Serotonin is one of the chemical messengers in our body that regulates our nervous system. This neurotransmitter is known as one of the“happiness hormones“. Specifically, serotonin influences our overall sense of well-being.
As a molecule, serotonin carries signals between different parts of the brain, affecting many functions, such as emotions, digestion and appetite. When serotonin is properly balanced in the body, you will feel happier and more emotionally stable. When there are low levels of serotonin, it can lead to mood instability, irritability, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, digestive problems and difficulty sleeping.
Learning about serotonin and its triggers helps you make informed decisions to modulate your mood for the better. If you want to boost serotonin naturally, read on for some tips recommended by psychologists and backed by science:
13 Tips to Boost Your Serotonin Levels Naturally
Get plenty of sunshine and vitamin D.
Surrounding yourself with nature can have a strong impact on mood and inspire a sense of peace and meditative calm. Lack of vitamin D has been linked to depression, so getting outdoors and getting regular sun exposure can help reduce depressive symptoms and increase serotonin. To counteract the winter blues in the colder months, you can try light therapy or vitamin D supplements to offset any loss of serotonin.
“It is believed that sunlight and, consequently, vitamin D can influence our experience of positive emotions, protect from depressive moods and anxiety, as well as promote our energy and alertness,” says psychologist Sheva Assar, Ph.D.
Give and receive affectionate touch.
have you ever had a bad day and needed a hug? There’s a reason for that. Assar explains that physical touch, such as hugs, cuddling or supportive caresses, can help build connections with others and influence serotonin production, which increases mood and immune response while decreasing stress.
“We are social beings and benefit from various forms of connection,” she says. “For example, using a supportive touch on oneself can serve as an act of self-compassion and can support a sense of self-connectedness, connection to the present moment and experience of calm, and reduced stress response, i.e., potentially decreased cortisol.”
Keep a gratitude journal.
“Reflecting on the things, people, opportunities and inherent strengths we are fortunate to have in our lives can have a significant impact on our overall well-being and mental health, as well as likely increased serotonin production,” Assar says. “The more regularly we practice gratitude, the easier it will be for our minds to identify and enjoy the positive aspects within our lives, which can influence a greater release and experience of serotonin.”
To integrate gratitude into your life, Assar suggests identifying two or three things each day that you are grateful to have (and even writing them down in a journal). Making it part of your routine broadens your worldview and cognitively encourages you to find the silver lining in whatever is happening in your life.
Control caffeine intake
While coffee can be an integral part of your morning or work day, Assar cautions against overindulging, as caffeine withdrawal can reduce serotonin levels. Pay attention to your intake if you notice your mood has dipped.
“While many experience a temporary boost in energy and mood, chronic, excessive coffee consumption ends up contributing to serotonin depletion and can have a negative impact on long-term mental health and well-being,” says Assar, including sleep, mood and energy levels.
Get plenty of sleep.
Serotonin helps maintain alertness and is also believed to function as a precursor to melatonin, a hormone released by the pineal gland that controls the sleep-wake cycle. If you notice sleep disturbances in your circadian rhythm, that may be due to low serotonin levels.
“Our serotonin levels are thought to influence our sleep patterns, ability to maintain sleep and sleep quality; however, it seems to be unclear exactly how serotonin does this,” Assar notes. “Serotonin contributes to the production of melatonin, which is the sleep hormone that helps us fall asleep and experience sleepiness. Serotonin itself contributes to the ability to wake up in the morning and experience a sense of alertness.”
Drink plenty of nutrient-rich foods and beverages.
“The causes of low serotonin levels can be a combination of things. There are two common reasons: your body isn’t producing enough, which could be related to vitamin and nutrient deficiencies; your body is capable of producing it but not using it effectively,” psychologist Rachel Goldman, Ph.D., tells mbg. “There is a relationship between mood and food. The foods we eat influence how we feel. Many foods contain serotonin naturally, but there are other nutrients our body also needs to produce it, such as tryptophan and omega-3 fatty acids.”
Some helpful foods include eggs, salmon, oatmeal, cheese, turkey, nuts and seeds, bananas, pineapple, tomatoes and kiwis.
It has been suggested that ashwagandha, an Ayurvedic herb, may help reduce stress and boost serotonin by improving the functioning of the nervous system.
As for foods to avoid: While alcohol consumption is a temporary serotonin booster, long-term consumption can deplete serotonin levels. Foods with artificial sweeteners should also be avoided, as they inhibit the production of dopamine and serotonin.
Goldman states that regular exercise has mood-enhancing effects and is known to help manage depression, anxiety and other mood disorders. Incorporating aerobic activity into the daily routine increases the abundance of tryptophan, which increases serotonin levels in the human brain. Being physically active also produces a number of other feel-good chemicals, such as dopamine and endorphins.
“Physical exercise improves mood and brain function. Exercise can also be effective in limiting the negative effects of stress, which can ultimately allow for a greater boost of positive internal experiences,” Assar says.
Get a massage.
Getting a massage helps increase dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin. The release of these chemicals in the body can make you feel relaxed afterwards: post-massage bliss is a real thing.
“Massage is another great stress management tool and has been found to not only promote the release of serotonin, but also decrease cortisol,” Goldman says. Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, is often thought of as the body’s built-in alarm system. Lowering cortisol through stress work and skin-to-skin contact can help promote a sense of calm.
With roots in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), acupuncture works by inserting thin metal needles into different points and pressure areas of the body. The needles are believed to activate blood flow in the area, which floods that section with endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. In theory, acupuncture works by bringing yin and yang back into the body’s energetic alignment.
“Like massage, it’s another great stress management tool and has also been found to release serotonin,” says Goldman.
New research, such as this study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, points out that acupuncture can help control autonomic nervous function and potentially stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system for greater relaxation.
Make meditation a regular practice.
Meditation is a mindfulness practice and works by developing presence and awareness in your state of consciousness. “It’s known to help relieve stress, as well as promote a different perspective on life, which can help increase serotonin levels,” says Goldman.
In fact, a Harvard study that analyzed magnetic resonance imaging scans of meditators found that increased neural activity in the brain may beneficially affect the synthesis of neurotransmitters such as serotonin.
Supporting gut health.
Neuropsychologist Jennifer Wolkin explains that most serotonin is produced in the gut, and the gut environment has far-reaching implications for serotonin production. Eating probiotic foods, maintaining a high-fiber diet and even trying a high-quality probiotic supplement can help increase gut microbial diversity.
“We literally need gut-derived serotonin for our mental well-being, and the diversity of our gut bacteria, called gut microbiota, is thought to influence serotonin levels,” says Wolkin. “So, to increase well-being, we not only need to pay attention to our mind, but also to our gut.”
Practice positive thinking.
“When we practice more positive thinking, we in turn feel more joy. The brain is primed to create more serotonin in response to positive emotions,” Wolkin says.
“Taking this to the next level, we can extrapolate that more positive thinking may play a role in neuroplasticity. When positive thoughts are generated, the production of our stress hormone cortisol decreases, and serotonin is produced, creating a greater overall sense of well-being.”
However, he points out that it’s not healthy to think positive all the time, which is fine.
Listen to music.
Music can make you feel a range of exciting emotions, from elation to crying. It can also help you access serotonin. According to Wolkin, listening to music you like activates the brain’s pleasure center, which not only releases dopamine and serotonin, but holds serotonin longer.
“There is research in animal models that indicates that listening to melodic music specifically can increase the release and concentration of brain neurotransmitters known as the monoamines, which include dopamine and serotonin,” Wolkin says. “What’s fascinating is that both seeking out new music and seeking out familiar music can be beneficial.
In any case, every sensory and perceptual experience we have is bound to change our brain chemically in some way.”