More Joy: Increase Serotonin Naturally

Mental Health concerns have been on a rapid rise this past year which is a huge concern and needs to be addressed.

So I wanted to talk about  Serotonin and what we can proactively and naturally do to improve our mood,  our sense of wellbeing and create more joy.

Serotonin is a key hormone in promoting feelings of happiness and well-being. It plays a role in regulating your digestion, sleep, bones, inflammation, libido, and memory. If you’re dealing with depression, anxiety, mood disorders, or insomnia, you may be experiencing low levels of serotonin.

You can support your body’s natural happiness hormone by understanding how serotonin works in the body. Discover how to increase serotonin naturally with simple lifestyle changes, and learn when your body might need support from supplements or medications.

What Is Serotonin?

It is  a molecule that helps your nervous system communicate. You may know it as “the happy molecule” for its role in regulating happiness, anxiety, and mood. While most serotonin operates in the gut, scientists best understand the effects of serotonin in the brain, where it impacts our mood and sleep.

Is Serotonin a Hormone or a Neurotransmitter?

The short answer is, serotonin can work as a neurotransmitter or a hormone, depending on where you find it. Serotonin functions as a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system (your brain and spinal cord) and as a hormone in the peripheral nervous system (everywhere else).

What Does Serotonin Regulate?

Serotonin plays several roles throughout the body, many of which we’re still working to understand. Did you know that 95% of your serotonin actually exists in your gut and not your brain? Still, we tend to associate serotonin with its effect on mood and happiness.

Research shows that higher levels of  serotonin in the brain general means happier moods, while low serotonin may be linked to an increased risk for depression.

That said, it’s not entirely clear whether serotonin regulates our mood, or our mood affects our serotonin. Research shows that adequate serotonin in the brain is important in regulating our anxiety and fear responses.

Serotonin also supports healthy sleep. Our bodies use serotonin to produce melatonin, the hormone that regulates our inner clock and sleep cycles. Our digestive system also benefits from serotonin, as it plays a role in regulating sugar levels, reducing inflammation in the gut, and keeping food moving through your digestive tract.

Signs you might have low levels

Because we can’t test directly for serotonin levels in the brain, we look at other information and identify a serotonin deficiency through symptoms. The best-known signs of low serotonin include depression and anxiety, often accompanied by poor sleep. Less severe symptoms, such as general sadness (especially with a lack of sunshine), low self-esteem, sugar cravings, digestive issues, brain fog, and anger can also point to low serotonin.

How To Increase Serotonin Naturally

Everyone is different. For some people, an exercise session and some time outside will create an immediate sense of relief. For others, these strategies may address symptoms gradually over time.

Here are some things to try that could increase serotonin naturally, with simple lifestyle changes that may support your serotonin production.

Soak up some sun

Sunshine makes you happy, and science agrees: Exposure to sunlight helps increase serotonin production. This can help explain the seasonal depression that affects so many people in the darker winter months and shine some light on the benefits of getting outside.

Exercise

Several studies show that exercise may increase serotonin and tryptophan (the building block of serotonin) levels in the brain. More research links exercise to improved mood, making it a potentially low-risk, low-cost treatment for depression.

Massage

Here’s good news: among the many benefits of massage, research shows an increase in serotonin and decreased cortisol (the stress hormone) following massage. In this study on depression in pregnant women, mothers who received regular massages from their partners reported happier moods, lower anxiety, and healthier outcomes for their babies. Gotta love that right.

Reduce stress

“Want to be happier? Stress less!” I know, I know, Before you roll your eyes, let’s glance at the facts: Excess stress causes your body to produce cortisol, and rising cortisol levels deplete serotonin. Finding simple ways to reduce your daily stress, such as meditation, taking a walk, or dancing to your favorite song, can help your serotonin and improve mood function

Reduce alcohol intake

If you have increases your consumption over the last year it is time to take stock.  Alcohol can wreak havoc on our hormones. Alcohol has depressant effects of its own, and too much can reduce the serotonin levels in your brain.

Foods that increase serotonin

How many of us reach for the snacks when we feel blue?  It turns out that the sugary or high-carb snacks we use as comfort foods actually give us a quick hit of serotonin. But as you might guess, this isn’t the way to go. Sugar and refined carbohydrates can also spike cortisol and contribute to inflammation, two factors that will crash your mood just as quickly.

Instead of reaching for sweets, first notice that you are reaching for a sweet and try to understand the root cause of why you are feeling blue. Instead of sugar try adding these foods

Wild Caught Fatty Fish

The beneficial omega-3 fatty acids found in cold-water fatty fish play a role in serotonin’s function in the brain. Research specifically shows that EPA and DHA from fish oil appear to regulate both the release of serotonin and serotonin receptors’ function. Low levels of essential omega-3 fatty acids may impair the serotonin receptor and result in lower levels of serotonin. For exceptional quality, Olprima DHA/ EPA is one of my favorites if you do not like fish.

Green Tea and Turmeric

Research shows that theanine, an active compound in green tea, and curcumin from turmeric, can both raise brain serotonin levels. Even more, these ingredients also reduce inflammation, making them beneficial additions to your pantry. Vitanox from Mediherb is a fabulous formula and it contains both of these ingredients.

Tryptophan the Precursor for Serotonin

Tryptophan is the amino acid our bodies use to create serotonin. Tryptophan is the building block for serotonin and  this essential amino acid is found in protein-rich foods such as milk, nuts, meats and cheeses. The key here is that you need to be able to digest the Protein so it can be broken down.  The other key is not too much at once. If you are already stressed which shuts down digestion then adding support like Zypan and Enzycore can be helpful.

Research shows that tryptophan supplements, especially when used with other treatments, may be useful in boosting serotonin and reducing depression symptoms. As you know I like to go the whole food route and fix the cause of the problem and only do nutraceuticals if indicated.

Vitamin D

Especially in latitudes with less sunlight, vitamin D deficiency is very common. Vitamin D, which our bodies produce in response to sunlight, is a necessary factor in the brain’s production of serotonin. We can help you evaluate your vitamin D levels with a blood test, in order to understand if supplementation can benefit you.

5-HTP Supplements  and SSRI’s for Serotonin

Despite its common use, I do not recommend 5-HTP as a serotonin-boosting supplement without the supervision of your provider. 5-HTP is the precursor to serotonin, which your body also converts into melatonin, a molecule that aids in sleep. Unlike serotonin, 5-HTP is small enough to cross the blood brain barrier.

These factors make it sound like an enticing supplement for those with both depression and insomnia, but 5-HTP has some serious side effects.

And if you’re on SSRIs, 5-HTP is a big no-no. Supplementing 5-HTP should never happen together with SSRIs or other antidepressants, a combination that can lead to dangerously high levels of serotonin, known as serotonin syndrome.

While SSRIs can be hugely beneficial in some cases, they have a downside: the long-term use of SSRIs can make serotonin deficiencies even worse. Additionally, while SSRIs can reduce depression symptoms by increasing serotonin availability, they don’t address the root cause of low serotonin levels.

If you are on a SSRI, please talk to your doctor about the best  approach if you would like to weaning off any of these drugs. Cold turkey is not a good idea and could lead to serious problems.

Final Thoughts

As a collective we all need to support those who are struggling with mental health challenges.

Key Nutrients: Ginger, Green Tea, Vita D, Kava, Zypan, Enzycore, Digest Forte.

If you suspect a serotonin deficiency is affecting your mood, reach out, get help and start by talking to your doctor.

Depression is a very real struggle, and support is easy to reach. If you’ve found this article because you are considering self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 right now, or visit their website for free, 24/7 live chat support.

Have a healthy week

Dr Pia