Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) that works to stabilize mood and foster feelings of happiness and well-being. It also plays a role in how well the brain and nervous system cells communicate, enhances focus, and helps regulate the digestive system and sleep cycle.
The body naturally produces serotonin using the essential amino acid tryptophan. While the body can make serotonin on its own, sometimes it doesn’t make enough to keep the brain and other systems functioning optimally. If serotonin levels are low, your risk of depression and anxiety increases and other problems can occur.
This article will discuss the importance of adequate serotonin levels in the body, as well as how to boost serotonin both naturally with the help of food, sunlight, and exercise, and synthetically through medications and supplements.
Why Are Serotonin Levels Important?
Having adequate serotonin levels is important for your mental and physical health. Too little serotonin can increase your risk of depression and other mental health challenges like anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Low levels of serotonin have also been associated with the development of certain diseases, including chronic fatigue syndrome (extreme, long-term fatigue), fibromyalgia (condition of widespread pain), Alzheimer’s, (progressive disease causing memory problems and mental confusion) and Parkinson’s (neurological disease affecting movement).
It’s also possible for serotonin levels to be too high. This can lead to serotonin syndrome, a rare condition that can cause symptoms ranging from mild (nervousness, nausea, diarrhea, tremors) to severe (sweating, fever, confusion).
There are several factors that can cause serotonin levels to fall too low. These include:
- Tryptophan deficiency: The body can only make serotonin with tryptophan. The body can’t make this essential amino acid on its own, so it must be taken in through food. If you are not eating enough foods with tryptophan, then the body can’t make enough serotonin.
- Other nutrient shortfalls: Research shows other nutrients, including vitamin D and probiotics, help to regulate the production, release, and function of serotonin.
- Malfunction of serotonin receptors: In some cases, your body may make enough serotonin but is unable to use it efficiently. This is usually due to having too few serotonin receptors or having serotonin receptors that aren’t working properly.
Natural Ways to Boost Serotonin
Fill Up on These Feel-Good Foods
Serotonin is naturally produced by many plants. In fact, it’s currently found in about 42 plant species from 20 different families, most often in roots, leaves, stems, fruits, and seeds.
However, serotonin cannot cross the blood-brain barrier (a protective group of tightly packed cells that keep harmful substances from entering the brain), so eating foods with serotonin is not an effective way to raise serotonin levels.
Instead, it’s better to eat foods rich in the essential amino acid tryptophan, which can pass through the blood-brain barrier. Foods high in tryptophan include:
- Animal protein, such as turkey, chicken, and fish
- Soy products like soybeans (edamame), tofu, seitan, soy milk
- Nuts and seeds, including peanuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds
Studies suggest that increasing tryptophan intake can have a positive effect on mood and well-being, especially in individuals with tryptophan depletion.
It’s recommended that you consume tryptophan-rich foods with carbohydrates (such as bread, pasta, rice, or fruit). That’s because carbs trigger an insulin response that can help carry tryptophan over the blood-brain barrier.
Probiotics for Serotonin
An estimated 95% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut. Beneficial bacteria found in the gut (probiotics) secrete substances used in the creation of serotonin.
Research suggests that consuming foods rich in probiotics (including yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut) helps build the population of good gut bacteria, which positively influences serotonin production. In several recent studies, probiotic consumption was associated with reduced depression and anxiety symptoms. More research is needed to confirm the results and most effective dosage.
Get 15 Minutes of Sunlight
Enjoying a few minutes outside on a sunny day works double-duty to boost serotonin levels: Bright light is known to promote serotonin output by stimulating the body’s circadian rhythm (its internal clock).
Plus, when the skin is exposed to sunlight, skin cells convert the sun’s ultraviolet B rays into vitamin D. Vitamin D plays an important role in the production and activation of serotonin, which can help with mood. One study found that increased sun exposure was associated with reduced depression symptoms in elderly women.
Experts say getting just 10–15 minutes of sun a day is enough to make adequate vitamin D in most people. If this is not possible, supplements are also available. The body can still produce vitamin D even when you’re wearing sunscreen, so be sure to use adequate protection, especially if you have pale or sensitive skin.
The Vitamin D and SAD Connection
Seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD, is characterized by cyclical depressive symptoms occurring in the fall and winter months as the days get shorter and there is more darkness. This condition is thought to develop due to reduced levels of sun-derived vitamin D, which in turn leads to less serotonin production.
Treatment for seasonal affective disorder includes medication, therapies, and lifestyle changes.
Move Your Body
It’s commonly known that exercise is good for mental health. How does it help? In addition to endorphins (the hormones responsible for a “runner’s high”), research suggests that physical activity promotes the release of several mood-boosting chemicals, including dopamine and serotonin. This effect seems to reduce the risk of depression in those who regularly exercise.
Try some of these exercises to give yourself a serotonin boost:
- Jump rope
If those activities are not suitable for you, you can also get benefits from low-impact activities such as taking a brisk walk, chair/water aerobics, and gardening activities, like weeding or raking.
Try Adaptogenic Herbs
Adaptogens are plant extracts that work to help keep the body in homeostasis, the balance of internal, chemical, and physical systems within the body. These herbs do this by improving the body’s ability to react and respond to stress and by helping to maintain hormonal balance.
Early research suggests that certain adaptogenic herbs may have antidepressant effects. More research is needed, yet there is some evidence that the following may have an antidepressant effect:
- Rhodiola rosea (R. rosea)
Like with any complementary alternative medicine, it’s important to note that these herbs are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It’s best to talk with your healthcare provider before trying any alternative treatment.
Chronic stress negatively impacts serotonin production and impairs the function of serotonin receptors. That means stress management can play an important role in maintaining optimal serotonin levels.
Here are some study-backed stress-relieving techniques to try:
While it’s not easy to eliminate stress from everyday life, simple stress management techniques can go a long way in helping you feel better.
Medications That Increase Serotonin Levels
Serotonin can be boosted synthetically, too. Antidepressants are a common line of treatment for depressive symptoms that may be due to low serotonin levels. There are several different kinds of antidepressants including:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs): These meds work to keep serotonin circulating in the brain for long periods.
- Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs): These work by keeping serotonin and norepinephrine circulating.
- Tricyclic antidepressants: An older-generation class of drug that prevents the reabsorption of serotonin and norepinephrine.
- Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MOIs): This medication blocks the activity of an enzyme that breaks down serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.
These antidepressants can be helpful for boosting serotonin levels, but they may also have side effects. However, these side effects can be mild and usually don’t last long. These may include:
- Insomnia or fatigue
- Sexual issues
Sometimes people need to try a few different meds to find the antidepressant that works for them. Talk with your healthcare provider about any side effects you develop, and work with them to find the best fit.
Increasing serotonin levels can be done naturally. The best ways to do this are eating serotonin-boosting foods, getting out in the sun or supplementing with vitamin D, exercising, taking adaptogens, and managing stress.
Serotonin can also be increased synthetically, with antidepressants. While increasing serotonin is important for relieving depressive symptoms and improving mood, it’s not about getting as much serotonin as you can. Too much can also be harmful to your health. Finding the right balance is key.
A Word From Verywell
While you can’t really know how much serotonin you have in your body right now, you likely know when you don’t have as much as you need. When serotonin levels are low, you may feel blue or depressed.
Not having enough serotonin is nothing to be ashamed of. Many people struggle with low serotonin levels at times, especially during the dark winter months. Sometimes, having low levels is caused by something out of your control.
Though it can be hard to feel motivated to try new things to increase your serotonin levels when you’re feeling down, finding the right balance is possible.
Frequently Asked Questions
What happens when you don’t get enough serotonin?
Low levels of serotonin can lead to depressive symptoms. Not having enough serotonin is also associated with anxiety and sleep problems.
Are serotonin supplements safe?
Some are, but it’s important to use caution when trying them. Unlike antidepressants, which are prescribed to you by your healthcare provider and are regulated by the FDA, supplements do not require a prescription and are not regulated.
However, there is evidence to suggest that some supplements, like vitamin D, probiotics, and adaptogens, may be helpful in reducing depressive symptoms. Research is ongoing.
Do low levels of serotonin cause depression?
Not necessarily. While low levels of serotonin are often associated with depression, having low levels of serotonin does not automatically mean you will be depressed.
Can adaptogenic herbs boost serotonin?
Early research suggests that some adaptogenic herbs, including R. rosea, ginseng, and ashwagandha, may help boost serotonin and improve mood. These herbs and plant extracts are often used in Ayurveda (a form of alternative medicine that is the traditional medicine of India) and traditional Chinese medicine.
While adaptogens show promise for improving serotonin, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider before trying them to make sure they are safe for you.