7 Ways to Increase Serotonin (With or Without Medication)

A comprehensive guide to feeling your best

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) that works to stabilize mood and foster feelings of happiness and well-being. It also plays a role in how well the brain and nervous system cells communicate, enhances focus, and helps regulate the digestive system and sleep cycle.

The body naturally produces serotonin using the essential amino acid tryptophan. While the body can make serotonin on its own, sometimes it doesn't make enough to keep the brain and other systems functioning optimally. If serotonin levels are low, your risk of depression and anxiety increases and other problems can occur.

This article will discuss the importance of adequate serotonin levels in the body, as well as how to boost serotonin both naturally with the help of food, sunlight, and exercise, and synthetically through medications and supplements.  

Happy woman in the park

Drazen_ / E+ / Getty Images

Why Are Serotonin Levels Important?

Having adequate serotonin levels is important for your mental and physical health. Too little serotonin can increase your risk of depression and other mental health challenges like anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Low levels of serotonin have also been associated with the development of certain diseases, including chronic fatigue syndrome (extreme, long-term fatigue), fibromyalgia (condition of widespread pain), Alzheimer's, (progressive disease causing memory problems and mental confusion) and Parkinson's (neurological disease affecting movement).

It's also possible for serotonin levels to be too high. This can lead to serotonin syndrome, a rare condition that can cause symptoms ranging from mild (nervousness, nausea, diarrhea, tremors) to severe (sweating, fever, confusion).

There are several factors that can cause serotonin levels to fall too low. These include:

  • Tryptophan deficiency: The body can only make serotonin with tryptophan. The body can't make this essential amino acid on its own, so it must be taken in through food. If you are not eating enough foods with tryptophan, then the body can't make enough serotonin.
  • Other nutrient shortfalls: Research shows other nutrients, including vitamin D and probiotics, help to regulate the production, release, and function of serotonin.
  • Malfunction of serotonin receptors: In some cases, your body may make enough serotonin but is unable to use it efficiently. This is usually due to having too few serotonin receptors or having serotonin receptors that aren't working properly.

Natural Ways to Boost Serotonin

Fill Up on These Feel-Good Foods

Serotonin is naturally produced by many plants. In fact, it’s currently found in about 42 plant species from 20 different families, most often in roots, leaves, stems, fruits, and seeds.

However, serotonin cannot cross the blood-brain barrier (a protective group of tightly packed cells that keep harmful substances from entering the brain), so eating foods with serotonin is not an effective way to raise serotonin levels.

Instead, it's better to eat foods rich in the essential amino acid tryptophan, which can pass through the blood-brain barrier. Foods high in tryptophan include:

  • Animal protein, such as turkey, chicken, and fish
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Soy products like soybeans (edamame), tofu, seitan, soy milk
  • Nuts and seeds, including peanuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds

Studies suggest that increasing tryptophan intake can have a positive effect on mood and well-being, especially in individuals with tryptophan depletion.

It's recommended that you consume tryptophan-rich foods with carbohydrates (such as bread, pasta, rice, or fruit). That's because carbs trigger an insulin response that can help carry tryptophan over the blood-brain barrier.

Probiotics for Serotonin

An estimated 95% of the body's serotonin is produced in the gut. Beneficial bacteria found in the gut (probiotics) secrete substances used in the creation of serotonin.

Research suggests that consuming foods rich in probiotics (including yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut) helps build the population of good gut bacteria, which positively influences serotonin production. In several recent studies, probiotic consumption was associated with reduced depression and anxiety symptoms. More research is needed to confirm the results and most effective dosage.

Get 15 Minutes of Sunlight

Enjoying a few minutes outside on a sunny day works double-duty to boost serotonin levels: Bright light is known to promote serotonin output by stimulating the body's circadian rhythm (its internal clock).

Plus, when the skin is exposed to sunlight, skin cells convert the sun's ultraviolet B rays into vitamin D. Vitamin D plays an important role in the production and activation of serotonin, which can help with mood. One study found that increased sun exposure was associated with reduced depression symptoms in elderly women.

Experts say getting just 10–15 minutes of sun a day is enough to make adequate vitamin D in most people. If this is not possible, supplements are also available. The body can still produce vitamin D even when you're wearing sunscreen, so be sure to use adequate protection, especially if you have pale or sensitive skin.

The Vitamin D and SAD Connection

Seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD, is characterized by cyclical depressive symptoms occurring in the fall and winter months as the days get shorter and there is more darkness. This condition is thought to develop due to reduced levels of sun-derived vitamin D, which in turn leads to less serotonin production.

Treatment for seasonal affective disorder includes medication, therapies, and lifestyle changes.

Move Your Body

It’s commonly known that exercise is good for mental health. How does it help? In addition to endorphins (the hormones responsible for a "runner's high"), research suggests that physical activity promotes the release of several mood-boosting chemicals, including dopamine and serotonin. This effect seems to reduce the risk of depression in those who regularly exercise.

Try some of these exercises to give yourself a serotonin boost:

  • Running/jogging
  • Swimming
  • Biking
  • Dancing
  • Jump rope
  • Yoga

If those activities are not suitable for you, you can also get benefits from low-impact activities such as taking a brisk walk, chair/water aerobics, and gardening activities, like weeding or raking.

Try Adaptogenic Herbs

Adaptogens are plant extracts that work to help keep the body in homeostasis, the balance of internal, chemical, and physical systems within the body. These herbs do this by improving the body's ability to react and respond to stress and by helping to maintain hormonal balance.  

Early research suggests that certain adaptogenic herbs may have antidepressant effects. More research is needed, yet there is some evidence that the following may have an antidepressant effect:

  • Rhodiola rosea (R. rosea) 
  • Ginseng
  • Ashwagandha

Like with any complementary alternative medicine, it’s important to note that these herbs are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It's best to talk with your healthcare provider before trying any alternative treatment.

Stress Management

Chronic stress negatively impacts serotonin production and impairs the function of serotonin receptors. That means stress management can play an important role in maintaining optimal serotonin levels. 

Here are some study-backed stress-relieving techniques to try:

While it’s not easy to eliminate stress from everyday life, simple stress management techniques can go a long way in helping you feel better.

Medications That Increase Serotonin Levels

Serotonin can be boosted synthetically, too. Antidepressants are a common line of treatment for depressive symptoms that may be due to low serotonin levels. There are several different kinds of antidepressants including:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs): These meds work to keep serotonin circulating in the brain for long periods.
  • Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs): These work by keeping serotonin and norepinephrine circulating.
  • Tricyclic antidepressants: An older-generation class of drug that prevents the reabsorption of serotonin and norepinephrine.
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MOIs): This medication blocks the activity of an enzyme that breaks down serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

These antidepressants can be helpful for boosting serotonin levels, but they may also have side effects. However, these side effects can be mild and usually don’t last long. These may include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Insomnia or fatigue
  • Sexual issues 

Sometimes people need to try a few different meds to find the antidepressant that works for them. Talk with your healthcare provider about any side effects you develop, and work with them to find the best fit.

Summary

Increasing serotonin levels can be done naturally. The best ways to do this are eating serotonin-boosting foods, getting out in the sun or supplementing with vitamin D, exercising, taking adaptogens, and managing stress.

Serotonin can also be increased synthetically, with antidepressants. While increasing serotonin is important for relieving depressive symptoms and improving mood, it’s not about getting as much serotonin as you can. Too much can also be harmful to your health. Finding the right balance is key.

A Word From Verywell

While you can’t really know how much serotonin you have in your body right now, you likely know when you don’t have as much as you need. When serotonin levels are low, you may feel blue or depressed.

Not having enough serotonin is nothing to be ashamed of. Many people struggle with low serotonin levels at times, especially during the dark winter months. Sometimes, having low levels is caused by something out of your control.

Though it can be hard to feel motivated to try new things to increase your serotonin levels when you’re feeling down, finding the right balance is possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What happens when you don’t get enough serotonin?

    Low levels of serotonin can lead to depressive symptoms. Not having enough serotonin is also associated with anxiety and sleep problems.

  • Are serotonin supplements safe?

    Some are, but it's important to use caution when trying them. Unlike antidepressants, which are prescribed to you by your healthcare provider and are regulated by the FDA, supplements do not require a prescription and are not regulated.

    However, there is evidence to suggest that some supplements, like vitamin D, probiotics, and adaptogens, may be helpful in reducing depressive symptoms. Research is ongoing.

  • Do low levels of serotonin cause depression?

    Not necessarily. While low levels of serotonin are often associated with depression, having low levels of serotonin does not automatically mean you will be depressed.

  • Can adaptogenic herbs boost serotonin?

    Early research suggests that some adaptogenic herbs, including R. rosea, ginseng, and ashwagandha, may help boost serotonin and improve mood. These herbs and plant extracts are often used in Ayurveda (a form of alternative medicine that is the traditional medicine of India) and traditional Chinese medicine.

    While adaptogens show promise for improving serotonin, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider before trying them to make sure they are safe for you.

Was this page helpful?
22 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hormone Health Network. What is serotonin?

  2. Weng, R., Shen, S., Tian, Y. et al. Metabolomics approach reveals integrated metabolic network associated with serotonin deficiencySci Rep 5, 11864 (2015). doi: 10.1038/srep11864

  3. Cowen PJ, Browning M. What has serotonin to do with depression? World Psychiatry. 2015;14(2):158-160. doi:10.1002/wps.20229

  4. Patrick RP, Ames BN. Vitamin D and the omega-3 fatty acids control serotonin synthesis and action, part 2: relevance for ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and impulsive behaviorFASEB J. 2015;29(6):2207-2222. doi:10.1096/fj.14-268342

  5. Vlainić JV, Šuran J, Vlainić T, Vukorep AL. Probiotics as an adjuvant therapy in major depressive disorderCurr Neuropharmacol. 2016;14(8):952-958. doi:10.2174/1570159x14666160526120928

  6. Yohn CN, Gergues MM, Samuels BA. The role of 5-HT receptors in depressionMol Brain. 2017;10(1):28. doi:10.1186/s13041-017-0306-y

  7. Gonçalves AC, Nunes AR, Alves G, Silva LR. Serotonin and melatonin: plant sources, analytical methods, and human health benefits. Rev Bras Farmacogn. 2021;31(2):162-175. doi:10.1007/s43450-021-00141-w

  8. Shabbir F, Patel A, Mattison C, et al. Effect of diet on serotonergic neurotransmission in depression. Neurochem Int. 2013;62(3):324-329. doi:10.1016/j.neuint.2012.12.014

  9. Medline Plus. Tryptophan.

  10. Kikuchi AM, Tanabe A, Iwahori Y. A systematic review of the effect of L-tryptophan supplementation on mood and emotional functioningJ Diet Suppl. 2021;18(3):316-333. doi:10.1080/19390211.2020.1746725

  11. Wallace CJK, Milev R. The effects of probiotics on depressive symptoms in humans: a systematic review. Ann Gen Psychiatry. 2017;16:14. doi:10.1186/s12991-017-0138-2

  12. Taylor AM, Holscher HD. A review of dietary and microbial connections to depression, anxiety, and stressNutr Neurosci. 2020;23(3):237-250. doi:10.1080/1028415X.2018.1493808

  13. van der Rhee HJ, de Vries E, Coebergh JW. Regular sun exposure benefits healthMed Hypotheses. 2016;97:34-37. doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2016.10.011

  14. Cui Y, Gong Q, Huang C, et al. The relationship between sunlight exposure duration and depressive symptoms: A cross-sectional study on elderly Chinese womenPLoS One. 2021;16(7):e0254856. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0254856

  15. National Institute of Mental Health. Seasonal affective disorder.

  16. Bennie JA, Teychenne MJ, De Cocker K, Biddle SJH. Associations between aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise with depressive symptom severity among 17,839 U.S. adultsPrev Med. 2019;121:121-127. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2019.02.022

  17. Amsterdam JD, Panossian AG. Rhodiola rosea L. as a putative botanical antidepressant. Phytomedicine. 2016;23(7):770-783. doi:10.1016/j.phymed.2016.02.009

  18. Lee S, Rhee DK. Effects of ginseng on stress-related depression, anxiety, and the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis. J Ginseng Res. 2017;41(4):589-594. doi:10.1016/j.jgr.2017.01.010

  19. Gannon JM, Brar J, Rai A, Chengappa KNR. Effects of a standardized extract of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) on depression and anxiety symptoms in persons with schizophrenia participating in a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Ann Clin Psychiatry. 2019;31(2):123-129.

  20. Mahar I, Bambico FR, Mechawar N, Nobrega JN. Stress, serotonin, and hippocampal neurogenesis in relation to depression and antidepressant effectsNeurosci Biobehav Rev. 2014;38:173-192. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.11.009

  21. FDA. Depression medicines.

  22. MedlinePlus. Antidepressants.