Serotonin foods and tryptophan foods are more common in supermarkets than their rather complicated descriptions make them sound. From fish to fruit, there are plenty of ways to fortify your serotonin intake to help improve your mood and sleep cycles.
What Is Serotonin?
Often referred to as the happiness hormone because of its important role in the regulation of mood, serotonin also regulates important body cycles such as appetite and sleep.
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According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common antidepressants used to treat major depressive disorder and severe anxiety disorder are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. They work to ease depression by increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain by preventing its reabsorption, so more of it is available for the brain to use.
It is important to note that serotonin is not just beneficial for mood regulation, but even plays a role in sleep and memory, so foods and medications that increase its amount in the body can be positive for a variety of reasons other than depression.
Though dietary sources of tryptophan can increase serotonin levels in the brain, depression is a serious medical disorder that may require intervention through medication (such as SSRIs) or other forms of professional support.
If you are struggling with your mental health, consult your health care provider for advice on treatment options.
Serotonin in Foods
According to Harvard Health, serotonin is found naturally in a variety of food products, particularly fruits, vegetables, unprocessed grains, fish and seafood. Additionally, beneficial hormones like dopamine and melatonin are found in plant-based foods.
However, the hormone serotonin is not needed in your bloodstream, it is needed in your brain. This is where its partner tryptophan becomes integral. According to the American Nutrition Association, tryptophan is one of many amino acids that are found in proteins, and unlike serotonin, it can cross the blood-brain barrier. It can be found in high-protein foods such as poultry products and milk.
Additionally, for serotonin to be produced, there has to be a sufficient supply of tryptophan — so by increasing the amount of tryptophan headed to the brain you are also increasing the levels of serotonin there, allowing it to provide all of its necessary benefits.
Read more: Serotonin-Rich Foods
Tryptophan is an amino acid found in a variety of protein-rich foods, and according to the American Nutrition Association the production of serotonin relies on the presence of tryptophan. Therefore, foods rich in protein can also be classified as tryptophan foods in many cases.
However, it is not just protein-rich foods that contain high levels of tryptophan. There are actually a wide range of foods that contain a large amount of tryptophan for your body to absorb.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, foods high in tryptophan that should help with the production of serotonin include:
- Seeds and nuts: Particularly pumpkin, squash, chia, sunflower, flax, pistachio, cashew, almond and hazelnut
- Game meat
- Soy foods: Tofu, soybeans and tempeh are particularly good tryptophan foods
- Spinach: Either from frozen or raw, this green leafy vegetable is full of tryptophan
- Egg whites: Also a good source of protein
- Crab and lobster
- Fish: Halibut especially
- Cheese: Reduced-fat mozzarella is the best cheese for tryptophan, but other recommended varieties include Parmesan, cheddar, Romano, Gruyere, Swiss, fontina, Edam, Gouda and Tilsit.
Eating foods with a high tryptophan-to-protein ratio allows for the most potential of the tryptophan bypassing the bloodstream and going directly to the brain, which is really where its needed.
Plant-based sources of tryptophan are considered superior sources when compared to their animal-based counterparts, as a wide variety of amino acids are absorbed from animal-based sources, meaning tryptophan may have to compete with these acids and be unable to gain access to the brain. Plant-based foods high in tryptophan include leafy greens, sunflower seeds, watercress, soybeans and mushrooms.
Animal-based proteins are often found in small quantities in meat and dairy products, which makes their contribution to the tryptophan levels in your body fairly minimal. Plant-based proteins are superior in this regard, because their high carbohydrate levels encourage the body to release insulin, meaning many of the body's muscles absorb the non-tryptophan amino acids to use as fuel.
This makes tryptophan first in line for entry to the brain, beating out the competition from other amino acids that sometimes stifle it and ultimately resulting in the production of serotonin.
Read more: The Effects of Exercise on Serotonin Levels
Mental Health and Diet
There is a distinct link between diet and mental health, and a variety of foods can either worsen conditions or encourage positive results from the body. Learning the different effects certain foods and drinks may have on your mood can have a big impact on your everyday life.
Caffeine is one of the most divisive substances when it comes to the link between diet and mental health. A March 2016 study published in the Korean Journal of Family Medicine found that caffeine is linked to increased wakefulness and reduced severity of clinical depression, in addition to improved cognitive ability.
Unfortunately, these benefits only apply when they are ongoing. The moment the body stops receiving this extra dosage of neurotransmitters, it behaves as though it is in withdrawal. According to MedlinePlus, this can result in symptoms such as headache, anxiety and disturbed sleep. It can take up to 12 days for your brain to adjust to a coffee-free diet.
Furthermore, a May 2017 study published in the Journal of Frontiers in Psychiatry found that while caffeine is safe when consumed in amounts found in most food and drink products, excessive consumption can result in negative side effects, particularly among adolescents and individuals that have a mental illness.
If you're looking for a way to boost your serotonin levels without the withdrawal symptoms, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids are some of the best to include in your diet. These fatty acids help to trigger serotonin nerve cell receptors, meaning that serotonin can travel through the body more easily.
A September 2015 study published in the Journal of Integrative Medicine Research found that a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids demonstrates a positive result in those with symptoms of mental illness, particularly illnesses such as major depressive disorder and other psychiatric disorders.
Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Fish and other seafood (especially cod, salmon, mackerel and tuna)
- Nuts and seeds
- Plant oils
- Fortified foods (such as certain cereals, milks, eggs and soy beverages)
- Mayo Clinic: "Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors"
- National Eating Disorders Association: "Neurotransmitters"
- Journal of Integrative Medicine Research: "Omega-3 Fatty Acids and the Treatment of Depression: A Review of Scientific Evidence"
- Iranian Journal of Public Health: "Happiness & Health: The Biological Factors- Systematic Review Article"
- Harvard Health: "Nutritional Psychiatry: Your Brain on Food"
- American Nutrition Association: "Focus on Tryptophan"
- Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: "Food and Mood: Eating Plants to Fight the Blues"
- USDA Food Composition Database: "Nutrient Lists: Tryptophan"
- MedlinePlus: "Caffeine"
- Korean Journal of Family Medicine: "The Relationship of Caffeine Intake With Depression, Anxiety, Stress, and Sleep in Korean Adolescents"
- Journal of Frontiers in Psychiatry: "The Safety of Ingested Caffeine: A Comprehensive Review"