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The Natural Good Mood Chemical, and How to Increase It

September 23, 2019

Everyone wants to live a happy life. We go through life trying to find a fulfilling job, a loving  support system, and working hard to build a life that makes us feel good from the inside out, all in hopes of achieving lasting happiness. 

There are all kinds of things that contribute to happiness and the lack thereof, some less tangible and more lasting than others. There are also chemicals that play a major role in feelings of happiness. Running low on the neurotransmitter serotonin due to stress, poor diet, digestive issues, and other factors can affect our mood and happiness. That means lifestyle changes like diet and healthcare intervention (including medication in some cases) can help boost serotonin and improve well-being. The good news is that, for many, there are natural ways to improve serotonin levels, and as a result elevate our daily moods. 

What is Serotonin?

Serotonin, or 5-hydroxytryptamine, is a key neurotransmitter that many refer to as the “feel-good hormone” (though it is not really a hormone in the traditional sense). It’s produced and found mainly in the brain and digestive tract, and functions to transmit messages between nerve cells. Because of this function, it’s  considered to be a neurotransmitter.

Functions of serotonin include:

  • Regulates bowel function
  • Contributes to the formation of blood clots
  • Influences mood 

How Can Serotonin Affect Health?

Experts suggest that a low level of serotonin in the body can lead to sadness and feeling depressed, as well as other symptoms like:

Researchers believe that a low level, or imbalance of serotonin in the body can lead to the low moods related to depression. In fact, a 2017 study shows that because of this role of serotonin in depression, restricting serotonin reuptake (or reabsorption) is one of the primary methods used to treat depression. This makes a lot of sense when looking at how serotonin affects our body’s overall health and how it relates to other imbalances in the body.

Other signs of a serotonin deficiency or imbalance may include:

If you experience any of the above symptoms, be sure to visit your healthcare provider. 

Natural Ways to Boost Serotonin

What Foods Can Boost Serotonin?

The best part about dealing with low serotonin levels, is that there are foods that can help our bodies produce more serotonin and keep us feeling happier and more emotionally balanced! It’s important to note that the foods you eat don’t contain serotonin. However, certain foods contain the amino acid tryptophan, which can help stimulate the body’s production of serotonin. Foods that contain tryptophan include meat, fish, eggs, and poultry.

However, we also need to consume carbohydrates in the diet for the tryptophan to be able to reach the brain. This is because carbohydrates create glucose, which releases insulin. Insulin, in turn, provides amino acids to the other organs so tryptophan doesn’t have to compete with them for access to the brain. Therefore, be sure to combine tryptophan-rich foods with carbohydrates.

Here are a few examples you can try at  home:  

  • Vegetable omelet: Scramble up eggs and add vegetables like spinach and some mushrooms with some sweet potato on the side for a serotonin-boosting breakfast meal. If you don’t eat animal products, nix the eggs and use tryptophan-containing soft non-GMO tofu instead to scramble up with your favorite veggies.
  • Spinach salad: For a serotonin-boosting salad, try a foundation of tryptophan-containing spinach and top with sliced strawberries, hard-boiled egg slices, and/or sunflower seeds. Seeds don’t contain as much tryptophan as animal products, but are a good source for those who are vegetarian or vegan.
  • Stir-fry: Choose your favorite protein like turkey, chicken, fish, or tofu for tryptophan. Then, add in your favorite vegetables like sliced onions, peppers, carrots, and zucchini with some brown rice on the side for carbohydrates to help boost serotonin at lunch or dinner time. 
  • Trail mix: For a serotonin-boosting snack, combine your favorite seeds with dried fruit like raisins or dried cranberries.
  • Yogurt parfait: Enjoy your favorite kefir yogurt without added sugar for a natural source of carbohydrates, and top with tryptophan-containing seeds. You can also add diced berries and other fruit for extra carbohydrates and naturally sweet flavor.

Other Ways To Boost Serotonin

Besides consuming serotonin-boosting foods, there are other non-dietary ways you can increase serotonin levels naturally.

  • Bright light exposure: Just as a walk on a sunny day may uplift mood, light exposure therapy may increase serotonin levels. Research shows that bright light is effective for helping those with seasonal depression as well as those with premenstrual dysphoric disorder. Also, experts suggest that sunlight exposure may help boost serotonin since UV light absorbed into the skin produces vitamin D, and vitamin D in turn boosts serotonin production. Plus, vitamin D supplementation helps improve mood and reduces inflammation in the body.                                  
  • Exercise: Being active is an extremely effective stress reliever. Studies show that this stress relief may be a direct result of exercise boosting serotonin. Exercise can help increase tryptophan and the compound 5-HIAA that you need to produce and metabolize serotonin, respectively. Over the long-term, research suggests that exercise, due to its link with serotonin production, can improve cognitive and overall brain health as well.

Bottom Line

Optimizing serotonin levels is key for improving overall happiness and daily mood. When you have too little serotonin in the body, it can affect the health of your body and mind in negative ways. Fortunately, there are various natural ways to boost serotonin and help restore balance in the body and mind.

Give it some time, but if these natural ways don’t seem to improve your mood or wellbeing, be sure to visit a qualified healthcare provider for medical intervention. You can always visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) helpline if you need someone to talk to or need information on getting mental health help.

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