Maybe the winter blues have you feeling down, or you’re wondering if your crappy month could actually be depression. So you pull out your phone, Google “mood boosters,” and cross your fingers that you’ll get better suggestions than bubble baths and homemade face masks.
The truth is, your happiness is influenced by a whole mess of factors. Brain chemicals and hormones make a big difference. Take serotonin, for instance. This tiny chemical is a whole mood.
What does serotonin actually do?
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter found in your brain, blood, and digestive system. It ships messages — feel-good, stabilizing ones — between nerve cells. That’s why it’s been dubbed the “happy hormone” or “happy chemical.”
Serotonin helps you sleep, controls cravings, and keeps your digestion regular (which is a low-key mood booster on its own, amiright?). Studies are still unclear on whether serotonin is directly responsible for good vibes or if it simply plays a critical role in regulating your nervous system.
Since serotonin is basically your wellness ride-or-die, bad things happen when it gets too low. Some of this is theoretical — it’s not like we can stick a needle in your brain to check the serotonin level, and there are no blood tests yet. But the theory has yet to be proven wrong.
Symptoms of a serotonin slump include:
- depression or feeling blue
- irritability and impulsivity (aka having no chill)
- abnormal sleepiness
- restless sleep
- low appetite
- tummy troubles
- craving carbs and candy
Tryptophan: Not just for Thanksgiving
We’ve all heard the jokes about tryptophan, the mystical amino acid in turkey that puts you into a food coma. Research has also linked tryptophan-heavy diets with feeling happier and calmer.
Sure, tryptophan makes you sleepy, but your body also uses it to create serotonin. Some of the strongest evidence for the serotonin theory comes from studies that show low intake of tryptophan is linked to depression.
🍽️ + 🍗 = ✨🧠 = 😄
More tryptophan equals more serotonin… and more good vibes all around.
Upping your serotonin isn’t as simple as smashing turkey legs on repeat. Your brain has an uber-protective covering called the blood-brain barrier, and good ol’ tryptophan has to wait in line to be admitted just like everyone else.
Good news: Research suggests that pairing tryptophan with carbs bypasses this issue.
Since carbs tell your body to release insulin, and insulin speeds up amino acid absorption, eat your tryptophan-rich meals with 25–30 grams of carbs.
Natural ways to get that serotonin flowin’
Some people need supplements or even antidepressants to get their serotonin flowing. But there are a few natural ways to boost this brain chemical.
Your mission is to load up on tryptophan, which your body can convert into happy, healthy serotonin. But eating one trypto-laced turkey leg won’t make much difference in your serotonin levels.
Instead, a steady diet of tryptophan-rich foods paired with carbs could raise your serotonin levels over time.
Here are some of the best tryptophan-heavy foods to fill up on.
Get eggy with it
Eggs — specifically the yolks — are packed with tryptophan. They’re full of amino acids and antioxidants like tryptophan, tyrosine, choline, biotin (great for hair, skin, and nails!), and omega-3 fatty acids.
Pro tip: For all the benefits without extra cholesterol, go for hard-boiled instead of fried. Remember to pair it with a carb for maximum effect. Toast or oatmeal, anyone?
Three cheers for pineapple
Pineapple is a triple threat when you’re feeling drained or sick. It has tryptophan, a bit of serotonin, and lots of bromelain — an enzyme proven to reduce inflammation.
Pro tip: Pack two tryptophan powerhouses into one meal with a Hawaiian-style chicken and pineapple dish served over rice (don’t forget the carb!).
Here’s one more reason to order the cheese board next time you’re out for happy hour.
In a study of 25 healthy people, participants reported significantly better moods during a 4-day diet high in tryptophan than during their subsequent 4-day diet low in tryptophan. And which food made them so happy? Mozzarella, for starters.
Bananas are already famous for their potassium content. But wait — there’s more! The National Sleep Foundation recommends eating half a banana 1 hour before bedtime because of the fruit’s tryptophan content. Since fruit is already full of good carbs, it’s a perfect pairing.
Snack on salmon
You know where this is going. Yep, salmon is full of tryptophan too. Aside from fueling your serotonin reserves, salmon floods your body with omega-3 fatty acids, which have been found to reduce the risk of fatal heart disease.
Stock up on tofu
Tofu is the best serotonin-boosting food for vegans and vegetarians. It’s also one of the proteins Cleveland Clinic recommends dishing out to cure the winter blues.
Pro tip: Look for calcium-set tofu for a meal that will help you feel happier and stronger.
Turkey (of course)
Remember the first time you heard the word “tryptophan”? It was probably on a long-ago Thanksgiving. We all know turkey has tryptophan. And now you know tryptophan is good for more than summoning Mr. Sandman — it also unlocks your serotonin potential.
Trail mix for days
Good news for snackers: Every nut and seed you can think of contains tryptophan. Bonus points for nuts because studies show that a handful a day may help keep the oncologist and cardiologist away!
Pro tip: Round out your good vibes snack with dried fruit (good carbs!) instead of chocolate for healthier noshing.
More mood-boosting tips
Eating your feelings isn’t always the best path to happiness. Keep your serotonin flowing with these lifestyle tweaks too:
H2O keeps your brain — and the rest of your body — running smoothly. Next time you’re feeling low, try downing a big glass of water. Rinse and repeat.
Get your blood pumping
Aerobic exercise releases tryptophan and endorphins into your bloodstream.
Step into the light
Research suggests serotonin levels dip in winter. Sunshine seems to jump-start your body’s serotonin production.
There’s more research to be done, but this serotonin-and-sunshine connection could explain seasonal affective disorder (SAD). On a related note, get your level of Vitamin D checked and take a supplement if indicated.
A happy, healthy diet goes beyond tryptophan-rich foods. Recent studies indicate that eating a balanced diet could help protect against depression.
Processed foods full of artificial sweeteners and food coloring can screw with your gut bacteria, which affects your mood and overall wellness.
Book a massage
Some research suggests that massage lowers cortisol, which is the ying to serotonin’s yang. In a 2012 study of pregnant women with depression, two 20-minute massages a week decreased anxiety and increased serotonin after about 4 months.
Sometimes eating all the turkey and getting all the sunshine still doesn’t lift your spirits. If you’re here for serotonin boosters because day-to-day life feels like a struggle, you might be depressed.
Talk to your doctor about antidepressants, supplements, and therapy options.
Some people have naturally lower levels of serotonin. This brain chemistry imbalance might feel like a permanent cloud over your head, a lack of motivation, or even intense irritability.
Doctors sometimes prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for people who have chronically low serotonin. SSRIs prevent your “happy chemical” from being reabsorbed too quickly, so serotonin sticks around longer, prolonging good vibes.
Here are some common SSRIs used to treat depression:
- citalopram (Celexa)
- escitalopram (Lexapro)
- fluoxetine (Prozac)
- paroxetine (Paxil, Pexeva)
- sertraline (Zoloft)
- vilazodone (Viibryd)
In the last few years, SSRIs have gotten some criticism. One article in 2015 even called them “the marketing of a myth.” Why? Because even though SSRIs have been in pharmacists’ rotation since the 1980s, research still hasn’t totally backed up their effectiveness.
The pills do boost serotonin in the bloodstream, but the jury’s still out on whether they do the same in the brain. A 2014 study of mice suggested serotonin might not factor into depression at all. In 2015, another study linked serotonin with vulnerability to stress.
Serotonin also has an anti-inflammatory effect, and research has shown that people with depression have higher indicators of inflammation in blood tests.
So what’s the verdict? SSRIs seem to help people with depression, but the reasons are more complicated than a simple “low serotonin = bad mood” equation.
You could fill up on tryptophan with turkey, cheese, and nuts… or you could pop a few tryptophan pills. Just remember to check with your doctor before downing any new supplement.
It’s important to know if supplements will interact with your prescription meds, over-the-counter meds, vitamins, or even herbal remedies.
Be sure to research where your supplement was manufactured and buy it from a reputable source — the FDA doesn’t monitor the quality and safety of supplements.
Never buy a supplement from a brand you can’t easily research and verify. It’s important to know whether the product you’re buying is pure and high-quality.
These are the most tried-and-true supplements for bumping your mood into a happy place:
Tryptophan supplements are waaay more potent than turkey, salmon, or tofu. That means these high doses of tryptophan are more likely than food to cross the blood-brain barrier. You can buy tryptophan supplements online.
St. John’s wort
This funny-sounding supplement is actually a flowering plant. It’s been touted as a mood booster for years, but research is mixed.
Proceed with caution:
St. John’s wort doesn’t play nice with some prescription meds — including birth control and cancer drugs. Also avoid taking it with antidepressants or other serotonin-boosting meds.
You can buy St. John’s wort supplements online.
Eating more probiotics could boost your tryptophan levels (and you know what that means: more serotonin!).
The beauty of probiotics is that they’re available in so many forms. Let’s count the ways: kombucha, tempeh, yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and… oh yes, probiotic supplements.
In 2013, a small study suggested that 5-HTP could be just as effective as antidepressants for mild depression. Further research hasn’t been as promising, but it’s still possible this supplement has the power to enter your brain and kick-start serotonin production.
You can buy 5-HTP supplements here.
You can have too much of a good thing! Serotonin overdose is real. Don’t mix supplements with SSRIs. Chat with your doctor before switching supplements or changing your SSRI dosage.
When to ask for help
If you feel sad or sluggish all the time, it might be time to call a doctor or make an appointment with a therapist. Mood disorders are complex. It takes more than a supplement, a massage, or half a banana at night to treat depression.
After an appointment with a healthcare provider, you might start taking an SSRI or another antidepressant. Or you might be prescribed a different kind of therapy or treatment. Only a medical pro can give you a personalized plan for managing depression.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter found in several parts of your body. It’s best known for making you feel happy and healthy. There are natural ways to boost serotonin, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it alone.
If you think you might have depression or another mood disorder, don’t hesitate to call your healthcare provider and ask for help.