- To increase serotonin levels, you should exercise regularly, improve your diet, get more light, try massage therapy, and use certain supplements.
- Low serotonin levels may be associated with depression, so it’s important to boost serotonin if you want to improve your mood and feel happier.
- This article was medically reviewed by David A. Merrill, MD, PhD, psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Pacific Brain Health Centre at Providence Saint John’s Health Centre in Santa Monica, California.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
Have you ever wondered why you suddenly feel happier after exercising or getting a really relaxing massage? There may be a reason for that. Serotonin, known as the “happy chemical” in your brain, is heightened by doing these activities.
In fact, knowing how to naturally enhance your serotonin levels may help boost your mood. Here’s how to increase serotonin levels and tips to integrate these practices into your daily life.
What is serotonin?
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, meaning that brain and nervous system cells use it to communicate with one another. It’s a hormone that maintains our mood and general well-being, while also regulating several brain functions like appetite, learning, sleep, memory, and cognition.
If your serotonin levels are low, you may be more susceptible to depression. To boost your mood, you can increase serotonin levels naturally in the following ways:
1. Exercise regularly
According to a 2016 review, exercise can increase serotonin levels, as well as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) activity. The BDNF gene makes a protein that stimulates nerve cells and is found in areas of the brain that control body weight, eating, and drinking. BDNF and serotonin levels are thought to be related in regulating mood.
“Because exercise stimulates BDNF activity, it is commonly associated with an improved mood,” says Mimi Winsberg, MD, a psychiatrist in San Francisco and co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of Brightside, a mental health provider. “To put it simply, that’s why exercise makes you feel better.”
Any type of exercise that you enjoy â€” from walking to yoga to cycling â€” can be effective at boosting serotonin. Winsberg recommends getting at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise three times per week.
2. Improve your diet
Serotonin is derived from the essential amino acid known as tryptophan. Because your body does not naturally produce it, you must get tryptophan from your diet.
Incorporating foods into your meals that contain high amounts of tryptophan can increase serotonin levels. Some foods you can eat with high levels of tryptophan include:
- Soy products like tofu and soy sauce
- Poultry like chicken and turkey
- Seeds and nuts like pumpkin seeds and walnuts
3. Get more light
If you’ve ever heard of the term seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), then you know how vital sunlight can be to your happiness and wellbeing. As winter approaches, it starts getting darker much earlier in the day, which may affect your mood and make you more prone to sadness.
“The brain produces serotonin in response to sun and daylight,” says Winsberg. “Lack of exposure to sun and daylight can cause SAD, which resembles depression in its clinical picture. If you are prone to depression or seasonal affective disorder, getting out once a day in mid-day for a short walk can be very helpful.”
If you spend most of your days indoors due to work or school, you may want to invest in a specialised lamp that you can use in lieu of being outside. There are tons on the market that are specifically targeted to those who may experience seasonal depression.
According to Winsberg, using it within the first hour of waking up for 20 to 30 minutes per day (at a distance of 2 feet, without looking directly at the light) can be especially effective.
4. Try a massage
According to a 2005 review, massage therapy can effectively boost serotonin levels by an average of 28%.
This is due to a decrease in cortisol, which is known as your “fight-or-flight response,” or built-in alarm hormone, which lets you know when you’re in danger. In other words, it keeps you on high alert and with a rapid heart rate. Massages are able to decrease cortisol and increase serotonin, making you calmer and thus helping to regulate your mood.
“This type of safe and nurturing touch can come from a loved one, partner, or a professional massage therapist,” says Winsberg.
5. Use supplements
Certain supplements can quickly boost serotonin levels by increasing tryptophan, the amino acid that you can get from the foods listed above. It’s always important to check in with a doctor before taking any supplements, especially if you also take prescription medication.
Winsberg says you should not take these supplements if you’re already on antidepressants like SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.
But if you aren’t, some supplements you can take to boost serotonin include:
- SAMe (S-adenosyl-L-methionine). Negative effects of SAMe are not common, but it may negatively impact those who are immunocompromised or have bipolar disorder.
- St. John’s Wort. This supplement works for some people, but not all. It may make other medications like hormonal birth control, cancer treatment drugs, or blood clotting medication less effective.
- 5HTP. A 2013 study found this supplement may work just as well as antidepressants, but only for those with early symptoms of depression.
Overall, there are many ways to increase serotonin levels naturally. From food and light to massages and supplements, a happier mood may be just one simple step away. However, you should begin consulting a doctor when depressive symptoms become moderate or severe.
“When symptoms enter the moderate to severe range and begin to interfere with social and occupational functioning, medication can be a helpful addition to manage and treat symptoms of depression,” says Winsberg. “If you are unsure where on the range your symptoms fall, taking a free online evaluation can help figure out the best immediate next step.”
Related articles from Health Reference:
- Am I depressed? A quiz to gauge your symptoms and find the right treatment
- How to increase dopamine levels and feel like your best self
- Why depression makes you tired and how to deal with fatigue
- What is seasonal depression: why you may feel down during the winter
- Vitamin D and depression: How Vitamin D may affect your mood
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