Using Food to Boost Serotonin and Mood

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Making specific changes in your diet can increase your serotonin level. This may help improve mood and depression which are linked to low serotonin.

Serotonin is a major neurotransmitter dubbed the “happy molecule” for the role it plays in maintaining a positive mood.

Most brain cells are affected directly or indirectly by serotonin, as it also helps regulate appetite, social behavior, libido, sleep, memory, and learning.

A low level of serotonin is linked to depression, but taking active measures to increase brain serotonin can be a challenge.

Serotonin-boosting drugs used as antidepressants can have serious side effects and only work for about half of those who try them. (1)

Some foods do contain serotonin but, paradoxically, eating them has no effect on serotonin levels.

Fortunately, there are a few simple workarounds that can make food an effective way to increase serotonin.

List of Serotonin-Rich Foods

Dozens of plants species have been found to contain measurable amounts of serotonin.

The plants we consider food that naturally contain serotonin include: (2)

  • bananas
  • cherries
  • chicory
  • Chinese cabbage
  • coffee
  • eggplant
  • grapes
  • green beans
  • green onion
  • hickory nuts
  • hot peppers
  • kiwifruit
  • lettuce
  • nuts
  • oats
  • papaya
  • peas
  • pineapple
  • plantains
  • plums
  • potatoes
  • spinach
  • strawberries
  • tomatoes
  • walnuts

But before you run to the store to stock up on these foods, note that naturally occurring 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 there’s no evidence that these foods will do anything to boost your mood. (3)

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Foods That Contain Tryptophan, Serotonin’s Precursor

Most “serotonin foods” lists are actually lists of foods that contain tryptophan, an amino acid that’s a precursor of serotonin.

You need some tryptophan in your diet to create serotonin, and when dietary intake of tryptophan is low, serotonin levels drop. (4)

Most foods that are good sources of protein are also good sources of tryptophan.

Top tryptophan-containing foods include: (5)

  • cheese
  • chickpeas
  • chocolate 
  • eggs
  • fish
  • meat of all kinds
  • nuts
  • oats
  • poultry of all kinds
  • seafood of all kinds
  • seeds
  • soy

But frustratingly, eating foods high in tryptophan still does not mean that it will enter your brain or turn into serotonin any more than eating serotonin-rich foods does!

The Serotonin-Food Dilemma

If you want to increase serotonin, you need to eat protein for its tryptophan — a critical building block for synthesizing brain serotonin.

Yet paradoxically, protein blocks serotonin formation.

Levels of both tryptophan and serotonin drop after eating a meal that contains protein! (6)

" Overeating carbs is a common, but unhealthy, way of self-medicating to raise serotonin levels.

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Even a small amount of protein eaten with carbohydrates inhibits serotonin formation. (7)

Additionally, tryptophan does a poor job of competing with other amino acids for uptake into the brain.

The Serotonin-Food Solution

So, if consuming foods that contain either serotonin or tryptophan does not increase serotonin, what can you do?

Judith Wurtman, PhD is a former director of the Program in Women’s Health at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Clinical Research Center.

Her husband, Richard Wurtman, MD, is the director of the Clinical Research Center at MIT.

Together, they discovered that it’s not a coincidence that people binge on carbohydrates when they want to lift their mood.

Overeating carbs is a common, but unhealthy, way of self-medicating to raise serotonin levels. (8, 9)

They also discovered 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.

How to Increase Serotonin With Strategic Eating

The Wurtmans 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 on their own.

This approach is detailed in Dr. Judith Wurtman’s book The Serotonin Power Diet.

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 keto diets have drummed into our heads that carbohydrates should be eaten in extreme moderation.

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.

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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 those susceptible to low serotonin?

A Typical Day on a Serotonin Diet

Another serotonin diet book based on strategic carbohydrate eating is Secrets of Serotonin by Carol Hart, PhD.

A Typical Day on Carol Hart’s Strategic Carbohydrate Eating Plan

BREAKFAST: toast with fruit spread, hot cereal with raisins, or fruit salad

LUNCH: large green salad, vegetable soup, vegetarian stir-fry 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 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 rein to indulge in all the carbs you want.

Simple carbohydrates like sugar and white flour boost serotonin and mood the fastest, but the effect lasts only an hour or two and there is nothing healthy about these foods. (10)

So, we recommend putting a strong emphasis on brain-healthy carbohydrates like vegetables, fruit, legumes, and non-wheat grains like rice and oatmeal, instead of relying on bread and crackers.

If you are daunted by making this change to your diet, rest assured that it may not be necessary to restrict protein to this extent forever.

Some people find that eating one carb-only meal or snack every day is enough to keep their serotonin level and mood where they want it to be.

Note: If you have diabetes or other insulin-related disorder, talk to your doctor before making any major changes to your diet.

NEED A MENTAL PERFORMANCE LIFT?

woman watering flower springing from her head

Does this sound like you?

Fuzzy thinking, foggy focus, forgetfulness?

Lack of energy and drive?

Struggle to learn and make decisions?

A quality brain supplement can make a big difference.

See our MIND LAB PRO review.

Dr. Pat | Be Brain Fit

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.

I suggest you read the Amazon comments for The Serotonin Power Diet.

You’ll see that many reviewers found that strategically eating carbs not only improves their mood, but often helps them lose weight and reduce cravings.

Four Foods That Increase Serotonin Naturally

There are a handful of foods that do not contain serotonin, but work by a variety of mechanisms to increase serotonin naturally.

Turmeric

The spice turmeric contains the active ingredient curcumin which readily crosses the blood-brain barrier and increases levels of both serotonin and dopamine, another neurotransmitter linked to depression. (11)

Curcumin supplements have proven to be as effective as Prozac for depression. (12)

Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate, always a popular brain booster, increases serotonin levels in the brain. (13)

This is important since, a whopping 95% of serotonin resides in the gut, not in the brain. (14)

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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. (15)

Fermented Foods

Fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, and unpasteurized sauerkraut naturally contain psychobiotics, probiotics that specifically bestow mental health benefits. 

Traditionally fermented foods also help establish a healthy 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 the brain, including lowering serotonin levels and contributing to depression. (16)

Stress, sugar, alcohol, artificial sweeteners, emulsifiers, chlorinated tap water, parasites, inflammation, environmental toxins, and even antibacterial hand soap can disrupt your intestinal flora balance. (1718, 19202122, 23, 24)

So do many prescription medications with proton-pump inhibitors — metformin, antibiotics, and laxatives being the worst offenders. (25)

Beverages That Affect Serotonin Levels

Tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world and its health benefits are legendary. (26)

Approximately 1,400 naturally occurring compounds have been identified in tea, including l-theanine. (27)

L-theanine is found almost exclusively in true teas — white, green, oolong, and black teas — which come from the leaves of the same evergreen bush, Camilla sinensis.

L-theanine is an amino acid that has a relaxing, but not sedating, effect.

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It naturally increases levels of serotonin as well as two other critical mood neurotransmitters, dopamine and GABA. (28)

Your favorite beverages could also be sabotaging your efforts by decreasing your serotonin levels.

Most people drink alcohol to feel happy and relaxed, but in fact, it decreases serotonin. (29)

Diet soda sweetened with aspartame is another culprit.

This artificial sweetener reduces serotonin levels by inhibiting the brain’s uptake and conversion of tryptophan. (30)

Boosting Serotonin With Food: Take the Next Step

The neurotransmitter serotonin is essential for a positive mood.

While there are a handful of foods that contain serotonin, they do not raise serotonin levels in the brain.

Tryptophan is the amino acid precursor of serotonin.

But eating foods that contain tryptophan do not raise serotonin levels in the brain either.

The key is the strategic consumption of carbohydrate-rich foods.

To increase serotonin levels with your diet, try this approach:

  • Strategically eat carbohydrates alone without any protein source some of the time.
  • Incorporate serotonin-boosting foods like turmeric, cold-water fatty fish, and fermented foods into your diet.
  • Drink tea, which increases serotonin, and minimize diet drinks and alcohol, which decrease serotonin.