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How to Increase Serotonin: 14 Foods & Other Factors

Written by Ana Aleksic, MSc (Pharmacy) | Reviewed by Biljana Novkovic, PhD | Last updated:
Jonathan Ritter
Puya Yazdi
Medically reviewed by
Jonathan Ritter, PharmD, PhD (Pharmacology), Puya Yazdi, MD | Written by Ana Aleksic, MSc (Pharmacy) | Reviewed by Biljana Novkovic, PhD | Last updated:

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Believe it or not, serotonin can act both as a neurotransmitter and a hormone. It is important for both mental and physical wellbeing. Serotonin can affect everything from mood and behavior to gut and heart health to blood vessel function. Low levels of serotonin have been associated with mood disorders, migraines, and gut issues. Read on to discover some of the foods and other factors that may boost serotonin levels naturally.

What is Serotonin?

Definition

Serotonin is an important signaling molecule throughout the brain and body. It is commonly known as the “happiness neurotransmitter” or the “happiness hormone” due to its prominent role in regulating mood.

Serotonin plays an important role in the brain, where its main job is to transmit messages between nerve cells. According to some scientific theories, serotonin is involved in all aspects of human behavior [1, 2].

Increasing Serotonin Naturally

When to see a doctor

If your goal is to increase serotonin to improve your mood-related issues—including those of depression or anxiety—it’s important to talk to your doctor, especially your mood is significantly impacting your daily life.

Major mood changes, such as excessive sadness, persistent low mood, euphoria, or anxiety, are all reasons to see a doctor.

Your doctor should diagnose and treat the condition causing your symptoms.

Remember that the existing evidence does not suggest that low brain serotonin directly causes mood disorders. Complex disorders like depression always involve multiple possible factors—including brain chemistry, environment, health status, and genetics—that can each vary significantly from one person to another.

Additionally, changes in brain chemistry are not something that people can change on their own with the approaches listed below. Instead, the factors listed here are meant to reduce daily stress and support overall mental health and well-being.

In other words, the information in this post should never be used to replace conventional medical treatment—it deals with “complementary strategies” only.

Therefore, you may try the additional strategies listed below if you and your doctor determine that they could be appropriate. Read through the approaches listed here and discuss them with your doctor before trying them out.

If your mood is significantly impacting your daily life, it’s important to see a doctor or psychologist as soon as possible. They are best equipped treat any underlying conditions and suggest complementary approaches, which may or may not include the strategies below.

Lifestyle Changes

1) Stress Reduction

Our bodies release cortisol when stressed. Cortisol likely decreases serotonin levels in the body by increasing serotonin reuptake. Some scientists hypothesize that too much cortisol can impair mental health. That is why reducing mental stress can help balance cortisol levels and increase serotonin [3].

Many of the lifestyle changes below can be used to decrease stress.

2) Mood Improvement

Serotonin impacts our mood, but mood also affects serotonin production. Studies using brain imaging (PET), showed that brains of people who are happy produce more serotonin than brains of people who are sad [4].

Therefore, engaging in activities and doing things that make you happier can help boost serotonin production.

In addition, studies show that social interactions also influence serotonin levels. Spend more time with people who make you feel good in general [5].

However, don’t get discouraged if you can’t “make yourself feel happy.” Mental health and moods are complex and altering your mood is not simple nor is it always a good idea. Consciously trying to reframe some excessively negative thoughts in a positive light may be beneficial in some cases. In other cases, consulting a therapist is necessary.

Choosing activities that make you happy can help your brain produce more serotonin, but this isn’t a foolproof method, and many people need a therapist’s help.

3) Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy or counseling may change behavior, thinking patterns, brain chemistry, and possibly even increase serotonin activity (by increasing serotonin receptors). Psychotherapy is usually recommended together with pharmacotherapy in people with mood disorders [6].

In a study of 23 patients with depression who participated in psychotherapy for 4 months, therapy significantly increased serotonin activity and improved symptoms of depression [6].

4) Exercise

Fatigue, as a result of exercise, increases the amount of tryptophan that can cross the blood-brain barrier (by decreasing BCAA levels) and thereby boosts serotonin production. The psychological benefits of physical exercise can be more readily achieved with consistent aerobic exercise training [7, 8, 9, 10].

Mice that ran on treadmills had higher levels of serotonin compared to mice that remained inactive. Brain tryptophan remained high even after exercise [11].

5) Getting More Sun

It has been long known that bright light helps treat seasonal depression. But several studies suggest that light is also effective for other forms of depression [12, 13, 14].

Additionally, some research suggests that people have higher serotonin levels in the summer compared to winter [15, 16].

According to one hypothesis that has yet to be proven, our modern way of life–in which we spend a lot of time indoors–may be depleting our serotonin levels, thereby making us more vulnerable to mood disorders [10].

Pioneer studies suggest that our skin may produce serotonin when exposed to sunlight, though large-scale studies have yet to confirm this theory [17, 18].

In addition, people need vitamin D to produce serotonin and sun to produce vitamin D [19, 20].

Going outside and spending more time in the sun on a regular basis may be a healthy way to boost your serotonin levels.

6) Yoga and Meditation

A review of over 200 peer-reviewed RCTs, clinical trials, and meta-analyses studying complementary and alternative medicine suggest that yoga and meditation may help uplift mood and improve symptoms of mild, moderate, and treatment-resistant depression when used as an add-on to standard care [21].

In fact, meditation activates many parts of the brain important for understanding the self, emotions, problem-solving, adaptability, and increasing awareness. Serotonin plays a role in wakefulness, along with other neurotransmitters, which are all raised in meditators according to some studies [22, 23, 24].

Thirty minutes of yoga and breathing exercises improved mood in a study of 71 healthy adults [25].

According to hundreds of studies, yoga and meditation may help lift mood and improve the symptoms of depression.

7) Music Therapy

Interestingly, some researchers think that music may increase neurotransmitters like serotonin. Additionally, listening to music you like generally has a relaxing effect [26].

However, human data are lacking. Rats exposed to melodic music (e.g. Mozart’s sonatas) released more serotonin in their brains [26].

8) Dance Therapy

A study of 40 students around the age of 16 who participated in dance movement therapy had increased blood serotonin levels compared to the control group [27].

Dance therapy may be sometimes recommended as a complementary behavioral approach to pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy in some people with mood disorders.

Foods

Tryptophan is the amino acid building block for serotonin. Tryptophan is not produced by the body, so it must be taken in through diet.

Current research shows that unlike purified tryptophan, consuming tryptophan-rich foods does not necessarily increase brain serotonin. That’s because tryptophan-rich foods, such as meat, dairy, fruits, and vegetables, also contain many other amino acids. Tryptophan has to compete with these other amino acids for transport across the blood-brain barrier [10, 28].

On the other hand, lack of dietary tryptophan (compared to other amino acids) may lead to lower blood and brain tryptophan levels, decreasing serotonin production. Increased BCAAs may also lower tryptophan and serotonin, as well as dopamine in the brain. This may be relevant for people who take protein powders to enhance exercise performance [29, 30].

9) Healthy Carbs

Consuming carbs increases serotonin levels by increasing the transport of tryptophan into the brain [31, 32].

Increasing the intake of healthy, complex carbs might be a good idea. Some examples of healthy carbs include whole fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts.

However, avoid unhealthy and refined carbs like sugar and white bread in your diet. Refined carbs have a plethora of negative health effects.

Physical Treatments & Devices

10) Massage

Massage therapy decreased cortisol and raised serotonin and dopamine in a broad population with stress-related health problems in 3 studies (review) [33].

In one study, 24 adults with low back pain were either given two 30 minute massages per week or subjected to standard relaxation procedures over the span of 5 weeks. Urine serotonin levels were higher in individuals who received massage therapy [34].

11) Neurofeedback

Neurofeedback allows individuals to consciously change their brain activity (EEG waves) and therefore modify their behavior and cognition. Some of its proposed clinical uses are for migraines, ADHD, and PTSD [35, 36].

However, neurofeedback is expensive, time-consuming, and likely only short-lasting. Its overall scientific validity has recently been brought into question [35, 36].

In one study, neurofeedback (30 minutes, 5 sessions weekly, 4 weeks) was applied to 40 patients with fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS). FMS patients may have lower serotonin and widespread pain in their muscles and bones. After 2 weeks, patients experienced less pain, fatigue, anxiety, and depression. However, this study was small and extremely short-lasting [35, 37].

Neurofeedback may help increase serotonin, but its effects are not likely to last very long.

12) Acupuncture

In a randomized clinical trial, 75 women with fibromyalgia, acupuncture increased levels of serotonin in the serum, compared to placebo [38].

In rats, acupuncture-like stimulation increased serotonin activity in certain regions of the brain [39].

13) Light Therapy

When sun exposure is not possible, limited research suggests that bright light therapy may help increase serotonin levels [40].

Bright light therapy (photobiomodulation) shows promising results for depression based on clinical trials [41].

In a study of 10 women with chronic headaches (observational), 34 seconds daily use of low-level laser therapy (LLLT) significantly increased serotonin levels after just 3 days [40].

In a study of 25 drug-free hospitalized veterans with depression or bipolar disorder, bright white light improved depressive symptoms. However, further testing needs to be done on the negative consequences of long-term light treatment [42].

When sun exposure is not possible, bright light therapy and low-level laser therapy have each shown some promise for improving depression and increasing serotonin.

14) Vagus Nerve Stimulation

There is not much research about vagus nerve stimulation, mood and/or serotonin levels. The existing data are limited to findings in animals.

Long-term vagus nerve stimulation (14 days) increased serotonin levels in rat brains [43].

In rats, sustained vagus nerve stimulation for 14 days also increased the action of serotonin [44].

Additional Experimental Research

This section summarizes experimental research about the effects of psychedelics and MDMA on mood and serotonin in the brain. Our aim is to discuss research findings. We strictly advise against taking these substances under any circumstance.

Both psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin as well as MDMA (“ecstasy”) are illegal drugs. They are classified as Schedule I drugs, which means that they have no medical uses and a high potential for abuse and harm. Having possession of these substances can result in criminal prosecution.

The FDA recently approved a trial with a psilocybin-based drug in people with depression under a Breakthrough Therapy Designation. Another trial was approved under the same procedure for MDMA in people with PTSD. However, until the results of these studies are published and carefully reviewed by regulatory bodies, both compounds remain classified as illegal drugs.

39) Psychedelics

Psychedelics are hallucinogenic drugs such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybin from Psilocybe mushrooms. Psychedelics stimulate serotonin pathways (by directly binding to serotonergic receptors and also increasing their number), raise serotonin levels, and reduce its breakdown. This likely causes hallucinations and other effects [45].

In a recent pilot study of 12 patients with anxiety due to life-threatening diseases, 200 μg of LSD significantly reduced self-reported anxiety. LSD was given in a safe psychotherapeutic environment with medical supervision to minimize side effects [46].

In a study of 17 healthy individuals, psilocybin (215 micrograms/kg) enhanced mood, increased goal-directed behavior and decreased recognition of negative facial expressions [47].

Using psychedelics outside a controlled and medically-supervised research environment can have serious psychological consequences. Certain plant hallucinogens, as well as synthetic hallucinogens, can be extremely toxic [48, 49, 50, 51].

40) MDMA

MDMA, otherwise known as “ecstasy,” stimulates the release of serotonin and increases serotonin activity (inhibits its reuptake). MDMA intoxication can be severe and life-threatening, in part due to excessively increased serotonin levels [52].

A pilot study concluded that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy (25 mg or 125 mg) helped 12 patients suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) [53].

In mice, MDMA increased both serotonin and dopamine release in the brain [54].

Limited research is currently underway to investigate the effects of psychedelic drugs and MDMA on mental health and brain chemistry. We strongly advise against using such drugs without the careful supervision of a doctor in a research environment.

Limitations and Caveats

Some of these studies have fairly small sample sizes. Additionally, many of these natural methods of increasing serotonin in the body have only been tested in animals. Further research in humans is necessary to determine their safety and effectiveness.

In addition to the concentration of serotonin, both the number of serotonin receptors and their sensitivity may also play an integral role in determining serotonin activity.

Though serotonin is mostly made, stored, and released in the gut, serotonin acts as an important neurotransmitter in the brain. Some of these natural remedies and supplements need further testing to determine if they are able to cross the blood-brain barrier. Long-term application of these remedies should also be further studied.

Further Reading

Takeaway

Serotonin is an important signaling molecule throughout the brain and body. It is commonly known as the “happiness neurotransmitter” or the “happiness hormone” due to its prominent role in regulating mood.

Many factors are believed to affect the production of serotonin and subsequent levels of serotonin in the brain. Among these are stress reduction, psychotherapy, exercise, and exposure to sunlight. Eating healthy carbohydrates has likewise been linked to increased serotonin. Finally, certain physical treatments such as massage and acupuncture have shown promise in clinical trials.

Experimental research has suggested that certain illegal drugs (psychedelics and MDMA) may one day play a role in psychiatric medicine. However, this research is still very much in an early, speculative stage, and we strongly recommend against the use of recreational drugs in an attempt to increase serotonin.

About the Author

Ana Aleksic

Ana Aleksic

MSc (Pharmacy)
Ana received her MS in Pharmacy from the University of Belgrade.
Ana has many years of experience in clinical research and health advising. She loves communicating science and empowering people to achieve their optimal health. Ana spent years working with patients who suffer from various mental health issues and chronic health problems. She is a strong advocate of integrating scientific knowledge and holistic medicine.

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