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How To Increase Serotonin Levels

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is derived from the amino acid tryptophan.  Most people know that serotonin is associated with mood.  It has long been marketed that high serotonin results in happiness, and low serotonin results in major depression.  Despite the incessant marketing of serotonin to the mainstream by pharmaceutical companies, serotonin does more than solely boosting a person’s mood.

Various other functions of serotonin (5-HT) include: regulation of appetite, aiding gastrointestinal functions, and enhancing sleep.  Optimal levels of serotonin are also thought to play a role in facilitating cognitive function, particularly in the aspects of learning and memory.  Increasing levels of serotonin can be beneficial for those that have severe forms of anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders.

Unfortunately the perpetuating dogma in society is that serotonin can only be increased with pharmaceutical drugs like SSRI antidepressants. While antidepressants can work well to increase serotonin over the short-term, long-term antidepressant usage may deplete serotonin, resulting in a deficiency.  Therefore, it is important to always consider natural modalities to increase serotonin prior to taking pharmaceuticals.

How do you know serotonin is the underlying problem?

Many people are convinced that all of their woes are to blame on one neurotransmitter – serotonin.  Although serotonin may play a role in your particular mental illness or condition, it may not be the only culprit.  Mental illness is a lot more complex than merely saying that one specific neurotransmitter is the sole cause.

That said, it has been found that increasing serotonin often helps improve psychiatric conditions like major depressive disorder.  Understand that just because boosting serotonin improves these conditions does NOT mean that it was the underlying problem.  That’s like saying that when taking an opioid I feel less depressed, therefore I have an endogenous endorphin deficiency – it’s more complex than that.

As of now, it is very difficult to know definitively whether you actually have low serotonin.  Blood tests can be administered to measure neurotransmitter levels, but these are often subject to inaccuracies.  Furthermore, blood levels of serotonin are not necessarily indicative of brain levels of serotonin.  Getting a PET scan may be the most accurate option for measuring brain levels of serotonin, but these are also not always accurate.

How To Increase Serotonin Levels

There are many ways in which you can increase brain levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin.  You could decide to go the natural route with specific lifestyle, dietary, and behavioral changes – or you could decide to go the artificial route with pharmaceutical drugs and/or supplements.  A third option would be to utilize a combination of both artificial and natural modalities.


Prior to taking a pharmaceutical drug or supplement to increase serotonin, it is important to consider natural options.  While most natural options require some degree of discipline and behavior change, most do not produce unwanted side effects and will not leave you with difficult withdrawal symptoms upon discontinuation.  Furthermore, natural options will not usually increase levels of serotonin to an abnormally high extent (e.g. serotonin syndrome).

Brain waves: It has long been speculated that those with sufficient levels of serotonin may have different brain waves or electrical activity in the brain than those with low levels.  Fast-wave activity in the beta and gamma range is thought to correlate with neurotransmission of stimulatory neurotransmitters and hormones like dopamine, norepinephrine, and cortisol.

It is known that stimulatory neurotransmitters heighten our stress response and may compromise our ability to relax.  In part, this may be due to the fact that serotonin levels plummet with excess fast-wave activity.  By increasing alpha brain waves, the type associated with eyes-closed relaxation and meditation, neurotransmitter levels are likely altered.

Therefore technology like brainwave entrainment could be utilized to directly increase the amplitude and dominance of alpha waves, which may increase serotonin levels.  It is thought that alpha activity, particularly at the 10 Hz frequency may be optimal for stimulating serotonin production.  Other technologies like neurofeedback may offer a more targeted approach, allowing people to consciously increase certain brain waves in specific regions.

Dietary intake: Another natural modality for increasing extracellular levels of serotonin in the brain is via dietary alterations.  It is believed that by eating foods that increase serotonin, a person may be able to improve their depressive symptoms or mental well-being.  There is evidence that in both humans and animal studies, eating foods known to boost serotonin can effectively improve mood.

While it is known that eating carbohydrates helps increase availability of tryptophan, which gets converted into serotonin, high carbs alone will not do the trick.  It is recommended to first eat a meal consisting of foods containing tryptophan (the amino acid that gets converted into serotonin).  A couple hours later, eat a meal consisting solely of carbohydrates to increase the availability of tryptophan.

Carbohydrates alone will not increase serotonin, but when eaten strategically following a “gap” post-tryptophan consumption, they are effective for shuttling tryptophan across the blood-brain barrier.  Carbs also decrease competition of other amino acids with tryptophan, which is why it is recommended to eat carbohydrates should you want to increase your serotonin.

Some studies have found that consumption of Alpha-Lactalbumin (derived primarily from mammalian milk) has significantly more tryptophan than other proteins.  It has been speculated that ingestion of Alpha-Lactalbumin in humans may improve both mood and cognition as a result of its serotonergic effect.  That said, most people aren’t likely going to consume large quantities of dietary Alpha-Lactalbumin, therefore it isn’t very practical.

It has also been discovered that methods of cultivation for corn can increase tryptophan availability.  Unfortunately the older cultivation methods involving alkali processing, are no longer utilized.  Some have gone as far as to speculate that the lack of alkali processing methods may have lead to serotonin deficiencies and a more aggressive society.  There is a negative association between dietary tryptophan and suicide rates.

Happy memories: Another subtle, yet effective method to increase your brain’s serotonin level is to dwell on happy memories.  In other words, consciously recall memories of enjoyable times and dwell on the euphoric nostalgia.  If you can’t think of any specific happy memories, try to focus on some positive event, even if it’s just one that occurred in your life.

A study found that recalling happy times leads to greater production of serotonin in the anterior cingulate cortex.  This is a region responsible for aiding in the control of attention.  The same research of mood-based memory recall discovered that remembering depressing or sad events results in decreased production of serotonin in the same region (anterior cingulate cortex).

A good way to incorporate this serotonin-increasing tactic into your life would be to set aside a chunk of time (5 to 10 minutes) to focus on only happy memories.  Don’t let your brain get distracted or turn towards thinking about sad times, only focus on the happy times.  If your brain wanders to something else, bring the focus back to the happy memory and really immerse yourself in it.

This simple exercise can lead to statistically significant serotonin increases in the anterior cingulate cortex, and help you avoid significant serotonergic decreases that would occur had you been thinking about negative memories.  This may not be easy to do at first, but like any exercise, it gets easier with consistency (daily practice) and time.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18043767

Massage therapy: We all love the relaxed, loose feeling that can be obtained by getting a massage.  Massages are great for loosening up tight muscles, decreasing stress, and have been found to have a direct effect on serotonin levels.  Massages manage to decrease the stress hormone known as “cortisol,” which actively works to prevent increases in serotonin.

In a 2005 review of massage therapy, among studies that documented cortisol levels (via saliva or urine), discovered that on average, cortisol decreased by 31%.  A decrease in cortisol means that its easier for the brain to produce healthy neurotransmitters like serotonin.  In studies that documented levels of both serotonin and dopamine, massage therapy was found to produce an increase of approximately 28% for serotonin and 31% for dopamine.

If you want to increase dopamine along with serotonin, massage therapy seems to be one of your best options.  It is the decrease in cortisol and increase in beneficial neurotransmitters that makes massage therapy a great option for those with any type of psychological stress.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16162447

Meditation:  While there are numerous scientific benefits associated with meditation, it is known that different types of meditation produce specific neural changes.  Therefore one type of meditative practice (e.g. Zen) will generally result in different regional activity, brain waves, strengthening of certain neural pathways compared to another type (e.g. Vipassana).  That said, studies have found that certain meditation techniques likely increase concentrations of serotonin.

In a study analyzing Transcendental Meditation (TM), it was found that levels of 5-HIAA (the main metabolite of serotonin) significantly increased.  The researchers believe that if concentrations of 5-HIAA are significantly increasing as a result of meditation, levels of serotonin are likely following suit.  This is in part due to the fact that proper meditation decreases cortisol and promotes a relaxation response as opposed to the “fight-or-flight” response.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is thought to help reduce dysfunctional attitudes, which are directly linked to serotonergic neurotransmission.  Although not proven, it is thought that MBSR training may increase binding potential of 5-HT2A serotonin receptors.  This means that those who engage in Mindfulness meditation may have greater serotonin as a result of improved attitudes.

Another interesting tidbit associated with advanced meditators is that they have significantly higher levels of melatonin than those who don’t meditate.  Serotonin is a precursor to melatonin, meaning that levels of serotonin may be directly increased as a result of meditation.  Major increases in melatonin levels have been noted particularly among Vipassana meditators.

Furthermore, it is important to consider the aspect of electrical, brain wave changes as a result of the meditative practice.  It has already been mentioned that brainwave entrainment and neurofeedback have potential to alter neurotransmission as a direct result of altering the brain’s electrical activity.  EEG changes, particularly to stronger alpha waves are associated with elevations in whole blood 5-HT (serotonin) levels.

Those that encounter feelings of bliss and/or euphoria during meditation may be a result of increased concentrations of both serotonin and dopamine.  If you aren’t currently meditating, you may want to consider testing the waters with 5 to 10 minutes per day for a month or two – this will help you determine whether it’s making a positive difference on your mood.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23196590

Physical exercise: Another common strategy that you may want to consider for boosting your brain’s serotonin levels is that of exercise.  Although exercise as a standalone treatment for severe depression and/or anxiety may not be effective, it can work extremely well for mild or moderate cases.  There are many psychological benefits associated with exercise as well as many physical benefits.

In some cases, exercise may help you lose some weight, which in turn improves your self-esteem, mood, confidence, and overall self-perception.  All of these improvements translate into a more positive outlook, and increased concentrations of serotonin.  Exercise has been documented as an effective method for improving mood nearly everyone who doesn’t get enough.

With consistent exercise, you are also increasing levels of BDNF, and promoting neurogenesis (growth of new brain cells).  Many professionals recommend engaging in aerobic exercise several times per week for mood improvement.  Some research suggests that in humans, exercise is capable of increasing serotonergic functioning.

One study compared the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) biogenic amine metabolites of depressed patients before and after increasing physical activity.  It was discovered that engaging in physical activity elevated 5-HIAA (serotonin metabolites) in the cerebrospinal fluid.  Animal studies have extensively documented the benefits of exercise on both tryptophan and 5-HIAA levels.

Studies utilizing intracerebral microdyalisis have demonstrated that exercise elevates both serotonin levels and 5-HIAA (serotonin metabolite) levels in multiple brain regions (e.g. hippocampus, cortex, etc.). A theory is that when we exercise, motor activity enhances the firing rates of serotonergic neurons.  The enhanced firing rates leads to a greater overall release and synthesis of serotonin.

Additionally, it is believed that exercise increases the availability of tryptophan, which gets converted into serotonin.  If you feel tired after your workout, it is in part a result of increased levels of tryptophan.  This increase in tryptophan may reduce levels of other branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) that compete with tryptophan for real-estate.

It is clear that getting enough exercise can help with depression, possibly due to serotonin increases.  In the past, humans used to get significantly more exercise than these days – which may contribute to increases in depression.  Make sure you are getting sufficient exercise if you want to keep your serotonin levels high, but don’t overdo it.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23658167
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC474733/

Relaxation: If you don’t incorporate a chunk of time for relaxation within your day, you may have lower serotonin than you could.  Engaging in relaxation can be thought of as an activity that increases parasympathetic activity (relaxation) and decreases sympathetic activity (stimulation).  There are many relaxation techniques available such as: deep breathing, meditation, self-hypnosis, and for some people, reading a book or watching TV.

As long as you feel both physically and mentally relaxed, you may be increasing your brain’s serotonin.  Activities that make us feel stimulated, stressed, or aroused tend to increase stress hormones like cortisol and stimulatory neurotransmitters like epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine.  The goal of engaging in relaxation should be to decrease stress and let your brain produce serotonin.

Self-directed neuroplasticity: The concept of “self-directed neuroplasticity” refers to shifting your attention and engaging in a specific activity with the intention of consciously re-wiring your brain.  It is known that our cognition and behavior is capable of shaping our brain activity.  If we take no action to consciously regulate our attention, our brain is shaped by our environment and genetics.

Fortunately we can consciously shape our brain activity by directing our attention to think the thoughts we want, and engage in the activities that will increase serotonin.  This concept piggybacks off of the aforementioned tactic of dwelling on happy memories.  We can consciously direct our attention and engage in behaviors that turn our brain into a serotonin-producing machine.

You can use self-directed neuroplasticity to induce positive moods or focus only on the good and box out the depressive thoughts.  By focusing on positive thoughts each day, your anterior cingulate cortex (a region behind the prefrontal cortex) will churn out notably more serotonin than even focusing on neutral thoughts.  Additionally, this can help you avoid negative thoughts – which reduce serotonin synthesis.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18043767

Sleep: Getting proper sleep is necessary for peak concentrations of any neurotransmitter, including serotonin.  It is known that chronic lack of sleep can lead directly to psychiatric conditions like depression and anxiety.  It is believed that lack of sleep disrupts the serotonergic 5-HT1A receptor, thus altering optimal neurotransmission of serotonin.

While a little intermittent sleep deprivation is unlikely to significantly affect serotonin neurotransmission, one study found that restricting sleep for 8 days leads to major changes.  Furthermore the serotonergic disruption that occurs as a result of sleep restriction for over a week persists for days, even with “unlimited” recovery sleep.  To reverse the disruption in the brain’s serotonin system, you’d need to get proper sleep for approximately a week.

Serotonin is known to play an essential role in influencing sleep-wake cycles and the circadian rhythm.  Research has discovered that blocking serotonergic neurotransmission in the basal forebrain/preoptic area (BF/POA) that sleep-wake rhythms become disrupted.  Certain cases of hypersomnia (excessive sleep) have been associated with melatonin deficiencies and reduced serotonin metabolism.

Researchers believe that in some cases of hypersomnia, a lack of serotonin contributes to a deficiency in melatonin, leading to excessive sleep.  To confirm this, researchers supplemented with 5-HTP and discovered that sleep duration was reduced and restored a healthy circadian rhythm.  If your sleep cycle and/or circadian rhythm is abnormal, you may want to make a conscious effort to fix, which may increase your serotonin levels.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23077063
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16408408
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12531142
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20337188

Sunlight exposure: Another method of increasing serotonin is by getting sufficient sunlight.  Bright light therapy (BLT) is a well-established treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – a form of depression.  Other studies have found that bright light therapy is even effective for individuals suffering from standard depression.

Although it’s difficult to suggest that the efficacy of bright light therapy is a direct result of serotonin concentrations, some studies have found a notable link.  In one study that analyzed postmortem human brains, it was discovered that serotonin levels were significantly higher in those that died during the summer than those who died during the winter.  Another study discovered that the concentration of 5-HIAA (a serotonin metabolite) was greater during summer months than the winter.

Further research demonstrates that serotonin synthesis increases based on the number of sunlight hours, regardless of the season.  Therefore the more sunlight hours you get, the greater the likelihood of increased serotonin and metabolite levels.  Oddly enough, one study depleted tryptophan in healthy women, but the effect was offset when the study was carried out in bright light (3000 lux) as opposed to dim light.

It is also known that those who have deficient vitamin D tend to suffer from depression and a host of other disorders as a direct result of this deficiency.  Increasing vitamin D to standard levels is often difficult for individuals that live in darker, wintery climates.  Although vitamin D supplementation can be beneficial, it is not nearly as beneficial as obtaining vitamin D from direct sunlight.

There is some evidence that in rodents, when the bright sunlight hits their retina (part of eyes), serotonin synthesis dramatically increases.  Serotonin synthesis remains at its peak during the brightest part of the day for rodents, which further helps regulate circadian rhythms.  Poorly regulated circadian rhythms is known to disrupt neurotransmission of serotonin.

Throughout the evolution of humans, a bulk of the evolutionary period consisted of humans hunting and gathering for food.  They were spending a lot of time outdoors and were getting sufficient sunlight for vitamin D and serotonin synthesis.  Even a century ago, most humans were busy farming outdoors and were getting plenty of sunlight during the day.  These days many people spend their time indoors in an office, working during periods of the brightest sunlight.

In the article I wrote “How to Overcome Depression Without Meds Using Logic,” I discussed the fact that most people aren’t getting enough sunlight – which can contribute to depression both directly and indirectly.  If you are living in a climate where you aren’t able to get much sunlight, you need to find a way to correct both the lack of bright light exposure and secondary effects (e.g. lack of vitamin D).

Make sure you get your vitamin D levels checked and make efforts to increase them within the normal, healthy range.  Additionally, consider going on vacation to a region that allows you to get direct sunlight exposure.  You could also consider a “safe” tanning bed, make time to get whatever sun you can (outside), and/or invest in a bright light therapy box.  For optimal serotonin levels, light is something that shouldn’t be neglected.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18043762
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22076606


If you’ve tried every “natural” method for increasing serotonin levels, and find that they either aren’t effective, or aren’t working quite well enough, you may want to consider some more potent, artificial methods.  Understand that pharmaceutical drugs are the most effective option for increasing serotonin, but over the long-term, they may actually deplete your serotonin stores.  Therefore it is recommended to consider supplements prior to drugs, unless you’re in dire straits.

Pharmaceutical Drugs

There are many pharmaceutical drugs that will effectively increase serotonin in the brain.  Despite the fact that these are highly effective and can provide significant short-term benefit. However, over the long-term (e.g. years) a person will generally notice that they stop working as a result of tolerance.  If you are willing to put up with the side effects (e.g. weight gain), (potentially horrific) withdrawal, and depletion of serotonin stores – pharmaceuticals are your best bet.


If your lack of serotonin doesn’t respond to any natural interventions and supplements don’t pack enough punch, you’ll probably end up on an antidepressant.  Assuming you know how to use antidepressants properly, you’ll know that short-term (e.g. a year or two) increases in serotonin can help you make necessary life changes to get you back on track and out of a depressive funk.  It is always recommended to take the minimal effective dose so that side effects and discontinuation are less severe.

  • SSRIs: These drugs directly target the serotonin system by selectively inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin. This increases extracellular concentrations of serotonin and allows your neurons to soak in serotonin for longer periods than usual.
  • SNRIs: These drugs target multiple neurotransmitters, serotonin and norepinephrine, but most target serotonin to a greater extent. They block the reuptake sites, leaving serotonin in the synapse for a longer period and the receptors receive greater stimulation.
  • Tricyclics: These drugs work very similar to SNRIs, affecting both serotonin and norepinephrine, along with other hormones and neurotransmitters.
  • MAOIs: These older antidepressants can increase serotonin by inhibiting monoamine oxidase – an enzyme that is responsible for breaking down neurotransmitters.
  • Atypicals: Some atypical antidepressants increase levels of serotonin in the brain.  An example of a newer serotonergic atyptical antidepressant would be that of Viibryd, which behaves similarly to an SSRI.

Other drugs

There are other pharmaceutical agents that can increase levels of serotonin in the brain, but serotonin isn’t the primary neurotransmitter affected.  Various stimulants (e.g. methylphenidate) affect neurotransmission of serotonin, and even opioid analgesics like Tramadol have secondary effects as a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor.

Supplements that increase serotonin

It is important to realize that supplements are not “natural” methods for increasing serotonin like many people believe.  While they are highly effective, and generally less potent than pharmaceuticals, they are not without side effects.  Furthermore, some speculate that the brain can become tolerant to the effect of chronic supplementation.  Therefore if you are supplementing, you may want to consider “cycling” which may help prevent tolerance.

5-HTP: This is a serotonin (5-HT) precursor that is quickly converted into serotonin.  Some people prefer to take 5-HTP over L-Tryptophan due to the fact that it requires one less conversion step to become serotonin.  While it is clearly effective for increasing serotonin in the brain, some have raised questions regarding its safety, particularly over the long-term.

It has been thought that 5-HTP may elevate blood levels of serotonin to a high degree, thus creating potentially dangerous side effects.  When used over a short-term 5-HTP is less likely to produce detrimental side effects, however long-term effects are unknown. This is a supplement that often works best when taken in the evening due to the fact that it can induce drowsiness.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16023217
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9727088

Inositol: This is a dietary supplement that is found naturally in many types of foods.  It is known to enhance serotonergic activity in the brain.  Some people have had success with boosting their serotonin by including more inositol in their diet.  Its efficacy may be enhanced when combined with vitamin cofactors like magnesium.  Those with higher levels of Inositol in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) tend to have less depression.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9169302

L-Tryptophan: This is another dietary supplement to consider for increasing levels of serotonin in the brain.  L-Tryptophan is converted into 5-HTP by vitamin B3, and then converted from 5-HTP into serotonin (5-HT) with the aid of vitamin B2 and vitamin B6.  L-Tryptophan has received unfavorable attention in the media due to the fact that there was a case of a contaminated batch from Japan being shipped to the United States.

This contaminated batch lead people to avoid L-Tryptophan and favor 5-HTP for their supplementation.  Despite these early contamination scares, some believe that L-Tryptophan is actually safer than 5-HTP when used over an extended term; whether this is true is unknown.  L-Tryptophan may convert better into “brain serotonin” than 5-HTP, which is known for elevating “blood serotonin.”

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0011882/

Omega-3 fatty acids: It is known that eating fish boosts antidepressant efficacy.  Those that don’t eat enough fatty fish, probably aren’t getting enough omega-3 fatty acids – DHA and EPA.  Both of these fatty acids are considered essential for brain function, health, and neurotransmission.  There is mixed evidence that supplementation of fish oil for depression may be effective in certain individuals.

As humans evolved, some experts estimate that consumption ratios of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids was approximately 1 to 2.  These days it is estimated that the ratio of omeag-3s to omega-6s is approximately 1 to 20.  The excess omega-6s with decreased omega-3s may result in reduced levels of serotonin, and decreased concentrations of other important neurotransmitters.

Research from 2015 hypothesizes that increased consumption of omeag-3 fatty acids, along with sufficient vitamin D, may result in increased serotonin synthesis.  Suboptimal levels of omega-3 fatty acids and comorbid deficient vitamin D levels are believed to be a direct cause of insufficient serotonin synthesis.  EPA may contribute to serotonin release by reducing prostaglandins, while DHA may aid serotonergic receptor activity by boosting postsynaptic neuronal membrane fluidity.

If you aren’t eating wild-caught, fatty fish 2-3 times per week, chances are you’re deficient in omega-3 fatty acids.  Although you may not need a 1:2 ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s to be healthy, you may need to improve your 1:20 ratio to improve serotonin synthesis.  Consider looking at the best fish oil or best krill oil, including it in your diet for awhile, and determine whether your mood improves.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25713056

Rhodiola Rosea: This is an herbal supplement that slows the enzymatic breakdown of serotonin and other neurotransmitters like dopamine.  It is a perennial herb that is native to cold climates (e.g. Russia) and tends to grow in high altitude regions.  Rhodiola has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of psychological conditions such as: stress, anxiety, and depression.

It is functions as an adaptogen, which increases a person’s physiological resistance to stress.  Preliminary evidence suggests that Rhodiola supplementation may benefit those with fatigue, headaches, insomnia, and stress.  The phytochemicals within Rhodiola (rosavins, rosiridin, salidroside) function as monoamine oxidase inhibitors – meaning they inhibit an enzyme that breaks down serotonin.

This leads to greater concentrations of serotonin in the brain.  Rhodiola may also aid in the transportation of serotonin throughout the brain.  Some believe that Rhodiola supplementation may increase serotonin levels by approximately 30%.  It is recommended to purchase a Rhodiola supplement with at least 3% Rosavins and to consider “cycling” off of it to prevent tolerance.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19260327

SAM-e: This supplement (S-adenosyl methionine) can be purchased over-the-counter as a means to treat depression.  Prior to taking SAM-e though, you should know whether you have polymorphisms leading to undermethylation or overmethylation.  Those who are undermethylators tend to have abnormally low levels of SAM-e, making them perfect candidates for supplementation.

Those who are overmethylators may feel even worse if they supplement SAM-e, therefore it is important to test for MTHFR polymorphisms prior to supplementing.  That said, those with normative methylation may also benefit from SAM-e as an antidepressant augmentation strategy.  Proper methylation is necessary for optimal concentrations of neurotransmitters like serotonin.

It is thought that nearly 1 out of 4 individuals who is an undermethylator ends up with low serotonin as a result.  To combat this problem, SAM-e may prove to be effective along with specific vitamin cofactors.  In a sample of 144 individuals, taking SAM-e (1600 mg) was equal in efficacy for depression compared to Lexapro (10 mg to 20 mg) over a 12 week period.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20595412
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC257800/
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24856557
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18950248

St. John’s Wort: This is an herbal remedy for mild to moderate depression, in part as a result of its ability to inhibit reuptake of serotonin.  St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) has long been considered among the best natural antidepressants.  The ability to St. John’s wort to inhibit reuptake of serotonin seems to be directly related to the contents of “hyperforin” in their doses.

Those with greater amounts of hyperforin tend to produce a more notable degree of serotonin reuptake inhibition.  Those with the highest concentrations of hyperforin are generally restricted to pharmacies, requiring a prescription for usage. In rodent studies, St. John’s wort has been found to increase serotonin synthesis by inhibiting various enzymes and gene expressions.

In addition to increasing serotonin concentrations, St. John’s wort is also thought to increase serotonin receptors, particularly 5-HT2 receptors in the prefrontal cortex. Additionally, the side effect and safety profile of St. John’s wort appears to be favorable over a moderate term (i.e. 1 year).  If you want a mild to moderate boost in serotonin, this is a legitimate supplement to consider.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15231048
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25176236

Note #1: It is important to avoid taking multiple supplements simultaneously as this may cause serotonin syndrome, a potentially life-threatening condition.  If you have questions about what drugs, supplements, or combinations you can take – talk to a medical professional.

Note #2: Some believe that taking 5-HTP or L-Tryptophan for a long-term without supplementation of a dopaminergic agent (e.g. L-Tyrosine) could deplete dopamine levels.  Whether this is true is subject to debate.

Vitamin Cofactors

To ensure optimal conversion of many supplements into serotonin, it is important to consider taking vitamin cofactors.  These cofactors often aid in the conversion of supplements like 5-HTP and L-Tryptophan to serotonin.  Vitamin cofactors also can decrease reactive oxygen species (i.e. free radicals), which may have detrimental effects on serotonin levels.

  • Magnesium: If you aren’t getting enough magnesium in your diet, your serotonin levels probably are subpar.  Low levels of dietary magnesium are directly correlated with low levels of serotonin.  Antidepressants are known to increase the amount of magnesium in the brain.  A study from 2008 discovered that magnesium supplementation was equal in efficacy to tricyclic antidepressants for the treatment of depression among diabetics.
  • Vitamin B Complex: It is recommended to consider taking a vitamin B-complex to ensure that other supplements get properly converted into serotonin (5-HT).  Various B-vitamins such as B6 and B12 are associated with reduced risk of depression.  Others such as B2 and B3 aid in the conversion process of 5-HTP and L-Tyrosine into serotonin.  If you don’t want to take a B-complex, make sure you’re getting the specific B-vitamins to aid in conversion of serotonergic supplements.  Some sources recommend 50 mg to 100 mg of a B-complex daily.
  • Vitamin B6: This is a specific B-vitamin that aids in the production of serotonin, melatonin, and dopamine.  If you are lacking in Vitamin B6, your serotonin level probably isn’t as high as it could be.  This can be obtained through foods such as spinach, celery, fish, poultry, lean beef, and cauliflower.

Avoiding serotonin depletion

If you want to ensure that your serotonin levels stay as high as possible, you’ll want to avoid activities that may reduce or deplete serotonin over the long-term.  Examples of serotonin-depleting activities include: using illicit drugs, sleep deprivation, and stimulant abuse.

  • Alcohol/nicotine: It is known that alcohol can increase serotonin activity in the short-term, followed by a depletion.  While an occasional drink may not have a significant effect on serotonin, frequent drinking may serve to decrease serotonin levels.  Additionally, those that ingest nicotine, particularly in high doses, may experience a boost in serotonin, followed by a depletion.
  • Addictions: Those with addictions are likely to have dysfunctional serotonin activity in the brain.  Some believe that addictions tend to deplete serotonin and that there’s a symbiotic relationship between serotonin levels and addictions.  Those with satisfactory levels of serotonin are less prone to addiction, while those with suboptimal levels may be more prone.  If you have an addiction, it may be a result of low serotonin, but overcoming the addiction may help rewire the brain and correct the problem.
  • Excess carbohydrates: While some carbohydrates may be useful for producing a short-term serotonergic boost by increasing availability of amino acid precursor L-Tryptophan, excess consumption may detrimentally affect serotonin levels.  Consuming large quantities of carbohydrates may temporarily boost tryptophan’s availability, but they will not stimulate continuous production of serotonin.  In particular, you may want to consider avoiding simple carbohydrates and eat an optimal diet for depression.
  • Illicit drugs: Individuals that use illicit drugs affecting serotonin neurotransmission may deplete their serotonin levels.  While serotonin stores can often be replenished with prolonged abstinence from the illicit serotonergic drug, temporary depletion may result from binging or abusing drugs like MDMA.  Other substances like cannabis, opioids, and certain psychostimulants may deplete serotonin stores with chronic usage.
  • Sleep deprivation: As was mentioned above, one way to increase serotonin is to get proper sleep, particularly sleep aligned with your body’s circadian rhythm.  Sleep deprivation or restriction reduces both serotonin and melatonin (which is made from serotonin).  Those that aren’t getting proper sleep as a result of stress or poor self care may experience substandard production of serotonin, leading to deficiencies in melatonin, and ultimately perpetuate the cycle of poor sleep.
  • Stimulants: Excess usage of stimulants (e.g. caffeine) may indirectly decrease serotonin.  Stimulatory substances are known to increase beta waves and stress hormones (e.g. cortisol).  When brain waves become fast-paced and stress hormones increase, it becomes more difficult for the brain to produce sufficient serotonin.  Instead the brain is producing more epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine – which can make it difficult to reestablish normative serotonin levels.
  • Stress: If you’re stressed a lot, you probably are low in serotonin.  Stress increases hormones like cortisol, which work against our natural ability to produce serotonin.  Additionally, stress increases the concentrations of free radicals in the brain, which can damage serotonergic neurotransmission.  If you’re chronically stressed, it is recommended to engage in an aforementioned activity (e.g. massages, meditation, etc.) or even consider using a biofeedback device like the emWave2.

Rule out medical conditions that may cause low serotonin

Before working hard to increase your serotonin with natural and/or artificial methods, you should first get a proper medical evaluation to rule out all potential conditions that may lead to low serotonin.  If you are deficient in various vitamins or have an undiagnosed medical condition, those are reasons as to why you may be deficient in serotonin.  No matter what you do, drug you take, or supplements you use, your attempts to increase serotonin may help, but they won’t fix the root of the problem.

What methods to increase serotonin do you find most effective?

If you’ve experimented with various methods listed above to increase your serotonin, feel free to share your experience in the comments section below.  Did you find one or several methods more effective than others?  If you experimented with supplements or natural methods, be sure to mention how long it took before you noticed that it worked, and why you believe low serotonin was your initial underlying problem.

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{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Lili Ahn Cy November 7, 2016, 5:53 am

    Just wanted to say thanks so much for what you’ve written! Informative; useful; and well phrased. Great job! Lili :-)

  • Jim October 8, 2016, 5:20 pm

    I have had a passion for exercise for over 40 years and it has been my most effective therapy tool after I developed severe anxiety and depression 15 years ago from the death of a loved one. I feel that exercise is the best natural way to release serotonin with sunlight coming in second. The type of exercise you do is important to get the most serotonin benefit. Moderate to intense aerobic exercise is far more effective than lifting weights.

    Getting the heart rate up and a good sweat going for at least 45 minutes is the key. Running, cycling, swimming, etc. are great ways to get a big serotonin release. I do 5 or 6 days a week of aerobic exercise (alternate between running an cycling) and it keeps my serotonin levels up there. Because my condition is severe and chronic, I do need the help of a prescription med also, but I feel that the type and frequency of the exercise I do is my most effective therapy.

  • Carmela October 3, 2016, 1:35 am

    Can I take melatonin supplements to increase serotonin ?

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