5 Natural Ways to Boost Serotonin and Start Feeling Happier

This feel-good hormone plays a key role in everything from sleep and digestion to happiness and contentment—here's how to keep it flowin'.

Serotonin is a “feel-good” hormone, or neurotransmitter, that plays an important role in your mental and emotional well-being, including facilitating positive feelings, stabilizing your mood, and promoting happiness. But this naturally occurring hormone isn’t only involved in affecting your feelings and mindset, it also helps regulate sleep, digestion, bone density, appetite, and even memory. Since serotonin has such a huge impact on the body and overall health, it’s no surprise that many people seek out strategies for an easy, prescription-free serotonin boost. 

References to serotonin and serotonin-boosting habits, activities, and even foods are common in today’s social media-based mental health discourse. But is improved happiness and well-being as simple as trying to increase your supply of this one single neurotransmitter? In truth, not everyone can benefit from a serotonin boost—in fact, too much serotonin in your body can actually make you feel worse (although serotonin toxicity is often a reaction to medication). On the other end, not enough serotonin is linked to mood disorders, sleep troubles, and more health effects.

Here's a breakdown of serotonin—why it’s important, the signs of serotonin deficiency and imbalances, and whether or not we have control over our own serotonin supply through lifestyle factors and behaviors. Here’s everything to know about this feel-good hormone, and how to boost serotonin in everyday life.

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How Serotonin Works

To break down the science behind this happiness hormone, serotonin is essentially produced in the brain by neurons and travels to different receptor sites throughout the body to influence processes like sleep and digestion. There’s an ongoing debate in the medical community about whether or not low serotonin contributes to depression, but experimental research is showing a promising link between serotonin and emotion regulation, which is why there could be a connection to happiness or feeling good.

The Importance of Serotonin for Optimal Health

In addition to mood benefits, serotonin is an important player in your overall health. “Serotonin plays a role in regulating our mood, sleep and digestion, so maintaining healthy levels of this neurotransmitter can help us feel better emotionally and physically,” explains David Seitz, M.D., medical director at Ascendant Detox, an outpatient addiction treatment center. “Additionally, serotonin has been linked to improved cognitive functions such as learning, memory, and concentration.” Still, serotonin’s impact doesn’t end there. It even contributes to healing wounds, controlling nausea and healthy bowel movements.

Signs of Low Serotonin

Low serotonin can significantly disrupt your day-to-day functioning, and the signs can manifest in surprising ways. “Low levels of serotonin can have a range of consequences, including depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, appetite changes, and irritability,” Dr. Seitz says. While there’s no one reason as to why serotonin levels might dip, a number of factors may contribute, including deficient diet, lack of exercise, genetic predisposition, medication side effects, or stressful events, he adds. “Additionally, some medical conditions like an underactive thyroid can also cause serotonin imbalances.”

How to Boost Serotonin in Everyday Life

There are a number of easy steps and lifestyle changes you can make to help boost your serotonin naturally (and are good for you in general!). If you suspect that your serotonin levels are off, however, be sure to consult a physician to rule out any underlying conditions, such as thyroid disease, before making any modifications.

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Get regular exercise.

Exercising is one of the best and most effective ways to improve your serotonin levels, Dr. Seitz says, since it’s believed that physical activity triggers a release of serotonin that can elevate your mood. Studies show that the serotonin released by physical activity can actually control fatigue as well, so a combination of working out and the serotonin release that follows can actually kick tiredness to the curb, helping you feel better and more energetic overall.

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Eat foods rich in tryptophan.

There’s a reason why people say eating turkey makes you sleepy (especially on Thanksgiving). Turkey is one of several foods high in tryptophan, a naturally occuring amino acid found in some foods that can help raise serotonin levels by synthesizing, or creating, the neurotransmitter. Other foods that are high in tryptophan include oats, bananas, nuts, eggs, salmon, and tofu, Dr. Seitz explains, which are typically part of an overall healthy diet.

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Enjoy a healthy, balanced diet.

Since consuming more tryptophan isn’t sufficient on its own, Dr. Seitz says eating a balanced diet (high-tryptophan foods included!) is important for regulating your serotonin levels, too. “Eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as lean proteins can ensure that your body gets the essential nutrients it needs,” he says.

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Get the sleep your body needs.

It’s no secret that not getting enough sleep can severely impact your overall wellness, affecting everything including heart health, mental health, memory, and even metabolism. Over time, sleep deprivation can actually deplete your serotonin levels, and when serotonin levels are brought back up, you sleep more soundly. In other words, you may find yourself trapped in a cycle if you’re not sleeping well. “Lack of sleep can lead to low serotonin levels [and vice versa], so it’s important to get enough rest,” Dr. Seitz advises. While sleep needs differ by individual, the general sleep recommendation for adults is to sleep for 7 to 9 hours every single night.

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Maintain an active social life.

Great news: Sharing quality time with loved ones can actually up your serotonin production. “Spending time with friends and family can help to increase serotonin levels naturally,” Dr. Seitz says. “Engaging in meaningful conversations, activities or hobbies with those close to us can provide a sense of purpose and happiness that will boost our moods.” How? These healthy interactions have the power to encourage your brain to release a number of feel-good hormones, including serotonin.

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