You nosh on a gooey, straight-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookie and find yourself overcome by an inexplicable sense of well-being. It's not all in your head -- at least not exactly. Carbohydrate-rich foods, especially simple sugars, trigger an increase in the production of a feel-good neurotransmitter called serotonin, which is associated with relaxation, restful sleep and an elevated mood. While a certain pattern of eating may boost serotonin levels, it's very difficult to treat a deficiency through diet alone.
Pathways to Bliss
After you eat a carbohydrate-heavy meal, such as a plate of pasta, your body secretes a hormone called insulin. The levels of most amino acids, with the exception of tryptophan, decrease in your blood in response to the increase in insulin. Tryptophan -- the precursor of serotonin -- crosses the blood-brain barrier, which stimulates a spike in serotonin production. Although tryptophan is found in protein-rich foods, such as turkey, protein suppresses the production of serotonin.
You may be able to manipulate your diet to benefit from serotonin in small ways. For instance, Columbia Health suggests a carbohydrate-rich snack such as a glass of milk before bed for a good night's sleep. Medication and professional help are often necessary to treat serotonin imbalance in the brain, however.