Serotonin is a chemical messenger that affects many functions within the body and brain. One theory is that serotonin helps regulate anxiety and stress. Low serotonin is one of the factors that may contribute to depression, but people can take some steps to increase their serotonin levels.
The body makes serotonin naturally, but there are some ways to increase its production. For example, certain medications, dietary factors, and exercise might promote increased serotonin levels.
In people who are not experiencing depression, it is unclear whether increasing serotonin will be beneficial. However, for those who are, some may find that addressing serotonin deficiencies could help with symptoms.
Keep reading to learn more about serotonin, some scientifically proven ways of increasing its levels, and some possible risks of doing so.
Serotonin is a chemical found throughout the body. It plays an important role in regulating a range of bodily functions, including blood clotting and bowel function.
The body combines tryptophan with an enzyme to make serotonin. While other areas of the body produce serotonin, the chemical is most common in the brain.
In the brain, serotonin performs the role of a neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that relay messages around the brain to support its functioning.
There are many theories about the role of serotonin in the brain. A widespread idea is that serotonin contributes to brain networks that regulate stress and anxiety. The chemical may also promote patience and the ability to cope.
Serotonin appears to play a role in several mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety disorders. Several common antidepressant medications increase serotonin levels as a way of treating depression.
There are many products that manufacturers claim can boost serotonin levels and improve mood or help with stress. However, there is a lack of evidence behind many of these claims.
The following factors have scientific evidence to support them:
Several common antidepressant medications directly increase serotonin levels in the brain.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a class of antidepressant medication that prevents serotonin from reabsorption in the brain. By doing this, these drugs increase the levels of serotonin available to receptors.
Examples of SSRIs include fluoxetine (Prozac) and sertraline (Zoloft). These drugs are effective for increasing serotonin and can treat symptoms of depression.
Exercise has a substantial effect on the brain and body, both in the short- and long-term.
There is some evidence that muscle activation during exercise allows more tryptophan, which the body converts to serotonin, to cross the blood-brain barrier.
Most of the evidence for exercise increasing serotonin comes from animal studies, though there are some examples in humans.
Increasing serotonin levels is one of several ways in which exercise might treat depression.
Foods that contain tryptophan could increase serotonin production in the body.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid in many foods, including:
- milk products
- soy products
There are also supplements that contain tryptophan.
Consuming these foods can increase the amount of tryptophan in the body. Research in animals suggests that increasing tryptophan may influence serotonin levels in the brain.
Exposure to bright light may also affect serotonin levels.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression in which the symptoms correlate with the seasons. People with this condition may experience depressive symptoms during the winter when there is less sunlight.
The causes of SAD are unclear, but one theory is that poor sun exposure during the winter causes lower serotonin levels. These lead to symptoms of depression.
Light therapy is a treatment for the disorder that may increase serotonin levels. A 2015 study found that light therapy can increase serotonin levels in people with SAD.
The role of serotonin in the brain remains unclear. There is evidence that increasing serotonin might affect mood or stress. However, the brain is complicated, and research is still ongoing.
Many brain networks involve serotonin, and it is challenging to increase serotonin in one specific network alone. Increasing serotonin can have unintended consequences.
In some cases, consistently increasing serotonin over long periods can lead to serotonin syndrome. This condition is usually the result of the long-term use of certain medications, such as antidepressants or migraine drugs.
Serotonin syndrome can cause symptoms that include:
- dry mouth
- changes in blood pressure
- changes in heart rate
- nausea and vomiting
- digestive problems
Researchers are working to understand more about serotonin syndrome. It is unclear whether the symptoms can occur in people who increase their serotonin levels without medication.
In general, people without serotonin deficits do not need to increase their serotonin levels. The body is excellent at regulating itself and works best in a state of balance.
Serotonin is a chemical messenger that is common in the brain. Many brain networks involve serotonin, including those that play a role in the regulation of stress and anxiety.
Some people have serotonin deficits that may contribute to mental health issues, such as depression. Antidepressant medications can increase serotonin levels and help with symptoms.
Exercise, diet, and light therapy might also increase serotonin levels.
Most people do not need to worry about serotonin levels unless they are causing a problem.
Increasing serotonin over long periods can have negative consequences.