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9 Ways to Increase Serotonin

Increasing serotonin levels in the brain is necessary in order to improve mood, aid sleep and suppress appetite. There are conventional drugs used in to increaser serotonin level and activity in the brain. However, these drugs do have serious side effects. Here are 9 easy ways to naturally increase your serotonin levels without resorting to chemical stimulation.
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The Importance of Serotonin

Serotonin or 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) is the monoamine neurotransmitter synthesized from L-tryptophan, an essential amino acid.

It is mainly synthesized in the liver and in the tissues of the central nervous system. Although most of the serotonin released in the body is found outside the brain in the enterochromaffin cells of the gastrointestinal tract, the most important effects of serotonin are produced in the central nervous system.

In the gastrointestinal tract, serotonin is responsible for intestinal motility.

The excess serotonin released in the gut is absorbed into blood circulation and stored in platelets. The stored serotonin is then released when platelets encounter blood clots. Outside the body, serotonin is mostly a vasoconstrictor and a growth factor.

It helps the healing process especially in the circulatory and cardiovascular system and also contributes to blood clot formation.

Because serotonin cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, the freely circulating serotonin found in the blood cannot enter the brain. Instead, serotonin precursors such as L-tryptophan and 5 HTP are taken to increase serotonin levels in the brain especially since these amino acids can cross the blood-brain barrier.

In the brain, L-tryptophan is converted to 5 HTP, the direct precursor of serotonin.

5 HTP is then converted to serotonin. The conversion is catalyzed by an enzyme which has vitamin B6 as a cofactor.

Serotonin is responsible for controlling mood, sleep and appetite. It is also important for memory and learning.

The serotonin pathway in the brain is rather complex and there are other effects besides the ones listed that are under the control of this pathway. For example, serotonin receptors (there are 7 families of these receptors, each with sub-types) also control the release of other neurotransmitters such as dopamine, glutamate, GABA, acetylcholine and noradrenaline.

Hormones such as prolactin, oxytocin, vasopressin and substance P are also under similar control of serotonin receptors.

Given the breadth of the serotonin pathway, drugs that target it are especially important and potentially dangerous.

The major groups of drugs targeting the serotonin system are:

  • Antidepressants such as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors)
  • Antipsychotics
  • Antiemetics
  • Antimigraine drugs
  • Anxiolytics
  • Psychedelic drugs

These drugs increase serotonin transmission by binding to serotonin receptors or increasing the time serotonin spends at the synapses between neurons. Therefore, they do initiate and/or amplify signals in serotonin neurons.

However, these drugs can also have profound side effects including signs of serotonin toxicity which includes hyperthermia, hypertension, hyperactivity, confusion, hallucination, mania, overactive reflexes, ataxia, organ failure, coma and even death.

The nature of these side effects of conventional serotonin drugs has led to people seeking alternative means of increasing their serotonin levels safely.

Doing this can help improve mood (for depressed patients), aid sleep (for those suffering from insomnia and other sleep disorders) and decrease appetite (to help treat obesity and achieve weight loss).

Discussed below are 9 natural ways to increase your serotonin levels safely.

Diet

1. Eat the Right Carbs

Although the starting point of serotonin synthesis (L-tryptophan) is an amino acid, you will benefit more from eating carbohydrates than proteins.

This paradoxical advice is due to the special nature of L-tryptophan. Because L-tryptophan is only 1% of the amino acids in a regular protein diet, it is mostly outdone by other essential amino acids in the body. Since L-tryptophan has to cross the blood-brain barrier to be useful for increasing the serotonin level in the brain, it needs to be helped along.

Carbohydrates drive in all amino acids into cells except L-tryptophan. When insulin level rises after a meal rich in carbohydrates, cells take up amino acids quickly but leave out tryptophan. This suddenly increases the amount of tryptophan in the pool of amino acids waiting to cross the blood-brain barrier.

Therefore, carbohydrates improve the chances of tryptophan crossing over into the brain and then being converted to serotonin.

However, to avoid excessive weight gain, carbohydrates with low glycemic indices should be increased.

Therefore, the right carbs to eat to increase serotonin levels are oats, whole grain, barley, buckwheat, yam and sweet potato.

2. Eat Proteins Rich in Tryptophan

Proteins to eat to help improve serotonin levels include those rich in tryptophan. By taking tryptophan-rich proteins, you can easily balance out the carbohydrates you take while increasing the tryptophan proportion of the amino acids available for crossing into the brain.

Proteins rich in tryptophan include meat, poultry, fish, low fat milk, dairy products and legumes.

Unlike 5 HTP (another precursor of serotonin and an amino acid), the dietary sources of tryptophan abounds and can help increase the amount of serotonin synthesized in the brain.

3. Avoid Stimulants

Stimulants may make energy available temporarily, increase mental focus and even improve mood, but as their effects wear off, they produce an even deeper low. This is mainly because as their effects subside, serotonin levels drop sharply in the brain.

All stimulants behave in this way including regular ones like caffeine, alcohol and sugar as well as recreational drugs like Ecstasy. Psychostimulants such as amphetamines which are formulated as drugs also produce this reaction.

Therefore, avoiding stimulants in general is a good way to prevent declining serotonin levels while allowing the body to steadily and normally build up serotonin levels in the brain.

Lifestyle Changes

4. Exercise More

All forms of exercise can improve serotonin levels.

Light exercise is enough to increase the production of serotonin in the brain. Therefore, rather than strenuous exercises, take up light, comfortable exercises to improve your serotonin levels.

Such exercise session should take no longer than 20 minutes but it should be routinely done to help improve your mood.

Jogging, fast walking and even dancing are some of the light exercise you can do.

Exercise also trigger the release of other “feel-good” neurotransmitter such as dopamine and even endorphins which natural painkillers.

Refrain from high intensity exercises as those can increase the production of stress hormones in the body.

5. Spend More Time Outside

Spending more time outside especially in sunlight can help your body regulate its production of serotonin.

Sunlight can boost your energy level and mood. This is because high intensity light serves as a signal telling the body to stop producing melatonin and start producing serotonin.

Lack of sunlight exposure is a reason for some forms of depression caused by perpetually low serotonin levels. Therefore, spending some time outside can help reverse this. In fact, spending time in natural light has been shown to provide the same benefits as antidepressant medications in improving serotonin levels in the brain.

Where spending time in natural light is not possible (due to seasonal changes or busy schedule), 30 minutes under very bright, indoor artificial light (1000 lux and higher) can provide the same benefits.

6. Sleep Right

Sleep is a good way to get some rest but it should be done right or it does not work.

The levels of serotonin and melatonin in the brain contributes to wakefulness and sleep. Therefore, sleeping longer than use is a sign of low serotonin levels just as much as not sleeping enough can reduce serotonin production.

Sleeping at the right times and for the right duration help train the body to recognize when to step up serotonin production. Sleep also helps the body relax and overcome stress by reducing the production of stress hormones such as cortisol.

This is important because stress hormones depress serotonin levels in the brain.

Supplements

7. L-Tryptophan

L-tryptophan is one of the essential amino acids and it is a precursor of serotonin.

Although L-tryptophan supplements have been besets with claims of contamination in the past, they are not available in most health stores and pharmacies.

L-tryptophan can also be obtained from diets. However, foods containing L-tryptophan also contain other amino acids. The 3 amino acids that are most in contention with tryptophan for absorption and uptake into the central nervous system are valine, leucine and isoleucine.

While the chances of L-tryptophan can be improved by taking foods with high tryptophan content and low content of the competing amino acids, tryptophan supplements are better sources of the amino acids.

Still, the tryptophan supplied in supplements has to compete with those 3 related amino acids to get across the blood-brain barrier. Carbohydrates do increase the chances of L-tryptophan by promoting the uptake of the competing amino acids by the cells of the body.

The conversion of tryptophan to 5 HTP is the rate-limiting step in the production of serotonin in the body. Therefore, by increasing tryptophan levels through its supplement, serotonin levels in the brain can be increased too.

8. 5 HTP

5 HTP or 5-hydroxytryptophan is the direct precursor of serotonin. It is produced from tryptophan.

Although, 5 HTP is a naturally occurring amino acid, it is rarely found in food crops. Instead, the 5 HTP used in supplements is obtained from the seeds of a West African plant, Griffonia simplicifolia.

5 HTP is the best dietary supplement to take for increasing serotonin levels. Unlike tryptophan, it does not compete with other amino acids to cross into the brain. Furthermore, since it is directly converted to serotonin without an intermediate, it can increase serotonin levels faster than tryptophan supplements.

Recommended doses of 5 HTP supplement is 50 – 300 mg daily. This can be divided into 1 – 4 doses in a day.

Higher doses have been used to treat certain conditions caused by acute low serotonin levels in the brain. However, care should be taken to avoid serotonin toxicity.

9. Vitamin B6

The conversion of 5 HTP to serotonin is catalyzed by an enzyme called 5 HTP decarboxylase. This enzyme needs a cofactor: vitamin B6.

Therefore, although vitamin B6 is not a precursor of serotonin, it speeds up the catalytic synthesis of serotonin in the brain. For this purpose, the standard dose of vitamin B6 supplement is 100 mg and this is usually taken alongside 5 HTP and tryptophan supplements.

Sources


http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2077351/

http://www.webmd.com/depression/features/foods-that-fight-winter-depression

http://www.marksdailyapple.com/serotonin-boosters/

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