Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, or a chemical messenger in the body that helps stabilize mood, improve sleep, inhibit pain and improve the sense of well-being. Some foods are rich in serotonin, although these foods do not increase the brain's serotonin levels.
Other foods may play a role in boosting serotonin levels, but certain lifestyle measures — such as exercise and mood therapy — are a more effective and predictable way to improve brain levels of this neurotransmitter.
- Passion fruit
This neurotransmitter is also naturally found in:
- Chinese cabbage
- Green onion
- Wild rice
The body's handling of ingested serotonin is not fully understood. While eating serotonin-rich foods can boost blood levels of this substance, this form of serotonin does not cross the blood-brain barrier. Consequently, foods that contain serotonin are not known to directly alter brain serotonin levels.
Ways to Increase Serotonin Naturally
There are known strategies to increase serotonin levels in the brain, such as deliberately altering mood through therapy, meditation or by simply thinking happy thoughts. Exposure to sunlight or bright indoor light and participating in exercise or other physical activity can also increase serotonin levels in the brain.
Antidepressant medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), do not increase serotonin production, but help the body more effectively use the serotonin that's already there. Finally, diet might play a role in boosting serotonin, but this issue is complex and requires further study.
How to Increase Tryptophan
The body can manufacture serotonin from the amino acid tryptophan. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and tryptophan is typically found in foods that also contain about 20 other amino acids. Sources are high protein foods and some vegetables, including beef, pork, chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, cheese, tofu, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, broccoli, leafy greens, beans, peas and lentils.
However, after amino acids enter the blood, they compete with each other to cross the blood-brain barrier where the brain's serotonin is made, and since the amount of tryptophan in foods is low compared to other amino acids, tryptophan tends to get pushed out of the way. As a result, eating high protein foods may not directly or predictably impact brain serotonin levels.
A healthy diet pattern can improve mood, and might influence serotonin production through different mechanisms. In theory, eating foods that have a higher percentage of tryptophan compared to other amino acids — such as pumpkin, sesame or chia seeds — could boost brain serotonin levels.
Also, eating carbohydrate foods, such as whole grains, fruit or yogurt, promotes insulin release which helps muscles absorb the competing amino acids, making it it easier for tryptophan to find its way into the brain. Finally, a nutrient-rich diet can provide the necessary ingredients to ensure serotonin is formed from tryptophan.
So while eating a healthy diet has value for emotional health, manipulating the diet to specifically boost brain serotonin levels may not be a reliable way to manage mood or treat emotional disorders.
A healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans has mechanisms that can improve mood and promote health, although favoring specific foods or proportions of nutrient at meals or snacks may not predictably alter brain serotonin levels.
If you suffer from mood disorders, insomnia or have symptoms of depression, anxiety or other emotional issues, talk with a therapist or your doctor for assessment and treatment. And if you are interested in optimizing your diet to improve physical or emotional health, ask for a referral to a dietitian.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD
- Nutrients: Dietary Neurotransmitters: A Narrative Review on Current Knowledge
- Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience: How to Increase Serotonin in the Human Brain Without Drugs
- Today's Dietitian: Substance Abuse and Nutrition
- Acta Neuropsychitria: Tryptophan and Depression: Can Diet Alone Be the Answer?
- Today's Dietitian: Integrative Nutrition Therapy for Mood Disorders