, irrespective of the season, has been measured. In one animal study, serotonin levels were highest during the light portion of the light-dark cycle as opposed to the natural circadian cycle. In humans, another study found that exposure to 3000 lux vs. dim light counteracted the effects of acute tryptophan depletion in healthy women.
Research shows that serotonin plays an essential role in physical and mental well-being. It’s important for regulating mood and social behavior, but it also plays a role in managing appetite and digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire and function.
Meds are not the only answer to boosting serotonin to lift depression and maintain a healthy, balanced mood.
SSRIs can certainly positively contribute to increased levels of serotonin. But, it’s also possible to naturally increase your serotonin levels. Talk with your doctor or mental health professional about the steps you can take to improve your serotonin levels naturally.
Lynette Garet is a bilingual freelance writer, SEO practitioner, and web developer. A U.S. ex-pat living in Costa Rica, when not busy with online projects, she can be found hanging with her favorite “stinky boys” (the grand-littles), tending to her garden, cooking, reading, enjoying good wine, and dancing in the kitchen to music from a limitless list of genres.