How to naturally increase your serotonin

Man running in the sunshine and feeling positive

In recent years, the neurotransmitter serotonin has received more attention for its role in our mental wellbeing.

Low serotonin levels are linked to low mood and depression, although experts are still in hot debate about quite how this works. It’s not fully understood yet.

We do know that serotonin helps regulate a whole bunch of bodily functions, from sleeping and waking to appetite and bowel movement. Serotonin is all around the body, you see – not just in the brain. It hangs out in our intestines and in our blood.

Did you know that it even plays a role in vomming and diarrhoea? Serotonin is truly multipurpose.

Another intriguing serotonin fact: it has an inhibitory effect on sexual desire in men and women. So lower serotonin levels means higher sexual desire. And in men, lower serotonin levels can speed up the ejaculation reflex. They come sooner.

So generally speaking, higher serotonin is a good thing to have

You’ll be happier, you’ll feel better about yourself, you’ll sleep better. And you’ll be able to take your time in the bedroom. It’s all winning.

And if you experience challenges in any of these departments, it makes sense to get your serotonin levels up.

There are pills for that

It’s estimated that 1 in 8 people in the UK take antidepressant medication, and prescriptions shot up during the covid pandemic.

SSRI pills effectively increase serotonin levels in the brain. We’re talking prozac, citalopram, sertraline and many more.

Men who struggle to last in bed are often prescribed an SSRI too, whether they’re depressed or not. There’s even an on-demand SSRI called dapoxetine or priligy, specifically for premature ejaculation.

There’s ongoing debate about how effective all these pills are, whether they are over-prescribed and concerns about the side-effects. Suffice to say that they do help a lot of people – not everyone – and sometimes the side-effects outweigh the benefits.

So if you want to raise your serotonin levels but you don’t want to take medication, what are the options?

Here’s a quick rundown of ways to get your serotonin levels up, including the tested and evidence-based, and some of the more controversial options.

And note: I’m a psychotherapist, not a doctor. You should take proper medical advice if you have any concerns about your health or medication.

And – if you’re already taking antidepressant medication, don’t go raising your serotonin levels higher.

Too much serotonin can lead to serotonin syndrome, which has a whole bunch of unpleasant symptoms and can even be life threatening without treatment. This is rare but it’s a thing.

Let’s begin with food – the obvious way to get more of something into us

Well, there aren’t any foods high in serotonin – it’s made solely in the brain. But there’s this amino acid called tryptophan that helps with the production of serotonin in the brain.

And we need some tryptophan in our diets for this very purpose. So how can we get more of that?

High-protein foods are high in tryptophan, like turkey, chicken, tuna, whole milk, cheese. So you can eat more of those.

BUT this is important: the tryptophan we eat needs to get past the blood-brain barrier. That’s our brain’s natural defense system from chemicals, and a lot of different amino acids are battling to get past this barrier.

Unfortunately, tryptophan isn’t very good at competing with these other amino acids. It gets pushed out the way and not much gets to the brain.

So if you just eat a load of protein, it’ll benefit your muscles but not your serotonin levels.

A way around this is to eat protein combined with carbs, like vegetables, fruits and whole grains. And you probably do this already, but here’s even more reason to. Complex carbs help to produce insulin, which helps your muscles to pull in more amino acids, giving tryptophan a better chance at reaching your brain.

Note that bananas are high in tryptophan too, so they’re a good carbohydrate to go with.

Some nutritionists recommend eating your proteins and your carbs together, on the same plate. And some say eat your proteins to stock up on tryptophan first, and then have a high-carb snack sometime after.

Here’s a good nutritional guide to all this, but my advice is: don’t over-think it.

Get a good amount of protein and a reasonable amount of carbs in your diet and you’re on the right track. This will benefit your serotonin maintenance.

One more top tip: Marmite is high in tryptophan too. It’s also fortified with vitamin B12, and some research has suggested that this combination can help raise serotonin levels.

Interestingly a study in 2016 also found that men who struggle with premature ejaculation had lower levels of B12. Marmite isn’t the cure for PE, but it might help. And either way, it’s a good vegetarian option for getting your tryptophan and vitamin B12.

And be aware that some foods can reduce serotonin levels too. Fast foods that are high in trans fats, like crisps and pizzas, could deplete your serotonin levels if you eat them regularly.

Same for artificial sweeteners and alcohol and possibly too much coffee. Go easy on all these things, for your health in general.

How about food supplements for boosting serotonin?

Well, there plenty on the market. When the word gets out that higher levels of something is good for us (completely sensible in the case of serotonin) then a bunch of convenient supplement products come along to get in on the action. Call me cynical.

Ashwagandha, griffonia seeds, St Johns Wort, kanna plant – there are lots of plant-extract supplements that claim to help increase serotonin. Their marketing is usually quite careful: “naturally supports your mood and sleep” or “supports psychological function“.

It’s also possible to buy pure tryptophan powder as a supplement. You can get it in 100g bags under all kinds of branding.

But the same complication with tryptophan from food applies to supplements. You can consume 100% pure tryptophan (or 5-HTP which is a chemical byproduct of tryptophan often found in supplements) all day long. But it needs to get across the barrier and into the brain in order to become serotonin.

Remember that it’s the neutralising of other competing amino acids that makes the difference. This is what complex carbohydrate foods achieve, via the insulin route. Do any of these supplements have the same effect? I’m not sure they do.

Supplements have side-effects too. They can run the risk of depleting other neurotransmitters such as dopamine, so they might cancel out any positive serotonin gains.

And again, if you’re already taking antidepressant or SSRI medication, there is a risk of causing overly high serotonin levels.

I’m not aware of decisive, peer-reviewed evidence that these supplements help with depression or sleep or premature ejaculation for that matter. If I’m missing something here, or new research has proven otherwise, please let me know and I’ll be all ears.

I understand the appeal of supplements. They tend to have more natural-sounding ingredients, and you might not be a fan of big pharma. If you prefer not to take SSRI medication, which is absolutely proven to raise serotonin levels but has side-effects, I really do get it.

Just bear in mind that supplements usually haven’t been through as much rigorous testing. They are still ultra-processed compounds, they are often really expensive and if you buy them from Amazon, you’re still supporting a big corporation.

For the price of most packets of supplement, you can get a lot of Marmite. Just saying.

So what else could you do to raise your serotonin levels?

Exercise is definitely recommended, as it triggers the release of tryptophan into our blood. Aerobic exercise for around 30 minutes seems to be optimal, and weight-lifting and yoga also have this effect.

If you’ve felt that natural high after an intense workout, you are feeling this ramping up of serotonin – along with the release of endorphins and other neurotransmitters.

And when the weather and the seasons allow for it, try to exercise outdoors. Sunlight has been found to increase our production of serotonin, in moderation of course.

Countless studies prove that exercise is a great way to get stress levels down. It can help with depression and low mood. Take time out, get sufficient sleep, do all the positive things that help get your stress levels down and your serotonin levels will benefit.

To sum up: yes, you can naturally boost your serotonin levels

And the things I recommend are healthy in all kinds of ways. A balanced diet, exercise, getting off our screens and spending time outside. This will boost your mood from all directions.

If you’re struggling with depression or chronic sleep problems or sexual difficulties, it may well take more than lifestyle adjustments. But if you’re having therapy or taking the self-help route, you’re actively working on your mental health.

And looking after your serotonin levels complements this. It lays down the foundations for a better outcome.