Over a century ago, two British physicians prescribed fermented foods with friendly bacteria for mood support. The practice didn’t catch on. But modern research suggests they were onto something: the surprising link between diet, gut microbes, and brain health.
You can tap into the power of serotonin to transform your mood, motivation levels, and overall well-being.
Serotonin is a feel-good hormone, known as a neurotransmitter, that helps ensure we’re motivated, have balanced moods, and feel good about life. Boosting low serotonin levels is one of the keys to health and happiness. Low serotonin levels are linked to anxiety, depression, insomnia, and even violent behaviour.
Look for mood-boosting foods
While serotonin isn’t found in foods, it is synthesized from the amino acid tryptophan, so foods and supplements that contain tryptophan can help boost serotonin levels.
Did you know?
Some of the best tryptophan-rich foods include eggs, nuts, pineapple, salmon, tofu, and turkey.
According to some experts, plant-based foods are superior to animal-based sources of tryptophan. That’s because other amino acids in meat compete with tryptophan for absorption into the brain. The carbohydrates in plant-based foods, on the other hand, trigger insulin, which causes other amino acids to be used for fuel for our muscles, leaving tryptophan without competition for access to the brain.
Foods that have a high tryptophan-to-total-amino-acid ratio are ideal. They include:
- sunflower seeds
Foods high in the amino acid L-theanine also increase levels of serotonin. Fortunately, it’s as easy as daily teetotalling to obtain this serotonin booster. It works quickly, reaching the brain within 30 to 45 minutes.
L-theanine-containing teas include white, green, oolong, and black teas.
Reconsider low-carb living
Some health experts believe that, though the low-carb diet craze may have helped people lose weight, it may not be helping their mood and motivation. They point to the fact that complex carbohydrates are needed to ensure the absorption of critical nutrients such as tryptophan into the brain, where brain cells, known as neurons, can convert the amino acid into serotonin.
In any case, complex carbs also supply energy to ensure the proper functioning of our bodily processes, including serotonin production. So, it’s important to get sufficient complex carbs in your daily diet in the form of whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
Get a good gut feeling
Preliminary research shows that the gut can play a role in boosting serotonin levels. In a study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology of people with major depression, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) drugs were augmented with supplements of the probiotic strain known as Lactobacillus plantarum, with impressive results.
Those in the probiotic group had improvements in both cognitive symptoms as well as biochemical markers for the disease.
Let there be bright light
Exposure to bright light has been shown to increase serotonin levels, yet modern life keeps most people indoors for long periods of time. Even on a cloudy day,
it’s important to spend time outside to help reset serotonin levels.
You can also purchase full-spectrum lights or light therapy lamps to use indoors at your desk, in your living room, or other places where you normally spend
time. They should be at least 10,000 lux to help boost serotonin levels.
Get plenty of exercise
Exercise not only keeps us fitter, but also helps boost serotonin levels. Several studies demonstrate that exercise increases the release and synthesis of serotonin by the brain, and that tryptophan, the precursor for serotonin, also stays higher in the brain after exercise.
Consider nutritional supplements
There are many nutrients needed to support healthy serotonin levels, including
- B-complex vitamins
- omega-3 fatty acids
- vitamin D
When it comes to serotonin, it’s all about finding a healthy balance for your body and supporting your body’s production with brain foods, healthy lifestyle choices, and natural supplements.
Dopamine: the pleasure chemical
Dopamine is another naturally occurring brain chemical that helps us feel good and is involved with feelings of reward. Often called the “pleasure chemical,” the anticipation of a reward, whether it be a food, drug, money, or something else, can increase levels of this hormone.
Impaired dopamine production is involved in brain disorders such as depression and Parkinson’s disease. Many addictive substances, such as alcohol, cigarettes, social media, or even just caffeine, can increase dopamine.
Those things that cause an increase in dopamine become linked with a reward in our minds, while those things that cause a decrease in dopamine become linked with disappointment. Serotonin and dopamine work together; there’s speculation that substances that boost serotonin may also work indirectly by affecting dopamine.
Did you know?
- is involved in constricting smooth muscles such as those in the bladder, uterus, or gastrointestinal tract
- helps regulate the body’s sleep-wake cycles and the internal clock
- helps regulate social behaviour, appetite, digestion, sexual desire, and function
- cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, so it must be made inside the brain
- helps reduce the appetite while eating
- is involved in blood clotting to help heal wounds
- increases transit time and eliminates food we eat that is irritating to the gut
Serotonin-boosting nutritional supplements
There are many nutrients needed to support healthy serotonin levels. Here are just a few you can find at your local natural health retailer.
Low levels of vitamin B6, folate, and vitamin B12 help to produce brain chemicals, including serotonin, that affect mood and other brain functions, and in the case of a deficiency, can manifest in depression.
Low levels of serotonin, associated with depression, are sometimes treated with antidepressant medications that work by raising levels of serotonin. A number of studies involving B vitamins, including folate, B6, and B12, have shown that supplementing might help reduce symptoms of depression.
Curcumin, found in supplement form at your natural health store, is the active ingredient of the turmeric plant. Prized for its yellow hue and medicinal properties for, reportedly, 4,000 years, turmeric’s unique qualities are found in its curcuminoid components. Extracted from the turmeric (Curcumin longa L) plant, curcumin research has uncovered plenty of reason to turn (to) yellow.
Curcumin has shown promise in treating depression. In a recent controlled trial, 60 people with major depressive disorder were randomized into three groups to take either Prozac, 1 g of curcumin, or both Prozac and curcumin. After 6 weeks, curcumin led to improvements similar to Prozac, while the Prozac and curcumin group showed the best results. According to this small study, curcumin is as effective as an antidepressant.
Magnesium is an important ingredient in our brain’s biochemistry. Researchers have learned that it triggers changes in the brain’s synapses, the neuronal connections important for transmitting nerve signals. It’s thought to play a role in many of the biological processes involved in mood regulation. Many studies have also found a link between magnesium deficiency and symptoms of depression.
In a 2017 study, 126 adults with mild or moderate depression took magnesium supplements for six weeks and none for another six weeks. Participants scored an average of six points lower on the depression scale during the six weeks of taking magnesium supplements than when they didn’t take the supplements.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Who knew fish could hold such power over our mental health? Countries where diets are rich in seafood are not only heart healthy, but they also seem to have the distinction of lowering rates of depression, bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, and suicide.
Researchers believe that omega-3s help optimize brain serotonin levels—a chemical that carries messages from one brain cell to another—and ease its passage through cell membranes. Based on this knowledge, scientists have been studying omega-3s in treating mood disorders, including depression, with mounting evidence to support its role.
Low vitamin D levels have been linked to depression, manifested, in part, by low serotonin levels. The connection has been made through years of survey and research data which have shown that low or deficient vitamin D levels are directly correlated with both the presence and the severity of depression.
One small study showed that women with moderate to severe depression who took
vitamin D supplements for eight to 12 weeks reported substantially improved symptoms after taking vitamin D. More studies are being undertaken to examine the effect of vitamin D supplementation on those with depression.
An essential mineral, zinc might be lacking in some diets, as major zinc sources include meat, poultry, and oysters. While beans and grains also contain zinc, depending on the soils in which they’re grown, phytates in grains, legumes, and nuts can interfere with its absorption. Since the body has no special zinc storage capability, it’s important to consume zinc on a regular basis.
Zinc has been found to be low in the blood of people suffering from depression. In fact, the more depressed someone is, the lower the zinc level.
A recent systematic review of randomized controlled trials concluded that zinc supplementation for depression showed evidence of potential benefits as a stand-alone intervention.
Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD, DNM, RNCP, is an international best-selling and 20-time author, whose books include Boost Your Brain Power in 60 Seconds and The Cultured Cook. drmichellecook.com; Facebook: /drschoffrocook; Twitter: @mschoffrocook