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Serotonin Deficiency: How to Increase Serotonin Levels with Foods

Updated on April 5, 2015
Help increase your serotonin levels by adding these foods into your diet.
Help increase your serotonin levels by adding these foods into your diet. | Source
The brain has many complex functions.
The brain has many complex functions. | Source

What is serotonin?

Serotonin is a hormone known as 5 - hydroxytryptamine and it functions as a neurotransmitter. The 5 - hydroxytryptamine is made by a chemical reaction to tryptophan.

  • Tryptophan and melatonin create relaxation and sleep cycles.
  • Tryptophan is an amino acid and is commonly found in proteins and a variety of foods.
  • Tryptophan is popularly known as the sleep inducing ingredient found in turkey.

What is a neurotransmitter? Think of it as the messenger that relays messages from one area of the brain to another.

The majority of serotonin is found in the brain, but some is also located in the digestive tract and in the blood.

Generally speaking, serotonin provides us with a sense of well being. Our mood greatly affects how we respond to our home and work environments during times of play, rest and stress.

Normal serotonin levels support mood, learning and social behavior.
Normal serotonin levels support mood, learning and social behavior. | Source

What does serotonin do?

Although all of the roles of serotonin appear to be unknown, it is clear serotonin affects a variety of psychological and physical functions.

Functions affected include, but are not limited to:

  • appetite
  • mood
  • sexual desire
  • memory and learning
  • body temperature
  • social behavior
  • breast feeding

Potential Symptoms of Serotonin Deficiency

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety (beyond the norm)
  • Apathy (lack of concern and sincerity)
  • Depression
  • Excessive concern and worry
  • Fatigue
  • A challenged ability to focus, remember or clarify
  • Mood swings
  • Restless and unusually impatient

What may cause a serotonin deficiency?

  • Lack of sleep (usually lacks natural melatonin and tryptophan in the diet).
  • Lack of protein.
  • Lack of Omega - 3 (Fish Oil or Flax)
  • Excessive caffeine or alcohol consumption.
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies (calcium, potassium or magnesium)
  • Insulin resistance.

Mood and Exercise

A variety of studies have concluded, exercise can provide an immediate mood lift.

Serotonin and Depression

Low serotonin levels are to blame for depression. Is this always the case? Possibly not. A Doctor by the name of Pedro Delgado did a study in which he depleted serotonin levels in normal, healthy individuals. Interestingly, these individuals did not become depressed. Another argument is that the serotonin receptors are to blame. If the receptors are not receiving the serotonin then they cannot transmit to the necessary areas of the brain.

  • Researchers are also trying to confirm if the serotonin levels are a result of depression or if they are in fact the cause of depression.
  • Researchers have moved on to genetic studies of depression. Finding the genetic link to preassigned serotonin levels and depression is the current trend in depression research.

Interesting fact: Although it is known that serotonin altering medications may improve depression symptoms, researchers still do not know how or why they really work in alleviating depression.

Serotonin Syndrome: Is too much serotonin safe?

No! Too much serotonin can lead to serious health issues. Excessive serotonin can even lead to a medical emergency.

ALERT! Severe cases of Serotonin Syndrome can be fatal.

Severe symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Seizures
  • Rapid and irregular heart rate
  • Loss of consciousness

Additional symptoms include:

  • Agitation
  • Confusion
  • Diarrhea
  • Dilated Pupils
  • Headache
  • Loss of muscle control, clumsiness and twitching
  • Shivering and Goose Bumps

What causes excessive serotonin?

Certain medications and herbs may inadvertently increase serotonin to dangerous levels. Be aware of taking St. John's Wort or Ginseng in-conjunction with anti-depressants, as it may cause Serotonin Syndrome.

Please check with your pharmacist and physician if you are being medicated with the following (possible) serotonin altering medications:

  • antidepressants
  • tobacco addiction medications
  • migraine medications
  • pain medications
  • lithium
  • anti-nausea medication
  • antibiotics such as, Zyvox
  • HIV/AIDS medications such as, Norvir

Can you increase sertonin with certain foods?

Yes and no. Foods do not actually contain serotonin. They do however, contain tryptophan. Tryptophan is a building block in the creation of serotonin.

Diet: Foods that aid serotonin levels

What to avoid: Avoid sugary foods. These foods will spike your glucose levels and then will cause you to crash. The crash will leave you feeling lethargic and possibly cause you to feel guilty about your high sugar binge. This is not a good combination when trying to prevent depression. One should also avoid white, starchy foods: rice, potatoes, bread and other simple carbs will also cause a spike in blood sugar and insulin.

What to include in your diet: A colorful variety of fruits and vegetables, especially those rich in tryptophan. Try to consume a form of protein three times a day. A nice combination of proteins and vegetables will slowly feed your system with nutrients and tryptophan. Plus, they will not cause the sugar rush caused by simple carbs and sugary snacks.

Boost Serotonin with Tryptophan Rich Foods

Tryptophan boosts serotonin - the HAPPY hormone! Add these foods to your diet to help improve your mood.
Tryptophan boosts serotonin - the HAPPY hormone! Add these foods to your diet to help improve your mood. | Source

Foods Rich in Tryptophan

Note, tryptophan is best absorbed when consumed with foods rich in Vitamins B, C, folic acid and magnesium. Importantly, Vitamin B6 is needed to convert tryptophan to serotonin. Fortunately, many of the foods rich in tryptophan are also naturally rich in Vitamin B6.

Foods Rich in Tryptophan:

Proteins: (General list)

  • Cheese
  • Chicken
  • Cod
  • Egg
  • Halibut
  • Lamb
  • Legumes
  • Nuts
  • Red Meats
  • Seeds
  • Shrimp
  • Tuna
  • Turkey

Vegetables:

  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Kale
  • Mustard Greens
  • Collard Greens
  • Turnip Greens
  • Swiss Chard
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cauliflower

Legumes:

  • Soybeans
  • Black Beans
  • Garbanzo Beans
  • Green Beans
  • Kidney Beans
  • Lentils
  • Lima Beans
  • Navy Beans
  • Pinto Beans
  • Dried Peas

Nuts and Seeds:

  • Almonds
  • Cashews
  • Flax Seed
  • Peanuts
  • Sesame Seed

Herbs that Increase Serotonin

Keep these four herbs in the kitchen and use them in your recipes to help reduce depression: Basil, Garlic, Oregano and Thyme.
Keep these four herbs in the kitchen and use them in your recipes to help reduce depression: Basil, Garlic, Oregano and Thyme. | Source

Cooking Herbs and Spices with Tryptophan

  • Basil
  • Garlic
  • Oregano
  • Thyme

Supplements and Herbs

5HTP is available over the counter and it is known to raise serotonin levels. Caution and physician supervision is strongly advised. 5HTP is not recommended for heart patients.

St. John's Wort is another herb commonly known to increase serotonin levels. It should not be combined with other serotonin increasing medications. Excessive consumption may lead to Serotonin Syndrome.

Additional benefits of eating tryptophan rich foods

The list of tryptophan rich foods above comes with many additional benefits when including them in your daily diet.

A theme and common thread between all of these foods is that they support healthy functions in the heart and brain. A lack of these healthy foods may spark unhealthy outcomes for many.

  • Insomnia for example, is a common symptom found in depression and high blood pressure. Insomnia can usually be naturally improved through a healthy diet rich in melatonin and tryptophan.
  • High blood pressure can possibly be naturally controlled through a diet rich in calcium, magnesium and potassium. Interestingly, many of these foods are also rich in tryptophan or melatonin inducing nutrients.

So what does all of this tell us? A diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables, along with lean proteins, will improve and sustain overall mental and cardiac health.

Increase Serotonin with Massage Therapy

A study confirmed massage therapy not only increases serotonin levels it also increased dopamine levels. Plus, it reduced cortisol by 31%.

Field, Tiffany, et al. "Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy." International Journal of Neuroscience 115.10 (2005): 1397-1413.

References

WebMD.com: Depression Center

National Institutes of Health: Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs, Nov 2007, Simon Young

NPR.org: When it comes to Depression Serotonin isn't the Whole Story

psychologytoday.com: The Serotonin Theory of Depression is Collapsing

whfoods.com: tryptophan

nutritiondata.self.com: Foods Highest in Tryptophan


Disclaimer: The information provided in this hub should not be construed as personal medical advice or instruction. However, all information is research based. Please consult a physician for medical and dietary advice and treatment. Serotonin deficiency and/or Serotonin Syndrome should not be assumed or treated without the supervision of a medical professional.

© 2012 Marisa Hammond Olivares

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    • Hendrika profile image

      Hendrika 2 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      What is interesting about the food list you give here is that it should all be a part of a natural healthy diet. Seems that as far as health issues go a healthy diet can go a long way in improving it. You cannot get away from it, you have to eat your veggies and especially those greens.

    • missolive profile image
      Author

      Marisa Hammond Olivares 2 years ago from Texas

      Dave Heara, thank you for reading and commenting. I too have a bit of a hard time with St. John's Wort lately, it seems my tolerance has changed and I have not found the prescribed dose to be symptom free. Fortunately, all of the other food choices have been helpful in keeping me carefree.

      PKreturns, thank you dear, I'm glad to hear it.

    • PKreturns profile image

      Pradeep PK 2 years ago from Bangalore, India

      I liked this very much!

    • profile image

      Dave Heara 3 years ago

      Thorough article which is good. I have found 5HTP a bit difficult to get hold of in the UK. It has recently become available in patch form (like a contraceptive patch) and I have been buying it online. St John's Wort really good too but it makes me feel a bit sick for some reason. My mum complains of the same thing.

    • missolive profile image
      Author

      Marisa Hammond Olivares 4 years ago from Texas

      PegCole17, I can totally relate to insomnia, mine comes and goes. It is nice to know we have natural food sources to help balance us out, we can always use a diet adjustment now and then. Thank you for reading, my apologies for my late response, several hub comments slipped by my notifications and attention.

      supermon in ny, thank you and good for you. Cheers! To your health.

      KenWu, thank you very much.

      celeste inscribed, I greatly appreciate your comment and support.

      Mark S Waterhouse, oh, good to know! Thank you for sharing that vital info.

      grandmapearl, I'm pleased you found this to be informative and I greatly appreciate your votes and pins. I'm glad to hear natural sources greatly improved your serotonin levels. You have provided us with a wonderful testimony. Thank you for your wonderful words of support.

    • grandmapearl profile image

      Connie Smith 4 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      I'm pleased to find this important information! Several years ago I experienced depression/anxiety problems because of my serotonin levels. I chose to use foods rather than drugs to regulate my system, plus exercise and I lowered caffeine consumption. It took a couple of months, but I am glad to say these things worked for me.

      You have covered this subject thoroughly, and I know the investment of time and effort you have put forth. Excellent article ;) Pearl

      Voted Up+++ and pinned

    • Mark S Waterhouse profile image

      Mark S Waterhouse 4 years ago from Christchurch, NZ.

      Great Hub, thanks.

      Something to be aware of also (my wife checked this out a year-or-so back), St John's wort can potentially effect the efficacy of the female contraception pill!

      Thanks missolive

    • celeste inscribed profile image

      Celeste Wilson 4 years ago

      Incredibly well researched article. This is a very good article for any migraine sufferer too. Serotonin is a major player for some sufferers. Thank you for a great piece, voted up.

    • KenWu profile image

      KenWu 4 years ago from Malaysia

      Wow, this is a very informative hub. Serotonin, the name that I would remember.... cause I think I'm facing the issue her. Thanks, bookmarked and would share with friends and families.

    • supermom_in_ny profile image

      supermom_in_ny 4 years ago from NY

      I enjoyed this hub. Going to go pick up several of these foods to add them to my diet. ;)

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 4 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Nicely explained here, Miss Olive. I certainly fall into this category and need to make some dietary changes. Too much caffeine and not enough protein... Yep. Insomnia.

    • missolive profile image
      Author

      Marisa Hammond Olivares 4 years ago from Texas

      SINewsome, thank you so very much, glad to know this was informative.

    • SINewsome profile image

      Sophie Newsome 4 years ago from New York

      I knew some things on this topic, but it was great to learn even more. Thnkx for the info.

    • missolive profile image
      Author

      Marisa Hammond Olivares 4 years ago from Texas

      DDE, Thank you, I greatly appreciate it and I am thrilled you have found this to be helpful.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Excellent information here such a well-presented Hub you have mentioned helpful points

    • missolive profile image
      Author

      Marisa Hammond Olivares 4 years ago from Texas

      Londonlady, I'll take that as a compliment, thank you. I did like certain portions of biology, thank you for the read, comments and vote.

    • Londonlady profile image

      Laura Writes 4 years ago

      Haha, I like how reading this hub was almost like going back and reviewing notes from my Cell Biology class. Voted up!

    • missolive profile image
      Author

      Marisa Hammond Olivares 5 years ago from Texas

      BlissfulWriter, I'm a fan of all the things you listed. This combination can certainly make a difference in one's health . Thank you for sharing.

      ITcoach, thank you! I'm very glad to see you.

      Tricia Ward, thank you so much. I appreciate that.

    • Tricia Ward profile image

      Tricia Ward 5 years ago from Scotland

      Missolive

      Well done on such an informative hub. Wow.

    • ITcoach profile image

      ITcoach 5 years ago from United States

      missolive,

      Your all hubs are too much creative and informative, I could not remain without impress with this information about serotin. This is the cause each and every person like to read your whole hub.

      Thanks for sharing your great information.

    • BlissfulWriter profile image

      BlissfulWriter 5 years ago

      I'm all for omega-3, exercise, sleep, and magnesium to aid in boosting mood. I also like adding in B vitamins and some dietary fats into the diet too.

    • missolive profile image
      Author

      Marisa Hammond Olivares 5 years ago from Texas

      adrienne2, I am nothing less than honored. Your wonderfully informative and healthy hubs are an inspiration and a great source for keeping us healthy. That goes for all your other fab writing niches too! Thanks so much and I appreciate the tweets and votes. Sending lots of Hub Luv and Hugs your way. Have a fabulous weekend.

    • adrienne2 profile image

      Adrienne F Manson 5 years ago from Atlanta

      MssOlive this hub is full of information, it is informative, and very useful. Thank you for sharing with the HP community. You remain to be a source of enriching information. Voted up, and tweeted!

    • missolive profile image
      Author

      Marisa Hammond Olivares 5 years ago from Texas

      grandmapearl, thank you! Wow, thanks so much for all the social sharing and votes. I truly do appreciate it.

      kelleyward, hi Kelley! thanks so much for the pin and votes.

      Just Ask Susan, I'm knocking on wood too! It is good to know that we may be able to combat the blues with healthy food choices. Thanks for the bookmark and support.

      cclitgirl, SAD is not too big of an issue in our region, but I do hear it is more common up North. I admire all you do to stay clean, green, natural and healthy. You are a great role model...fun too!

      RTalloni, your comment broke my heart. I have witnessed depression in the elderly and it is definitely heart wrenching and difficult. I do hope you are able to find benefits with the foods I have listed.

      Ms Dee, thank you. Very interesting info. I'll have to look more into how this is related with fibromyalgia. Glad to hear you are sleeping better.

      nmonders, thanks so much for your wonderful comment.

      iguidenetwork, well, maybe temporary happiness. I do have a sweet tooth, but it is always followed by a horrible crash or desire to binge. Not a good routine. Finding the balance will always be a nice quest for me. Cheers!

      Phyllis48, thank you! Isn't it great to see familiar foods? Glad to have gathered the info and pleased to see you come by to read and comment.

    • Phyllis 48 profile image

      Phyllis Marie McDuffee Born Aug. 11th 1964 5 years ago from Hamilton ohio/Shandon Ohio

      Great Hub. Very interesting article. I didn't realize that there so many foods the would help with serotonin or 5-HTP. This was a great help.

    • iguidenetwork profile image

      iguidenetwork 5 years ago from Austin, TX

      I thought eating anything sweet will make me happy... but I found out that sugar will make one lethargic. I may balance my diet from now on. And think of all the happy thoughts, of course. Thanks for the useful hub. :)

    • nmdonders profile image

      nmdonders 5 years ago

      This is amazingly detailed and informative. You did a great job. This can be really useful for a lot of people.

    • Ms Dee profile image

      Deidre Shelden 5 years ago from Texas, USA

      I like how you've listed out the information in categories. Noting here that as one with Fibromyalgia, I learned such patients have lost the ability to create Serotonin from foods for some reason and so are helped by taking the 5-HTP supplement. I now sleep much better! (Have a hub explaining this.)

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

      Informative and helpful as I watch what is happening with an elderly relative under the care of docs prescribing antidepressants. This will help me in a conversation I need to have. Thanks much, and thanks for the list of foods rich in tryptophan.

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      Very interesting. It also makes me think about people who have SAD (I sometimes get that in the wintertime). I stock up on Vitamin D and leafy greens. This is great information to know. :)

    • Just Ask Susan profile image

      Susan Zutautas 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I always learn so much from your hubs and this one I'll be bookmarking so that I can refer back to it. Although I have not suffered from depression in quite a few years now (Knock on Wood) I do tend to still have mood swings. I weened myself off of anti-depressants and every once in a while I wonder if I did the right thing. Articles like this one do make me feel better about my decision though. Thanks MissOlive!

    • profile image

      kelleyward 5 years ago

      This is a fantastic hub. I love the way you touched on everything here. Voted up and useful and Pinned. Kelley

    • grandmapearl profile image

      Connie Smith 5 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Thanks for all this good information about serotonin. I enjoyed your thorough coverage of this important topic. Voted Up, Interesting, Useful and Awesome, shared and pinned! Also bookmarked for future reference. Great job as always.

    • missolive profile image
      Author

      Marisa Hammond Olivares 5 years ago from Texas

      old albion, thanks for stopping by to read and comment. Nice to see you.

      mperrotirt, thank you so much. Serotonin definitely affects our mood and is altered when treating depression. It is the how and why that seems misunderstood. Hopefully genetic research will bring us more answers.

      carol7777, it is always comforting to know that a healthy diet and lifestyle can make a world of difference. Thanks so much for reading and I appreciate the votes and support.

      donnah75, glad to hear I could provide some info and a food list of foods you can enjoy. Thanks for the vote and best wishes on your new eating plan.

      MsDora, thank you. I'm really enjoying all the research I'm doing. So many health issues are related to the foods we do and do not eat. Glad to share what I am learning with you.

      vespawoolf, what a compliment, thank you. You are so right about needing a balanced healthy diet. I appreciate the votes and sharing.

      Deborah Brooks, thanks for sharing in the Facebook group. I appreciate that. I'm glad we can all learn and share our findings.

      Gina Joy Bennett, you said something I myself have noticed. I reflect on the days I feel sluggish and I realize I have not been too kind to my body. Whether it is a bad diet or lack of sleep, it does affect our overall health.

      girishpuri, thank you so much

      teaches12345, right you are. I was so pleased to find this list to be reasonable and fulfilling of other necessary nutrients. Thanks for the votes

      Gypsy Rose Lee, thanks so much! I'm glad you enjoy these foods.

      Ddraigcoch, I am sorry to hear you have had to deal with the shadow of depression. Many think depression can just be 'shaken' off and I know that it cannot. I do hope you find the relief and breakthrough you need to have depression completely behind you. Keep eating the right foods and enjoy your exercise, it sounds like it is certainly helping. Sincerest best wishes to you and thank you for your votes & sharing.

      Judi Bee, it sure is. I was taking St. Johns Wort at one time and I did exceed the dose a few times. I did experience some very uncomfortable symptoms...scary. Glad to see you. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judith Hancock 5 years ago from UK

      I had no idea that too much serotonin was a bad thing. Very useful hub.

    • Ddraigcoch profile image

      Emma 5 years ago from UK

      Extremely helpful to me, thank you.

      I suffer with depression and just about feel level on antidepressants and yet don't feel quite right on them either.

      I have noticed that when dieting and exercising I feel naturally better but struggle to stay in that zone.

      This advise really helps me to realize there is a reason for the changes working and that I need to stick with them.

      Thank you for sharing, voted up and sharing x

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Voted up and useful. Thanks for this very interesting and informative hub. Good to know that the list of foods to eat includes lots of my favorites. Passing this on.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      Serotonin is important to living a well balanced lifestyle, according to your article. I find it interesting that it helps with behavior. The foods you listed are natural sources that provide people inexpensive remedies in keeping serotonin levels healthy. Voted up.

    • girishpuri profile image

      Girish puri 5 years ago from NCR , INDIA

      very much useful an healthy share, voted useful.

    • profile image

      Gina Joy Bennett 5 years ago

      Great hub! There is some very interesting information in it. I need all the help I can get. My diet isn't the best & that's probably why I feel sluggish a lot of the time. Thanks again.

    • Deborah Brooks profile image

      Deborah Brooks Langford 5 years ago from Brownsville,TX

      very interesting hub here.. I am sharing on Facebook TOPS Take off pounds sensibly .. we are always trying to learn about the human body

      I thank you

      Debbie

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

      This is excellent information and a well-written hub! It proves how important it is to have a balanced, healthy diet and get plenty of exercise and rest. Thanks so much! Voted up and shared.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 5 years ago from The Caribbean

      Great hub, as usual. Thanks for sharing your detailed research on serotonin and presenting it so professionally. There are so many facts we need to know for our daily well-being.

    • donnah75 profile image

      Donna Hilbrandt 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      If only we could all find the perfect nutritional formula, I think our illness would go away. It is interesting how nature can take care of us. Great discussion here. I am glad to see so many non-meat foods on that list, as I have just started a veggie diet experiment, which I am loving. Voted up.

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 5 years ago from Arizona

      Being a serious health nut I really appreciated this hub. You did a great job on research and getting the point across. At least we can get seratonin in food and we eat all those foods regularly. Thanks for sharing. I am voting up and sharing also..I think people need to know about this.

    • mperrottet profile image

      Margaret Perrottet 5 years ago from Pennsauken, NJ

      Very well researched hub. Interesting that they think the serotonin theory or depression may be wrong. Voted up and interesting.

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Very deep and interesting, with much food for thought.

      Graham.