You’ve probably already heard about serotonin, that “feel good” chemical in the brain that does so much good for the body. Medical experts believe this chemical can level moods, promote better sleep, enhance your sex life, relieve depression and anxiety, and perhaps even help you live longer. The best part of all: this chemical is all natural and doesn’t come from the pharmacy. Serotonin is synthesized from tryptophan, found commonly in healthy foods.
As a neurotransmitter, serotonin works in the central nervous system and in the general functioning of the body, especially the gastrointestinal tract. Some studies have determined that there are connections between serotonin and bone metabolism, breast milk production, liver regeneration, and cell division. That’s an important set of tasks for one neurotransmitter.
Knowing this, you likely are interested in knowing what foods you can eat that will boost your serotonin levels. This article will serve for information purposes only, and will help you form the questions you’ll want to discuss with your doctor. Remember to consult your healthcare professional before making drastic changes in your diet and certainly discuss any symptoms of depression or anxiety that you may have.
What is serotonin?
Serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine) is a monoamine (“mono” meaning one, and “amine” meaning amino group) neurotransmitter. Biochemically derived from tryptophan, serotonin is primarily found in the brain, gastrointestinal tract, blood platelets, and the nervous system.
There are a lot of articles on the internet right now that are talking about foods that contain serotonin. That isn’t actually correct. There ARE foods that can boost serotonin, but the chemical is all you, that is, it’s made in your brain. This happens not only when you eat certain foods, but also when you exercise. Many experts believe that the key food nutrient that triggers serotonin is tryptophan and eating foods with high levels of tryptophan are said to provide consistent increases in serotonin levels.
So what foods contain tryptophan?
Let’s start with two of the most common sources: milk, well all dairy and turkey.
There’s a reason why people drink warm milk to help get to sleep. Milk can help people fall asleep because it contains two substances which are known to be related to sleep and relaxation: the hormone melatonin and the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan works to produce that “feel good” chemical in your brain (that’s serotonin) and those chemicals calm your nervous system and help you relax enough to fall asleep. Of course, other factors such as medications, could interfere with how serotonin is produced in your body. If that is the case, then a cup of warm milk isn’t going to help you.
The second common serotonin-booster is turkey. Yep, there’s a reason why you want to take a nap after Thanksgiving dinner. That turkey is packed full of tryptophan, which increases your serotonin levels, makes you relax and that just might make you want to lie down on the sofa and fall asleep.
Turkey isn’t the only meat that contains tryptophan, the amount of tryptophan in turkey is about the same for other kinds of poultry. Beef, lamb, pork, even wild game like rabbit, all contain tryptophan too. Foods high in protein, iron, riboflavin, and vitamin B-6 all tend to contain large amounts of this amino acid.
To help you make out your grocery list of foods that will help boost your serotonin, here are some of the top choices: (many contain tryptophan, but others included on the list are foods that help the body process serotonin better, making more of it available):
Sometimes called a “superfood,” eggs are protein rich and contain amino acids and essential fatty acids necessary to help the body produce serotonin. In addition, eggs are loaded with high-quality proteins, vitamins, minerals, good fats and various trace nutrients. With only 77 calories, five grams of fat and six grams of protein with all 9 essential amino acids, this is one tryptophan-boosting food you’ll want high on your list. Eggs are also rich in iron, phosphorous, selenium and vitamins A, B12, B2 and B5.
Essential amino acids help the body produce the kinds that are nonessential and together they’re important for building and repairing muscle tissue, helping with neurotransmitter functions, supplying the brain with enough energy, and balancing blood sugar levels, for example.
There are a lot of different kinds of cheeses, and some with more tryptophan than others. A serving of 100 grams of mozzarella cheese contains 603 milligrams of tryptophan plus a significant portion of the calcium you need for a day. It’s also packed with protein, about 8 grams of protein in a single serving of hard cheese; add the vitamin B12, zinc, selenium, vitamin A, vitamin K2, phosphorous, sodium, and riboflavin and it’s easy to see why cheese is high on the list of foods that boost serotonin.
Cheese also contains probiotics, “good” bacteria that can help regulate your gut flora. Maintaining a healthy intestinal environment is essential to good health, and can provide tons of benefits, ranging from digestive, to brain, to heart health.
Salmon, fresh tuna, snapper, sardines, herring, mackerel and halibut are high in tryptophan, and the food has a lot of other benefits as well. According to the Harvard School of Medicine, an analysis of 20 studies involving hundreds of thousands of participants indicates that eating approximately one to two 3-ounce servings of fatty fish a week—salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, or sardines—reduces the risk of dying from heart disease by 36 percent.
Basically any type of meat, from fish to lamb to pork is going to contain tryptophan and ultimately be something that will boost serotonin in the brain. Currently, there are many studies being done to determine if meat that is raised more humanely (that is, without strict confinement) contains more nutrients. Even before these studies are more conclusive, it is likely safe to assume that any meat that is grown under the healthiest circumstances is going to offer that benefit directly to the consumer.
Tofu and soybeans, nuts and seeds
If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you’ll be happy to know that nuts and seeds rank really high on the list of foods that contain a significant amount of tryptophan. Flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, peanuts, almonds, and cashews all have the potential (by containing tryptophan) to increase serotonin in the body. Roasted soybeans and soy products such as tofu are also very good sources for tryptophan. Soybeans are the only vegetable with a complete protein. They’re also a great source of vitamin K, calcium, magnesium, iron and fiber.
If you are a person who struggles with gluten intolerance, you can skip this portion of the article. Foods rich in vitamin B such as brown rice, wheat germ, wholegrain cereals, yeast extracts and brewers’ yeast work together to help keep serotonin levels at their best.
Go easy on the grain carbs, though. They can help boost tryptophan levels, but depending on the source and quality, you might end up feeling worse.
Foods high in simple carbohydrates, such as pastas, potatoes, bread, pastries, pretzels, and popcorn, increase insulin levels and allow more tryptophan (the natural amino acid building block for serotonin) to enter the brain, where it is converted to serotonin. The calming effect of serotonin can often be felt in thirty minutes or less by eating these foods. This may be one of the reasons simple carbohydrates are so addictive.
We’re not saying that fruits contain tryptophan. What we’re saying is that bananas, kiwi, pineapple, plantains, plums, grapefruit, mango, honeydew and cantaloupe have a high serum concentration, which makes them very useful in serotonin production in the human body. Tomatoes and avocado are also rich in nutrients necessary for serotonin to develop and reach optimal levels in the brain.
Corn, broccoli, cauliflower and green leafy vegetables such as spinach are serotonin-boosting. As are baked potatoes with skin (choose organic if possible) and mustard greens. As we’ve already mentioned, any soy products, including soy milk, tofu and soybeans provide nutrients that help serotonin levels stay stable.
Sea vegetables including kelp, seaweed and spirulina all contain tryptophan, an essential amino acid that is necessary for creating serotonin in the brain.
Seaweed shows up in the marketplace (and online) in a variety of colors and textures, but all of them contain a rich supply of minerals, most prominently calcium, copper, iodine and iron.
Legumes and Beans
If you already like beans, that’s great. If not, you may have to explore some interesting sites on the internet to find recipes where you can disguise the taste and add them to foods you love. Basically, any kind of beans are going to contain some type of protein and tryptophan, and that includes lentils, mung beans, chickpeas, English peas, kidney beans, black beans, lima beans, navy beans and pinto beans. All of these beans are good sources of protein and serotonin-boosting tryptophan, as are foods such as hummus and lentil soup, which are made with these products.
Mushrooms don’t contain serotonin, but the brain needs B vitamins to make neurotransmitters with a calming effect including serotonin. Mushrooms are nutritionally dense, packed with polysaccharides, proteins, minerals, vitamins (B, D), are low in fat and are free of cholesterol. Recent interest about mushrooms are about fungi prebiotics for the microorganisms in our intestines. Mushrooms contain nutrients that support the growth of beneficial bacteria such as Acidophilus and Bifidobacterium. Mushrooms not only boost the immune system, but also balance the microbiome in favor of these beneficial bacteria, resulting in better digestion.
Many health experts recommend that the best way to obtain tryptophan from your diet and take advantage of its many benefits is to vary the sources of proteins and carbohydrates you eat, since this allows for the most serotonin to be produced overall. Mushrooms are a great meat substitute.
Finally, (as if you didn’t already have enough) there’s one food that contains tryptophan that’s bound to make you think about enjoying some for dessert more often: chocolate. The best part about using tryptophan to boost serotonin, which in turn may help resolve health conditions and ease symptoms is that the tryptophan-serotonin connection is completely natural and requires no prescription.
While you’re planning your “feel-good diet” to boost your serotonin levels, keep in mind that you will benefit from eliminating processed sugar from your diet as well. If you can’t eliminate it completely (yes, it’s almost impossible to enjoy chocolate without a little sugar in the mix) at least drastically reduce the amount of white sugar you consume each day. If you have low serotonin, you may have intense cravings for sugar. This is your body’s way of trying to increase serotonin because eating sugar produces insulin, which helps tryptophan go into your brain.
Serotonin is something you make for yourself in your own body, so take responsibility for eating the right foods to boost this important chemical in your body. Keep in mind that there are other very valuable and important ways to boost serotonin without food.
Exercise does so much for the human body (that’s the topic of another article for another day) but it also boosts serotonin in your brain. The more you exercise, the more serotonin you have available in your system. In fact, multiple research studies have demonstrated that exercise is likely just as effective at increasing available serotonin as medications are and in some cases, exercise is more effective for not only boosting that “feel good” transmitter, but boosting energy and a host of other health benefits.
Getting out in the sunshine and exercising is also good for boosting serotonin in the body, and when combined with your new-and-improved, healthy diet of serotonin-boosting foods, this fitness plan is sure to have you feeling great.