Believe it or not, serotonin can act both as a neurotransmitter and a hormone. It is important for both our mental and physical wellbeing, affecting everything from our mood and behavior, to gut, heart, and blood vessel function. Low levels of serotonin are associated with mood disorders, migraines, and gut issues. Read on to discover how you can boost serotonin levels naturally.
What is Serotonin?
Serotonin is an important signaling molecule best known as the “happiness neurotransmitter” or the “happiness hormone“. It plays a very important role in the brain, where its main job is to transmit messages between nerve cells. In fact, serotonin is involved in virtually all human behavior [1, 2].
However, brain serotonin comprises less than 2% of the total serotonin found in our bodies. Most of the serotonin (over 90%) is actually made, stored, and released by the gut. In addition, about 5-8% of serotonin is stored in platelets circulating in the blood [1, 3, 4].
- Mood and emotions
- Movement (motor function)
- Sleep-wake cycle
- Body temperature
- Bowel movements
- Various gut functions
- Blood clotting (platelet aggregation)
- Constriction and relaxation of blood vessels
- Immune responses
- Bone development
- Heart function
- Reproductive function
- Pain perception
What Does It Do?
Discovered in the 1940s, serotonin, also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine or 5-HT, plays pivotal roles in mood, behavior, gut, and overall optimal body function (homeostasis). Imbalances in serotonin are linked to a wide array of symptoms that interfere with mental and physical health, impairing the quality of life [6, 7, 8].
Production and Removal
Specific bacteria in the human digestive tract can boost serotonin production in the gut. Gut flora actually balances tryptophan metabolism (via the kynurenine pathway), influencing the amount of L-tryptophan available for making serotonin. [11, 12].
Serotonin made in the gut cannot cross the blood-brain barrier. That is why brain cells must produce their own serotonin, from either L-tryptophan or 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), a by-product of L-tryptophan [13, 14].
The serotonin that gets released into the blood gets either taken up by platelets or rapidly broken down in the liver and lungs by enzymes called monoamine oxidase (MAO-A) and aldehyde and alcohol dehydrogenase .
When we talk about serotonin-associated disorders, it’s important to know that these disorders are not necessarily due to serotonin levels or production as such, but can stem from issues with serotonin reuptake or the availability of certain serotonin receptors. There are over 15 different receptor types discovered to date, including the well-known 5-HT1A, 5-HT2A, and 5-HT2C [16, 17, 18].
- Mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, aggression, obsessive-compulsive behavior, substance abuse, and schizophrenia
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Heart disease
Additionally, serotonin connects the gut microbiome with the brain – forming the so-called “gut-brain axis.” Decreased diversity and stability of beneficial gut bacteria can cause serotonin-related health issues, especially in the elderly [21, 22, 23].
Monoamine neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine together affect mood. A meta-analysis of 53 studies discovered that patients with a family history of major depressive disorder (MDD) or those diagnosed with MDD but now in remission, who were tryptophan or tyrosine depleted experienced low mood. No difference was observed in healthy individuals .
An imbalance in serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine may contribute to bipolar disorder. It has been proposed that the combined low levels of these 3 neurotransmitters, and not serotonin alone, cause mood disorders .
In the pineal gland, serotonin is used to make melatonin, a hormone that synchronizes the body’s “biological clock,” or circadian rhythm. When serotonin is low that limits the amount of melatonin that can be made in the body, interfering with the sleep-wake cycle .
40 Ways to Increase Serotonin Naturally
Lifestyle Changes to Increase Serotonin
1) Stress Reduction
Our bodies release cortisol when stressed. Cortisol decreases serotonin levels in the body, by increasing serotonin reuptake. Too much cortisol can increase your risk of developing mental health disorders. That is why reducing mental stress can help balance cortisol levels and increase serotonin .
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 .
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 .
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. Psychological benefits of physical exercise can be more readily achieved with consistent aerobic exercise training [29, 30, 31, 32].
Mice that ran on treadmills had higher levels of serotonin compared to mice that remained inactive. Brain tryptophan remained high even after exercise .
4) Getting More Sun
In fact, 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 .
Therefore, going outside and spending more time in the sun on a regular basis is a great way to boost your serotonin levels.
5) 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 .
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 [44, 45, 46].
Thirty minutes of yoga and breathing exercises improved mood in a study of 71 healthy adults .
Psychotherapy or counseling may change brain chemistry and even increase serotonin activity (by increasing serotonin receptors). 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 .
7) Music Therapy
Interestingly, music has been shown to increase neurotransmitters like serotonin.
In fact, rats exposed to melodic music (e.g. Mozart’s sonatas) released more serotonin in their brains .
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 .
Foods That Increase Serotonin
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 [32, 51].
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 also lower tryptophan and serotonin, as well as dopamine in the brain. This may be especially problematic for people who take protein powders to enhance exercise performance [52, 53].
However, you should use other methods to boost your serotonin, as increasing carbs in your diet can have a plethora of negative effects.
Supplements that Increase Serotonin
10) L-Tryptophan and 5-HTP
In the body, L-tryptophan is used to make 5-HTP from which serotonin is made. Taking L-tryptophan may raise plasma serotonin, improving cognitive, motor, or gut issues in those who are deficient [56, 57].
A protein called alpha-Lactalbumin from milk contains more tryptophan than many other proteins. In a study of 18 individuals, 12 grams of alpha-Lactalbumin increased the amount of tryptophan in blood plasma by 16% after 90 minutes .
In a pilot study of 13 female patients experiencing premenstrual syndrome (PMS), 6 grams of L-tryptophan taken daily for 14 days improved mood, irritability, difficulty sleeping, and carbohydrate craving .
Tryptophan can be purchased in the form of L-tryptophan supplements. 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) supplements are also available. It is important to note that 5-HTP is not the same as 5-HT, which is the chemical name for serotonin. 5-HTP freely crosses the blood-brain barrier (serotonin itself does not) to be converted into serotonin .
In the digestive tract, probiotics restore the gut microbiome and influence the gut-brain axis. Gut bacteria are important because they can produce tryptophan, from which serotonin is made. Many mental health disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, are linked to less diverse or fewer gut bacteria [61, 62].
In one study, an 8-week probiotic regimen (2.0 x 109 CFU/g of Lactobacillus helveticus and 2.0 x 109 CFU/g of Bifidobacterium longum) increased tryptophan levels in 110 individuals with depression. Increased tryptophan can increase serotonin production [63, 13].
A probiotic (Bifidobacteria infantis) given to rats for 14 days raised levels of blood tryptophan .
12) Vitamin D
Vitamin D helps the body make, release, and use serotonin in the brain. Vitamin D activates an enzyme that converts tryptophan into serotonin. If vitamin D levels are low, our brains make less serotonin. Thus, increasing vitamin D intake increases serotonin levels, reducing the risk of mental health disorders [41, 42].
A cohort study of over 9k subjects demonstrated that taking vitamin D supplements during the first year of life was correlated with a 77% reduced risk of schizophrenia. In other words, preventing low vitamin D levels early in life may reduce the chance of having schizophrenia later in life .
13) Omega-3 Fatty Acids
While vitamin D helps neurons make serotonin, the omega-3 fatty acids, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), help neurons release serotonin and improve its activity (increasing serotonin receptor sensitivity). Fish, such as salmon or trout, are high in omega-3 fatty acids. The omega 3 fatty acid supplements are also sold as fish oil capsules .
Inadequate omega-3 fatty acids intake may increase susceptibility to psychiatric illnesses, including depression .
In a study of 49 patients that repeatedly self-harm themselves, 1.2 grams of EPA and 0.9 grams of DHA capsules daily for 12 weeks reduced suicidal thinking by 45% and depression by 30% .
An observational study of 256,118 Japanese participants, discovered that people who ate fish daily had lower rates of suicidal thoughts compared to people who did not eat fish daily. In another observational study of 1,767 Finnish subjects, consuming fish less than twice a week was associated with a higher risk of depression and suicidal thinking [68, 69+].
Reduced intake of both EPA and DHA by pregnant rats resulted in less production, storage, release, and activity (receptor function) of serotonin in the brains of their offspring. Serotonin was not only reduced in the mothers’ brains but also its availability and production were reduced by (65% and 29%, respectively) in the brains of newborn rats .
14) St. John’s Wort
St. John’s Wort is a popular medicinal plant (Hypericum perforatum) used as an antidepressant for mild depression.
In a review (of 35 studies) of 6,993 patients with depression, St. John’s Wort standalone therapy improved mild to moderate symptoms as well as antidepressants and better than placebo. The typical dose is 300 mg of the extract 3 times per day for at least 4 weeks .
15) S-Adenosyl Methionine (SAM-e)
It is a naturally occurring compound that plays a role in methylation, energy breakdown and may help patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) who are not responding to conventional, synthetic antidepressants [81, 82].
In a study involving 73 MDD individuals unresponsive to drug therapy, 800 mg twice a day improved symptoms of depression compared to the placebo .
In a study of 144 individuals with MDD, 1,600 – 3,200 mg of SAM-e daily for 12 weeks significantly improved mood .
A review of 132 studies (115 clinical and 17 preclinical) concluded that SAM-e might be useful not just for depression, but for an array of mental health disorders, such as substance abuse and psychosis. However, more research needs to be conducted .
16) Vitamin B
In a cohort study of 549 community-dwelling seniors, those with low vitamin B12 and B9 blood levels were more likely to have irreversible problems with cognition (memory, attention, and thought) .
In Rhesus monkeys, a single dose of vitamin B6 increased serotonin production in the brain .
In addition, treatment of healthy adult rats with a vitamin B mixture raised serotonin levels in the brain .
17) Vitamin C
18) Vitamin E
In a meta-analysis of 17 observational studies, blood zinc levels were lower in depressed individuals compared to non-depressed individuals .
In a study, 25 mg of elemental zinc supplements daily for 12 weeks reduced depressive symptoms in a study of 37 patients with major depressive disorder .
Zinc can be increased through diet in foods such as red meat, oysters, and whole grains .
Magnesium supplements increase serotonin levels by increasing its availability (reducing reuptake) in the brain. In a study, 500 mg of magnesium per day for 8 weeks significantly improved symptoms in 60 patients diagnosed with mild to moderate depression .
Magnesium is found in green leafy vegetables, nuts, and legumes .
Curcumin is the active component of turmeric. In stressed rats, curcumin extended the length of time serotonin stays active in the brain (by blocking the reuptake of serotonin). It also improved cognition and reduced serum corticosterone, a cortisol equivalent, in rats .
In mice, a single dose of curcumin (10 – 80 mg/kg) increased serotonin levels .
23) Velvet Bean
Mucuna pruriens, known as the velvet bean, combats Parkinson’s disease better than the standard treatment (levodopa) in rats. In addition to being a source of dopamine, the long-term use of the powder form of Mucuna pruriens also restored serotonin levels in rat brains .
L-theanine, an amino acid found in tea leaves (e.g. green, black, or oolong tea) and Bay Bolete mushrooms, has relaxing effects on the mind. Green tea has the highest concentration of L-theanine [104, 105, 106].
In a cohort study of over 42K Japanese individuals, those who consumed at least 5 cups of green tea a day experiences less psychological distress that is often associated with reduced serotonin .
In rat studies, L-theanine raised serotonin levels in the brain .
Rhodiola rosea is a flowering plant that may help improve anxiety and depression. In a clinical trial of 89 patients with mild to moderate depression and low serotonin, Rhodiola rosea extracts (340 mg/day and 680 mg/day) for 42 days improved overall depression, including insomnia and emotional instability .
A meta-analysis of five trials of 177 participants concluded that 30 mg per day of saffron capsules can improve symptoms of depression in adults with major depressive disorder within 6 to 8 weeks .
Psychedelics are hallucinogenic drugs such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybin mushrooms. Psychedelics can stimulate serotonin activity (by directly binding to serotonergic receptors and also increasing their number), raise serotonin levels, and reduce its breakdown .
In a recent pilot study of 12 patients with anxiety, 200 μg of LSD significantly reduced self-reported anxiety. LSD was given in a safe psychotherapeutic environment with medical supervision to avoid side effects .
In a study of 17 healthy individuals, psilocybin (215 micrograms/kg) enhanced mood, increased goal-directed behavior and decreased recognition of negative facial expressions .
Though psychedelics can activate serotonin signaling, unsupervised use may lead to serious psychological consequences. Certain plant hallucinogens, as well as synthetic hallucinogens, can be especially toxic [117, 118, 119, 120].
In mice, MDMA increased both serotonin and dopamine release in the brain .
29) Magnolia Tree
20 and 40 mg/kg of honokiol and magnolol, the main components of Magnolia officinalis, restored low levels of serotonin in rats with chronic mild stress .
Magnolia bark and ginger rhizome are commonly used to treat mental disorders in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). 30 mg/kg of a magnolia bark and ginger rhizome mixture increased serotonin in the brains of depressed mice .
30) Essential Oils
Essential oils are commonly used to reduce anxiety, stress, low mood, and other mental health disorders. Smelling the essential oils (inhalation) can activate pathways in the brain to boost serotonin and dopamine production .
In a study of aromatherapy in 60 elderly patients with depression, 5 ml of essential oil mixture (containing lavender, sweet orange, bergamot, and almond oil) increased serotonin levels after application two times a week for 8 weeks .
Bitter orange is an essential oil that reduced anxiety and improved mood by boosting serotonin activity in mice after 14 days of use .
Valerian may help with irritable bowel syndrome. In a rat study, components of the Valeriani root balanced overactive serotonin in the gut (colon) and serum .
Valeriana officinalis root extract prevented the breakdown of serotonin in mice exposed to stress .
Apigenin was able to reduce the impact of chronic mild stress in rats by increasing serotonin availability and reducing its breakdown .
Berberine is a salt derived from plants in the Berberis family (the roots, rhizomes, stems, and barks), including barberry, tree turmeric, Oregon-grape, and others. It blocks the enzyme MAO-A, which breaks down serotonin, thereby raising serotonin levels .
A single berberine dose increased levels of serotonin by 47% in the brains of depressed mice. Long-term treatment with berberine (5 mg/kg for 15 days) increased serotonin by 19% .
Mice given berberine in a different study had increased serotonin levels in regions of the brain (hippocampus and frontal cortex) important for memory and mood .
Carnitine may increase serotonin in the cerebral cortex, a region of the brain involved in cognition and memory .
Acetyl-L-carnitine (ALCAR) is a modified form of carnitine, a common dietary supplement sold in health food stores. ALCAR protects the brain and may help with depression. In mice, it increased levels of serotonin in the brain when given daily for 25 days .
Physical Treatments that Increase Serotonin
Neurofeedback allows individuals to consciously change their brain activity (EEG waves) and therefore modify their behavior and cognition. Some of its clinical uses are for migraines, ADHD, and PTSD .
In a study, neurofeedback (30 minutes, 5 sessions weekly, 4 weeks) was applied to 40 patients with fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS). FMS patients have lower serotonin and widespread pain in their muscles and bones. After 2 weeks, patients experienced less pain, fatigue, anxiety, and depression [143, 144].
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 .
In rats, acupuncture-like stimulation increased serotonin activity in certain regions of the brain .
39) Light Therapy
When sun exposure is not possible, bright light therapy can help increase serotonin levels .
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 .
40) Vagus Nerve Stimulation
In rats, sustained vagus nerve stimulation for 14 days also increased the action of serotonin .
Serotonin that gets released into the blood gets rapidly broken down in the liver and lungs, to inactive metabolites (such as 5-HIAA) that are excreted in urine . That is why normally, blood and urine contain very small amounts of serotonin. Larger quantities of serotonin in the blood/urine can be found in people with serotonin-producing tumors (carcinoid tumors).
Beware of the use of urine serotonin levels to check for “neurotransmitter imbalances”. While the companies providing these tests state that the levels in urine correspond to brain neurotransmitter levels, science has repeatedly shown that this is not the case .
Serotonin doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier. Even if it did, it is released intermittently and influenced by many different stimuli. Furthermore, levels differ within different parts of the brain. And finally, values differ for the same person from one day to another .
In addition, companies have been known to intentionally use extremely narrow ranges, without any scientific support whatsoever, in order to sell supplements to their clients !
A PET scan is the only direct way to detect changes of serotonin production in specific areas of the brain .
Risks and Safety
Excess serotonin may result in serotonin syndrome, which can be fatal. Usually, though, serotonin syndrome is a result of drug interactions. No cases have been observed just from safe, natural approaches .
MDMA, LSD, and other synthetic drugs may cause serotonin syndrome, and should not be taken without medical supervision or outside a psychotherapeutic environment .
Most of the studies mentioned above were performed on adults. More research involving children is needed in order to determine safety.
Abnormally heightened levels of serotonin (hyperserotonemia) is a consistent finding in individuals with autism. Pregnant women with hyperserotonemia are more likely to give birth to children with autism [160, 161].
The use of St. John’s Wort, SAMe, or lithium simultaneously with serotonergic drugs like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAO-I), and triptans, can increase the risk of serotonin syndrome, a life-threatening and potentially fatal condition [162, 163, 164].
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 and need further research in humans through clinical trials.
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.