Serotonin, an important neurotransmitter, is generally thought of as our ‘feel-good’ chemical due to the major role it plays in regulating our mood. It’s also connected to our appetite, sleep, learning, and memory capabilities.
Low serotonin levels in the brain can lead to feelings of depression, low self-esteem, irritability and anxiety. It can also cause us to be more forgetful than usual, crave sugar and starch, and have trouble sleeping.
If you think your serotonin levels are low, and want to avoid medications (which aren’t without their side effects), then check out these 11 ways to boost this ‘happy hormone’ naturally.
1. Soak Up the Sun
Sunlight exposure, especially in the morning, is one of the most natural ways to boost serotonin levels.
Catching some UV rays allows the body to synthesize Vitamin D, which plays a role in serotonin production.
Further proof of the role of sunlight on serotonin levels comes from studies which show our levels of serotonin transporters fall during winter and rise in summer. In fact, it’s these lower serotonin levels which play a role in seasonal depression.
Those in northern climates, who don’t get adequate winter sun, can try indoor light therapy which works in the same manner as sunlight. Ensuring you get adequate Vitamin D in your diet is also important.
2. Work Out
It’s not a myth that working out makes you happy – breaking a sweat has been shown in numerous studies to increase both serotonin production and release.
Cardio-focused exercises – like running, cycling, swimming, and dancing – are most effective at raising our levels of this neurotransmitter.
Brisk physical activity may increase the amount of tryptophan, a building block of serotonin, that enters the brain, an effect that lasts even after exercising.
Surprisingly, yoga is another exercise that may help mood by boosting serotonin. A study in India found that a yoga program which included asana, pranayama, and meditation raised levels of serotonin, while other research indicates yoga lowers levels of cortisol – the stress hormone.
Even if you don’t feel like working out, convince yourself to go for a quick 15-minute stroll – it may make all the difference to your mood and outlook.
3. Enjoy a Massage
From lowering blood pressure and heart rate to relieving pain, physical contact is known to boost happiness and immune function.
In particular, the skin-on-skin contact of massage has been shown to cause a jump in serotonin levels.
A study carried out by the Touch Research Institutes at the University of Miami School of Medicine found that massage increases serotonin levels by an impressive 28%, and dopamine (another important neurotransmitter) by 31%!
When depressed pregnant women were massaged twice weekly for four months, their serotonin levels increased by 30%. And when babies of depressed mothers enjoyed just 15 minutes of massage twice a week, their serotonin levels also rose – by 34%.
Clearly, the potential for massage to boost mood is all the more reason for your significant other to treat you to a stress-relieving foot rub!
4. Get Social
Spending time with friends and family can make you happier. Research has shown that social connectivity triggers the release of oxytocin (the ‘cuddle hormone’) which stimulates release of serotonin.
Your role in your social circles may also influence your serotonin levels with studies on monkeys suggesting that dominant individuals have higher than normal levels of the neurotransmitter.
Human research suggests similar – higher levels of tryptophan (a pre-cursor to serotonin) causes a significant increase in dominant behaviors yet a decrease in quarrelsome behaviors.
Of course, this isn’t all that surprising – we know that social isolation isn’t good for our mental health, but it’s important to point out that getting ‘social’ online isn’t really social at all – real-life human interaction is required to stay happy and healthy!
5. Avoid Alcohol
Alcohol has long been linked with feelings of low mood and depression, particularly after one too many. This is likely down to alcohol’s effect on serotonin levels.
A 1991 study which looked at participants’ blood levels of serotonin 45 minutes after consuming alcohol found that levels of the neurotransmitter were significantly reduced. In fact, they were at a similar level as the serotonin found in patients with depression.
Both alcohol consumption and aggression are linked with drops in serotonin, which may explain why alcohol can lead to a rise in aggressive behavior in some.
If you’re struggling with low mood, poor sleep and changes in appetite, limiting or avoiding alcohol is one of the best things you can do for your health.
Still not sure about forgoing your evening glass of wine? Check out these 14 fantastic things that happen your body when you quit alcohol.
6. Stay Positive
Positive thinking is key to overall health and wellbeing, and plays an important role in effective stress management.
Optimism is a pretty important tool when it comes to raising serotonin levels, according to some researchers.
Remembering positive events has been shown to increase serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex (the region just behind the prefrontal cortex that controls attention). On the other hand, remembering sad events decreases its production.
Many people who are feeling blue struggle to remember happier times which is why reading an old journal, flicking through your Instagram feed or even spending time with family and friends – who can remind you of happy events – is so important.
If that doesn’t work, remember there’s some truth to the expression ‘fake it ‘til you make it’! Experiments have shown that mimicking positive facial expressions can increase mood which, in turn, can help you feel happier.
7. Improve Gut Health
By improving the balance of bacteria in your gut, you can enjoy significantly better health. As scientists continually learn about the complexity of the human gut, we gain a greater appreciation for its influence over immunity, cognitive function, weight management, hormonal balance and happiness.
Serotonin, too, is dependent on a healthy gut – not surprising when you discover that the majority of the body’s serotonin levels (between 80% and 90%) are found in the gastrointestinal tract!
8. Stop Stressing
Physical or emotional stress leads to the production of adrenaline and cortisol, both of which interfere with serotonin levels by damaging serotonin receptor sites.
Short-term stressors won’t have too great an effect on overall levels, but chronic stress – from high-pressure jobs or personal situations – can have a significant negative impact on serotonin.
Employing stress management techniques, changing your lifestyle, eating stress-busting foods and penciling in added relaxation time can make all the difference to your emotional health.
There’s a reason meditation is one of the most important morning habits you can adopt – it will naturally boost serotonin levels and set you up for the day.
Study after study is now showing that meditation is a fantastic mental exercise – not only for increasing serotonin levels, but for lowering blood pressure, easing chronic pain, reducing anxiety, boosting immunity, improving concentration and more.
Many experts recommend meditating after rising, when your mind is still relatively quiet after leaving ‘the sleep state’.
Whether you choose to focus on your breathing, practice yoga poses or repeat a mantra, there’s sure to be a type of meditation that suits you.
10. Eat for Happiness
Choosing the right foods and having the willpower to say ‘no’ to the wrong ones can have a dramatic impact on your mood, your serotonin levels, and your waistline!
Simple carbohydrates – like breads, pastries, pasta and white rice – cause blood sugar levels to shoot up quickly, which floods the body with insulin and helps tryptophan enter the brain. This explains why people with low serotonin often crave sugary foods, or simple carbs – their bodies are desperately trying to increase brain levels.
However, this is a quick fix which only sees a slight influx of tryptophan into the brain. Even worse – simple carbs cause blood sugar levels to crash pretty quickly after eating, leaving you feeling miserable and increasing your risk of insulin resistance, hypoglycemia and type 2 diabetes.
A better choice are complex carbohydrates, which will release energy slowly and steadily. Examples of healthy complex carbs include quinoa, amaranth, millet, buckwheat, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, lentils and beans. Many of these are rich in B vitamins too, which are vital for the synthesis of serotonin.
Reducing intake of animal proteins, and increasing your consumption of beans and lentils, can also boost serotonin, particularly as amino acids in animal foods compete with tryptophan for absorption.
Finally, the basis of a serotonin-boosting diet – or any diet – should be a variety of brightly colored vegetables and fruits, which contain many important vitamins and minerals to help the body run smoothly.
11. Consider St. John’s Wort
A natural alternative to SSRIs (medications which increase serotonin availability), the herb St. John’s Wort has been shown in some studies to be just as effective as these prescription drugs, but without the side effects.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the evidence suggests St. John’s Wort is effective for mild-to-moderate depression, although its effectiveness in severe cases is not so clear.
Consider taking a St. John’s Wort supplement, such as this Nature’s Bounty Double Strength Supplement, to increase your serotonin availability.
However, those already on prescription medications, especially anti-depressants, should not take St. John’s Wort as there can be serious side-effects.