Boost Your Mood: Ways to Raise Serotonin Levels


Feeling a bit down lately? You’re not alone. Many of us experience fluctuations in mood, and one key player in this emotional symphony is serotonin. In this article, we’ll explore proven ways to naturally increase serotonin levels and boost your mood.

Learning how to increase serotonin—a “feel-good” hormone—can have a host of benefits. Serotonin functions as a neurotransmitter, sending chemical messages that stimulate the reward center of the brain. Doing so increases feelings of happiness and well-being while improving cognitive functions such as memory and attention. It also plays a role in regulating digestion and sleep.

You may be able to increase your serotonin levels naturally by eating certain foods, getting exercise, managing stress, and spending time in sunlight. Some herbal supplements, medications, and alternative therapies may also help.

This article explains how serotonin levels affect your mood. It also offers tips for boosting serotonin both naturally and synthetically through medications and supplements.

Why are serotonin levels important?

Having adequate serotonin levels is important for your mental and physical health. Too little serotonin can increase your risk of depression and other mental health challenges like anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Low levels of  have also been associated with the development of certain diseases, including chronic fatigue syndrome (extreme, long-term fatigue), fibromyalgia (condition of widespread pain), Alzheimer’s, (progressive disease causing memory problems and mental confusion), and Parkinson’s (neurological disease affecting movement).

It’s also possible for serotonin levels to be too high. This can lead to serotonin syndrome, a rare condition that can cause symptoms ranging from mild (nervousness, nausea, diarrhea, and tremors) to severe (sweating, fever, and confusion).

Several factors can cause serotonin levels to fall too low. These include:

  • Tryptophan deficiency: The body naturally produces serotonin using the essential amino acid tryptophan. But it can’t make this essential amino acid on its own, so it must be taken in through food. If you are not eating enough foods with tryptophan, then the body can’t make enough serotonin.
  • Other nutrient shortfalls: Research shows other nutrients, including vitamin D and probiotics, help to regulate the production, release, and function of serotonin.
  • Malfunction of serotonin receptors: In some cases, your body may make enough serotonin but is unable to use it efficiently. This is usually due to having too few serotonin receptors or having serotonin receptors that aren’t working properly. 

How to Boost Serotonin Naturally 

While the body can make serotonin on its own, sometimes it doesn’t make enough to keep the brain and other systems functioning optimally. If its levels are low, your risk of depression and anxiety increases and other problems can occur.

Here are some ways you can increase serotonin naturally:

Eat Tryptophan-Rich Foods 

Serotonin is naturally produced by many plants. It’s currently found in about 42 plant species from 20 different families, most often in roots, leaves, stems, fruits, and seeds.

However, serotonin cannot cross the blood-brain barrier (a protective group of tightly packed cells that keep harmful substances from entering the brain), so eating foods with serotonin is not an effective way to raise serotonin levels.

Instead, it’s better to eat foods rich in the essential amino acid tryptophan, which can pass through the blood-brain barrier.

Examples of foods high in tryptophan include:

  • Canned tuna (per ounce): 470 mg
  • Turkey, light meat (per 8 ounces): 205 mg
  • Whole milk (per cup): 183 mg
  • Turkey dark meat (per 8 ounces): 151 mg
  • 2% milk (per cup): 138 mg
  • Chicken, dark meat (per 8 ounces): 128 mg
  • Chicken, light meat (per 8 ounces): 120 mg
  • Cheddar cheese (per ounce): 91 mg
  • Peanuts (per ounce): 65 mg
  • Oatmeal (per cup cooked): 65 mg
  • White bread (per slice): 22 mg
  • Wheat bread (per slice): 19 mg
  • Semisweet chocolate (per ounce): 18 mg
  • Sweet chocolate (per ounce): 16 mg

Studies suggest that increasing tryptophan intake can have a positive effect on mood and well-being, especially in individuals with tryptophan depletion.

It’s recommended that you consume tryptophan-rich foods with carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, rice, or fruit. That’s because carbs trigger an insulin response that can help carry tryptophan over the blood-brain barrier.

Tryptophan-rich snacks include chicken and cheddar cheese roll-ups, granola with peanuts and chocolate chips, a tuna fish sandwich, and a peanut butter sandwich with a cold glass of milk.

Foods to Avoid

Certain foods are known to deplete serotonin levels, interfere with their synthesis, or disrupt signaling in the brain. These include:

  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine 
  • Artificial sweeteners, like aspartame
  • High-fructose syrups, sodas, and juice

Try Probiotics

An estimated 95% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut. Beneficial bacteria found in the gut (probiotics) secrete substances used in the creation of serotonin.

Research suggests that consuming foods rich in probiotics helps increase good gut bacteria, which positively influences serotonin production. In several recent studies, probiotic consumption was associated with fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Probiotic-rich foods include:

  • Yogurt
  • Kefir
  • Kombucha
  • Kimchi
  • Sauerkraut
  • Miso
  • Tempeh
  • Natto

Move Your Body

It’s commonly known that exercise is good for mental health. Research suggests that physical activity promotes the release of several mood-boosting chemicals, including serotonin and endorphins (the hormones responsible for a “runner’s high”). This effect seems to reduce the risk of depression in those who regularly exercise.

Try some of these exercises to give yourself a boost:

  • Running
  • Swimming
  • Biking
  • Dancing
  • Jump rope

If those activities are not suitable for you, you can also get benefits from low-impact activities such as taking a brisk walk, chair/water aerobics, and gardening activities like weeding or raking.

Get 15 Minutes of Sunlight

Enjoying a few minutes outside on a sunny day works double-duty to boost serotonin levels: Bright light is known to promote serotonin output by stimulating the body’s circadian rhythm (its internal clock).

Plus, when the skin is exposed to sunlight, skin cells convert the sun’s ultraviolet B rays into vitamin D. Vitamin D plays an important role in the production and activation of serotonin, which can help with mood. One study found that increased sun exposure was associated with reduced depression symptoms in elderly women.

Experts say getting just 10 to 15 minutes of sun a day is enough to make adequate vitamin D in most people. If this is not possible, supplements are also available. The body can still produce vitamin D even when you’re wearing sunscreen, so be sure to use adequate protection, especially if you have pale or sensitive skin.

UVB Radiation and Serotonin

Studies have shown that long-term, moderate exposure to ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation from the sun can increase its levels and decrease depression.

A 2023 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health reported that as little as 4.6 hours of direct sun exposure per month (roughly 9 minutes per day) was linked to improvements in clinical depression.

In the absence of direct sunlight (such as when winter daylight hours are short), light therapy might serve as an effective alternative. This involves sitting next to a light box or lamp for an allotted time each. The practice is reported to be “moderately effective” in treating non-seasonal depression, according to a 2016 review of studies from McMaster University in Canada.

Change Your Thoughts

Thinking about something that makes you happy can boost your levels, according to research.

Admittedly, it can be hard for some people to just think happy thoughts, especially if you have depression or other mood disorders. Some ideas to help you think more positively: 

  • Look at old vacation photos
  • Make a gratitude list
  • Reach out to a friend
  • Read inspirational literature
  • Recall a fun memory 
  • Watch a comedy

If you struggle with changing your thinking, consider cognitive behavioral therapy. Working with a professional therapist can help to reprogram your thought processes and avoid automatic negative thoughts.

Try Adaptogenic Herbs

Adaptogens are plant extracts that help keep the body in homeostasis, balancing internal, chemical, and physical systems within the body. These herbs do this by improving the body’s ability to react and respond to stress and by helping to maintain hormonal balance.  

Early research suggests that certain adaptogenic herbs may have antidepressant effects. More research is needed, yet there is some evidence that the following may have an antidepressant effect:

  • Rhodiola 
  • Ginseng
  • Ashwagandha
  • 5-HTP
  • St. John’s wort
  • Omega-3 fatty acid (also found in fish oil supplements)
  • Probiotic supplements

Safety Considerations

It’s important to note that herbs and supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It’s best to talk with your healthcare provider before trying any alternative treatment.

While unlikely, there have been reports of a potentially deadly drug reaction called serotonin syndrome that can occur when people on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) antidepressants overuse supplements. One incident involved a 28-year-old man on Zoloft (sertraline) who took “tons” of supplements for weight loss and ended up needing emergency treatment.

Stress Management

Chronic stress negatively impacts serotonin production and impairs the function of serotonin receptors. That means stress management can play an important role in maintaining optimal serotonin levels. 

Here are some study-backed stress-relieving techniques to try:

  • Yoga
  • Mindfulness
  • Meditation
  • Exercise
  • Art therapy 
  • Breathing exercises

While it’s not easy to eliminate stress from everyday life, simple stress management techniques can go a long way in helping you feel better.

Massage Therapy

Massage therapy is also a great way to decrease stress, but there is also evidence that therapeutic hands-on massage can not only increase serotonin levels but also another “feel-good” hormone called dopamine. It also appears to decrease the stress hormone cortisol which is linked to an increased risk of depression and anxiety.

Medications That Increase Serotonin Levels

Serotonin can be boosted synthetically, too. Antidepressants are a common line of treatment for depressive symptoms that may be due to low serotonin levels. There are several different kinds of antidepressants including:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs): These meds work to keep serotonin circulating in the brain for long periods.
  • Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs): These work by keeping serotonin and norepinephrine circulating.
  • Tricyclic antidepressants: This is an older-generation class of drug that prevents the reabsorption of serotonin and norepinephrine.
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs): This medication blocks the activity of an enzyme that breaks down serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

These antidepressants can help boost serotonin levels, but they may also have side effects. However, these side effects can be mild and usually don’t last long. These may include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Insomnia or fatigue
  • Sexual issues 

Sometimes people need to try a few different meds to find the antidepressant that works for them. Talk with your healthcare provider about any side effects you develop, and work with them to find the best fit.


Increasing its levels can be done naturally. The best ways to do this are eating well, getting out in the sun or supplementing with vitamin D, exercising, taking adaptogens, and managing stress.

It can also be increased synthetically with antidepressants. While increasing serotonin is important for relieving depressive symptoms and improving mood, it’s not about getting as much serotonin as you can. Too much can also be harmful to your health. Finding the right balance is key.

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