How to Boost Serotonin Levels Naturally: 5 Scientifically Proven Ways to Improve Your Mood

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

Do you often feel down? You may have low serotonin levels. Luckily, there are several ways to increase your serotonin naturally that also improve your mood, making you feel happier and more at peace. Read on to find out how!

What is serotonin?

Serotonin is often referred to as the happy hormone thanks to its role in regulating mood and promoting feelings of happiness and well-being. It’s believed to lower symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, so several popular medications used to treat mood disorders aim to increase serotonin levels in the brain.

But serotonin has several different functions in the body and brain other than improving your mood. As a neurotransmitter, it helps your brain communicate with the rest of your body, helping to heal wounds, and regulate sleep patterns, digestion, and bowel movements.

How does your body produce serotonin naturally?

Most of the serotonin in your body — about 90 percent — is in your gut, and the rest is produced in your brain. It’s made from tryptophan, the essential amino acid, which can’t be made in your body, but has to be obtained from the foods you eat.

Want to sneak more tryptophan into your body? Make sure you’re eating complex carbohydrates like whole grains, legumes, root vegetables, and fruits: your body needs these carbs to create insulin, which helps your muscles pull in more amino acids, giving tryptophan a better chance of reaching your brain. Protein-rich foods are also high in tryptophan, but our bodies don’t turn it to serotonin as efficiently.

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Can you have too much serotonin?

Higher serotonin levels may have positive effects on your mood and sleep and help lower your stress. So the more serotonin the better, right? Sadly, no: in this case, you can have too much of a good thing.

Sometimes consistently raising serotonin levels — usually by taking certain medications like antidepressants — can lead to serotonin syndrome. Its symptoms can include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness and confusion
  • Excessive sweating
  • Changes in heart rate and blood pressure
  • Problems with digestion
  • Nausea and vomiting

It’s still unclear if people who increase their serotonin levels naturally without medication can get serotonin syndrome, too. But in general, if you don’t have a serotonin deficit, you don’t need to increase it with medication — your body does an amazing job regulating itself. But there are several natural ways to give yourself a boost of serotonin.

5 Ways to increase serotonin naturally

Lifting your serotonin levels can help improve your mood and make you feel more relaxed and focused. Let’s take a look at some of the ways to do this naturally without medication.

1. Have regular exercise

Have you ever felt calmer and more positive after taking a walk when your mood is low? That's because exercise — and yes, walking counts, too! — is an excellent way to get a boost of serotonin naturally.

Research shows that regular exercise can increase your levels of serotonin and improve your mood. It doesn’t mean you need to sweat daily at the gym — moderate aerobic exercise or just moving more during the day can make a huge difference, too. Here are a few ideas to stay active and get your serotonin up:

  • Go for a 30-minute walk every day.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Walk or cycle to work or for errands instead of driving.
  • Actively play with your pets — even better if you can take your active games outside for your daily dose of vitamin D!
  • Cleaning or tending to your garden counts too — it can break a sweat just like a regular workout!
  • And finally, join an exercise class or a fitness challenge to keep you motivated.
An older couple walking in the part to increase serotonin naturally

2. Get enough sunlight

Serotonin levels are often linked to sun exposure — they tend to be higher in summer when there's much more sunshine around. So whether you bask in the sun on a beach, soak up some rays on your daily walk in a park, or just sit near a window at work, spending time in natural light helps increase your serotonin levels naturally. Just remember to use sunscreen, even on cloudy days, to avoid sun damage.

If you live in a climate with long, gloomy winters, consider getting a light therapy box — it can still get your serotonin levels up without even having to leave your home or increasing your risk of sun damage.

3. Try stress-reducing techniques

It’s hard to avoid stressful situations altogether, but chronic stress can lead to low serotonin levels, so it's important to keep it under control.

Find ways to cope with stress in a healthy way, such as through exercise, meditation, and other relaxation techniques.

For example, yoga or swimming can help you relax and reduce stress. Plus, it gets you moving, which also gives you a serotonin boost. Don’t forget you can also seek counseling if you’re struggling to manage your stress alone.

4. Spend time in nature

You’ve probably heard about the healing powers of nature. Spending just 30 minutes a day in a green space like a city park can boost your serotonin levels, lower your stress, improve your sleep and focus, and overall make you feel happier. Research even suggests that just looking at images of nature can have a positive impact on your mind. Still, actually getting outside is much healthier for you — and you get the added benefit of daylight and light exercise.

5. Take care of your mental health

Unsurprisingly, depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues can have a negative impact on your serotonin levels. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, consider reaching out to a mental health professional to work through any emotional issues you may be having. If therapy is not an option, journaling and writing down your worries on paper may also help.

5 Foods that increase serotonin production

Can you increase your serotonin levels by changing your diet? Researchers think you can.

As we mentioned earlier, about 90 percent of serotonin is produced in your gut, so keeping your gut bacteria happy can make you happy too. Eating healthy, balanced meals is just as important for your mind as your physical health. Adding certain tryptophan-rich foods to your diet can help boost your mood and have positive effects on your energy levels and sleep quality.

Let’s find out what some of these good mood foods are:

1. Salmon

Oily fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel are rich in omega-3 fatty acids that are essential for maintaining proper brain function and regulating your mood. It’s also a great source of vitamin D that, among other things, boosts the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factors, which reduce the risk of depression and mood disorders.

Eating two portions of salmon or any other oily fish per week should provide enough tryptophan for most people — just 100 g of salmon ​​contains 335 mg of tryptophan (120% RDI).

Nuts and seeds as some of the foods that increase serotonin

2. Nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds are good sources of protein and fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, and — you guessed it — tryptophan. Studies show that snacking on nuts between meals can not only keep you full for longer, but also lower your risk of cancer, heart disease, and respiratory problems — just remember that they’re also very high in fat, so eat them in moderation.

You can add nuts and seeds to your diet in a few ways:

  • Snack on a mix of nuts and seeds.
  • Sprinkle some seeds onto a salad.
  • Add seeds to your porridge or yogurt.
  • Opt for multigrain, seeded bread for your toast.

3. Cheese

Cheese is another great source of tryptophan — for example, 100 g of parmesan contains 560 mg of tryptophan. Dairy products, in general, contain alpha-lactalbumin, a whey protein that has been shown to improve cognitive function and increase serotonin levels.

4. Spinach

Leafy greens like spinach can also give you a boost of tryptophan. One study found that eating fruits and vegetables, including leafy greens, was associated with lower levels of depression.

Other than helping you feel more positive, spinach can also fill you with energy.

It contains iron that helps your body produce healthy red blood cells. Iron deficiency can cause anemia and make you feel extra tired and weak.

5. Soy products

Similar to meat, soy protein has a high concentration of essential amino acids and it also contains an impressive amount of tryptophan — 100 g of soy protein can give you 1116 mg of this mood-lifting amino acid. So products like tofu or soy milk can be a fantastic source of tryptophan for vegetarians and vegans.

Wrapping up

Low serotonin levels can be linked to serious mood disorders like depression and anxiety. So finding ways to get a boost of serotonin may improve your overall well-being and quality of life. If you think you may have a serotonin deficiency and experience symptoms that affect your daily life, it's important to talk to your doctor. They may recommend certain medications or supplements to get your serotonin level back on track.

November 25, 2022