Natural Ways to Increase Serotonin Levels for Improved Mental Health – Serotonin Foods & Activities
Feeling low and lethargic? Have the winter blues got you? We typically face a myriad of emotions at any given time. Happiness, sadness—or any mood for that matter—is the product of dozens of internal and external factors.
But when some of the undesirable emotions such as gloom persist, you may have to intervene and give your moods a nudge/push. But how? How can you intentionally help boost your moods and carve back that smile on your face? Believe it or not, the key to better moods may lie in your diet. (PS: Sometimes the cause for your low moods may be a diagnosable mental health problem and you need to seek medical care).
What you eat could have a profound effect on how you feel—and all this is because of a chemical known as serotonin. Read on as we define serotonin, its role in mental health, and activities/foods that increase serotonin.
What is Serotonin?
In its simplest form, serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the digestive system, blood, and brain. Like any other neurotransmitter, it relays signals from one region of the brain to another. In particular, serotonin plays a crucial role in our sleep behavior, appetite, and mood.
A slump in serotonin levels is associated with low appetite, restless sleep, irritability, feeling blue, forgetfulness, and craving carbs. The chemical basically contributes to our feeling of well-being—which is why most antidepressant medications (i.e., SSRIs) target the neurotransmitter to increase its levels.
But drugs are not the only way to increase serotonin levels. In fact, your refrigerator might be loaded with serotonin foods.
Serotonin Vs Tryptophan
Ever heard of tryptophan—the amino acid infamously associated with thanksgiving turkeys and drowsiness? According to a 2016 study published in the Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, eating a diet rich in tryptophan reduces anxiety and makes you feel happier.
In addition to helping with anxiety and depression, the amino acid is also used to synthesize serotonin—which does not occur in the foods we eat. In other words; tryptophan = serotonin = improved moods.
But reaping the maximum benefit from tryptophan-rich foods is not as simple as making it a dietary staple. For tryptophan to cross the blood-brain barrier for the synthesis of serotonin in the brain, there needs to be a catalyst.
According to a study in the Journal of Nutrition & Food Sciences, an effective way of increasing the absorption of the amino acid is by pairing the tryptophan-rich foods with carbs. For example, you can pair oatmeal and nuts or turkey with whole bread.
What is The Role of Serotonin in Mental Health and the Body?
- Brain Health: Serotonin is primarily known for its effects on the brain. The neurotransmitter is widely referred to as the “feel-good” chemical—owing to its role in regulating mood. According to an article in the Journal of Clinical Psychotherapy and Neuroscience, this is also the reason it’s the target of medications used to treat mood disorders, anxiety, and depression.
- Digestion: Studies show that Serotonin plays a protective role in the digestive system by regulating appetite and contributing to the normal functioning of the bowel.
- Sleep: Serotonin and other neurotransmitters such as dopamine influence sleep-wake cycles—including how well, how much, and when you sleep. Serotonin also affects the production of the hormone melatonin—which is crucial to a proper sleep cycle.
- Blood Clotting: Research shows that platelets release serotonin to help heal a wound – i.e., the neurotransmitter causes vasoconstriction (narrowing) of arterioles, hence reducing blood flow and promoting clotting.
Foods High in Serotonin
Although some people may prefer antidepressants and supplements to boost their serotonin, there are natural ways to boost the “feel-good” chemical—including the serotonin foods below. (Keep in that the tryptophan-rich foods listed should be paired with healthful carbs to effectively bypass the blood-brain barrier—hence increasing serotonin).
Egg yolks are packed with several antioxidants and amino acids—including omega-3 fatty acids, biotin, choline, tyrosine, and tryptophan (i.e., the precursor to serotonin). To limit cholesterol intake, consider eating hard-boiled eggs rather than fried. And remember to pair the eggs with a complementary carb such as oatmeal.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, you should eat at least half a banana before going to bed. This recommendation draws on the fruit’s tryptophan content. And since it already has carbs, you don’t even need an accompaniment. You also get to benefit from the high potassium content they’re known for.
Pineapple is a tropical fruit that is as healthy as it is delicious. It’s packed with tons of helpful compounds such as antioxidants, nutrients, and enzymes. Regarding the latter, pineapples contain an enzyme known as bromelain—which helps reduce inflammation and boost immunity.
It is also a food that increases serotonin due to its abundance of tryptophan. A study in the Journal of Plant Signaling and Behavior notes that pineapples even contain trace amounts of serotonin.
We all know that the term “say cheese” is meant to coax a smile. But did you know that the actual cheese also helps bring a smile to your face at a biological level? According to researchers affiliated to the University of North Dakota, participants who consumed cheese (Mozzarella to be specific) reported significantly better moods.
- Oily Fish – Salmon, Mackerel, or Tuna
Salmon, mackerel, and tuna—like most fishes—are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. These compounds have several health benefits, including a reduced risk of cardiovascular problems. Fatty fish are also serotonin foods that are rich in tryptophan.
Turkey is arguably the most popular serotonin food—owing to its association with drowsiness after a hearty Thanksgiving meal. But while the link between sleepiness and the turkey is up for debate, there’s no denying that the thanksgiving favorite is a great source of tryptophan.
- Nuts & Seeds
What’s your favorite nut—cashew nuts, macadamia, chestnuts, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, or good ol’ peanuts? Well, it doesn’t matter because they’re all foods high in serotonin.
Grabbing a handful of your favorite nuts and gradually tossing them into your mouth as you go on with your daily activities will significantly help maintain/improve your health. Nuts and seeds are rich in tryptophan and other nutrients that improve overall health. They’re also a great option for vegans and vegetarians.
Fun fact: There are more bacteria in your body than there are cells. Most of these reside in your gut and they’re linked to several health benefits. According to a Systematic Review in the Annals of General Psychiatry, probiotics help ease depressive symptoms by boosting serotonin levels. You can get these beneficial microorganisms (probiotics) from foods such as Kimchi, Tempeh, Sauerkraut, Kefir, and yogurt
Other Ways to Boost Serotonin Aside from Serotonin Foods
While a diet with foods high in serotonin is important to boost your moods with ease, it is not the only solution. Some activities increase serotonin in your body. They include:
- Bright Light
Spending a few minutes outside in the sun and engaging in physical activities appears to increase serotonin levels naturally. Research points to a link between seasonal mental health concerns and the levels of serotonin. In particular, the neurotransmitter appears to drop during winter and rise during summer.
In a study appearing in the Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynaecology, the findings showed that participants who received massage therapy had higher serotonin levels and felt less depressed. Massage therapy is believed to reduce the level of cortisol (stress hormone)—while increasing dopamine and serotonin.
Whether it’s jogging, bicycling, hiking, swimming, or walking—aerobic exercises that get your heart rate up help boost your serotonin. It triggers the release of tryptophan while creating an environment for the amino acid to reach the brain with ease. Similarly, a UK study notes that exercise helps with sensitivity to stress, depression, and anxiety.
- Mood Induction – Positivity
Although moods are complex and changing them is not a straightforward process, making the conscious effort to think about something positive may help—as per research. With this in mind, try looking at images of things that make you happy or visualizing/recalling positive experiences with a loved one. This can help increase serotonin levels and consequently boost your moods.
Addiction and Serotonin
Drug addiction or substance abuse disorder is a serious and challenging psychiatric disease. Given the role of serotonin in several body processes and behaviors, it’s safe to assume it plays a role in addiction-related behaviors.
According to a study published in the Journal of Neuropharmacology, “the 5-HT (serotonin) system plays a large role in the neurochemical effects of several drugs of abuse, which may contribute to the development and maintenance of an addiction.” Another study by a team affiliated to the University of Liverpool showed that drugs such as Ecstasy affect how serotonin is transported—hence impacting emotional reactions to different situations.
For more on how to overcome addiction, improve mental health through serotonin foods, and anything in between, give us a call at (844) 467-3848. We’re here for you 24/7!