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What is Serotonin?
Serotonin is one of the most important molecules when it comes to our experience of happiness. It plays multiple roles within the brain and body, including: helping to achieve sustained and deep sleep, regulating mood and appetite and improving self-confidence. Additionally, it helps decrease our worries and concerns and is associated with learning and memory. With all of those functions, it’s easy to see how low levels might cause you to feel less than happy.
When serotonin levels are low, you might experience cravings for sweet and starchy foods, trouble sleeping, reduced memory function, increased pain sensation, gut issues and a variety of other symptoms. Maintaining healthy serotonin levels is therefore a great way to boost health and wellbeing naturally.*
The building blocks of Serotonin
About 90% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut. One of the building blocks is tryptophan. The body can’t manufacture tryptophan so we have to consume it in our diet. Also needed for the chemical reactions within this process are Vitamin B and Vitamin D (as well as several others)
5 Ways to Increase Serotonin Levels in the Brain
To help boost levels of Serotonin in the brain, do these things:
- Sleep for 7 – 8 hours every night
- Eat a brain-healthy diet
- Increase Vitamin D levels
- Eat oily fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel
- Get out in daylight – at least 10-30 minutes daily (or use an alternative light source)
- Reduce stress
Serotonin is used in the brain and the body. It cannot cross the blood-brain barrier so serotonin used in the brain has to be made in the brain but the rest is used in other parts of the body.
These 5 practices help increase levels of serotonin.
1. Sleep 7 – 8 hours per night
While we’re asleep, the brain converts serotonin to melatonin – the main hormone needed for sleep. The brain also carries out ‘housekeeping’ during the later part of the sleep cycle – the brain is flooded with spinal fluid to flush out the plaque that has built up during the day. Without a good amount of sleep, this housekeeping doesn’t happen and the plaque builds up – in much the same way as it would on your teeth.
2. Eat a Brain Healthy Diet:
Omega 3 fatty acids – Where vitamin D helps the neurons make serotonin, Omega 3 fatty acids help the receptors release it and improve its activity so fatty fish such as salmon, tune, trout and mackerel are great for giving you a double-whammy. If you can’t stomach oily fish, a supplement will help – but do some research, not all supplements are created equal (and the good ones are expensive). Avocados are also a great source of Omega 3’s as are nuts, seeds and plant oils such as flaxseed oil.
Spinach – A great source of tryptophan, spinach is also a great source of iron so it helps keep your blood cells healthy, which makes it essential contributor to energy levels.
Tumeric – Although studies into the links between tumeric and serotonin have only been carried out on animals so far, turmeric is known for its anti-inflammatory and brain healthy properties because of the effects of the active component within it – curcumin. In one experiment (carried out on rats), curcumin increased the length of time serotonin stayed in the brain by blocking reuptake.
Water – since about 60% of the brain is water, it stands to reason that drinking enough water is an essential part of keeping your brain healthy.
Dark Chocolate – contains tryptophan, a building block of serotonin
3. Increase Vitamin D levels
Vitamin D helps the body make, release, and use serotonin in the brain. One of the building blocks of serotonin is tryptophan, which is found in some foods. Vitamin D activates an enzyme that makes serotonin from tryptophan so low vitamin D levels mean less serotonin is in the brain.
To increase vitamin D levels:
- Spend a minimum of 10 – 30 minutes in natural daylight every day – or use an alternative light source such as this.
- Eat oily fish such as salmon, tuna, trout and mackerel
*Note: I am a sufferer of low-level depression and this post is based on my own research and experience. It is not for use as medical advice or for treating symptoms of chronic depression. It is intended to offer strategies for improving mood and wellbeing in otherwise healthy individuals.
Exercise fatigue increases the amount of tryptophan that can cross the blood-brain barrier and boosts serotonin production. Exercise is also a great stress buster so it offers great psychological benefits – often with immediate effect.
5. Reduce Stress:
Exercise and sleep both help reduce stress. In addition, you could try:
Social connection – building genuine connections with people helps you love and feel loved. It also increases the likelihood of physical contact such as hugging and other intimate contact, which helps boost levels of oxytocin, another feel good chemical.
Meditation – This is a great way calm the mind and help you relax. Meditation also stimulates the brain. It increases blood flow to the areas responsible for attention and whilst simultaneously calming down the areas that perceive pain. You only need about 5 minutes a day to feel the benefits – though 10 – 15 minutes per day gives better results.
Why is it important to have healthy serotonin levels?
If you want to feel good, your body needs to produce enough serotonin and use that serotonin effectively. Doing these things makes that more likely.
With healthy serotonin levels you’re likely to experience more balanced moods, more energy, better memory functioning and a healthier appetite – making it far easier for you to do the cool things you want to do and build on your happiness even further.
Chang, C.Y., Ky D.S., Chen J.Y. (2009) “Essential Fatty Acids and Human Brain”
Kauts, A. and Shaarma, N. (2009), “Effect of Yoga on Academic Performance in Relation to Stress“, International Journal of Yoga.
Nehlig, A. (2013), “The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance“, British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.
Young, S. (2007), “How to increase Serotonin in Human Brains without Drugs“, Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience.