Foods that increase serotonin are discussed here from a partly critical point of view. Other mood-influencing neurotransmitters, i.e. dopamine and endorphins, are also touched upon.
Serotonin has long been considered one of the main feel-good hormones of the brain, together with endorphins, dopamine, and various other hormones performing similar tasks. However, anti-depressant medication, as well as serotonin-enhancing foods, such as St. John's Wort tea, which are generally used to increase happiness, can have the opposite effect on some people, making them anxious or depressed instead. With all natural remedies we have to carefully monitor individual responses to different herbs and remedies, since reactions vary among people, and also so-called 'paradoxical reactions' are commonplace, where a herb/ supplement/ food in lower quantity has an opposite effect on a person than the same substance in higher quantity! It is also important to keep in mind that individual reactions to certain herbs and medications can change over time, sometimes suddenly.
It is debated whether serotonin is a feel-good hormone or just the opposite. In this article I will list foods and other things that help increase serotonin, dopamine and endorphins but I will also discuss an anti-serotonin approach by some researchers. Balancing hormones, and improving gut and thyroid health are crucial to improve moods as well. Serotonin imbalances have been linked to carbohydrate cravings, increased appetite, and weight-gain. Some say carbohydrates in the diet are important to increase happy hormones (Book: The Healthiest Diet on the Planet' by John McDougall), whereas others consider processed carbohydrates highly addictive 'drug-like' substances that the brain gets used to eating to its detriment.
Similarly, the brain's serotonin and endorphin levels are said to increase from sugary and high-fat foods which may be partly why these can become very addictive.
The body creates serotonin from tryptophan, which is an amino acid, which is potentially harmful in supplement form. Certain lifestyle changes and foods can balance serotonin levels, and the levels of dopamine and endorphins also can definitely be increased by certain healthy foods. Therefore it is not necessary to have sugary or fatty foods in excess to get the benefits of serotonin and other brain chemicals. Whereas drugs and addictive substances can flood your brain with feel-good hormones very quickly, such spikes are usually followed by a crash in short-term, and habituation in the long-term, where doses have to be continually increased just to feel 'normal'.
Apart from foods, many other things can boost your moods as well. The most powerful mood-enhancing, anti-depressive effects come from: exercise, natural environments, meditation, and wild-swimming in cold, natural waters.
Vegan sources of tryptophan can be found in: raw pumpkin seeds, spirulina, raw spinach, sesame seeds, raw almonds, bananas, raw dried dates, raw oat groats, watercress, sunflower seeds, horseradish, pumpkin leaves, turnip greens, cacao, etc.
Non-vegan sources of tryptophan include: cottage cheese, muscles, tuna, turkey, egg white, although these are mostly either cooked or pasteurized in high heat and thus would seem to be unable to provide tryptophan.
B6 and B3 vitamins and magnesium are also crucial for serotonin production. Foods high in B6 include: buckwheat, millet, oats, clams, lobster, and shrimp, for example. Read: Benefits of Magnesium
Resveratrol - a potent antioxidant - from dark chocolate and the skin of red grapes can increase serotonin, too. Antioxidants in general can reduce stress and inflammation of the brain and can make you feel better.
Daylight, or full-spectrum lightbulbs are also said to increase serotonin production in the brain, as is exercise. People with good muscle mass are said to naturally make more serotonin than others.
5-HTP is the precursor of the neurotransmitter serotonin, naturally occurring in human body. This can be taken as a supplement to increase serotonin levels. The 5-HTP in the supplements is usually derived from Griffonia Simplicifolia seeds (an African plant). (However, see the warning on serotonin supplements below.)
The best way to increase moods through diet is to mprove your gut health since bad gut health ('dysbiosis') has been linked with depression and sour moods. Probiotics, avoidance of antibiotics and other anti-bacterial medicines and foods, avoidance of processed carbohydrates, etc., are key. In addition, balancing your hormone levels as a woman is important since serotonin rises and falls with estrogen. Personally, I have found that the best way to balance my hormones is through a high-raw, wholefoods diet.
Elevating endorphin levels in the brain - which is another neurotransmitter - has been claimed to automatically elevate serotonin levels as well. Endorphins can be increased with exercise, music, essential oils, laughter, ginseng, chocolate and spicy foods. There are many more ways to increase endorphins as well. In principle, anything that makes you happy without causing a 'come-down' later, has an overall endorphin (and therefore serotonin) increasing effect. Alcohol, for example, won't work, however, since the initial endorphin high will cause a drop in moods later, negating the positive effect short-term, and causing depressive states over long-term (alcohol is a depressant).
Sugar can cause serotonin highs but the adverse health effects of bad quality sugar outweigh any potential benefits. As processed and refined sugars sap your energy (including brain-energy) over the long-term, their net effect on the brain will be negative. The mood-enhancing benefits of natural sugars can, however, be enjoyed in the form of fruits, berries, honey, dried fruits, and other naturally sweet foods, such as coconut and carrots.
Caffeine has been shown to suppress serotonin, which may also be linked to its appetite-suppressing effect. Stress is said to lessen serotonin also, and stress-relieving enjoyable activities like massage, yoga and meditation are said to increase serotonin (basically anything that stimulates the 'parasympathetic nervous system').
A deficiency in serotonin has by some scientists been linked to carbohydrate cravings, depression, chronic stomach problems, and neurological disorders.
Thyroid health and insulin resistance are very closely linked with serotonin levels in the blood and brain also.
There are some research findings to indicate that tryptophan in supplement form is much more effective than tryptophan from foods in increasing serotonin levels (turkey was mentioned as an example). Tryptophan, apparently, competes with other amino acids and is often not fully utilised, resulting in only a small increase in brain serotonin levels. In my view, these research findings may be flawed because the foods used in the research were cooked proteins and not raw ones. After all, as mentioned above, tryptophan is destroyed by cooking. (Many other amino acids and proteins are at least partially destroyed or denatured by cooking as well).
There is also criticism regarding the usefulness of actual serotonin in foods, which claims that the serotonin in bananas, for example, cannot cross the blood-brain barrier and thus does can not have an effect on the brain serotonin levels. This may be true. On the other hand it may be that the serotonin receptors present in the gut are directly affected and are able to enhance moods. The research on the serotonin receptors in the GI tract has proven very difficult and not much is known about their function yet. What is agreed, however, is that an unhealthy gut is linked with sour moods and depression. (For more information, see 'Gut and Psychology Syndrome').
Also, some people claim that serotonin is a not a mood-enhancing chemical at all, but quite the opposite. Definitely some anti-depressants, which claim to increase serotonin, have been linked to depression.
Here is one example: Ray Peat: "Serotonin, Depression and Aggression: The Problem of Brain Energy". The article claims that:
B12, folic acid (Vitamin B9) and magnesium are also important for tyrosine production.
Phynylethylamine (PEA), an ingredient found in chocolate and cheese elevates dopamine, too.
Mucuna, aka Kapikachhu, a tropical bean plant, has dopamine (L-Dopa). It's an anti-stimulant and can also help to restore the kidney-adrenal meridian.
Catuaba, tropical tree bark, has been reported to have dopamine-mediated anti-depressant effects. Both are available as supplements or as dried herbs.
Vitamin B6 and L-Phenylalanine (a synthetic form of amino acid) can also be used in supplement form to boost dopamine. Keep in mind, however, that according to some reports all extracted amino acids in supplement form can be dangerous, and their safest sources are natural wholefoods.
Exercise has been shown to effectively increase dopamine and endorphins.
The herb Rhodiola increases endorphin levels of the brain supposedly by helping it to retain serotonin and norepinephrine. Other ways to empower the brain to create more endorphin were listed at the top of this article.
Too high levels of any of these mood-enhancing neurotransmitters can lead to addictions, as in seen in the case of some drug addictions. Deficiencies, on the other hand can lead to health problems.
Whether serotonin itself actually enhances moods and makes you happy or not remains an open question. It is fairly easy to try, however, by either supplementing with 5-HTP (hydroxytryptophan) or drinking St. Johns Wort tea and seeing whether they make you feel better or worse.
Meanwhile, the surest and best way to enhance moods may be to focus more on increasing endorphins, rather than serotonin. Various ways of doing this were listed above.
Using natural wholefoods and lifestyle changes to increase serotonin, dopamine and endorphins would seem to be the most effective and safe way to improve moods. Perhaps natural supplements can be used in moderation as well. As serotonin's effects can vary from a person to person, it is a good idea to test one supplement at a time, monitor the effect it has at different doses, and also monitor (and write down) the effect of discontinuing the use of the same supplement has also. With any supplementation one should take a break of two days each week or one week each month at minimum, to ensure the body doesn't grow too used to receiving the substance from an external source.
Note that many aphrodisiac plants and foods have mood-enhancing effects as well.
How to Control Anger and Moodiness has many tips on improving your moods and mental well-being.
Brain Allergies - book summary, which discusses the fundamental role of mineral deficiencies, as well as food and chemical sensitivities in human mind states, mental illness and behaviour.
"Interestingly, just as you have neurons in your brain, you also have neurons in your gut - including neurons that produce neurotransmitters like serotonin, which is also found in your brain. In fact, the greatest concentration of serotonin, which is involved in mood control, depression and aggression, is found in your intestines, not your brain! (Perhaps this is one reason why antidepressants, which raise serotonin levels in your brain, are often ineffective in treating depression, whereas proper dietary changes often help.)" - Dr. Mercola in 'The Root Cause of Anxiety and Depression that Few Suspect'
Dysbiosis and serotonin 'deficiency': How much serotonin or happy hormones in general your gut produces/ utilises, seems to depend to a large degree on the well-being of your beneficial gut bacteria. Therefore the aim should be to reduce dysbiosis and other related problems suchs as leaky gut and candida, while increasing the population of good bacteria in the intestines. Further reading on this: The Gut and Psychology Syndome (GAPS). Probiotics will play a huge role here.
Lack of serotonin could be linked to inflammation: Reducing inflammation - e.g. through a paleo or a raw food diet - will improve your mental well-being, as was shown here: "How Inflammation Influences Behavior: Understanding the role of the immune system in behavioral disorders will usher in 'a new era'..."
"Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels" by Loretta Graziano Breuning:
"Secrets of Serotonin, Revised Edition: The Natural Hormone That Curbs Food and Alcohol Cravings, Reduces Pain, and Elevates Your Mood" by Carol Hart:
"The Serotonin Power Diet: Eat Carbs--Nature's Own Appetite Suppressant--to Stop Emotional Overeating and Halt Antidepressant-Associated Weight Gain" by Judith Wurtman, Nina T. Frusztajer:
"Your Brain Electric: Everything you need to know about optimising neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline" by James Lee:
"35 Tips for a Happy Brain: How to Boost Your Oxytocin, Dopamine, Endorphins, and Serotonin (Brain Power, Brain Function, Boost Endorphins, Brain Science, Brain Exercise, Train Your Brain)" by V. Noot:
How to Control Anger/ Cures for Moodiness
Quitting caffeine can improve moods
Raw Food Diet: When a balanced way of eating a high raw, wholefoods diet is achieved, the beneficial impact on moods can be immense. I have personally felt this and spoken to many people who experienced the same!
Ulla is the Editor of Cheap Health Revolution, covering natural remedies and health solutions.