You have probably heard of the brain chemical called Serotonin, often referred to as the "happiness chemical" because it is known to contribute to feelings of happiness and wellbeing. In fact, the most commonly prescribed antidepressants are meant to increase the amount of Serotonin in our brains. While these medications can provide great benefits, did you know there are also proven ways to increase our brain's Serotonin levels without medication? Check out some of these ideas!
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, that’s involved in many processes throughout your body, from regulating your mood to promoting smooth digestion.
It’s also known for:
-promoting good sleep by helping regulate circadian rhythms
-helping regulate appetite
-promoting learning and memory
-helping promote positive feelings and pro-social behavior
If you have low serotonin, you might:
-feel anxious, low, or depressed
-feel irritable or aggressive
-have sleep issues or feel fatigued
-have a decreased appetite
-experience nausea and digestive issues
-crave sweets and carbohydrate-rich foods
Read on to learn about different ways to increase serotonin naturally.
You can’t directly get serotonin from food, but you can get tryptophan, an amino acid that’s converted to serotonin in your brain. Tryptophan is found primarily in high-protein foods, including turkey and salmon.
But it’s not as simple as eating tryptophan-rich foods, thanks to something called the blood-brain barrier. This is a protective sheath around your brain that controls what goes in and out of your brain.
In a nutshell, tryptophan-rich foods are usually even higher in other amino acids. Because they’re more abundant, these other amino acids are more likely than tryptophan to cross the blood-brain barrier.
But there may be a way to hack the system. Research suggests that eating carbs along with foods high in tryptophan may help more tryptophan make it into your brain.
Try consuming tryptophan-rich food with 25 to 30 grams of carbohydrates.
Here are some snack ideas to get you started:
-whole-wheat bread with turkey or cheese
-oatmeal with a handful of nuts
-salmon with brown rice
-plums or pineapple with your favorite crackers
-pretzel sticks with peanut butter and a glass of milk
Exercising triggers the release of tryptophan into your blood. It can also decrease the amount of other amino acids. This creates an ideal environment for more tryptophan to reach your brain.
Aerobic exercise, at a level you’re comfortable with, seems to have the most effect, so dig out your old roller skates or try a dance class. The goal is to get your heart rate up.
Other good aerobic exercises include:
Research suggests that serotonin tends to be lower after winter and higher in summer and fall. Serotonin’s known impact on mood helps support a link between this finding and the occurrence of seasonal affective disorder and mental health concerns linked to the seasons.
Spending time in the sunshine appears to help increase serotonin levels, and research exploring this idea suggests your skin may be able to synthesize serotonin.
To maximize these potential benefits, aim to:
-spend at least 10 to 15 minutes outside each day
-take your physical activity outside to help increase the serotonin boost brought on by exercise — just don’t forget to wear sunscreen if you’ll be out for longer than 15 minutes
-If you live in a rainy climate, have a hard time getting outside, or have a high risk for skin cancer, you can still increase serotonin with bright light exposure from a light therapy box.
If you have bipolar disorder, talk to your therapist before trying a light box. Using one incorrectly or for too long has triggered mania in some people.
Some dietary supplements may help to jumpstart the production and release of serotonin by increasing tryptophan.
Before trying a new supplement, check in with your healthcare provider. Make sure to tell them if you also take:
-vitamins and supplements
Choose supplements made by a manufacturer that is known and can be researched for reports on their quality and purity of products. Research suggests these supplements could help increase serotonin and reduce symptoms of depression:
Tryptophan supplements contain much more tryptophan than food sources, making it possibly more likely to reach your brain. A small 2006 study suggests tryptophan supplements can have an antidepressant effect in women, though more research is needed.
SAMe appears to help increase serotonin and may improve depression symptoms, but don’t take it with any other supplements or medications that increase serotonin, including certain antidepressants and antipsychotics.
This supplement can easily enter your brain and produce serotonin. A small 2013 study suggests it worked as effectively as antidepressants for those with early symptoms of depression. But other research on 5-HTP for increasing serotonin and reducing symptoms of depression has yielded mixed results.
Research suggests getting more probiotics in your diet may increase tryptophan in your blood, helping more of it to reach your brain. You can take probiotic supplements, available online, or eat probiotic-rich foods, such as yogurt, and fermented foods, such as kimchi or sauerkraut.
Use caution when trying these supplements if you already take medication that increases serotonin. This includes several types of antidepressants.
Too much serotonin could cause serotonin syndrome, a serious condition that can be life-threatening without treatment.
If you want to try replacing antidepressants with supplements, work with your healthcare provider to come up with a plan to safely taper off antidepressants for at least two weeks first. Abruptly stopping can have serious consequences.
Massage therapy helps increase serotonin and dopamine, another mood-related neurotransmitter. It also helps to decrease cortisol, a hormone your body produces when stressed.
While you can see a licensed massage therapist, this might not be necessary. One 2004 study looked at 84 pregnant women with depression. Women who received 20 minutes of massage therapy from a partner twice a week said they felt less anxious and depressed and had higher serotonin levels after 16 weeks.
Try swapping 20 minutes of massage with a partner, family member, or friend.
6. Mood induction
Too little serotonin can negatively impact your mood, but could a good mood could help increase serotonin levels? Some research suggests yes.
Thinking about something that makes you feel good can help increase serotonin in your brain, which can help promote an improved mood in general.
-visualizing a happy moment from your memory
-thinking about a positive experience you had with a loved ones
-looking at photos of things that make you happy, such as your pet, a favorite place, or close friends
Keep in mind that moods are complex, and it’s not always that easy to change your mood. But sometimes just engaging in the process of trying to direct your thoughts toward a positive place can help.
When to seek help
If you’re looking to increase serotonin to improve mood-related symptoms, including those of depression, these methods may not be enough.
Some people simply have lower serotonin levels due to their brain chemistry, and there isn’t much you can do about this on your own. In addition, mood disorders involve a complex mix of brain chemistry, environment, genetics, and other factors.
If you find that your symptoms are starting to impact your day-to-day life, consider reaching out for support from a therapist.
Depending on your symptoms, you may be prescribed a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor (SSRI) or another type of antidepressant. SSRIs help keep your brain from reabsorbing the serotonin that’s released. This leaves more available for use in your brain.
Keep in mind that you may only need to take SSRIs for a few months. For many people, SSRIs can help them get to a place where they can make the most out of treatment and learn how to effectively manage their condition.
The bottom line:
Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter, affecting everything from your mood to your bowel movements. If you’re looking to boost your serotonin, there are a few things you can try on your own. However, don’t hesitate to reach out for help if these tips aren’t cutting it.
Krysta Oehm, the founder of Mind Matters.
Mind Matters is a private practice dedicated to providing the best mental health, counseling, and wellness services to those in Lincoln and its surrounding communities.
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