March 24, 2023

Emily is a health communication consultant, writer, and editor at EVR Creative, specializing in public health research and health promotion.
Rochelle Collins, DO, is board-certified in family medicine. She is an assistant clinical professor of family medicine at Quinnipiac University and works in private practice in Hartford, Connecticut.
Learning how to increase serotonin—the feel-good brain chemical—can have a host of benefits. Serotonin works to stabilize mood, as well as foster feelings of happiness and well-being. It also plays a role in how well the brain and nervous system cells communicate, enhances focus, and helps regulate digestion and sleep.
You can increase your serotonin levels naturally by eating certain foods, getting exercise, managing your stress levels, and spending time in sunlight. In addition, some herbal supplements, therapy, and medications increase serotonin levels. 

This article explains how serotonin levels affect your mood. It also offers tips for boosting serotonin naturally and synthetically through medications and supplements.
Having adequate serotonin levels is important for your mental and physical health. Too little serotonin can increase your risk of depression and other mental health challenges like anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Low levels of serotonin have also been associated with the development of certain diseases, including chronic fatigue syndrome (extreme, long-term fatigue), fibromyalgia (condition of widespread pain), Alzheimer’s, (progressive disease causing memory problems and mental confusion), and Parkinson’s (neurological disease affecting movement).
It’s also possible for serotonin levels to be too high. This can lead to serotonin syndrome, a rare condition that can cause symptoms ranging from mild (nervousness, nausea, diarrhea, tremors) to severe (sweating, fever, confusion).
There are several factors that can cause serotonin levels to fall too low. These include:
While the body can make serotonin on its own, sometimes it doesn't make enough to keep the brain and other systems functioning optimally. If serotonin levels are low, your risk of depression and anxiety increases, and other problems can occur.
Here are some ways you can increase serotonin naturally.
Verywell / Zoe Hansen
Serotonin is naturally produced by many plants. In fact, it’s currently found in about 42 plant species from 20 different families, most often in roots, leaves, stems, fruits, and seeds.
However, serotonin cannot cross the blood-brain barrier (a protective group of tightly packed cells that keep harmful substances from entering the brain), so eating foods with serotonin is not an effective way to raise serotonin levels.
Instead, it's better to eat foods rich in the essential amino acid tryptophan, which can pass through the blood-brain barrier. Foods high in tryptophan include:
Studies suggest that increasing tryptophan intake can have a positive effect on mood and well-being, especially in individuals with tryptophan depletion.
It's recommended that you consume tryptophan-rich foods with carbohydrates (such as bread, pasta, rice, or fruit). That's because carbs trigger an insulin response that can help carry tryptophan over the blood-brain barrier.
An estimated 95% of the body's serotonin is produced in the gut. Beneficial bacteria found in the gut (probiotics) secrete substances used in the creation of serotonin.
Research suggests that consuming foods rich in probiotics (including yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut) helps build the population of good gut bacteria, which positively influences serotonin production. In several recent studies, probiotic consumption was associated with fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. More research is needed to confirm the results and the most effective dosage.
Enjoying a few minutes outside on a sunny day works double-duty to boost serotonin levels: Bright light is known to promote serotonin output by stimulating the body’s circadian rhythm (its internal clock).
Plus, when the skin is exposed to sunlight, skin cells convert the sun’s ultraviolet B rays into vitamin D. Vitamin D plays an important role in the production and activation of serotonin, which can help with mood. One study found that increased sun exposure was associated with reduced depression symptoms in elderly women.
Experts say getting just 10 to 15 minutes of sun a day is enough to make adequate vitamin D in most people. If this is not possible, supplements are also available. The body can still produce vitamin D even when you're wearing sunscreen, so be sure to use adequate protection, especially if you have pale or sensitive skin.
Seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD, is characterized by cyclical depressive symptoms occurring in the fall and winter months as the days get shorter and there is more darkness. This condition is thought to develop due to reduced levels of sun-derived vitamin D, which in turn leads to less serotonin production.
Treatment for seasonal affective disorder includes medication, therapies, and lifestyle changes.
It’s commonly known that exercise is good for mental health. How does it help? In addition to endorphins (the hormones responsible for a "runner's high"), research suggests that physical activity promotes the release of several mood-boosting chemicals, including dopamine and serotonin. This effect seems to reduce the risk of depression in those who regularly exercise.
Try some of these exercises to give yourself a serotonin boost:
If those activities are not suitable for you, you can also get benefits from low-impact activities such as taking a brisk walk, chair/water aerobics, and gardening activities like weeding or raking.
Thinking about something that makes you happy can actually boost your serotonin levels, according to research. 
Admittedly, it can be hard for some people to just think happy thoughts, especially if you have depression or other mood disorders. Some ideas to help you think more positively: 

If you struggle with changing your thinking, consider cognitive behavioral therapy. Working with a professional therapist can help to reprogram your thought processes and avoid automatic negative thoughts.

Adaptogens are plant extracts that work to help keep the body in homeostasis, the balance of internal, chemical, and physical systems within the body. These herbs do this by improving the body's ability to react and respond to stress and by helping to maintain hormonal balance.  
Early research suggests that certain adaptogenic herbs may have antidepressant effects. More research is needed, yet there is some evidence that the following may have an antidepressant effect:
As with any complementary alternative medicine, it’s important to note that these herbs are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It's best to talk with your healthcare provider before trying any alternative treatment.
Chronic stress negatively impacts serotonin production and impairs the function of serotonin receptors. That means stress management can play an important role in maintaining optimal serotonin levels. 
Here are some study-backed stress-relieving techniques to try:
While it’s not easy to eliminate stress from everyday life, simple stress management techniques can go a long way in helping you feel better.
Serotonin can be boosted synthetically, too. Antidepressants are a common line of treatment for depressive symptoms that may be due to low serotonin levels. There are several different kinds of antidepressants including:
These antidepressants can help boost serotonin levels, but they may also have side effects. However, these side effects can be mild and usually don’t last long. These may include:
Sometimes people need to try a few different meds to find the antidepressant that works for them. Talk with your healthcare provider about any side effects you develop, and work with them to find the best fit.

Increasing serotonin levels can be done naturally. The best ways to do this are eating well, getting out in the sun or supplementing with vitamin D, exercising, taking adaptogens, and managing stress.
Serotonin can also be increased synthetically with antidepressants. While increasing serotonin is important for relieving depressive symptoms and improving mood, it’s not about getting as much serotonin as you can. Too much can also be harmful to your health. Finding the right balance is key.
While you can’t really know how much serotonin you have in your body right now, you likely know when you don’t have as much as you need. When serotonin levels are low, you may feel blue or depressed.
Not having enough serotonin is nothing to be ashamed of. Many people struggle with low serotonin levels at times, especially during the dark winter months. Sometimes, having low levels is caused by something out of your control.
Though it can be hard to feel motivated to try new things to increase your serotonin levels when you’re feeling down, finding the right balance is possible.
Low levels of serotonin can lead to depressive symptoms. Not having enough serotonin is also associated with anxiety and sleep problems.
Some are, but it's important to use caution when trying them. Unlike antidepressants, which are prescribed to you by your healthcare provider and are regulated by the FDA, supplements do not require a prescription and are not regulated.
However, some evidence suggests that supplements like vitamin D, probiotics, and adaptogens may help reduce depressive symptoms. Research is ongoing.
Not necessarily. While low levels of serotonin are often associated with depression, having low levels of serotonin does not automatically mean you will be depressed.
Early research suggests that some adaptogenic herbs, including R. rosea, ginseng, and ashwagandha, may help boost serotonin and improve mood. These herbs and plant extracts are often used in Ayurveda (a form of alternative medicine that is the traditional medicine of India) and traditional Chinese medicine.
While adaptogens show promise for improving serotonin, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider before trying them to make sure they are safe for you.
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By Emily Brown, MPH
Emily is a health communication consultant, writer, and editor at EVR Creative, specializing in public health research and health promotion. With a scientific background and a passion for creative writing, her work illustrates the value of evidence-based information and creativity in advancing public health.

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