Eat your way to a happier mood, better digestion and deeper sleep? Sign us up! It turns out your favorite comfort foods like mac and cheese or mashed potatoes really do have the power to dramatically lift your spirits and foster calm, happy energy. The reason: They’re known as serotonin boosting foods, which means they increase levels of a feel-good brain chemical called serotonin. Here, experts explain how serotonin can improve your health and reveal the best (and most delicious!) ways to reap the benefits.
What is serotonin?
Serotonin, also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), is a chemical that transmits messages between the brain and nerve cells in the body. It plays a major role in regulating bodily functions such as mood, sleep, digestion, sexual health and bone health.
“Serotonin is considered a neurotransmitter, which basically means that it’s involved in impulses that travel along the vagus nerve, usually from the digestive tract to the brain,” says Wynne Brown, MD, an integrative medicine physician at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. (Click through to our sister publication to see how stimulating your vagus nerve with cold water erases chronic stress.)
Serotonin, which is commonly known as the “feel-good” brain chemical that keeps your spirits up, is closely tied to your gut health. In fact, 95% of serotonin is produced in the gut. “We’ve been talking about serotonin in the brain, but the gut is making almost all of the serotonin,” explains Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, CSSD. “This is where all the new research is, with the gut-brain axis — they’re talking to each other all the time.”
Serotonin is primarily made from tryptophan. This is an essential amino acid that can’t be made in the body and is derived from the food we eat. That’s why “feeding” your gut your serotonin boosting foods is so important.
The top health benefits of serotonin
“This feel-good brain chemical not only helps mood, but potentially is affecting sleep and appetite and memory — so it’s very important,” Jackson Blatner says. “This compound is very important for overall wellbeing and mental health.” While it’s true that serotonin delivers total-body benefits, there are three key areas where it really excels.
1. Serotonin lifts your mood
One of the biggest and best-known roles serotonin plays in the body is regulating your mood. Serotonin helps keep you feeling happier, calmer, focused and even keeled. Low serotonin levels can trigger depression and anxiety. That’s why doctors often prescribe medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac, which regulate serotonin in the body, for clinical depression.
2. Serotonin improves sleep
Trouble dozing off? A shortfall in serotonin may be to blame. Serotonin, along with neurotransmitter dopamine, helps regulate sleep. It impacts both the length and quality of sleep, and it also stimulates the pineal gland to produce melatonin, a hormone that balances the body’s sleep-wake cycle.
3. Serotonin aids digestion
Since serotonin is primarily produced in the gut, it also plays an important role in digestion. It helps control bowel function, regulates your appetite and can make it easier for the body to process irritating foods.
Two common causes of a serotonin shortfall
When it comes to a deficit in serotonin, there are two key causes: The first is that your body simply isn’t making enough serotonin. “Sometimes, it’s that people are not eating foods that are high in tryptophan,” Dr. Brown says. “If you’re not getting enough tryptophan, you may have a lower serotonin level, because tryptophan is the essential building block for serotonin.”
And if your body is making enough serotonin but you’re still experiencing blue moods and insomnia, it could be that your body can’t effectively use the chemical. That can happen when your serotonin receptors aren’t functioning at their peak, which most often occurs when they’re hampered by chronic stress. (Click through for journal prompts for mental health that slash stress in minutes.)
The 5 best serotonin boosting foods
To lift your levels of this feel-good chemical naturally — and within 30 minutes — dig into these delicious serotonin boosting foods:
Mood lifter food: eggs
Start the morning on a tasty note with an omelet, scrambled eggs or frittata. A study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that the protein in eggs can significantly boost levels of tryptophan, which helps build serotonin. And in a happy bonus, eggs also are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which research in The FASEB Journal suggests makes it easier for serotonin to travel through cells in the body.
Mood lifter food: turkey
We’ve all heard that Thanksgiving turkey makes you sleepy because of tryptophan, and that’s because the amino acid triggers your body to produce relaxation-inducing serotonin. But turkey isn’t the only bird stuffed with tryptophan. “Turkey is the most famous one, but any poultry will do,” Jackson Blatner says. “So that chicken or duck would also be included on that list.” To get the most mood-lifting bang for your buck, opt for turkey and chicken. They provide the largest amount of tryptophan out of any type of poultry.
Mood lifter food: edamame
Don’t eat meat? No problem! Soy products such as tofu, roasted edamame (Japanese soy beans) and soymilk also pack plenty of serotonin-boosting tryptophan. “You’ll notice these tend to be high-protein foods,” Jackson Blatner says. “What’s nice about that is depending on your eating style, whether you’re vegetarian or vegan or just an omnivore or flexitarian, there’s something in that category for you. It’s not all just animal-based stuff.”
Tip: Dr. Brown recommends choosing organic soy foods whenever possible. Why? They’re not genetically modified, which can sometimes cause allergic reactions. (Click through to discover why soy is one of the top foods that fight hot flashes and discover a great roasted edamame recipe.)
Mood lifter food: nuts and seeds
Permission to dig into that bag of mixed nuts or trail mix! Snacking on nuts and seeds is a great way to boost serotonin, according to research in Food Chemistry. Dr. Brown explains that peanuts, walnuts, pumpkin seeds and other nuts and seeds are wonderful sources of tryptophan. And she says brazil nuts also pack an especially powerful mood-boosting punch.
“Brazil nuts are a good source of both methionine and selenium,” says Dr. Brown. “Another one of the essential amino acids that contributes to production of serotonin is methionine, which is a part of vitamin B12. And selenium, which has been found to improve mood, also bonds to methionine.” Eating just two brazil nuts is enough to deliver the recommended daily intake of selenium.
Mood lifter food: popcorn
Comfort foods such as mashed potatoes and a warm bowl of oatmeal have the power to make us feel good even when we’re down. Credit goes to the complex carbohydrates in mood lifter foods such as potatoes, oats, popcorn, cereal, brown rice and quinoa, which help serotonin travel from the gut to the brain.
“They help the serotonin enter the blood-brain barrier and get into the brain,” Jackson Blatner explains. “Beans, lentils, fruit, and starchy vegetables also are good sources of complex carbohydrates. Balancing those tryptophan-rich foods with complex carbs is a real one-two punch for upping your serotonin levels.”
3 more natural ways to boost serotonin
Serotonin boosting foods aren’t the only way to lift your levels. Engaging in activities that bring you joy can help stimulate serotonin production. “Research has found that when you are happy, you make more serotonin,” Dr. Brown says. “And they also found that if you are making more serotonin, you’re happy.” Adds Jackson Blatner, “What’s so cool is we really can create our own pharmacy of compounds in our bodies that can change our mood. We can change how we feel by how we live.”
1. Do a happy dance
Switch on a playlist of upbeat songs and move to the music. Dr. Brown says activities such as dancing to your favorite song not only get your heart rate up, but they also increase serotonin. And a study in Frontiers in Psychology found that a single exercise session boosts serotonin, while regular daily movement can keep the good vibes going.
“If you like to dance, go dancing,” Dr. Brown suggests. “If you’re feeling a little bit down, go dancing, and that can increase your serotonin levels. And when your serotonin levels are higher, you might want to go dancing. So it keeps the cycle of feeling happy going.”
2. Soak up the sun
Ever noticed you feel a little blue on cloudy days or during winter time? That’s because decreased sun exposure can send serotonin levels plunging. On the flip side, getting enough sunlight exposure — the World Health Organization suggests getting 5-15 minutes of sunlight on your arms, hands and face two to three times a week — increases serotonin production. That’s because the vitamin D in sunlight helps regulate the body’s creation of serotonin, according to research in The FASEB Journal. To get the benefits, grab your favorite magazine and read out back midday, or sip your coffee al fresco.
3. Enjoy a quiet break
Taking time during the day to let go of your worries and focus on the present boosts serotonin levels, according to research in the journal Ancient Science of Life. This type of meditation, known as mindfulness, significantly increased levels of serotonin and other feel-good chemicals such as norepinephrine in study participants. Need help getting started? Check out the beginner-friendly video below.
For more natural ways to lift your mood:
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.