Think back to the last time you were doing something you truly enjoyed. Maybe it was a walk outside, your favorite yoga class, or a cup of coffee with your best friend. Did you feel calm, centered, present, and perhaps even a little euphoric? You can thank the neurotransmitter serotonin for that.
There’s a lot of chatter in the wellness space these days about neurotransmitters—and though much of the conversation is often dominated by dopamine (which motivates us to seek out sources of pleasure and is influenced by things like social media scrolling, highly-processed food, and other modern vices), it’s important to talk about serotonin, too.
What Serotonin Does—And How It Makes Us Feel
Let’s get back to the basics: Serotonin, also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine or (5-HT), is a neurotransmitter, which is a type of chemical messenger that helps to transmit signals between nerve cells in the brain and other parts of the body. It also functions as a hormone.
Though a small amount of it is produced in the brain, serotonin is mainly produced in the gastrointestinal tract (a whopping 90 percent of it originates from your gut).
According to Harvard Health, serotonin is involved in regulating a variety of body functions, including:
- Stress responses
- Body temperature
- Wound healing
- Bone metabolism
- Sexual desire
- Social behaviors
- Cognitive functions, including learning and memory
Studies show that when we produce lots of serotonin, we generally feel happier, calmer, focused, emotionally stable, and more connected to other people. Sounds pretty great, right? Serotonin also makes us feel sleepy at night and keeps our appetite in check, helping us sense when to stop eating.
A number of factors modulate our body’s production and release of serotonin, including other neurotransmitters, hormones, the use of certain substances, and our environments, diet, exercise habits, and sleep patterns. Making positive lifestyle changes, such as reducing alcohol consumption, eating a healthy diet, socializing, and increasing physical activity can also help to balance serotonin levels, according to Olivia Rose, N.D., a naturopathic doctor at Rose Health Clinic.
How is serotonin different than dopamine?
Since dopamine and serotonin are often discussed in tandem, let’s make sure the differences between them are crystal clear.
Both dopamine and serotonin are involved in regulating our moods and other physiological processes. Dopamine is primarily involved in reward and motivation. It’s synthesized when we expect to experience pleasure and motivates us to pursue reward. It also plays a role in movement control and stimulating hunger. Think of dopamine as being mostly focused on the future (like striving towards goals and obtaining something rewarding). Serotonin, meanwhile, is more related to the present (think of the calm feeling you get when meditating or spending time with supportive people).
These two neurotransmitters also interact with each other, sometimes being released together and, at other times, balancing each other’s effects. Some experiences that cause us to release both serotonin and dopamine together include exercise, achieving goals, meditating, reading, falling in love, and meeting new people.
Which habits decrease serotonin?
According to research studies, low or abnormal levels of serotonin are associated with a number of mental health and neurological issues, including depression, anxiety, and a higher risk for eating disorders. It’s important to note that the relationship between serotonin levels and these conditions is complex, though. Other factors, such as genetics, environment, and lifestyle, also play a role.
A number of lifestyle factors can negatively impact serotonin levels, according to Rose. Some big ones include:
- Sleep deprivation
- Poor diet, especially one lacking tryptophan, vitamin B6, and folate
- Alcohol and drugs
- Certain medications, such as antipsychotics and anti-migraine medications (these sometimes interfere with serotonin synthesis)
- Lack of sunlight
How to Naturally Boost Serotonin Production
It’s clear that healthy serotonin production has a very real impact on how we feel. To support more of those good vibes, incorporate the following tactics into your lifestyle.
1. Try Relaxation Techniques
A key component of improving serotonin levels is managing stress, as too much stress affects serotonin levels and has many negative effects on overall health.
We all deal with stress, so it’s key to build stress-relieving activities into our days. Rose is a fan of mindfulness exercises, such as meditation and deep breathing, since they can ease stress and help us feel calmer. According to the American Institute of Stress and American Psychological Association, exercising, taking walks outside, listening to music, journaling, and spending time in nature are other beneficial rituals to add to your day.
2. Eat the Right Foods
A well-balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats provides the nutrients needed for optimal serotonin synthesis.
One specific nutrient to focus on: tryptophan, an amino acid that’s a precursor to serotonin. You’ll find tryptophan in foods that provide protein, including eggs, meat, nuts, seeds, turkey, chicken, soy and dairy products, and fish, according to Rose. Consuming ample protein throughout the day is a good way to ensure you get in enough tryptophan, notes The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N. (You can book a free one-on-one consult with a nutritionist here if you’re not sure how much protein you need.) You might also consider supplementing with tryptophan, in which case Blakely recommends 500 milligrams daily. (Try The Vitamin Shoppe brand L-Tryptophan.)
Foods that provide complex carbohydrates are also key, says Rose. The reason? Carbohydrates trigger the release of insulin, which helps tryptophan reach the brain, where it can be used to create serotonin. Opt for healthy, high-fiber carbs (like oats, quinoa, sweet potatoes, beans, and berries) over those that are highly processed and high in sugar. Ideally, combine your complex carbs with tryptophan-containing protein foods!
3. Get Enough Omega-3s
According to Blakely, “omega-3 fatty acids have been identified as an important component of healthy serotonin production.” The best way to get your omega-3s in is to eat fatty fish (like salmon, sardines, herring, and light tuna) at least two or three times per week—but you can also incorporate plant-based sources of omega-3s (such as chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts) into your meals.
If you don’t meet your omega-3 needs through diet alone, an omega-3 fish oil supplement (or vegan alternative) may be advised. Blakey recommends Vthrive Premium Omega-3 Fish Oil and The Vitamin Shoppe brand Organic Flax Oil.
4. Exercise Regularly
Being physically active has been linked to improved energy, a more positive outlook, and even reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. According to the American Psychological Association, exercise can increase the production and release of serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins in the brain.
“Various studies have shown that exercise may have the ability to support serotonin production and may increase tryptophan levels,” says Blakely. How much exercise do you need, though? Try for at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise (think five thirty-minute aerobic exercise sessions) plus two strength training sessions per week.
5. Get Some Sun
There’s a reason it feels good to spend time outside on a sunny day. When we’re exposed to the sun, receptors in our eyes that are sensitive to sunlight send signals to our brains and increase our release of serotonin. It’s no wonder that sunshine typically helps us feel more energized and optimistic and facilitates restful sleep. This is exactly why light therapy (in which you use a special lamp to mimic sunlight exposure) is used to help treat seasonal affective disorder, which is associated with low serotonin.
Blakey recommends spending at least 15 to 20 minutes outside in the sun every day, if possible. Doing so will help trigger that feel-good serotonin production boost, in part by making sure you get much-needed vitamin D. You see, research suggests that vitamin D helps activate serotonin synthesis (in addition to supporting other cognitive functions). “Unprotected sunlight exposure (no sunscreen or clothing) on your arms, legs, and face daily is best,” Blakely says. “If you live somewhere that you are unable to do this consistently, consider adding a vitamin D3 supplement (at least 800 IU per day) to your routine.”
6. Connect With Your People
“Social support and positive social interactions can increase serotonin levels,” says Rose. “By reducing stress, social support helps keep the stress hormone cortisol, which can reduce serotonin levels when high, in check.” The warm-fuzzy feels you get from connecting with loved ones also help increase feelings of self-worth and confidence, increasing serotonin levels and boosting your mood even more.
Physical touch has been shown to be a particularly powerful tool here. As long as you feel safe and comfortable with the person who’s touching you, of course, research suggests that being touched offers many emotional benefits. Studies show that, in response to human touch, we release oxytocin, serotonin, and other neurochemicals, leading to feelings of reassurance, comfort, sympathy, and support, and potentially the suppression of pain and loneliness.
Gain more support in your life by connecting with friends and family members regularly, whether through phone calls, video chats, or in-person meetings. For physical touch, try giving and receiving more hugs, holding hands, or even getting a massage (whether from a loved one or a professional).