The ‘happy hormone’ – what could sound better than that? It’s the colloquial name for serotonin, so called because when our body has plenty of it, we feel wonderful. Not having enough, on the other hand, makes us feel miserable and robs us of sleep.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter – a messenger that relays information between different parts of the brain and nervous system. It also has a direct effect on our sleep cycles because the brain uses it to make melatonin – a hormone that regulates sleep.
With low serotonin levels, we have trouble concentrating, remembering things and may feel anxious or even depressed and lack motivation. It’s unclear whether low serotonin can directly result in depression or whether it is the consequence of it but we do know that increasing serotonin levels can help.
Drugs that raise serotonin levels are used to treat depression, migraine, insomnia, obesity and may have a role in controlling Parkinson’s disease. Using recreational drugs such as MDMA and ecstasy triggers the release of large amounts of serotonin, which is why people feel good at first but it can lead to serotonin depletion, resulting in low mood, confusion, lack of motivation and other negative symptoms later on.
Some fluctuation in serotonin levels is normal, for example with the menstrual cycle, but there’s a lot we can do to increase our serotonin and feel better without drugs!
What’s food got to do with it?
Serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan, which we cannot make so must obtain it from our diet. There are many food sources and eating them gives your body more material to manufacture serotonin. These foods include nuts (cashews, walnuts, almonds and pistachios), seeds (sesame, pumpkin, sunflower and chia), soybeans (edamame), tofu and tempeh, peas, beans, lentils, oats, wheat germ, bananas, spinach and other leafy greens.
There are plenty of foods, including meat and dairy, that can supply you with plentiful tryptophan from which to make serotonin but foods are not just single-ingredient packages and each one contains a bundle. And that’s where plant foods win big – aside from tryptophan, they also contain carbohydrates and antioxidants. This is important because for tryptophan to reach the brain, it has to cross the blood-brain barrier and these nutrients help it to get there. Animal foods high in protein have too many other amino acids competing with tryptophan and lack both carbohydrates and antioxidants. The result is less tryptophan entering the brain.
To turn tryptophan into serotonin, our body requires vitamins C, B6, folic acid, biotin, magnesium, zinc and omega-3 fats. Plant-based foods supply all these so it comes together beautifully! For omega-3s, make sure you have around two tablespoons daily of ground flaxseed or chia or hemp seeds, a small handful of walnuts is also a good source or take a teaspoon of oil made from these nuts and seeds. Alternatively, use a tablespoon of rapeseed oil per portion for cooking – that’s the only omega-3 rich oil that can withstand high temperatures.
Self-care top up
There are other, scientifically proven ways to boost your serotonin levels. One of them is exercise – studies show that athletes have higher levels. But you don’t have to become a professional athlete! Riding your bike to work, walking the dog or running up the stairs all count. The more the better and if you make some kind of exercise a part of your routine, you’ll increase those serotonins in no time. If you need some encouragement, consider this – exercise is as effective at increasing serotonin as serotonin-enhancing drugs, and sometimes even more!
Something else that helps is simply spending time in the sun, going for a walk or catching up with a friend. It may sound simple but it works – it takes you outside, makes you break from whatever else may be going on and, hopefully, you appreciate the moment. All this creates a feedback loop in your brain, creating positive emotions and reducing stress, which in turn stimulates serotonin levels. Cortisol, the stress hormone, can lower serotonin levels too so stress management is important.
As with almost anything these days, there are supplements on offer. One of them is L-tryptophan which gives your body material for serotonin manufacture. It may help but it doesn’t make up for an unhealthy diet. Without the nutrients that enable tryptophan to get to your brain, you may be wasting your money. Besides, your body uses tryptophan for other things, too, so the amount that ends up as serotonin may be tiny.
Then, there’s the naturally occurring amino acid 5-HTP – 5-hydroxytryptophan – which is a step between tryptophan and serotonin. Your body can use 5-HTP only for serotonin so it’s a better material. There are plenty of 5-HTP supplements available, made from the seeds of an African shrub Griffonia simplicifolia. They are often used to help reduce stress, control appetite, improve mood and sleep quality but their efficacy is variable. It depends on many other lifestyle factors so while 5-HTP can boost your serotonin levels, there’s no guarantee it’ll make you jump for joy.
Increasing serotonin levels naturally requires you to look after yourself – eat well, adopt stress management techniques and exercise. A vegan diet with plenty of nuts and seeds, soya, tofu, tempeh, beans, lentils, oats, leafy greens and bananas will provide you with enough serotonin building material plus all the nutrients needed to make full use of it. Supplements may be tempting shortcuts and can help but they won’t work unless you also take other steps to improve your mental health.
You don’t have to go to the gym, perhaps a brisk walk might be your thing or even gardening! And if you feel like stress is winning, just stop and breathe as that may be the most important thing and will have an immediate effect on your hormone levels – decreasing the stress ones and encouraging serotonin. The bottom line is – be kind to yourself.