Healthy Eating Tips

‘I’m a Neuroscientist, and These Are the Foods That Cause Your Serotonin Levels—And Mood—To Dip’

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There are few mid-afternoon (or any time of day) slumps that we won’t try to fix with a little pick-me-up snack. Whether it’s a protein-packed smoothie, an almond butter brownie paired with an oat latte, or an air fryer egg bite, turning to the kitchen to boost our energy and mood always seems to be a safe bet. That being said, if you find yourself feeling less zippy and more, well, 'meh' after having a nosh, it may be the case that you’re unknowingly consuming a food that has a negative impact on the serotonin levels in your body.

Indeed, while consuming food quite literally provides you with the energy you need to get through the day, not all foods are created equal. Rather, there are some snacks that can boost your body's serotonin as well as foods that deplete serotonin. “Serotonin—an important chemical neurotransmitter—helps regulate many functions in the brain and body, including mood, sleep, bone health, blood clotting, and memory formation,” explains communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist Caroline Leaf, MD, the founder of the NeuroCycle app. “Balanced serotonin levels help us regulate our emotions and steady our mood, which is why serotonin is often called a natural mood stabilizer,” she adds.

Here, we chatted with Dr. Leaf to better understand what foods and beverages can cause your serotonin levels (and therefore your mood) to take a temporary dip. And have no fear: She shared some delicious foods that increase serotonin with us, too.

The 3 key foods that deplete serotonin, according to a neuroscientist

1. Sugary snacks

“A diet that includes refined ingredients can impact your body's serotonin production, which in turn can affect your mood,” says Dr. Leaf. And unfortunately, many highly refined food products tend to be those of the sugary variety—including sugary drinks like soda, packaged desserts, candy bars, sugary breakfast cereals, and the like. “When consumed regularly, these products may reduce the amount of tryptophan—which enables the production of serotonin—and B vitamins in our diet, and affect our ability to produce serotonin when needed.”

2. Food with high levels of trans-fat

There are plenty of reasons to avoid foods with trans fats, including their ability to decrease serotonin levels. These include popular savory snacks like some processed potato chips, pizza, packaged pastries, and other fast food options.

3. Highly-processed foods

In addition to foods that have a significant amount of refined sugar, Dr. Leaf says that highly processed foods can also cause a dip in your serotonin. That means you may want to think twice before doubling down on your consumption of packaged, sodium-rich frozen foods, processed meats, and other convenience foods that contain high amounts of salt and saturated and/or trans fats. “These foods, when consumed in excess over time, can affect our gut health, which is where most of the body’s serotonin is produced. As with most things in life, moderation is key,” Dr. Leaf adds.

What are foods that increase serotonin levels?

According to Dr. Leaf, serotonin is produced from tryptophan, which is not naturally produced by our bodies. As such, you’ll want to ensure that your diet includes this essential amino acid—and luckily, many a delicious ingredient fits the bill. (Find a full list of foods with tryptophan here).

“Some great foods that contain tryptophan are eggs, nuts, seeds, salmon, and cheese,” Dr. Leaf says. Breakfast pizza with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, anyone?

Is food the only factor in my serotonin levels?

First things first: Just because you love a good bag of potato chips or can of root beer every so often does not mean you’re resigned to a low-serotonin lifestyle. Indeed, as Dr. Leaf says, there are many ways outside of your eating habits to regulate this neurotransmitter. “Regular exercise is also a great way to increase your serotonin levels, as well as making sure you get sunshine and light, especially first thing in the morning if possible. This can help regulate your circadian rhythm and further improve your mood,” she says. “Learning new information and, more specifically, building happy memories also helps with serotonin levels."

Moreover, Dr. Leaf adds, “Mind management and mediation may also help balance your serotonin levels. When you practice deliberate and intentional mindfulness, neurochemicals flow in a balanced way, including serotonin, which can help you feel good.”

She also recommends hanging out with your loved ones to achieve the same effect. “When we engage with others in meaningful ways, our cortisol levels go down while the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine balance in our brains,” Dr. Leaf explains. “We have higher levels of all the brain waves that promote healing, and lower levels of anxiety-linked high beta energy in the brain. We feel good subjectively, and this translates into changes in our cells.”

So the next time you’re feeling a little down, consider spiking your serotonin levels with a healthy snack—or a few hugs and a sun-soaked walk with a friend.

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