Serotonin-rich foods don’t boost serotonin, but a special serotonin diet and some specific foods can elevate mood and help treat disorders like depression.
What you’ll learn about serotonin foods in this article:
- Why serotonin-rich foods don’t raise serotonin levels
- How to increase serotonin with strategic carbohydrate consumption (including a typical day on a serotonin diet)
- 5 foods that indirectly increase serotonin naturally
- Beverages that decrease your serotonin levels (avoid these)
Boosting serotonin, a major neurotransmitter dubbed the “happy molecule” for the role it plays in maintaining a positive mood, is problematic. (1)
Serotonin-boosting drugs used as antidepressants can have serious side effects and don’t work for almost half of those who try them. (2)
Some foods do contain serotonin but, paradoxically, eating them has no effect on serotonin levels.
Fortunately, a few simple workarounds can make food an effective way to increase serotonin.
Serotonin-Rich Foods Don’t Raise Serotonin Levels
You may have heard you should eat bananas to raise serotonin levels because they contain serotonin.
Or that you should eat turkey because it contains tryptophan, a serotonin precursor.
While these tips sound good, they are myths with no basis in reality.
There are very few natural serotonin food sources. (3)
The list of serotonin-rich foods is a short one:
- hickory nuts
The serotonin in food does not cross the blood-brain barrier, your brain’s security system for keeping out foreign substances.
So the serotonin found in food does not get into your brain and will not boost your mood. (4)
Serotonin Deficiency: Signs, Symptoms, Solutions
Serotonin Foods and Tryptophan
Most “serotonin foods” lists are actually lists of foods that contain tryptophan, an amino acid that’s a precursor of serotonin. (5)
Most foods that are good sources of protein are also good sources of tryptophan.
- seafood of all kinds
- meat of all kinds
- poultry of all kinds
But eating tryptophan doesn’t guarantee it will get into your brain or turn into serotonin any more than eating serotonin-rich foods does!
Here’s why …
How Tryptophan Supports Serotonin Levels for Good Mental Health
The Serotonin Diet Solution
If you want to increase serotonin, you need to eat protein for its tryptophan — a critical building block for synthesizing brain serotonin. (8)
Yet paradoxically, protein blocks serotonin formation.
Levels of both tryptophan and serotonin drop after eating a meal that contains protein! (9)
Even a small amount of protein eaten with carbohydrates inhibits serotonin formation. (10)
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If ingesting neither serotonin nor tryptophan-containing foods increases serotonin, what does?
During her research at MIT, Dr. Judith J. Wurtman, co-author of The Serotonin Power Diet, discovered why people binge on sweets or starchy carbohydrates to relieve depression, anxiety, or anger.
They do it because it raises their brain serotonin levels, thus making them feel happier.
She also discovered the key to synthesizing serotonin with food.
While there aren’t serotonin foods per se, there is a way to eat strategically to get tryptophan into your brain to boost serotonin levels.
It’s not just what you eat, but how you eat it.
Until this discovery, the relationship between tryptophan, serotonin and food had been a puzzle.
But the solution turned out to be surprisingly simple.
15 Serotonin Supplements to Boost Mood Naturally
Increase Serotonin with Strategic Carbohydrate Consumption
Dr. Wurtman found that occasionally eating carbohydrates on their own — with no protein — avoided the problem of protein blocking serotonin synthesis.
So the answer to the dilemma of increasing serotonin with food is to eat more carbohydrates, and to eat them on their own.
This is a bit of a shock when you consider how often we’ve been told that carbohydrates are bad for us and make us fat and unhealthy.
Commercial diet plans like Atkins and South Beach and diet movements like paleo and gluten-free have drummed into our heads that carbohydrates should be eaten in extreme moderation.
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They’ve promised that low-carb is the way to go to be lean and healthy and avoid diseases like diabetes, obesity, and Alzheimer’s.
Diets like “The Zone” contend that when you do eat carbs they should always be eaten with both fat and protein.
Is it possible that all this low-carb eating has contributed to depression and other mood disorders in susceptible people?
A Typical Day on a Serotonin Diet
Another serotonin diet book based on strategic carbohydrate eating is Carol Hart’s Secrets of Serotonin: The Natural Hormone That Curbs Food and Alcohol Cravings, Reduces Pain, and Elevates Your Mood.
A typical day following her plan would look something like this:
BREAKFAST: toast with fruit spread, hot cereal with raisins, or fruit salad
LUNCH: large green salad, vegetable soup, vegetarian stir fry or or grilled vegetables
SNACKS: fresh or dried fruit, pita bread or raw vegetables with hummus, tortilla chips with salsa, or popcorn
DINNER: protein source of choice, vegetables, and rice, pasta, potatoes, or sweet potatoes
While simple carbohydrates like sugar and white flour boost serotonin and mood the fastest, the effect lasts only an hour or two. (11)
While both of these serotonin diet plans give you the green light to eat foods like bagels, crackers, and biscotti, they do not give you free reign to indulge in all the carbs you want.
While we don’t consider refined wheat to be a healthy brain food, there’s little harm in giving the serotonin diet a try to see if it gives you the mood lift you’re hoping for.
However, we recommend that you follow serotonin diet principles while avoiding wheat and refined carbohydrates by emphasizing brain-healthy carbohydrates like potatoes, root vegetables, fruit, and non-wheat grains like rice and oatmeal.
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Eating Carbs — Without the Guilt
If you’ve been following a low-carb diet, I can almost feel your guilt about selectively eating carbohydrates.
You may be worried that adding so many carbs back into your diet will make you gain weight or set off carb cravings.
In fact, you may find the opposite to be true.
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I suggest you read the Amazon comments for both of the serotonin diet books mentioned above.
Commenters claim that strategically eating carbs not only improves their mood, but often helps them lose weight and reduce cravings.
It’s not a coincidence that people binge on carbohydrates when they want to lift their mood.
Overeating carbs is a way of self-medicating to raise serotonin levels. (12)
The Role Sugar Plays in Depression and Anxiety
Five Foods That Increase Serotonin Naturally
There are a handful of foods that work by a variety of mechanisms to increase serotonin naturally.
The spice turmeric contains the active ingredient curcumin which readily crosses the blood-brain barrier and increases levels of both serotonin and dopamine. (13)
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Surprisingly, 95% of serotonin resides in the gut, not the brain! (16)
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A healthy alternative to chocolate candy bars are cacao nibs which contain all the mood-boosting compounds found in chocolate, minus the sugar.
They are significantly less processed as well.
12 Brain Foods That Supercharge Your Memory, Focus & Mood
Green tea is one of the healthiest drinks on the planet.
It contains over 700 bioactive compounds including l-theanine.
This naturally relaxing amino acid increases levels of serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. (17)
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Cold-Water Fatty Fish
People with low serotonin levels commonly have low levels of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid that is an essential structural building block of the brain.
Eating cold-water fatty fish like salmon that’s high in omega-3 fatty acids can help raise serotonin levels. (18)
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Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir and unpasteurized sauerkraut naturally contain psychobiotics, probiotics that help establish a normal balance between good and bad bacteria in your intestines.
An overabundance of bad bacteria creates toxic byproducts called lipopolysaccharides which have numerous negative effects on your brain including lowering serotonin levels and causing depression. (19, 20, 21)
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Dopamine Deficiency, Depression and Mental Health
Is Your Favorite Beverage Lowering Your Serotonin Level?
Your favorite beverages could be decreasing your serotonin levels.
Most people drink alcohol to feel happy, but it decreases serotonin. (26)
The artificial sweetener aspartame found in diet drinks reduces serotonin levels by inhibiting the brain’s uptake and conversion of tryptophan. (27)
Caffeine is found in many of the most popular beverages — coffee, tea, energy drinks, and various kinds of sodas.
The relationship between caffeine and serotonin is complex, but there’s evidence that when consumed over time, caffeine eventually leads to brain cells becoming desensitized to serotonin or leading to serotonin suppression. (28, 29)
How to Increase Serotonin with Food: The Bottom Line
Eating serotonin-rich foods or foods high in tryptophan does not raise serotonin levels in the brain.
To increase serotonin levels with your diet, try this approach:
- Strategically eat carbohydrates alone without any protein source some of the time. (We’ve given you a typical day of a serotonin diet plan to get you started.)
- Incorporate serotonin-boosting foods like turmeric, cold-water fatty fish, and fermented foods into your diet.
- Minimize serotonin inhibitors like diet soda, alcohol, and caffeine. (A little green tea or dark chocolate is OK!)
If you suspect you have a serotonin deficiency, this should be the way to improve your mood with food.