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18 ways to increase the serotonin in your brain (naturally)

Image credit: Shutterstock - By lzf

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that can influence many things throughout your body like your mood, memory, sleep cycle, and even your sex drive.

By increasing the serotonin in your body naturally, you can also enhance your mental state and your motivation.

Want to increase serotonin?

Here are 18 natural ways to boost your serotonin.

1. Eat Tryptophan.

Tryptophan is an amino acid that helps in your body’s production of serotonin.  Serotonin is synthesized from tryptophan.

It’s believed that tryptophan is associated with mood issues like depression and anxiety.

Tryptophan supplements can increase serotonin, but a more natural approach is to eat foods that contain tryptophan.

Research has shown that when you follow a low-tryptophan diet, brain serotonin levels drop.

Foods that include tryptophan include eggs, turkey, dairy, lean meats, salmon, pineapples, tofu, nuts, and seeds.

Keep in mind: High-tryptophan foods won’t increase serotonin on their own.

But if you mix high-tryptophan foods with carbs, you’re more likely to boost serotonin.

The body releases more insulin when it absorbs carbs, which promotes amino acid absorption and leaves tryptophan in the blood.

The tryptophan you find in natural food competes with other amino acids to be absorbed in the brain so that it won’t boost serotonin a huge deal on its own.

2. Get a massage.

woman receiving a massage to increase serotonin

Getting a massage can boost your mood no matter what, but did you know that it can reduce your cortisol levels?

A study found that after massage therapy, cortisol was found to be 31% less on average in saliva or urine tests, and serotonin and dopamine increased by 28% and 31%, respectively.

Another study looked at massage therapy on babies of Depressed Mothers.

They massaged 1-3-month-old infants twice a week for 15 minutes for seven weeks and serotonin levels increased by 34% on average.

These studies not only suggest the stress-alleviating effects of massage therapy, but it can also be a significant mood booster.

Of course, it’s not clear whether these results are from massage in particular, or physical human touch.

3. Increase your intake of Vitamin B6, B12, and folate-rich foods

Vitamin B6 is important for serotonin production. Vitamin B6 must be present to convert either 5-HTP or tryptophan into serotonin.

According to a study, even mild deficiency of B6 Vitamin levels results in down-regulation of GABA and serotonin synthesis.

Vitamin B6 is found in cauliflower, bananas, avocado, grains, seeds, and nuts.

Also, taking B12 with folate increases production of serotonin.

According to research, more than a third of psychiatric admissions have been found to be suffering deficiencies in folate or vitamin B12.

Foods rich in B12 include cheese, fish, and meat while foods high in folate include green leafy vegetables, broccoli, cabbage, and whole grains.

[The daily application of mindfulness can improve all aspects of your daily life, including your happiness. Check out our practical guide to mindfulness here].

4. Get some sun.

Research shows a clear correlation between being exposed to bright light and serotonin levels. Light therapy is a common remedy for seasonal depression.

However, light from the sun holds advantages over other forms of light:

Sunshine light has a UV light, is much brighter than other light and is around at the right time in the day.

Yes, too much UV can cause skin cancer, but it is important to get adequate amounts because light absorbed through the skin produces Vitamin D.

Vitamin D has many functions, including assisting in serotonin production.

Unsurprisingly for those of us who live in the north, not getting sun can affect our mood. Sunshine can initiate serotonin production in our brains.

5. Increase your intake of Magnesium.

It’s thought that up to 75% of the American population is deficient in Magnesium.

This mineral can help to control blood pressure, regulate nerve cell function and also enhance serotonin.

One study found that for people with mild depression, a magnesium supplement can make a difference within just two weeks.

It is thought that magnesium deficiency in the brain may lower serotonin levels.

This is particularly important for people who have classic magnesium deficiency symptoms: muscle cramps, muscle pain, eye twitches and muscle spasms.

Magnesium can be found in supplements and foods like dark greens, bananas, and fish.

6. Be positive.

happy people talking about the Harvard happiness study

By changing your attitude, self-talk, and perspective, you can also influence your brain. When you do things that you enjoy, you feel better.

These new patterns of positivity can help you create more serotonin. Several studies found an association between measures related to serotonin and mood.

According to research, when positive thoughts and feelings are generated, cortisol decreases and the brain produces serotonin, creating feelings of well-being.

One tip to increase positivity and serotonin in the brain is to remember happy events.

This simple act can increase serotonin in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain associated with controlling attention.

While sometimes it can be challenging to recall happy events when you’re feeling down, it might help to talk to an old friend about a happy time or look at old photos.

Happiness reinforces happiness, helping your brain to function better as your serotonin levels increase.

If you’re struggling to deal with negative thoughts about things that are happening in your life now, start by remembering happy events in your past.

Spend time enjoying happy memories. Even if you’re going through something really tough right now, reminding yourself of what it is to feel happy can help you heal your brain and increase your serotonin levels.

Studies show that people who are depressed, and therefore have low serotonin levels, often struggle to remember being happy.

Even if they have had significant periods of happiness, they end up stuck in depression because they simply can’t remember what is was like to be happy.

If you’re depressed or struggling with a period of low mood, actively trying to remember happy times could lift your serotonin levels and help you feel happier and more resilient.

(To dive deep into techniques that teach you how to be more positive, check out my eBook on the no-nonsense guide to using eastern philosophy and Buddhism for a better life here)

7. Eat less sugar.

One of the symptoms you may feel when you’re low on serotonin is a craving for sugary foods.

Why?

Because sugar and carbs trigger the release of serotonin and give us an instant mood boost.

But this lift doesn’t last long, approximately an hour or two, before your serotonin levels crash.

A better long-term way of increasing serotonin is to eat healthy carbohydrates.

A research study found that the ingestion of a sugar-rich diet decreased serotonin metabolism in rats.

8. Start a meditation practice.

Person with a deep personality meditating
Image Credit: Shutterstock –
Yuganov Konstantin

A recent paper in the Archives of General Psychiatry concludes that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) “offers protection against relapse/recurrence on a par with that of maintenance antidepressant pharmacotherapy.”

Research reviews of mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy suggest that it helps to reduce stress, ruminative thinking, and trait anxiety in healthy people.

Meditation is believed to raise an acid called 5-HIAA in the brain that is directly related to serotonin.

What’s more, by sitting in meditation every day you can reduce stress, and the production of cortisol and other stress hormones and also enhance the production of serotonin.

If you’re looking to begin practising meditation, here are four steps to go about it:

1) Find a quiet place and time free of distractions.

2) Get comfortable. Find a body position that makes you feel relaxed.

3) Try to get into a relaxed, passive mental attitude. Let you your mind go blank.

If thoughts and worries appear, acknowledge them, then go back to trying to be relaxed and thoughtless.

4) Concentrate on a mental device. You could use a mantra, your breathing, or a simple word that is repeated over and over. You could also stare at a fixed object. Whatever you choose, the goal is to focus on something, so you block out thoughts and distractions.

Once you become good at this, you’ll look forward to each day devoting 20 minutes to it.

(To learn how to practice meditation, check out my ultimate guide to meditation here)

9. Exercise.

Image credit: Shutterstock – By lzf

Getting regular exercise is crucial for your physical and mental health.

Exercise can trigger the release of feel-good chemicals and can stimulate different parts of the brain.

A review of studies on the relationship between exercise and mood concluded that exercise has evident antidepressant effects.

In the United Kingdom, the National Institute for Health has published a guide on the treatment of depression.

This guide recommends treating mild depression with various strategies, including exercise, rather than antidepressants as the risk-benefit ratio is better.

In terms of serotonin, one animal study found that exercise increased tryptophan and 5-HIAA in rat ventricles.

Other studies have found that exercise increases extracellular serotonin and 5-HIAA in various brain areas, such as the hippocampus and cortex.

The question is: What type of exercise is best at increasing serotonin?

According to research, aerobic exercises, like running and biking, are the most likely to boost serotonin.

Long-distance exercise such as running and cycling, has been shown in many studies to help increase serotonin levels.

A 16-week exercise program was found to be as effective as antidepressants in some people.

It’s worth remembering that for exercise to work as a serotonin-booster and mood-lifter, it needs to be something you enjoy.

Doing something you hate is likely to have the opposite effect. If running and cycling aren’t for you, do something else.

It doesn’t have to be crazy. A yoga class or a forest walk will work if they’re what feels good to you.

Exercise outside for the best results, but if you can’t, don’t worry. Indoor exercise can be fantastic too.

10. Get lots of Vitamin C.

Vitamin C is strongly connected to mood and also has antidepressant properties.

Serotonin is created in the brain and body from tryptophan. But tryptophan needs cofactors such as vitamin B6, folic acid, vitamin, iron, magnesium, calcium, and zin for the reaction to take place.

Therefore, Vitamin C may not be directly related to serotonin, but it helps. 

Vitamin C also slows the release of the stress hormone cortisol (too much cortisol can cause depression, research suggests).

Studies have found that people with low vitamin c levels are often depressed and fatigued.

And one study found people who took vitamin C felt happier after just one week.

11. Reduce stress by taking care of yourself.

A little bit of stress can be good for you.

It keeps you alert, motivated and ready to take action.

But chronic stress can lead to depression in some people.

Sustained stress over long periods can lead to elevated hormones such as cortisol (the stress hormone), which can reduce serotonin and other important neurotransmitters in the brain.

This study found that increased cortisol in the body and brain can lead to depression.

Long-term stress causes a rise in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain, and a reduction in the levels of serotonin. This is a tough cycle to get out of.

Lack of serotonin tends to make it hard to deal with stress, which then leads to more stress, along with anxiety, depression and panic attacks

Long-term stress causes a rise in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain, and a reduction in the levels of serotonin.

This is a tough cycle to get out of. Lack of serotonin tends to make it hard to deal with stress, which then leads to more stress, along with anxiety, depression and panic attacks.

It’s worth remembering that everyone experiences some degree of stress, and that some stress is beneficial.

Feeling temporarily stressed, about an exam or job interview, for example, is normal and natural. The stress helps you focus and perform at your best.

If you’re experiencing that kind of short-term stress, you don’t need to worry about it affecting your serotonin levels.

It’s long-term, chronic stress that is damaging.

If you feel as if you never really relax, and that you’ve always got a knot in your stomach or that something is always churning in your mind, then you’re probably going through the kind of stress that reduces serotonin levels.

What can you do to change it? It can be hard to see your way out of chronic stress, as there’s often a significant reason for it.

But even if you can’t make an immediate change, making plans for change can be enough to start reducing your stress and increasing your serotonin.

Say your job is the source of your stress. Maybe can’t just quit, but you can make a plan for finding a new job that will come good if you give it time and effort.

What if you really can’t do anything to change the situation? It might be that the source of your stress is a close family member’s illness, for example. In that case, recognise that you can’t change it and that you need to accept it. If you give yourself permission to stop fighting, you’ll see your stress reduce.

It’s crucial to look after yourself when you feel like you’re experiencing too much stress.

Learning to relax your mind, and give yourself a break, is crucial for your mental and physical health.

As mentioned above, try daily routines like meditation, breathing exercises, massages, and exercise to help your mind and body relax.

It could be crucial for your serotonin levels and your mental health.

12. Eat well

Serotonin is produced in the body from an amino acid called tryptophan, which is found in certain foods.

We don’t yet fully understand exactly how eating tryptophan-rich foods can increase your serotonin, but we do know that people who eat a diet low in tryptophan tend to have lower levels of serotonin.

We also know that people who have low levels of tryptophan have higher levels of anxiety and depression.

Some foods high in tryptophan are:

  • Eggs.
  • Dairy including milk and cheese.
  • Lean meat and fish, particularly salmon and turkey.
  • Tofu.
  • Nuts.

The evidence is that the most effective way to eat tryptophan-rich foods so that they’re absorbed by the body is to combine them with carbohydrates. So you could try:

  • Poached eggs on wholemeal toast.
  • Macaroni cheese.
  • Stir-fried noodles with salmon, tofu or cashew nuts.

Even if eating tryptophan-rich foods doesn’t increase your serotonin by much, the process of thinking about eating healthily and taking charge of your own self-care will help you think more positively and that will, in turn, help increase your serotonin.

13. Take supplements

While we’re not sure yet how much you can increase your serotonin by eating foods, we do know that there are some supplements you can take that are much more likely to help.

If you choose to try supplements, remember to treat them with caution. Don’t take two types of serotonin-enhancing supplements at once and don’t take them with antidepressants.

While they’re not licensed drugs, they can have harmful effects.

There are three types of supplements that are often taken to increase serotonin.

5-HTP has been shown in several studies to help increase serotonin in the brain and to help people reduce anxiety, depression and insomnia.

Some people take it daily as a matter of course. Others take it to help them through stressful times.

St John’s wort is a popular herbal remedy that has been used for centuries to help people fight depression and stress.

As with 5-HTP, some studies have shown that it can be effective, but the results haven’t been consistent enough for it to be recommended by mainstream doctors.

Tryptophan supplements are another option.

We know that tryptophan in food can lead to increased serotonin, and tryptophan supplements could be an easier, faster way to get the same results.

Taking tryptophan supplements can help people who get seasonal depression in winter, and some women take them to reduce PMS symptoms.

14. Get out into nature

The natural world, with sunlight and fresh air, is a great mood booster.

Many of us spend most of our day under bright, artificial lights at work. We commute in stuffy cars. And we spend much of our time at home on screens.

Our bodies simply weren’t evolved to live like this. It’s hard for our brains to cope with the constant stimulation and glowing screens.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors spent nearly all their time outdoors, and that means you should make the effort to spend as much of your time outside as you can, too.

Studies have shown that regular outdoor walks in the forest or along the beach can be an important way to lift your mood, increase your serotonin and fight depression.

Even if you feel that you’re not a natural ‘outdoors’ person, take some time to try it. It can be hard to create the habit, especially in cold weather, but you might just find that if you stick at it, you feel stronger and healthier.

If you live in a big city, it might be harder to get outdoors, but even a quick walk around your local park will help boost your serotonin and your mood.

The key is staying comfortable. Invest in some comfortable shoes and a warm coat to help you through the winter. In summer, head out early or late when the weather is cooler.

Take time to notice things as you walk. Make being outside an indulgent experience, rather than something to be endured.

You’ll begin to enjoy it more and more as your serotonin rises.

15. Use a sun-lamp in winter

There will always be days when you can’t get outdoors easily.

If you have a full-on job and a long commute then getting outside, especially on dark winter days, might be pretty much impossible.

You never get to take a lunch break, and it’s far too late by the time you get home.

Even if you do manage it, there’s no sunlight, which reduces the power of the outdoors to boost your serotonin.

On those days, use a sun lamp for light therapy.

Many people have lower serotonin levels in winter, when there is little sun and light levels are low. Lots of people suffer from seasonal depression as a result.

Light therapy can really make a difference. Even 10 or 15 minutes a day sitting by a specially designed lamp can be enough to give you that much-needed serotonin boost.

You can buy sun lamps, which are much more powerful than ordinary household lamps, online without a prescription. You should, though, check with your doctor first if you have a history of skin cancer or have any questions about the treatment.

16. Stay away from drugs and alcohol

Just as supplements and antidepressants can help increase your serotonin levels, so recreational drugs and alcohol can deplete them.

MDMA (or Ecstasy) in particular is known to cause a significant reduction in serotonin. It releases a large amount of serotonin to have its uplifting effect, which then leaves serotonin depleted in the days after.

Other drugs, including alcohol, also help boost serotonin temporarily, leaving you feeling down afterwards as your brain struggles to keep up.

If you’ve ever felt grumpy and irritable when you’re hungover, you’ll understand.

If you find yourself often feeling depressed or anxious, try and cut out alcohol and any recreational drugs completely and see if it makes a difference.

Even if you’re just having a glass or two of wine a night, and not getting crazy drunk, it could be affecting your serotonin.

You don’t have to quit forever, but experiment and see whether cutting down might just change how you feel.

17. Get treatment for hormonal issues

Research shows that hormonal changes and imbalances can lead to a decrease in levels of serotonin, especially in people who have suffered from depression or anxiety in the past.

We know that women who go through an early menopause are at greater risk of depression than other women.

The andropause, or male menopause, has also been linked to symptoms of depression.

While these are natural physical processes, many people can benefit from hormone treatment to ease the symptoms, including depression.

As your hormone levels change, so your serotonin levels might rise.

18. See a professional

If you find that you’re struggling to lift your mood and your serotonin levels, it might be that there’s something in your mind that you need to deal with.

Therapists and doctors might be able to help you with therapy, antidepressants, or a combination of both.

Therapy might not have an immediate effect, but over time, it should help you deal with things that are troubling you. Your serotonin levels will rise and stay level, and you’ll feel stronger.

Antidepressants can also help some people. They are designed to raise your levels of serotonin so that you’re able to cope better with whatever challenges you’re facing.

Some people take them just for a short while, so they can get a serotonin boost while they figure out where they need to go.

Sum Up

To boost your serotonin levels:

1) Eat tryptophan: Foods that include tryptophan include eggs, turkey, dairy, lean meats, salmon, pineapples, tofu, nuts, and seeds.

2) Get a massage: Studies have found serotonin levels increase after a massage.

3) Increase your intake of Vitamin B6, B12, and folate-rich foods: Foods rich in B12 include cheese, fish, and meat while foods high in folate include green leafy vegetables, broccoli, cabbage, and whole grains.

4) Get some sun: Research shows a clear correlation between being exposed to bright light and serotonin levels.

5) Increase your intake of magnesium: Magnesium can be found in supplements and foods like dark greens, bananas, and fish.

6) Be positive: When positive thoughts and feelings are generated, cortisol decreases and the brain produces serotonin.

7) Eat less sugar: A better long-term way of increasing serotonin is to eat healthy carbohydrates.

8) Meditate: By sitting in meditation every day you can reduce stress, and the production of cortisol and other stress hormones and also enhance the production of serotonin.

9) Exercise: According to research, aerobic exercises, like running and biking, are the most likely to boost serotonin.

10) Get lots of Vitamin C. Fruits with the highest sources of vitamin C include cantaloupe, citrus fruits, and juices, such as orange and grapefruit, kiwi fruit, mango, papaya, pineapple, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and cranberries.

11) Reduce stress by taking care of yourself: Learning to relax your mind, and give yourself a break, is crucial for your mental and physical health.

12) Eat well: The evidence is that the most effective way to eat tryptophan-rich foods so that they’re absorbed by the body is to combine them with carbohydrates

13) Take supplements: As with 5-HTP, some studies have shown that it can be effective, but the results haven’t been consistent enough for it to be recommended by mainstream doctors. Tryptophan supplements are another option.

14) Get out into nature: Studies have shown that regular outdoor walks in the forest or along the beach can be an important way to lift your mood, increase your serotonin and fight depression.

15) Use a sun-lamp in winter: Light therapy can really make a difference. Even 10 or 15 minutes a day sitting by a specially designed lamp can be enough to give you that much-needed serotonin boost.

16) Stay away from drugs and alcohol: Just as supplements and antidepressants can help increase your serotonin levels, so recreational drugs and alcohol can deplete them.

17) Get treatment for hormonal issues: Many people can benefit from hormone treatment to ease the symptoms, including depression. As your hormone levels change, so your serotonin levels might rise.

18) See a professional: Therapists and doctors might be able to help you with therapy, antidepressants, or a combination of both.

 

 

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Lachlan Brown

Written by Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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