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Understanding Serotonin: How Diet and Lifestyle Affects Your Serotonin

What is serotonin?

Serotonin, also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), is a chemical neurotransmitter that also behaves like a hormone. Serotonin is made from one of your essential amino acids, known as tryptophan. Interestingly, because it is an essential amino acid, tryptophan can not be made by the body and must be consumed through diet.

3D model of Serotonin structure for How Diet and Lifestyle Affects Your Serotonin
Serotonin: C10H12N2O

Foods high in tryptophan include nuts, seeds, cheeses, and some meats like turkey and chicken. Because you need enough tryptophan to make serotonin, a deficiency in this essential amino acid can result in low levels of serotonin.

Typtophan 3D model
Chemical compound for Tryptophan

Not enough tryptophan has been associated with conditions including anxiety and depression. Serotonin carries messages between your central and peripheral nervous systems, helping regulate many of your body's functions.

Interestingly enough, most of your serotonin (about 90%) can be found in your intestines, and the brain makes up only about 10%. While serotonin cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, there is some research suggesting that serotonin production from the intestines could provide some promise in regard to treatment for low serotonin.

Serotonin is typically called your “happy hormone,” as it plays a major role in regulating your mood, sleep, and even digestion. Serotonin also has a role in other essential functions like bone health, wound healing, and sexual function.

Diet and Serotonin:

Assorted nuts

As we know, our diet profoundly impacts our hormones and overall well-being. As mentioned above, serotonin is made from tryptophan, which the diet can only supply. Foods high in tryptophan, which may contribute to serotonin production, include:

  1. Turkey- Ever wonder why you’re so tired after a big Thanksgiving meal? It is because turkey is very rich in tryptophan, packing 410 milligrams for two servings of turkey. 
  2. Nuts and Seeds- Not only do nuts and seeds contain tryptophan, but they also provide you with a good source of fiber and antioxidants.
  3. Tofu- Tofu and many soy products are great sources of tryptophan. 
  4. Eggs- Research has shown that whole eggs can significantly increase serum tryptophan levels.
  5. Other foods rich in tryptophan include salmon, cheese, poultry, pineapple, and spinach. 

Other factors that can increase serotonin levels naturally include:

  1. Exercise- Physical activity has been shown to release dopamine and serotonin, thus improving one's mood.
  2. Meditation- Several studies have looked at urinary serotonin breakdown levels in mice and found that they increased in mice after their meditation sessions. More specifically, a study looked at the impact that Transcendental Meditation made on serotonin levels and found increased serotonin levels with this meditation practice.
  3. Sunlight- Interestingly, a study looked at yeast extracts and found that exposure to sunlight had increased serotonin production in yeast. Generally speaking, most studies have found that serotonin levels in healthy adults are highest in the late summer and fall and reduce in the spring- likely due to the availability of sunlight. 
  4. Your mind matters- Studies have suggested that visualizing something that makes you happy, whether it is looking at a photograph or thinking about 

So now that you know foods and lifestyle habits that promote serotonin production, what foods deplete your serotonin?:

Ever wonder why you feel tired or maybe even a little down after eating processed foods high in trans fat and sugar? Well, there may be an explanation as to why you’re feeling this way... and we’ll give you tools to optimize your diet and lifestyle habits to ensure you’re supporting appropriate serotonin levels. 

Trans-fat foods that deplete serotonin
  1. Trans fats. Interestingly enough, high consumption of trans-fat foods has been shown to reduce serotonin. Trans fats have been shown to cause inflammation in your brain, which can actually reduce serotonin production in your brain, therefore increasing your chances for depression and a decrease in energy. 
  2. Processed foods- Processed foods are typically filled with unhealthy, inflammatory oils and salt and packed with sugar. Overconsumption of processed foods can wreak havoc on your gut. As mentioned previously in the article, most of your serotonin is made in your gut, so eating too many processed foods may impact your gut health. When it comes to processed foods, moderation is key. 
  3. Foods high in sugar. As we’ve seen, sugar is inflammatory, especially when eaten in excess. Excess sugar consumption decreases your tryptophan levels, inadvertently lowering your serotonin production. You should avoid added and processed sugars and instead focus on natural sugars that come from fruits and vegetables. 

Now that you know the impact your diet and lifestyle habits have on your serotonin levels, what do you do? Well... knowledge is power! Be mindful of the everyday practices that you do and how you feel.

Are you engaging in physical activity? Are you utilizing any mindful practices throughout the day? What are you choosing to snack on while you’re busy or working? While reaching for a sweet treat may be tempting, the long-term impact may not be worth it.

I challenge you to keep a mental track of how you feel after eating certain foods- are you feeling energized and happy or sad and tired? Knowing which foods can enhance your serotonin production gives you an upper hand when deciding what to eat.

Perhaps choosing a handful of nuts and seeds over a bag of potato chips may satisfy that craving for a nice salty crunch but still support healthy serotonin production. Craving something fatty? How about a grilled piece of salmon with sauteed spinach in olive oil? 

While these options may not seem “fun” at first, the way you feel after changing your diet will have you wanting to continue dialing in your diet to best support your health. When it comes to diet, moderation is key! 

Have a 30-minute lunch break? Go for a walk! Studies show that spending time outdoors and engaging in physical activity helps increase your serotonin levels. Not only that, but it can also help stabilize your blood sugar and support a healthy circadian rhythm and vitamin D levels! It’s the small changes that we make on a daily basis that lead to the greatest results.

Foods rich in Tryptophan

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Dr. Linda Khoshaba is the Leading Integrative Health and Hormone Doctor in Scottsdale, Arizona. She has extensive experience working in the field as a Hormone Specialist and Natural Endocrinologist.

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