Serotonin is often referred to as the ‘happy hormone’ as it is a key player, theoretically, in regulating our mood and levels of stress and anxiety. The body produces serotonin naturally, but many people seek ways in which they can boost their serotonin levels for optimum health and wellness.
Studies have shown that addressing low levels of serotonin can help with common symptoms such as low mood, anxiety and poor quality sleep. Women in particular may benefit from taking steps to increase their serotonin quantities, since evidence shows that the hormone fluctuates greatly with the menstrual cycle.
In this article, we take a closer look at serotonin and what it is important for, alongside methods in which we can safely increase our levels of the happy hormone for a happy and healthy life.
What is Serotonin?
Serotonin is a natural chemical messenger produced by the human body which regulates a number of vital physiological functions including our emotions, sleep and bowel function. Serotonin is well-regarded as a mood stabiliser. The body requires tryptophan – an essential amino acid which is acquired through diet - to produce serotonin. Thankfully, tryptophan is found within many of the foods we consume.
Much of the serotonin in our body is found within the brain. It behaves as a neurotransmitter; a chemical that relays messages throughout the brain and body to support its function. When levels of serotonin are in optimal range, we tend to feel pretty good. Normal levels of serotonin are linked to feelings of calm, happiness, resilience, contentment and focus, and can promote improved sleep patterns.
There is also a significant proportion of serotonin found within the gut, and the chemical plays an equally important role in maintaining optimum gut health.
When serotonin levels deplete, several symptoms can arise. These include:
- Unstable mood
- Poor quality sleep
- Low attention span
- Changes in memory function
- Difficulties with digestion
Since serotonin can influence a broad range of vital functions for health, it is important to find methods of maintaining normal levels of the hormone in the body, but only if the individual is experiencing undesirable symptoms.
Serotonin vs Dopamine
We often hear about dopamine affecting mood. Dopamine, like serotonin, is a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) and sometimes considered a happy hormone too. The two vital neurotransmitters both influence our mood, but have separate functions in the body. While serotonin stabilises our mood and emotions, dopamine regulates motivation and is linked to feelings of reward and productivity. Dopamine closely links to the brain’s desire for pleasure, and low levels of it can trigger memory loss, impaired cognitive ability and lowered sex drive. Simply put, serotonin is a mood regulator, while dopamine signals the brain’s reward system.
Natural Ways to Boost Serotonin
It is possible to increase your serotonin levels naturally, and these methods are supported by science.
Upping your exercise levels is one of the simplest and easiest ways in which we can boost serotonin in the body. Daily exercise is invaluable as it has a hugely positive impact – in the short-term and long-term - on both the body and the brain. It is believed that the movement of muscles during exercise stimulates tryptophan to produce more serotonin. This is one of the reasons why regular exercise is often recommended as a treatment for depression.
Providing your body with fresh, healthy food can increase the production of serotonin in the body. The amino acid, tryptophan, is found in many natural foods such as turkey, dairy products, spinach, salmon, soy, nuts and seeds.
You may have heard that a lack of sunlight can be linked to depression. This is a result of lower levels of Vitamin D. The link is unclear, but studies have shown that increasing your exposure to sunlight can boost Vitamin D and serotonin levels, resulting in improvements to mood disorders.
There are some natural supplements that claim to be effective in boosting serotonin levels. 5-HTP, for instance, in an increasingly popular supplement used for the treatment of depression. 5-HTP is a chemical by-product of the amino acid L-tryptophan and is manufactured from the seeds of Griffonia simplicifolia, an African plant. Some studies have shown the 5-HTP works in the brain and central nervous system to boost levels of serotonin.
CBD oil is a natural, non-psychoactive compound of the cannabis plant that has also been shown to boost mood and lower levels of stress and anxiety. Research is preliminary but early studies show that CBD may impact the brain’s chemical receptors that respond to serotonin, offsetting the negative effects of depleted levels in the body. The CBD market is a popular one and there are a number of different types of products available such as CBD gummies, oils and bath bombs.
Alternative Ways of Increasing Serotonin Levels
Medication is an another effective way of boosting serotonin levels in the body. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are a common type of antidepressant drug that inhibit the reabsorption of the hormone in the brain. This, in turn, escalates the level of serotonin available to bind with chemical receptors and this can be a highly efficient treatment for depression and anxiety. Some common SSRIs are Sertraline and Prozac.
Can Serotonin Levels Be Too High?
Increasing serotonin levels in the body can undoubtedly bring health and well-being advantages such as improved mood and better quality sleep. However, there is an additional risk if serotonin reaches too-high concentrations over long periods of time. ‘Serotonin syndrome’, as it is known, can result in symptoms including:
- Dry mouth
- High blood pressure
These symptoms can be severe but are usually the result of long-term overuse of certain medications or drugs and are easily treatable. Generally speaking, the body is excellent at self-regulation and if serotonin levels are normal, there is no reason for an individual to try to boost their levels, be it naturally or via medication.
The role of serotonin in the body is complex but studies have shown that the hormone is a crucial player when it comes to regulating mood and lowering stress and anxiety. A deficit of serotonin is common and linked to symptoms of depression, anxiety, poor sleep quality and digestive problems. Antidepressant medications can boost serotonin, but there are effective natural ways in which levels of happy hormone can be increased. These include changes to diet, increased exercise, more frequent exposure to sunlight and natural supplements such as CBD oil and 5-HTP.
Serotonin levels only require adjustment if they are causing issues with mood and other functions. Normal levels of serotonin can be regulated efficiently by the body; increasing serotonin too much can also bring unwanted outcomes.
If you have tried natural methods to boost your serotonin levels without success, consult your GP.