Imagine a symphony orchestra, each instrument contributing its unique sound to create a masterpiece. In the intricate symphony of our bodies, serotonin often takes center stage, orchestrating emotions, social connections, pleasure, and so much more.
Whether you’re looking for a greater sense of happiness, deeper social bonds, or fascinated by the inner workings of the human brain (and the gut!), this article will explore the ins and outs of serotonin, how it influences our everyday life, and tips to increase serotonin naturally.
What Is Serotonin? (Definition)
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (or chemical messenger) that transmits signals between brain nerve cells and other body parts. It is primarily found in the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and the gastrointestinal tract. Serotonin is derived from the amino acid tryptophan and plays a crucial role in regulating various physiological processes, including mood, cognition, appetite, and sleep.
Serotonin is often called a “feel-good” neurotransmitter (much like dopamine) because of its association with positive emotions and well-being. Scientists believe1https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20109531/ it plays a significant role in reward pathways within the brain, contributing to the experience of pleasure and reinforcing positive behaviors. As such, it not only impacts your physical health but also influences social interactions and plays a role in promoting prosocial behavior2https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0149763411002168, including trust, cooperation, and altruism.
Can serotonin become imbalanced? Yes. Imbalances in serotonin levels have been linked to several conditions.
- Low serotonin levels: You can usually recognize when your body is low on serotonin due to depression, anxiety, or sleep disturbance.
- Excessively high serotonin levels: You may recognize when your body has overly high levels of serotonin due to feelings of agitation, confusion, rapid heartbeat, and dilated pupils.
Attention: While this article provides a general overview of serotonin, your circumstances may vary. It is always recommended to consult with a healthcare professional for personalized guidance and treatment on anything related to your health.
What Are the Functions and Benefits of Serotonin?
The functions of serotonin include positive reinforcement to motivate prosocial behavior, regulation of mood, digestion, sleep, and promotion of physical healing and impulse control. Let’s look at each of these more closely!
Serotonin modulates the brain’s reward system1https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20109531/, reinforcing behaviors associated with pleasure and motivation. For example, when pleasurable experiences occur, such as eating delicious food or engaging in enjoyable activities, serotonin is released in some areas of the brain.
Serotonin also interacts closely with other neurotransmitters like dopamine and influences dopamine’s release and availability in key regions associated with reward, motivation, and pleasure.
Serotonin plays a role in social bonding3https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2009-08406-009, influencing various aspects of social behavior. It promotes trust, cooperation, and empathy, facilitating the formation of social connections. Additionally, it helps reduce social anxiety, enabling individuals to engage more freely in social interactions. To do this, serotonin doesn’t act alone; it also interacts with other neurotransmitters, such as oxytocin, further enhancing social bonding.
Serotonin helps regulate mood4https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5864293/ and is often associated with a sense of well-being and happiness. Increased serotonin levels can contribute to a positive mood state, enhancing the overall experience of pleasure and contentment.
When released, serotonin stimulates the contractions of the smooth muscles in the intestines, helping move food through the digestive tract5https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2694720/. Additionally, serotonin is involved in regulating the secretion of digestive juices and enzymes, which break down food into nutrients that the body can absorb.
Serotonin promotes feelings of calmness and relaxation, which are essential for falling asleep and staying asleep throughout the night. Serotonin levels naturally increase in the evening6https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18563534/, helping to prepare the body for rest and sleep. It also contributes to the production of melatonin7https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1550830723000678, a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle.
When the body experiences an injury, serotonin levels8https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29596386/ often increase in the affected area. This increase in serotonin can help reduce inflammation and promote the growth of new cells, speeding up the healing process. Additionally, serotonin is thought to help regulate pain9https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1569733910700965 and reduce feelings of anxiety or depression that can interfere with healing.
While the exact mechanisms by which serotonin influences physical healing are not yet fully understood, research suggests9https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1569733910700965 that this neurotransmitter plays an important role in the body’s ability to recover from injury and illness.
Research shows10https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3110503/ that adequate serotonin levels and their interaction with dopamine inhibit impulsive urges and support resistance to addiction relapses and cravings. For instance, when serotonin levels are low, individuals may experience increased impulsivity, leading to addictive behaviors. Conversely, when serotonin levels are healthy, individuals may experience greater control over their impulses, reducing the likelihood of addiction.
Attention: Understanding the role of serotonin in impulse control and addiction provides insights into the underlying neurobiology of addictive behaviors. However, it is important to note that addiction is a complex condition influenced by genetic, environmental, and psychological factors.
Serotonin’s involvement is just one piece of the puzzle, and comprehensive approaches to addiction treatment often involve multiple strategies and interventions. If you or someone you know struggles with addiction, please seek professional support from a healthcare provider.
7 Science-Backed Tips to Increase Serotonin Levels Naturally
While you can take medications to help regulate your serotonin levels, natural ways to boost serotonin levels include engaging in regular exercise, getting adequate sunlight, practicing relaxation techniques, and consuming a healthy diet. Here are some tips!
#1 Move your body (every bit helps!)
Engaging in regular physical exercise is a natural and effective way to boost serotonin levels in the brain. Here are two big reasons why exercise can help increase serotonin:
- Increased Tryptophan Availability: Exercise can enhance the availability of tryptophan11https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1178646921991119 (depending on the intensity), an amino acid used to produce serotonin. Tryptophan is transported across the blood-brain barrier more efficiently during and after exercise, which can increase the availability of this essential building block for serotonin synthesis.
- Enhanced Serotonin Release: Exercise stimulates the release of serotonin12https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2077351/ in the brain. Physical activity activates various brain regions and triggers the release of neurotransmitters, including serotonin. This release contributes to improved mood, increased feelings of well-being, and reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety.
It’s important to note that the type, duration, and intensity of exercise can influence the extent to which serotonin levels are boosted. Aerobic exercises13https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01890/full such as running, cycling, or swimming have been found to be particularly effective in increasing serotonin. However, engaging in any form of physical activity can still positively impact serotonin levels.
If aerobic exercise is not your thing, try activities like:
- Yoga or Pilates
- Tossing a Frisbee
- Virtual Reality video games (dance, fitness, sports, etc.)
- Roller skating or ice skating
Bonus Tip: Looking for ways to move your body in an office environment? Check out our list of exercises for posture and fitness you can do at work, like office chair exercises!
#2 Get out in the sunshine (or invest in a daylight lamp!)
Exposure to sunlight is beneficial for boosting serotonin levels in the body. Here are three big reasons why getting sunshine can help increase serotonin:
- Vitamin D Synthesis: Sunlight exposure is a natural source of vitamin D14https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3897598/. When sunlight hits the skin, it triggers a process that converts a compound called 7-dehydrocholesterol into vitamin D3. Vitamin D15https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25713056/ plays a role in serotonin synthesis and regulation, and adequate vitamin D levels are associated with higher serotonin levels.
- Serotonin Regulation: Sunlight exposure influences the regulation of serotonin in the brain. Light exposure16https://www.aafp.org/pubs/afp/issues/2011/1215/p1412.html, particularly bright light (including daylight lamps), affects the production and release of serotonin.
- Circadian Rhythm Regulation: Exposure to natural daylight helps regulate the body’s internal clock and circadian rhythm6https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18563534/. A properly functioning circadian rhythm is essential for maintaining healthy sleep patterns, mood regulation, and overall well-being. Disruptions in the circadian rhythm, such as irregular sleep-wake cycles, can impact serotonin levels.
It’s important to note that while sunlight exposure can positively affect serotonin, practicing sun safety and avoiding excessive exposure that could lead to sunburn or other skin damage is essential. Spending some time outdoors, particularly during the morning or early afternoon when the sun is less intense, can benefit physical and mental health.
Pro Tip: If you can’t get outside or live in an area where it’s cold or dark for a large portion of the year, you might try using a daylight lamp to help regulate your serotonin levels.
#3 Learn to rest, relax (and say “no”)
Incorporating regular rest periods and engaging in activities that promote relaxation can contribute to optimal serotonin levels, fostering a sense of well-being, emotional balance, and overall mental health. Here’s how and why:
- Stress Reduction: Stress triggers the release of stress hormones, which can interfere with serotonin synthesis and release. Taking time to relax and unwind allows the body to recover from stress, promoting a more balanced serotonin system.
- Sleep Quality: Rest contributes to improved sleep17https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10622375/; sufficient sleep is crucial for serotonin production and regulation. It’s a win-win cycle! During sleep, the body undergoes important restorative processes, including replenishing neurotransmitters. Quality sleep supports optimal serotonin levels, which promote better mood, emotional well-being, and overall mental health.
- Nervous System Balance: Rest activates the parasympathetic nervous system18https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/serotonin, responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” response. This activation helps to counterbalance the sympathetic nervous system‘s “fight or flight” response, which is associated with stress and anxiety. A balanced autonomic nervous system promotes a state of calmness and relaxation, facilitating serotonin synthesis and release.
- Restoration of Energy: Rest allows the body and mind to recharge and replenish energy reserves. When well-rested and relaxed, we have the necessary resources to engage in activities promoting serotonin production, such as exercise, social interactions, and pleasurable experiences.
While rest is important for serotonin production and well-being, rest is not limited to getting more sleep and taking breaks from activities. In fact, you can find rest in self-care and activities that also bring you joy!
Here are a few other ways to find rest:
- Engage in a stress-reducing hobby.
- Spend quality time with loved ones.
- Enjoy a warm bath.
- Get a massage. (Research shows19https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16162447/ massages boost serotonin by 28%!)
- Listen to calming music.
- Set healthy boundaries to avoid burnout.
#4 Eat foods rich in tryptophan
Research shows20https://journals.lww.com/ajg/citation/2000/10000/serotonin__a_mediator_of_the_brain_gut_connection.7.aspx that most serotonin in the body is found in the gastrointestinal tract! Low serotonin levels have been linked to digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and constipation. Therefore, maintaining a healthy level of serotonin is important for proper digestion and overall gastrointestinal health.
One way to improve gastrointestinal health is by eating a balanced diet, including foods with tryptophan21https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4728667/, an essential building block for serotonin synthesis. While tryptophan alone is insufficient to directly boost serotonin levels, consuming foods that contain tryptophan as part of a balanced diet can support serotonin production.
Here are some foods with good sources of tryptophan:
- Turkey: Turkey is often associated with containing high levels of tryptophan. It is a lean source of protein that also provides other important nutrients.
- Eggs: Eggs are an excellent tryptophan source and are rich in other essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals.
- Salmon: Salmon and other fatty fish like mackerel and sardines are high in tryptophan and provide omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to mood regulation.
- Nuts and Seeds: Almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds are all rich in tryptophan and are nutrient-dense snacks.
- Legumes: Chickpeas, lentils, and beans, such as black beans or kidney beans, are not only excellent sources of plant-based protein but also contain tryptophan.
- Dairy Products: Milk, cheese, and yogurt contain tryptophan and other nutrients like calcium and vitamin D.
- Bananas: Bananas are a fruit that contains tryptophan and is also a good source of other vitamins and minerals.
- Spinach: Spinach and other leafy green vegetables contain tryptophan and other essential nutrients and antioxidants.
Pro Tip: It’s important to remember that tryptophan needs to be combined with other nutrients, such as carbohydrates, to cross the blood-brain barrier and support serotonin synthesis effectively.
#5 Find an awesome support network
Finding a support network22https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC534414/ and spending time with people can positively impact serotonin levels. Here are a few reasons why social connections are important to promote overall well-being:
- Social Bonding: Human beings are social creatures, and social interaction23https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22206901/ triggers the release of neurotransmitters, including serotonin. Positive social interactions, such as forming deep connections, spending time with loved ones, or engaging in meaningful conversations, can stimulate the release of serotonin, leading to feelings of happiness and well-being.
- Emotional Support: Having a support network24https://www.longdom.org/open-access/influence-of-the-relationship-between-social-support-and-independentconstrual-of-self-on-depression-and-anxiety-among-ja-26193.html provides emotional support during times of stress, adversity, or challenging situations. Sharing one’s feelings, concerns, and experiences with trusted individuals can help reduce stress levels, increase resilience, and positively influence serotonin regulation.
- Sense of Belonging: Feeling connected to others and having a sense of belonging25https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26168025/ is vital for mental health. When individuals feel accepted, supported, and valued within a social group, it promotes feelings of security and satisfaction. A sense of belonging can buffer against stress and enhance overall well-being.
- Stress Reduction: Social support and social interaction can help reduce stress levels. Chronic stress can deplete serotonin26https://www.jneurosci.org/content/37/26/6214 levels in the brain, while supportive relationships and social connections can help buffer against the adverse effects of stress and contribute to serotonin balance.
It’s important to note that the quality and depth of social connections matter more than the quantity. Building and maintaining meaningful relationships with individuals who provide support, understanding, and genuine connection is key. While social links are essential, balancing social interaction and personal time for self-care and reflection is important, as individual needs may vary.
Not sure where to find a support network? Here are a few places you can look!
- Community groups or organizations: Book clubs, volunteering, local classes, etc.
- Online communities: Forums, social media interest groups, etc.
- Professional networking events: Conferences, workshops, business forums, etc.
- Support groups: Grief, parenting, divorce, group therapy, etc.
- Education: Student organizations, extracurricular activities, etc.
Pro Tip: Remember, building genuine connections takes time and effort. Be open-minded, approachable, and willing to initiate conversations. Attend events or join groups to increase the chances of meeting individuals who align with your interests.
#6 Engage in a fun hobby to find your flow
Engaging in a fun hobby can boost serotonin levels and promote overall well-being. The key is to find a hobby that genuinely interests and excites you to reap the benefits. Here’s how hobbies boost your serotonin levels and mood:
- Flow State: Hobbies often involve focused concentration and engagement, known as “flow.” Flow occurs when you are fully absorbed in an activity, wholly immersed, and in the present moment. Some studies27https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.645498/full indicate that this flow state has been linked to increased serotonin and other neurotransmitters associated with positive emotions and well-being.
- Stress Reduction: Hobbies serve as a form of stress relief and relaxation. Engaging in activities, you enjoy helps shift your focus away from stressors and negative thoughts, promoting a sense of calmness and reducing stress levels. Lowering stress levels28https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2017.00595/full indirectly supports serotonin production and balance.
- Social Interaction: Many hobbies can be enjoyed with others, providing opportunities for social interaction and connection. Engaging in hobbies as part of a group or community, such as joining a sports team, attending a book club, or participating in a dance class, allows for social bonding and a sense of belonging. Positive social interactions and connections have been linked to increased serotonin levels23https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22206901/.
#7 See a therapist
Seeing a therapist can help with serotonin regulation and overall mental well-being in several ways. However, it’s important to note that therapy is a personalized process, and the benefits can vary depending on the individual’s needs and circumstances. A good therapist will tailor the treatment approach to address specific concerns and work collaboratively with the client to support serotonin regulation and overall mental health.
Here are just some of the ways a therapist can support serotonin regulation:
- Emotional Support: Therapists provide a safe and supportive environment where individuals can express their thoughts, emotions, and concerns without judgment. Through compassionate listening and understanding, therapists help clients navigate difficult emotions, reduce stress, and improve emotional well-being. This emotional support can positively impact serotonin regulation by reducing the negative effects of chronic stress on serotonin levels.
- Cognitive Restructuring: Therapists often use cognitive-behavioral techniques to help individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns and beliefs. By reframing negative thoughts and developing more positive and adaptive thinking patterns, therapy can contribute to improved mood and self-perception. This cognitive restructuring can positively influence serotonin regulation and overall mental health.
- Stress Management: Therapy sessions often involve learning and practicing stress management techniques. Therapists may teach relaxation exercises, mindfulness practices, and other coping strategies to help individuals effectively manage stress and reduce its impact on serotonin levels. By developing healthier stress management skills, individuals can support serotonin regulation and promote better overall well-being.
- Behavior Change: Therapists can assist individuals in identifying and changing behaviors that may be negatively impacting serotonin levels and mental health. They can help clients set realistic goals, develop healthier habits, and make positive lifestyle changes. This may include promoting regular exercise, improving sleep patterns, fostering social connections, and engaging in activities that support serotonin synthesis.
- Support for Co-occurring Conditions: Many individuals seeking therapy may also deal with co-occurring mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or substance abuse. These conditions can affect serotonin levels and neurotransmitter balance. Therapists are trained to address these conditions and provide evidence-based interventions to support serotonin regulation and overall mental well-being.
- Medication Management: In cases where serotonin imbalances are significant or medication is warranted, therapists can work in conjunction with psychiatrists or other healthcare providers to monitor and manage medication that affects serotonin levels. Therapy and medication can often be combined to provide a comprehensive approach to addressing serotonin-related concerns.
Attention: If you are seeking mental health support, please note that all content on this website should not be considered professional medical advice. It is always best to consult a doctor or licensed therapist with any questions or concerns regarding your physical or mental health. You can check out Mental Health America’s helpful list of resources and therapists.
The symptoms of low serotonin levels include depression, anxiety, increased stress, sleep disturbance, changes in weight or appetite, irritability or aggression, and reduced libido. It is important to note that these symptoms can be indicative of various conditions, and a proper diagnosis should be made by a healthcare professional.
Yes, serotonin deficiency can often be treated. The specific treatment approach depends on the underlying cause of the deficiency and the individual’s symptoms. It’s important to consult your healthcare provider for professional support.
Serotonin syndrome is a potentially serious medical condition that occurs when there is an excessive accumulation of serotonin in the body. It typically results from an interaction between multiple medications or supplements that increase serotonin levels or from taking high doses of a single medication that affects serotonin. It is important to seek immediate medical attention if serotonin syndrome is suspected.
Yes. While increasing serotonin levels can benefit many individuals, there are potential risks associated with artificially or excessively boosting serotonin. It’s essential to approach any interventions or medications aimed at boosting serotonin levels under the guidance of a healthcare professional. They can assess individual needs, consider potential risks and benefits, and monitor the effects to ensure the most appropriate and safe treatment approach.
Yes, serotonin can significantly affect social behavior and relationships2https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0149763411002168. In fact, healthy serotonin levels have been associated with increased trust, cooperation, and empathy, all of which are important for establishing and maintaining social bonds. Additionally, serotonin can help modulate our fear response in social situations, reducing social anxiety and facilitating social interactions with ease.
Yes. Serotonin plays a significant role in shaping our responses to pleasurable stimuli and influencing our behavior and emotional states. For example, reward pathways in the brain are neural circuits that are responsible for processing and reinforcing pleasurable experiences. These pathways involve a complex interplay of neurotransmitters, including serotonin. Serotonin, along with other neurotransmitters like dopamine, plays a crucial role in modulating the brain’s response to rewards.
Serotonin helps regulate the intensity and interpretation of rewarding stimuli, influencing the overall experience of pleasure29https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4449495/. It interacts with dopamine to fine-tune the reward response, influencing motivation, mood, and emotional states. Optimal serotonin levels contribute to a balanced reward system, facilitating the experience of pleasure, reinforcing adaptive behaviors, and promoting overall well-being.
Serotonin and dopamine are different neurotransmitters with distinct functions in the brain. Serotonin primarily regulates mood, emotions, and social behavior, while dopamine is involved in reward, motivation, and movement. Serotonin contributes to feelings of well-being, while dopamine is associated with pleasure and behavior reinforcement. Both neurotransmitters play important roles in brain function and have interactions that influence each other’s activity.
1. Serotonin is primarily involved in regulating mood, emotions, sleep, appetite, and social behavior. It helps modulate feelings of well-being, contentment, and satisfaction.
2. Dopamine plays a role in reward, motivation, pleasure, movement, and behavior reinforcement. It is associated with the anticipation and experience of rewards and regulates motor functions.
1. Serotonin is synthesized in the brainstem and is widely distributed throughout the central nervous system. It influences various brain regions, including those involved in mood regulation and social behavior.
2. Dopamine is produced in several brain regions. It acts in different pathways, such as the mesolimbic pathway (involved in reward) and the nigrostriatal pathway (involved in movement).
Roles in Disorders
1. Imbalances or dysfunction in serotonin are implicated in conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and some eating disorders.
2. Dopamine dysregulation is associated with conditions like Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, addiction, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Effects on Mood
1. Serotonin is often called a “mood stabilizer” due to its influence on emotions. It helps regulate mood and can contribute to a sense of well-being and contentment.
2. Dopamine is more closely associated with positive reinforcement, pleasure, and motivation. It plays a role in experiencing excitement, joy, and motivation to pursue rewards.
Serotonin and dopamine interact and influence each other’s functions in the brain. While they have distinct roles, they can modulate each other’s activity. For example, serotonin can affect the release and reuptake of dopamine in specific brain regions, impacting the reward response.
It’s important to note that serotonin and dopamine are just two of many neurotransmitters involved in complex neural processes. The balance and interactions among various neurotransmitters contribute to the intricate functioning of the brain and its impact on behavior, emotions, and overall well-being.
In summary, take note of these tips to regulate the serotonin levels in your day-to-day life!
- Move your body. Exercise helps boost serotonin release in your body.
- Get some sunshine. Get vitamin D and stay in a circadian rhythm.
- Learn to rest, relax, and say “no.” Regular rest reduces stress, balances the nervous system, improves sleep, and restores energy.
- Eat foods rich in tryptophan. A balanced, healthy diet can boost your mood!
- Find a support network. Surround yourself with people who promote your well-being.
- Engage in a fun hobby. Discover the benefits of finding flow in something you enjoy.
- See a therapist. Professional support can help you regulate stress, behavior, and emotions and support your overall mental health.
If you’re looking for unique ways to boost your mood, check out our article The Power of Body Language to Combat Depression.
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