Before we launch into all the benefits of serotonin (and how to boost it naturally), it’s helpful to break down exactly what serotonin is. As we mentioned, serotonin is a neurotransmitter, which means it’s a chemical that is made by nerve cells and communicates with other cells in the body, according to the National Cancer Institute. Research suggests that the gastrointestinal tract produces about 95 percent of serotonin, and the remaining 5 percent is made in the brain. Yes, serotonin’s claim to fame is boosting moods, but the neurotransmitter actually offers quite a few additional benefits for your health. Research suggests it’s needed for motor skills and cognitive functioning. It's also included in nerve function that regulates blood pressure, heart rate, and the digestive system. So it's pretty darn important.
Signs your serotonin levels might need a boost
The main takeaway is that serotonin governs a wide range of processes beyond just mood. To that end, some of the most common signs that your serotonin levels might need a boost are mood changes, irritability, trouble sleeping, and loss of appetite.
Here’s the thing: While boosting your brain's serotonin could help boost your mood, too, it's not a panacea for every mental health issue. Integrative psychiatrist James Lake, MD, warns that managing depression—or even just a bad mood—is much more complicated than zeroing in on serotonin. "Serotonin is certainly an important neurotransmitter and important in that equation, but there are numerous other neurotransmitters that are important, too," he says. Besides serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins all play essential roles in regulating mood. And if you're struggling with what you believe to be a severe mood or mental health condition, it’s best to check in with your doctor to figure out exactly what you need. Still, there are several small suggestions for how to increase to boost your serotonin levels naturally. Keep reading to see what they are.
7 tips on how to increase serotonin
1. Tweak your diet. Depending on what you eat, you could be replenishing the serotonin in your brain—or depleting it. "Nutritional deficiencies can directly lead to problems with replenishing serotonin," Dr. Lake says. This is something Well+Good Council member and psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, MD, preaches on the reg. "We now have real evidence to back up what’s good common sense: that eating well doesn’t just benefit your body, but it also benefits your brain," he previously told Well+Good.
Dr. Ramsey has said that the Mediterranean diet is especially beneficial for boosting happiness because omega-3 fats, vitamin B12, zinc, magnesium, and iron boost brain health while lowering inflammation.
2. Get consistent, sound sleep. "People who are depressed or have other mental health problems are often not sleeping enough or sleeping too much," Dr. Lake says. And this could affect your body's ability to use or make serotonin. One study in rats found that being chronically sleep-deprived could affect the brain's serotonin receptors, making them not as sensitive to the positive effects of serotonin. (The finding was on rats though, which isn't conclusive for humans.) Aim to get between seven to eight hours of good sleep a night.
3. Take a vitamin D supplement. Multiple studies have connected vitamin D deficiencies with mental health conditions; the thinking goes that vitamin D (along with omega-3 fatty acids) helps facilitate serotonin production. Talk to your doctor to see if a vitamin D supplement is something worth considering.
4. Go outside for some sunshine. One way to get enough vitamin D is by spending some time outdoors, which is why many people tend to feel a drop in mood during the winter months. If you're feeling down, try making fresh air a priority to up the amount of vitamin D you're getting, which may help boost your serotonin levels.
5. Get creative and crafty. Doing something you enjoy—crafting, gardening, playing music—has mood-boosting rewards. In addition to just feeling really good, Well+Good previously reported that doing these things can boost serotonin and dopamine level, positively impacting your mood.
6. Get a massage. It’s no secret that massages are, in most cases, pretty relaxing, right? Well, according to the Mayo Clinic, a 60-minute massage lowers the stress hormone, cortisol, by 30 percent and increases serotonin levels by 28 percent.
7. Take steps to lower stress. Surprise, surprise: stress is messing with your serotonin. "Stress is a chronic inflammatory condition, both in the brain and in the body itself," Dr. Lake says. "It can indirectly result in damage to neurons that produce serotonin or the other parts of the brain that are involved and the serotonergic pathways that make the system work less effectively." In other words, stress causes inflammation, which is bad news for your brain. Prioritizing self-care, therapy, and other stress-reduction tactics could go a long way towards better health, including better serotonin levels.
Serotonin does have small risks and side effects
Like all good things, it is possible to get too much serotonin. This is known as serotonin syndrome, but it's is generally a rare side effect of certain SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a type of medication commonly used to manage depression and anxiety) or combining SSRIs. It is possible to increase your serotonin too much from just one medicine and from adjusting the dosage, but the Mayo Clinic says it’s more likely the result of drug combinations. This can include combinations of prescription medications known to increase serotonin, but it can also include herbal supplements (like St. Johns’ Wort) and drugs like LSD. So you should talk to your doctor about any risk factors.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the body's serotonin levels can artificially become too high, causing symptoms like increased nervousness, agitation, restlessness, insomnia, nausea, diarrhea, tremors, sweating, and dilated pupils—and should be addressed immediately with medical attention. In more severe cases, high serotonin levels can yield symptoms like high fever, seizures, and unconsciousness.
Again, Dr. Lake emphasizes that regulating mood and managing depression is really complicated; it isn't as easy as finding a way to boost your serotonin, and that's it. But doing so can help with milder mood issues. Give the above tips a shot and see how you feel. And if they don't work, talk to a mental health professional who can offer other science-backed ways to improve your mood.
Looking to improve your whole week? Here's one beauty editor's weekly mental health routine:
Originally published on April 3, 20219, with additional reporting by Patia Braithwaite.
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