Have you had mood changes lately that you just can’t shake? One cause of that could be low serotonin levels. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that drastically affects your mood (1, 2). There are many things you can do to naturally give your serotonin levels a boost, but for now, the focus is on food. Drugs are not the only thing that can boost serotonin. If you’d like to stick to a more natural way, there’s plenty of ideas to try.
Although there are no foods that contain serotonin, there’s some research that suggests eating foods high in tryptophan can increase serotonin levels. (3) This is because tryptophan is directly linked to serotonin production in the brain (4, 2). Although, this is not true for everyone. More research is needed, and it all depends on the severity of the anxiety, depression, and mood disorders, along with lifestyle habits (5, 6). Some can benefit from supplementary tryptophan because it crosses the blood-brain barrier. (7) Many studies prove low serotonin levels can increase your chances of mood disorders such as depression (8, 9). One study suggests that it is due to the connection of the gut-brain axis (10).
Summary: Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that affects your mood. There are no foods that contain serotonin, however, some research shows that eating foods high in an essential amino acid called tryptophan can increase serotonin levels. The research shows mixed results, but it may be helpful for those who need a natural mood boost.
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Foods that Boost Serotonin
More research is needed in this regard, as some studies are mixed. Human behavior, trauma, and experiences deeply affect what will and won’t help you out of a mood disorder (11, 12). If you feel like your mood has been draining you lately, try some of these foods to see if they have any positive effect on you. These are naturally healthy food overall and can’t hurt to add to a balanced diet.
Turkey isn’t only for Thanksgiving. Poultry such as chicken, turkey, and goose are extremely high in tryptophan (13, 14). That’s why everyone tends to feel so sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner; they’ve had too much turkey. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that’s vital to overall health and well-being (15, 16, 17). That’s one of the main reasons it has such a large effect on hormone levels and in turn, mood (18, 19).
Try to buy grass-fed, organic, and free-range poultry whenever you can and change up the type of poultry you eat to get a wide range of nutrients. Grass-fed, organic, and free-range meat helps you to avoid unnecessary antibiotics, hormones, and additives in your meat (20, 21). Poultry is also packed with essential B vitamins, protein, and it can enhance muscle stamina as well (22, 23).
Summary: Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is vital to overall health and well-being, especially regulating hormone levels that support mood. One of the best sources of tryptophan is poultry, such as chicken, turkey, and goose. Grass-fed, organic, free-range poultry is the best option to avoid unnecessary additives.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Since eggs are an animal-based protein as well, it’s no surprise that eggs are also rich in the essential amino acid, tryptophan (24, 25). Eggs are an excellent choice for protein, vitamin D, B vitamins, copper, lutein, and zeaxanthin as well (26, 27). Lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids and are necessary to maintain healthy eyes (28). Foods like eggs and dark leafy greens have a healthy serving of each. Keep in mind that all the nutrition, besides the protein, is found in the yolk of the egg (29). So, be careful not to buy into the myth that egg yolks are unhealthy.
Summary: Eggs are super nutrient-rich with protein, vitamin D, B-vitamins, copper, lutein, and zeaxanthin. They are especially rich in the essential amino acid, tryptophan. Eating the entire egg, not just the protein-rich egg white, is essential to help support mood, maintain healthy eyes, and promote overall health since many of the nutrients are found primarily in the egg yolk.
Bananas are not only high in potassium; they’re also loaded with tryptophan (34, 35). They make a great snack before bedtime if you’re having trouble sleeping. You might only need half a banana to do the trick. Try to incorporate bananas into meals like oatmeal or smoothies more often to get in more tryptophan.
Bananas are also a great source of vitamin C, healthy carbs, and they can aid in digestion (35). They’re also high in manganese, which is good for your skin and can give you an energy boost (36, 37). So, not all foods high in tryptophan will make you sleep necessarily. Everyone’s bodies are different in how they react with certain foods, so it’s best to try out what works well for you and stick to it as much as possible.
Summary: Bananas are loaded with potassium, vitamin C, healthy carbs, manganese, and of course, tryptophan. This healthy food not only supports good mood, but aids in digestion, restful sleep, healthy skin, and can even be a natural energy boost. Easily add to smoothies, oatmeal, or eat one as a satisfying snack.
Although dairy like cheese and milk contains high levels of tryptophan (38), it can be a debatable topic. You may be familiar with drinking a warm glass of milk to help you go to sleep, for example. Things like that have been used for decades because dairy has a general relaxing property to it (39). It’s considered to be a grounding food. So, if you suffer from mood issues such as ADHD, dairy may be a good thing to try.
Debates come in mostly because of the quality of the dairy used. Many people are lactose intolerant and can’t digest dairy well (40). Others can even just be sensitive to dairy and not necessarily lactose intolerant (41). One way around this is to test out healthier types of dairy. For example, you might want to try goat milk products instead of cow’s milk. Goat milk has a more easily digestible protein than cow’s milk and is better tolerated by many for that reason (42, 43). You can also try cottage cheese or sheep’s milk products. Dairy can be a part of a healthy diet, but many people can live without it as well.
Summary: Dairy foods contain high levels of tryptophan, and can therefore be supportive for mood. Consuming dairy may help with restful sleep, relaxation, or even calming certain mood disorders such as ADHD. If you have lactose intolerance or suffer from a dairy sensitivity, try other options such as goat or sheep’s milk, or cottage cheese, which may be easier to digest.
Vegetarians and vegans may have a hard time finding a variety of foods they can eat that are high in tryptophan. But tofu is an excellent option to fulfill this need. Tofu is naturally high in tryptophan so it can help to possibly boost serotonin levels and regulate moods (44, 45). Tofu is also high in protein, magnesium, calcium, selenium, manganese, and iron (46, 47). All these nutrients are essential and a part of a healthy diet.
It’s also low in saturated fat, and high in heart-healthy unsaturated fats (48). Many are hesitant to try tofu because plain, it’s extremely bland. It can also be a bit tricky to cook without proper methods. Most tofu needs to be drained thoroughly, patted dry, and then pressurized so the water in it fully drains. That’s when you’ll get the best consistency. You can wrap your tofu in paper towels and put a cutting board on top of it along with a heavy object to fully drain it. It’s also important to season tofu well for taste. Turmeric is a great flavor and color additive to mix into tofu dishes, for example.
Summary: Tofu is extremely rich in tryptophan, protein, magnesium, calcium, selenium, manganese, iron, and unsaturated fats. It boosts serotonin levels and supports overall health. Before cooking tofu, wrap it in a paper towel with a heavy object on top to properly drain. Tofu has a very plain flavor but can be seasoned well with your favorite spices.
6. Nuts and Seeds
Think of your favorite type of nut or seed and start adding it to your daily diet. Why? Because every nut and seed you can think of has tryptophan in it (49, 50). From peanuts and brazil nuts to chia seeds and flaxseed, there’s no nut off-limits to help regulate your mood. Nuts are often a cheap way to get in essential nutrients like this one. Try to order your nuts and seeds in bulk and refrigerate them after opening to save on costs, too.
Get your fill of healthy fats, protein, fiber, and more (51) with your nut and seed of choice. The more you can vary the type, the better.
Summary: All nuts and seeds are extremely rich in tryptophan. Peanuts, brazil nuts, cashews, almonds, chia seeds, flaxseed, the list goes on. All of these can help regulate mood, and have bonus nutrients including healthy fats, protein, and fiber. Eat them daily to boost mood and support overall health.
Fatty fish like salmon are excellent sources of omega 3 fatty acids and you guessed it, tryptophan (52). Salmon is beneficial at boosting brain health in general (53, 54), so this might not come to much of a surprise to you. The best part about salmon is it cooks quickly as a filet, but it also comes in handy, cost-effective cans like tuna.
You can easily make a salmon salad or a sandwich like what you’d do with tuna in under 2 minutes. Mix in olive oil, a little mayonnaise, lemon, capers, and you’re all ready for a healthy, calming, and satisfying lunch that can give your serotonin levels a boost.
Summary: Salmon is an excellent source of brain boosting omega 3 fatty acids, as well as mood supporting tryptophan. It can be cooked quickly or even found in canned form. Toss it into a salad or add it to a sandwich with some lemon and capers for an easy, mood boosting lunch or dinner.
Naturally high in bromelain, pineapple is a great snack to add to your day for many reasons (55). It’s not only high in this essential amino acid, but it’s been shown to help decrease mucous and congestion, too (57, 58). Bromelain is a powerful nutrient that can help with sore throats, excess mucous production, digestion, sore muscles, and it can even have the power to reduce inflammation caused by osteoarthritis (59, 60). Grab yourself some fresh pineapple or you can even buy it already cut and frozen from the bag for an easier snack. It makes a great addition to smoothies and it can even be enjoyed plain for a frozen treat.
Summary: Pineapple is an excellent way to boost serotonin levels. It is also naturally high in tryptophan as well as bromelain, a powerful nutrient that helps with sore throats, excess mucous production, digestion, sore muscles, and reducing inflammation. Fresh or frozen pineapple is a great snack or addition to smoothies.
There are many components to boosting serotonin in the brain to improve mood. It doesn’t start and end with your diet. Other ways to boost serotonin include getting adequate exercise, making sure you get into the sun to keep your vitamin D levels high, get plenty of quality sleep, and keep your gut nice and happy.
Some research suggests that having a healthy gut microbiome can help to lower cortisol levels, and healthy cortisol levels greatly affect serotonin in the brain. (61) Stay healthy by adding all of these to your life and seek out help if you have a severe mood disorder or depression.