Do you know someone who always seems energetic and upbeat no matter what challenges life throws at them? It’s not just good genes, good luck, or positive thinking that keeps some people so happy. People like this tend to have balanced serotonin levels that help them feel amazing.
Serotonin is a hormone and neurotransmitter that helps ensure we’re motivated, have balanced moods, and feel good about life. Low serotonin levels are linked to anxiety, depression, insomnia, and even violent behavior. Not good!
Boosting low serotonin levels is one of the keys to health and happiness. Here’s how to do it.
Look for mood-boosting foods
While serotonin isn’t found in foods, it is synthesized from the amino acid tryptophan, so foods and supplements that contain tryptophan can help boost serotonin levels. Nice, right?
Foods that have a high tryptophan-to-total-amino-acid ratio are ideal. They include sesame, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds.
According to some experts, plant-based foods can be superior to animal-based sources of tryptophan. That’s because other amino acids in meat compete with tryptophan for absorption in the brain. The carbohydrates in plant-based foods, on the other hand, trigger insulin, which causes other amino acids to be used for fuel for our muscles, leaving tryptophan without competition for access to the brain.
Foods high in the amino acid L-theanine also increase levels of serotonin. Fortunately, it’s as easy as brewing a daily cup of tea to get this serotonin booster. L-theanine-containing teas include white, green, oolong, and black teas. The L-theanine works quickly, reaching the brain within 30 to 45 minutes.
Mood-boosting nutritional supplements
here are many nutrients needed to support healthy serotonin levels, and there are botanicals that can help lift our moods too. Here are just a few you can find at your local natural health retailer.
Vitamin B6, folate, and vitamin B12 help to produce brain chemicals, including serotonin, that affect mood and other brain functions. Deficiencies in these vitamins can manifest as depression. So it’s not surprising that a number of studies involving B vitamins, including these three, have shown that supplementing may help reduce symptoms of depression.
Curcumin, which is easy to find in supplement form, is derived from the turmeric plant. In a recent controlled trial, 60 people with major depressive disorder were randomized into three groups to take either Prozac, 1 g of curcumin, or both Prozac and curcumin. After six weeks, curcumin led to improvements similar to those seen with Prozac, while the Prozac and curcumin group showed the best results.
Magnesium is thought to play a role in many biological processes involved in mood regulation. Studies have also found a link between magnesium deficiency and symptoms of depression.
In a 2017 study, 126 adults with mild or moderate depression took magnesium supplements for six weeks and none for another six weeks. Participants scored an average of six points lower on the depression scale during the six weeks of taking magnesium supplements than when they didn’t take the supplements.
Omega-3 fatty acids
People who live in countries where diets are rich in seafood (which is high in omega-3 fatty acids) tend to have healthier hearts, as well as lower rates of depression, bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, and suicide.
Researchers believe that omega-3s help optimize brain serotonin levels and ease the neurotransmitter’s passage through cell membranes. Based on this knowledge, scientists have been studying omega-3s for treating mood disorders, including depression, with mounting evidence to support its role.
Low vitamin D levels have been linked to depression caused in part by low serotonin levels. The connection has been made through years of survey and research data showing that low or deficient vitamin D levels are directly correlated with both the presence and the severity of depression.
In one small study, women with moderate to severe depression who took vitamin D supplements for eight to 12 weeks reported substantially improved symptoms. More research is currently being done.
An essential mineral, zinc might be lacking in some diets, as major zinc sources include meat, poultry, and oysters. While legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains also contain zinc, depending on the soil in which these foods are grown, phytates in them can interfere with zinc absorption. Since the body has no special zinc storage capability, it’s important to consume zinc on a regular basis.
Zinc has been found to be low in the blood of people suffering from depression. In fact, the more depressed someone is, the lower their zinc levels tend to be. A recent systematic review of randomized controlled trials concluded that zinc supplementation for depression showed evidence of potential benefits.
Eat enough complex carbs
Complex carbohydrates are needed to ensure the absorption of critical nutrients such as tryptophan into the brain, where neurons can convert this amino acid into serotonin. Whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes are great foods for getting your complex carb fix.
Complex carbs also supply energy to ensure the proper functioning of our bodily processes, including serotonin production.
Preliminary research shows that supporting the gut can play a role in boosting serotonin levels. In a study of people with major depression, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) drugs were augmented with supplements of the probiotic strain known as Lactobacillus plantarum. The results were impressive. Those in the probiotic group had improvements in both cognitive symptoms and biochemical markers for the disease.
Let there be bright light
Exposure to bright light has been shown to increase serotonin levels. Even on a cloudy day, it’s important to spend time outside to help reset serotonin levels. There’s a problem, though: Modern life keeps most of us indoors for long periods of time.
In addition to getting outside more, you can purchase full-spectrum lights or light therapy lamps to use indoors at your desk, in your living room, or other places where you normally spend time. They should be at least 10,000 lux to help boost serotonin levels.
Go on and move
Several studies have demonstrated that exercise increases the release and synthesis of serotonin by the brain. Aerobic exercise like running and biking appears to be especially good for a serotonin boost.
Research has also found that tryptophan, the precursor of serotonin, stays higher in the
brain after exercise. So even though it might not feel fun in the moment, that spin class may leave you grinning!
Serotonin’s many hats
Serotonin doesn’t just help balance your mood. It also:
- is involved in constricting smooth muscles like those in the bladder, uterus, and gastrointestinal tract helps regulate your body’s sleep-wake cycles and internal clock
- helps regulate social behavior, appetite, digestion, and sexual desire
- helps reduce the appetite while eating
- is involved in blood clotting to help heal wounds
- increases transit time and helps you eliminate food you eat that is irritating to the gut