Making the right dietary changes can have a huge impact on our cognitive function, neurotransmitter levels, and overall health. Since the neurotransmitter serotonin has been associated with a variety of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, many people have resorted to eating diets high in foods that contain tryptophan and carbohydrates. The theory behind this diet is that tryptophan will get converted into serotonin, while carbohydrates make serotonin more available.
Unfortunately many people eating foods that are supposed to increase serotonin levels don’t notice any change in their mood or anxiety. In part this could be due to the fact that low serotonin was never the underlying cause of their condition. It could also be due to eating the wrong foods at the wrong times or consuming substances that suppress serotonin levels.
In other cases, it could be due to the fact that the selection of high carbohydrate and tryptophan-rich foods create a cascade of other changes that detrimentally affect the person’s health. Many carbohydrates contain gluten, which can have adverse effects on mental performance. Additionally many carbohydrates spike insulin levels, giving you immediate energy, but long-term brain fog and weight gain (which can exacerbate depression).
Foods That Increase Serotonin Levels in the Brain
To increase serotonin with foods, the best strategy involves eating proper carbohydrates, as well as foods containing the amino acid tryptophan. In order to properly synthesize serotonin, you need sufficient levels of carbohydrates. Tryptophan is only 1% of the amino acids in a standard protein diet and generally takes a backseat to other amino acids in terms of priority.
Carbohydrates are responsible for helping drive tryptophan across the blood-brain barrier. As insulin levels increase after carb consumption, cells soak up amino acids without tryptophan. This is because tryptophan binds to albumin, which allows it to remain unaffected by insulin. This increases the chances of tryptophan making its way across the blood-brain barrier and having an effect on the brain’s neurotransmitter levels.
Prior to ingesting carbohydrates though, it is necessary to have already consumed sufficient tryptophan (usually from a protein source). Some sources suggest that there should be a definitive time lapse between tryptophan consumption and carbohydrate consumption. Assuming you eat protein with tryptophan, followed by properly timed carbohydrates (after the tryptophan), and manage to avoid substances that inhibit serotonin production (e.g. excessive caffeine), you should (theoretically) be increasing serotonin levels in the brain via your diet.
Note: If you’re also interested how diet affects other neurotransmitters, you may want to check out the article “Foods that Increase Dopamine.”
Some believe that eating simple carbohydrates like sugar and white flour boost serotonin the quickest. Although they may boost serotonin quickly, the effects tend to be extremely short-lived. Not only are most simple carbs bad for your health, they do not provide your brain with a feasibly sustainable source of serotonin.
- Fruits: All fruits contain fructose (a form of sugar) that is quickly converted into energy.
- Refined grains: These are grains in which the bran and germ have been removed from the grain kernel. If you eat bleached or enriched forms of bread, you’re probably eating refined grains. Bagels, crackers, chips, and packaged snacks qualify as simple carbs.
- Sweets: Nearly all sweets such as: cakes, cookies, and candies qualify as simple carbohydrates.
Research from Columbia University suggests that simple carbs yield the greatest impact on serotonin levels due to the fact that they enter your bloodstream the quickest. These foods provide a serotonin boost that is estimated to last 2 hours. Shoveling down simple carbs is not a good long-term strategy for overall health and serotonin maintenance.
Simple carbohydrates should probably be avoided from a long-term holistic health perspective. Many contribute to inflammation, drive your blood sugars crazy, and won’t sustain a high serotonin level for long after consumption. The one exception that you may want to try is adding a simple carb like honey (e.g. a tablespoon) prior to sleeping. This may help combat low glucose during sleep and raise serotonin.
Eating complex carbohydrates is likely healthier for your body and serotonin production than simple sugars. Complex carbs consist of multiple sugar molecules bonded together (e.g. starches and fiber), which makes it more difficult for your body to break them down. The slower breakdown results in less of an blood sugar spike.
- Butternut squash
- Brown rice
- Sweet potatoes
- Whole grains
The fact that complex carbohydrates are slowly broken down within the body, the serotonin increase should be longer lasting and more stable than that provided from simple carbohydrates. Think of complex carbs as getting a more consistent serotonin elevation over a longer period of time than the 2 hour spike from simple carbs.
Proteins for Tryptophan
We’ve all heard that in order to increase tryptophan, one of the best ways to do it is by consuming turkey. Turkey consumption is what is rumored to make people tired after a large Thanksgiving meal due to the tryptophan increase (which gets converted into serotonin). That said, there are plenty of other proteins besides turkey that you can consider.
Keep in mind that tryptophan without carbohydrates won’t have a significant effect on your serotonin levels. Eating tryptophan before the right carbs should theoretically have an effect.
Note: You may be wondering why “fish” is listed above… Fish contains high levels of omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) which facilitate healthy brain function. Some studies suggest that increasing levels of these fatty acids can directly increase levels of neurotransmitters, including serotonin.
Below are more foods that weren’t mentioned above that can help increase levels of serotonin.
- Dark chocolate: Everybody loves chocolate, but not everyone is a fan of dark chocolate. That said, dark chocolate has been associated with increased levels of serotonin. Eating just any dark chocolate is probably not a good strategy though – shoot for a quality brand with at least 80% cocoa. The lower the sugar contents – the better.
- Green Tea: Drinking green tea has a variety of general health benefits, but some speculate that it indirectly elevates levels of serotonin. This may be due to the fact that it contains L-Theanine, which has been shown to increase serotonin concentrations in the brain.
- Nuts & seeds: There is some evidence from a University of Barcelona study suggesting that people eating nuts and seeds have greater levels of serotonin metabolites in their urine. While urinary metabolites of serotonin may not translate to high levels of serotonin within the brain, it could have a link. Some nuts also serve as a source of carbs, tryptophan, and healthy fats. (Source: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/42/4/639.full.pdf).
- Turmeric: There are a variety of health benefits associated with the widely-used spice turmeric. One of those benefits is that it contains “curcumin” – its active ingredient which increases serotonin levels after crossing the blood-brain barrier.
Tips for Increasing Serotonin with Foods
If your goal is to increase serotonin levels by eating certain foods, below are some tips you may want to keep in mind.
- Don’t neglect protein: To synthesize serotonin in the brain, you need to provide it with a source of tryptophan (an amino acid). Without tryptophan, levels of serotonin are unlikely to increase unless you are taking a supplement that specifically elevates this precursor (e.g. L-Tryptophan).
- Use complex carbohydrates: There is considerable evidence that carbohydrates raise plasma levels of serotonin and are likely to increase serotonin in the brain. The problem with eating excessive simple carbs is that it is a poor long-term health strategy and only provides short-term serotonin increases. Consume complex carbohydrates for a more sustained release of serotonin without causing a drastic insulin spike.
- Limit simple carbs: If you insist on consuming simple carbohydrates, limit the amount that you consume and shoot for the healthiest options (e.g. fruits, raw honey, etc.). While all simple carbohydrates are likely to elevate serotonin for a period of a couple hours, they will also set you up for a “crash” later in the day.
- Eat carbs separate from protein: Some researchers believe that it is best to consume cabs separate from protein due to the fact that when they’re consumed simultaneously, tryptophan doesn’t make its way to the receptors. To prevent this problem, you’ll want to eat (complex) carbohydrates separate from protein rather than together. Keep in mind that this is based off of a theory and may not be completely accurate.
- Avoid junk: To maximize the potential that you’re getting sufficient serotonin production from the foods that you eat, you’ll want to avoid drinking: alcohol, dietary beverages, and sodas. Moderate to excessive amounts of caffeine may also inhibit food-derived serotonin.
Eating Foods to Boost Serotonin in the Brain
Below is a hypotheses regarding how serotonin functions in the body based off of dietary intake.
Tryptophan and insulin: When you ingest carbs, your body produces insulin, which drives protein out of the bloodstream and into your cells. The amino acid tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin and binds to the protein albumin, which allows it to remain unaffected by insulin. Eating carbohydrates increases the ratio of tryptophan to various amino acids that compete for neural real-estate (receptors). Tryptophan makes its way into the brain and your serotonin levels tend to increase.
Protein and tryptophan: With this theory, eating copious amounts of protein should theoretically decrease the amount of tryptophan in the brain – resulting in low levels of serotonin. Eating various fats in the diet should also reduce levels of tryptophan in the brain because it lowers insulin – meaning tryptophan won’t get pushed to the receptors.
However, in primate research, the amount of tryptophan that actually made it to the brain was dependent upon protein intake. Reducing the amount of protein consumed by monkeys resulted in lower levels of tryptophan making it to the brain. This implies that a diet high in carbs may not raise serotonin levels as effectively as some researchers suggest.
Plasma serotonin vs. brain serotonin: Eating high carbohydrates tends to create ridiculously high spikes in insulin levels. In some cases insulin production increases nearly 6 times the baseline. Plasma serotonin levels tend to increase after a high carbohydrate meal, but plasma levels don’t always translate well to brain levels. It should also be noted that high serotonin in the plasma may actually be detrimental to your overall health – increasing the likelihood of pulmonary hypertension.
Insulin spikes: Some have speculated that it is possible to increase tryptophan levels by eating more foods high on the glycemic index. This may prove to have some efficacy if the high glycemic index foods are consumed after protein consumption. It should also be noted that an insulin spike followed by a crash can exacerbate symptoms of depression such as mental fatigue and poor mood.
High carb problems: There is also evidence that high carbohydrate diets can increase inflammation, which can be harmful to mental health. Therefore going on a high carbohydrate diet in attempt to raise levels of serotonin in the brain probably isn’t a good strategy unless they are strategic complex carbs consumed after protein-derived tryptophan.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21349213
- Source: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/85/2/426.full
Why Eat Foods to Increase Serotonin Levels?
It is important to consider that each person will have a different response to various dietary interventions as a way to increase serotonin. Due to significant differences in physiology, genetics, etc. – two people may experience opposite effects on similar diets. Another factor to consider is that of undermethylation vs. overmethylation – undermethylators tend to have low serotonin levels, while overmethylators tend to have higher levels.
If you already have high serotonin, further increasing it with dietary interventions may prove to be problematic. Additionally the quality, quality, and times throughout the day when the foods are consumed will matter. Someone who strategically consumes complex carbs after protein may have a better outcome on this diet than someone who eats carbs and protein simultaneously.
While eating a healthy diet for depression can go a long way, eating a diet specifically tailored to increase serotonin may not produce any mental health benefits. Many people have been brainwashed into thinking that serotonin is the only cause of their depression, anxiety, etc. – when in reality there are a myriad of potential causes. If a serotonin diet seems to help – great, but keep in mind that tailoring a diet to fit a specific neurotransmitter may detrimentally affect levels of others.
Diets high in carbohydrates are associated with insulin spikes, food additives (from simple carbs), gluten (which can create problems), as well as inflammation. Therefore you should think twice before eating a bag of chips, a cake, bagels, and sugary cereal thinking that they’ll help your serotonin levels in the long-term. It’s probably not a good idea to eat certain foods just because they’re linked to serotonin.
Which foods do you believe are best for increasing serotonin?
If you’ve experimented with certain foods and noticed that they have effects on certain neurotransmitter levels, how can you be sure? Did you have your neurotransmitter levels checked before and after food consumption to verify the effects? In any regard, feel free to share your thoughts regarding what foods you believe increase serotonin levels.