Food plays a vital role in maintaining energy, providing nutrients, and feeding our appetite. But certain foods can also play a role in improving our mood and behavior along the way. Certain foods give a helpful boost of the hormone serotonin, which encourages standard sleep patterns, improves mood and well-being, promotes digestion, and stimulates total body health.

Foods and supplements that boost serotonin levels can provide another avenue for individuals with low serotonin levels who want to avoid medications with severe side effects. By understanding how serotonin affects the body and mind, individuals can make informed decisions to improve their well-being and total body health.

What Is Serotonin?

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, happiness, and well-being. Found mostly within the digestive system, serotonin is made from tryptophan, an amino acid often found within turkey, fish, cheeses, meats, eggs, and potatoes. According to Jenkins et al. (2016), “ tryptophan must enter the central nervous system through the blood-brain barrier…once in the CNS, tryptophan is hydroxylated…then goes through decarboxylation to promote serotonin synthesis”. Ingesting foods consisting of tryptophan stimulates the body to synthesize serotonin from the ingested food, improving mood, sleep patterns, and behavior. Serotonin also helps:

  • Reduce depression
  • Reduce feelings of anxiety
  • Heal wounds
  • Stimulate nausea
  • Improve bone health

How Does Serotonin Work in the Body?

Serotonin performs many functions within the body, aside from improving mood and sleep patterns. The hormone also plays a vital role in tissue remodeling, tissue health, mental health, and even sexual health. Here’s how serotonin affects the body’s function in everyday life:

Digestion- mostly found in the digestive system, serotonin helps regulate fullness feelings, so you know when you are full during a meal. It also plays a key role in protecting your stomach from toxins or irritating foods. In this instance, the body produces more serotonin to help expel the food more quickly.

Tissue Health- It is the event of damage to skin tissue, like a cut, platelet cells within the blood will release serotonin to promote tissue remodeling and healing. This release of serotonin causes arterioles (small arteries) to vasoconstriction, causing blood flow to the affected area to slow down, promoting clotting to heal a wound.

Bone Health - as serotonin is mostly found within the gut, along with vitamin D, it plays a role in bone health and density. As vitamin D activates tryptophan to be synthesized to serotonin, it helps promote calcium absorption within the bones, stimulating bone health. However, high serotonin levels within the gut can lead to low calcium absorption in bones, possibly leading to osteoporosis.

Sexual Function - along with changing your mood, serotonin can also influence libido. For instance, individuals on antidepressant medications that boost serotonin levels can experience a drastic decrease in sexual desire.

Who Needs to Boost Their Serotonin Levels?

Individuals with low serotonin levels often suffer from sleeplessness, anxiety, poor mood, and depression symptoms. In these instances, medication is usually the recommended treatment for these afflictions. Individuals with low serotonin levels have changes in their brain chemistry, and it is difficult to treat without outside help in the form of medication, change in diet, or lifestyle. However, understanding how low levels of serotonin can negatively affect mental and physical health are essential factors in working to increase serotonin levels safely and adequately.

Potential Risks of Low Serotonin Levels

Low serotonin levels cause mental and physical health issues in those suffering from serotonin deficiency. Some psychological symptoms include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Aggression
  • Impulsive Behavior
  • Poor Appetite
  • Poor Memory
  • Insomnia

While some physical symptoms of serotonin deficiency include:

  • Weight gain
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Digestive issues

What Causes Low Serotonin Levels?

As most causes or serotonin deficiency are not very specific in onset, multiple factors can contribute to lower serotonin levels. However, some genetic disorders, lifestyle, and other factors can change serotonin levels. These factors can include:

  • Hormonal changes- during menopause, pregnancy, hormone therapy or even old age
  • Lack of sunlight
  • Poor diet and nutrition
  • Excessive use of drugs and alcohol over a long period
  • Chronic stress
  • Fewer serotonin receptors

Certain Foods Can Provide a Serotonin Boost

While medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or antidepressants can help to make serotonin more viable within the body, these medications often come with unwanted side effects that include dry mouth, nausea, headache, drowsiness, restlessness, weight gain/loss, dizziness, insomnia and even sexual problems. By looking at a different avenue to combat low serotonin, like other foods that can help boost serotonin levels, you can improve your health without becoming bogged down by unwanted side effects. Though serotonin isn’t directly sourced in food, the amino acid tryptophan is found in many foods to help promote serotonin production. Some foods that help boost serotonin levels include:

Eggs

Eggs increase levels of tryptophan within the blood, helping to produce serotonin levels.

Cheese

Cheese is also a source of tryptophan.

Pineapples

This fruit is loaded with serotonin, best to ingest when ripe

Tofu

Tofu and other soy products contain plenty of tryptophan and is an excellent substitute for other proteins

Salmon

This fish is a great source of tryptophan and helps regulate cholesterol, lowers blood pressure, and is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acid

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds are good sources of fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants, nuts and seeds contain tryptophan and promote heart health

Turkey

Turkey is a more common source of tryptophan, this is often why Thanksgiving dinner makes individuals take a much-needed nap afterward due to increased serotonin levels and feelings of fullness

Green tea

Though green tea doesn’t contain tryptophan to help boost serotonin, includes the amino acid l-theanine, increasing neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which plays a vital role in motivation, arousal, and motor control.

Though foods high in tryptophan are a valuable source to improve serotonin levels, supplements can also help boost serotonin levels without changing your diet. These supplements include:

  • Pure Tryptophan: A strong component in serotonin production, tryptophan supplements can also have an antidepressant effect on women.
  • SAMe (S-adenosyl-L-methionine): A natural chemical within the body, SAMe helps promote serotonin production and works as an antidepressant. However, it is important not to combine other depressants and SAMe to cause serotonin syndrome symptoms.
  • 5-HTP: A chemical bi-product of tryptophan, 5-HTP is used to combat insomnia symptoms, depression, and anxiety by increasing serotonin production.
  • Probiotics: a combination of live bacteria/yeast produced within the body, probiotics increase tryptophan levels within the blood and help reach and pass through the blood-brain barrier, allowing serotonin production.

As with any supplement or prescription drug, it is always important to first speak with your health care provider to see what supplement or diet change is right for you.

Steer Clear of These Foods

As there are foods that will help stimulate serotonin production, there are also foods that can have the opposite effect and lower serotonin levels and cause mood and behavior issues. These foods and beverages include:

Alcohol

Though alcohol in small doses can cause an immediate serotonin boost and provide a feeling of calmness, excessive drinking can increase insulin production, causing low blood sugar, leading to weakness, confusion, and dizziness. These are all symptoms of anxiety and can lead to symptoms of depression if not properly treated.

Diet soda

Artificial sweetener tricks the body into thinking that it is glucose, insulin is released. In turn, it causes a stress response within the body as it tries to store glucose that isn’t there. This stress response causes an excess in phenylalanine (an amino acid used to produce proteins). This excess of phenylalanine suppresses serotonin synthesis, which can lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression. The artificial sweeteners in diet beverages slow your body’s metabolism, which can cause unwanted weight gain.

Caffeine

While caffeine can provide a short-term boost of alertness and focus, consuming caffeine over time can have detrimental effects, especially in those hoping to reduce their intake. A sudden reduction in caffeine can lead to withdrawal symptoms, effectively leading to a decline in mood.

Other Options May Suit You

A diet change can help boost low serotonin levels, but it isn’t the only option available. Changes in lifestyle and changing your serotonin levels naturally can be just as beneficial as changing your diet. Some helpful natural ways to improve serotonin include:

Exercise

Swimming, biking, jogging, and hiking are great ways to raise your heart rate and improve cardiovascular health. During exercise, tryptophan is released into the bloodstream while other amino acids are suppressed, making it easier for tryptophan to reach the brain, stimulating serotonin production.

Bright Light

Light can help those with low serotonin and vitamin D levels, especially in winter months, sunlight isn’t as prevalent and continues shining as it does during the summer months. This reduction in sunlight leads to drops in vitamin D and serotonin production. It can severely affect mental health and can even lead to seasonal affective disorder, leading to weight gain, fatigue, irritability, and disinterest in social activities. Doing activities or exercises outdoors can help boost serotonin levels and improve mood, even on an overcast day. Light therapy can also be helpful for those in colder or rainy climates.

Massage

Massages are always a good option, physical touch through massage helps provide a feeling of calm and relaxation for an individual. By releasing unwanted tension in aching muscles and joints, blood flow will gradually increase to the affected areas, improving the release of serotonin and dopamine, creating a sense of calm. While massage can be a great source to increase relaxation and pleasure, it is essential to find the right kind of massage technique best for you and your goals.

Mood induction

The technique entirely relies on an individual’s imagination and own experiences. Almost like a form of meditation, this technique involves thinking about or imagining something that would make you feel good to promote serotonin to help improve your mood. This process can also include looking at pictures of happy times, thinking of a happy memory, and even listening to your favorite feel-good music to boost your mood.

Hydration

Water helps our body and mind work efficiently to maintain homeostasis. Though simple, maintaining proper hydration can help fend off dehydration symptoms like fatigue, headache, weakness, anxiety, and confusion. These dehydration symptoms will often harm an individual’s mood. They can lead to feelings of depression when paired with a stressful environment or situation.

When to See a Doctor?

Though there are many methods to help boost serotonin levels, a change in diet, increase in supplements, exposure to bright light, and exercise may not be enough for some individuals suffering from low serotonin levels. Factors contributing to low serotonin levels include genetics, brain chemistry, environmental stressors, and personal experiences.

Individuals who suffer from mood disorders or depression may need to look toward their health care provider to create a proper path to recovery and mood improvement. This process could take the form of pharmaceuticals, therapy sessions, or other techniques. Understanding your options surrounding improved mood and everyday life can help remove the stigma of talking about mental health improvement and foster a more safe and helpful environment of care.

Know Your Options

Changing your diet to include more foods to promote serotonin production can be a simple and cost-effective option to improve mood and outlook on life when suffering from low serotonin levels. However, recognizing the many other options to boost serotonin is essential when finding the right avenue to improve your mood.

By naturally increasing serotonin through exercise or massage may work more for one individual, but others may need medical intervention like therapy or bright light exposure. Finding the best path to boost serotonin is not a one-size-fits-all situation and needs to be tailored to the individual, not just the symptoms they may feel.