Natural Ways to Boost Serotonin

Serotonin is a type of neurotransmitter that is found mainly in the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. While much of the serotonin located in the GI tract is used to regulate digestion, in the CNS, serotonin helps regulate mood, sleep, appetite, learning and memory. There are many researchers who believe that an imbalance in serotonin levels may influence mood in a way that leads to depression. However anti-depressant medication like SSRIS or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and SNRIS or serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors come with their own negative side effects. So if you have been feeling low lately, you can explore these natural ways of boosting serotonin levels which may help you feel better.

Eat the right foods

While there are no foods that can directly increase your body's supply of serotonin, there are foods and some nutrients that can increase levels of tryptophan, the amino acid from which serotonin is made. Protein-rich foods, such as meat or chicken, contain high levels of tryptophans. Ironically, though, levels of both tryptophan and serotonin drop after eating a meal packed with protein. This is because when you eat a high-protein meal, you flood the blood with both tryptophan and its competing amino acids, all fighting for entry into the brain. That means only a small amount of tryptophan gets through and consequently serotonin levels don't rise. But eating a carbohydrate-rich meal can help your body to get around this problem. A meal high in carbohydrates  triggers a release of insulin in your body.  This in turn causes any amino acids in the blood to be absorbed into the body, thus leaving tryptophan free to make to the brain. In other words, tryptophan remains in the bloodstream at high levels following a carbohydrate meal, which means it can freely enter the brain and cause serotonin levels to rise. However in order to get the best of the carbohydrate group, stick to whole-grains, pasta or brown bread, brown rice which have undergone minimum of processing and thus have their nutrients intact.

Getting an adequate supply of vitamin B-6 can again increase the rate at which tryptophan is converted to serotonin. One handy snack which may boost your mood is thus banana. This is because bananas are loaded with a host of biochemical ingredients which have a positive effect on moods – tryptophan which is necessary for the body to make the happiness hormone serotonin; potassium, levels of which can be depleted by stress and hence leave you feeling miserable and finally, and finally, vitamin B6 that helps to regulate blood sugar and thereby stabilize mood.

Green leafy vegetables like spinach and mustard greens are a rich source of folic acid and folate. Studies have shown that low blood levels of folic acid are sometimes related to depression, although no one is exactly sure why. Some scientists believe that these chemicals are used by the body to create serotonin. Thus stock up your diet on green vegetables and you may find yourself more than ready to banish the blues.

Along with eating the right foods, make sure that you keep stimulants like alcohol and caffeine to a minimum since excess levels can interfere with the body's natural ability to produce serotonin.

Get out in the sun

In recent years, an increasing number of studies have focused on the impact of this vitamin on moods among humans; researchers now believe that vitamin D is essential for the production of serotonin, one of the neurotransmitters responsible for regulating moods. In particular, vitamin D seems to help the type of depression called “seasonal affective disorder (SAD),” or the winter blues. One of the ways human beings can make Vitamin D is by exposure to sunlight which is why lack of adequate sunlight during the cold season leads to a deficiency of the vitamin and an associated depressive mood. As far food is concerned, vitamin D is also found in fatty fish like mackerel and salmon, low-fat milk, fortified soy milk and egg yolks. Because vitamin D-rich foods are so limited, doctors often recommend Vitamin D supplements for people who are particularly prone to SAD or other mood disorders.

A paper1 published in Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience Volume 32(6); Nov 2007, mentions that a few studies also suggest that exposure to bright light is an effective treatment for non-seasonal depression and also reduces depressed mood in women with premenstrual dysphoric disorder and in pregnant women suffering from depression.

Work out regularly

In the United Kingdom the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, which works on behalf of the National Health Service and makes recommendations on treatments according to the best available evidence, has published a guide on the treatment of depression2. The guide recommends treating mild clinical depression with various strategies, including exercise rather than antidepressants, because the risk–benefit ratio is poor for antidepressant use in patients with mild depression. Exercise improves mood in subclinical populations as well as in patients. The most consistent effect is seen when regular exercisers undertake aerobic exercise at a level with which they are familiar. Another government resource3,  that of the state government of Victoria, Australia, suggests exercise as a useful way of coping with mild depression. The website mentions that some researchers have found that regular exercise, and the increase in physical fitness that results, alters serotonin levels in the brain and leads to improved mood and feelings of wellbeing. The above-quoted paper from Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience mentions several recent lines of research which suggest that exercise increases brain serotonin function in the human brain. Broadly this may be happening in two ways – one, motor activity when working out increases the firing rates of serotonin neurons, and this results in increased release and synthesis of serotonin. Secondly, scientists have found that there is an increase in the brain of the serotonin precursor tryptophan that persists after exercise.

Find ways to de-stress

Even if you exercise moderately and daily, eat a healthy balanced diet, and don't abuse stimulants, your body's ability to increase serotonin will be diminished if your job and relationship are stressing you out. So do things which help you to ease stress – for instance like listening to soothing music, meditating, doing yoga or having an enjoyable hobby. While these in themselves will not increase serotonin levels in your brain, they will do away with stress hormones which may be inhibiting production or the correct functioning of serotonin. Also get adequate sleep; Sleep gives the body an opportunity to rejuvenate itself and prepare for another day of life. Lack of sleep disrupts hormone production and can keep your brain from producing enough serotonin.

In the end, each body has different needs and ways of functioning. While natural methods of boosting serotonin are great to banish a mild attack of the blues, if you find yourself getting depressed ever so often or not feeling better even after several days, it would be best to consult a mental health professional to diagnose and treat the problem correctly.


  1. NCBI - How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs
  2. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. Depression: management of depression in primary and secondary care - NICE guidance
  3. Better Health Channel – Depression and exercise