These Evidence-Based Daily Habits Can Help Boost Your Serotonin Levels

Photo: Getty Images / Mireya Acierto
If you've ever found yourself under a cloud of sadness without knowing why, you probably realize that many biological mechanisms work together to make you feel good. One such process is the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that acts like a hormone in the body and regulates mood, aids in sleep, digestion, wound healing, bone health, blood clotting and sex drive. In other words, we love her.

Some folks with low serotonin levels experience depression and anxiety. If you’re dealing with these conditions, you can take medication, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (commonly known as SSRIs), to boost your serotonin levels. And for many people, this is a necessary and common part of healing. But, whether you take SSRIs or not, a few daily habits might provide a serotonin hit, too. Below, a psychologist shares a few examples:

1. Exercise

“Extensive research has shown that there is a relationship between exercise and mood,” says Billie Katz, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. More specifically, she says aerobic exercise (which provides cardiovascular conditioning, aka, it gets your heart rate up) can have antidepressant-like effects.

As a result, Dr. Katz often “prescribes” exercise. And, a 2001 study published in Clinical Psychology Review examined the emotional effects of exercise and found that it helps patients build resilience and serves as a solid treatment option. Need examples to try? Aerobic exercises include biking, walking, running, swimming, kickboxing, dancing, and rollerblading.

2. Sleep

Getting enough sleep is a hard habit to maintain—but it’s essential for serotonin production. “We know that serotonin is implicated in regulating good moods, and several research studies have found that poor quality sleep (both in terms of length of sleep and quality of sleep) can affect the brain’s serotonin receptors, making them less sensitive to the positive effects of serotonin,” Dr. Katz says. She notes a 2005 study published in Sleep that shows just that.

“For adults, the current recommendation is to aim for seven to eight hours of sleep a night,” Dr. Katz says.

3. Activities that make you feel good

Have you ever heard the saying about action leading to motivation, not the other way around? That comes into play here. When you’re depressed and dealing with low serotonin levels, you may not be up for doing much—but accumulating positive experiences (or behavioral activation) can help, according to Dr. Katz.

Some examples of these activities are going out to dinner, spending time with friends, working towards a goal, learning a new skill, walking, playing with your pet, keeping up with your hygiene, and completing a project.

“Behavioral activation has a significant evidence base as an effective treatment for patients with depressed mood and features of inhibition,” Dr. Katz explains. “By engaging in pleasant activities and becoming more active, individuals experience improvement in mood.”

A 2007 study published in the Clinical Psychology Review examined the effectiveness of engaging in activities; it found that activity scheduling is an effective part of treatment, particularly for the behavioral aspect of depression (like not wanting to do anything and struggling to get tasks done). It also increases patients’ positive life experiences.

4. Vitamin D

Lastly, there may be a connection between vitamin D and serotonin levels. Studies have shown that people who have insufficient levels of vitamin D may experience disrupted serotonin levels, Dr. Katz says. She notes a 2015 study in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology that looked at the intersection of vitamin D, serotonin, cognitive function, and social behavior. It found that insufficient vitamin D was correlated with dysfunctional serotonin activation and might be a contributor to depression.

To get more vitamin D, you can spend time in the sun, look for milk fortified with it, or eat things like mushrooms, fish, and (cooked) egg yolks.


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