Serotonin supplements like specific amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and herbs raise serotonin levels, helping depression and other brain-related disorders.
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Serotonin supplements are an effective, non-drug option for increasing serotonin, one of the body’s major neurotransmitters.
There are many mental health disorders linked to low serotonin levels, including depression, anxiety, autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, sleep disorders, and schizophrenia. (1)
The first-line medical treatment for depression is prescription antidepressant medications which work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain.
Serotonin supplements can be a viable option.
The Types of Supplements That Increase Serotonin Naturally
There are many kinds of nutritional supplements that increase serotonin levels — amino acids, vitamins, minerals, herbs, and more.
Before you take any serotonin supplement, it’s important to understand a little bit about them and especially how they work together.
Sometimes there are vital synergistic relationships between various serotonin-boosting substances.
There are several cofactors required to make the most commonly used serotonin supplements do their job.
Conversely, there are times when these supplements can react adversely with medications or other serotonin supplements, and you need to know about those too.
Amino Acid Serotonin Supplements
Three of the most widely used serotonin supplements are the amino acids tryptophan, 5-HTP, and SAM-e.
Do so only if you are working with a knowledgeable health care professional.
Together, they can cause too large an increase in serotonin which can result in a potentially serious condition known as serotonin syndrome.
Serotonin syndrome should be taken very seriously.
Symptoms range from mild to fatal.
Tryptophan might seem like a logical serotonin supplement to try first since tryptophan is a precursor of serotonin.
Tryptophan is an amino acid commonly found in protein-rich foods like animal products.
But since protein blocks serotonin synthesis, eating a meal containing protein will actually cause both tryptophan and serotonin levels to drop.
However, tryptophan supplements can increase brain serotonin even though eating foods containing tryptophan does not. (7)
Tryptophan supplements fell out of favor when a contaminated batch from Japan caused thousands to fall ill in the 1980s.
For decades, manufacturers shied away from selling this supplement, but it’s now readily available and widely known to be safe.
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2. 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan)
5-HTP could be considered either an amino acid or herbal supplement.
It comes from Griffonia simplicifolia, an African woody shrub.
Griffonia’s seeds contain 20% 5-HTP. (8)
But we’ve put it in the amino acid category since it’s so closely associated with tryptophan.
In the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom, 5-HTP is sold as an over-the-counter supplement for ADHD, anxiety, depression, fibromyalgia, migraines, sleep disorders, and weight loss. (9)
Elsewhere in Europe, it’s available as a prescription drug. (10)
Unfortunately, this supplement’s usefulness for depression may be more hype than substance.
A review of 108 studies on 5-HTP revealed that there is still no definitive evidence that it helps depression. (11)
Tryptophan or 5-HTP? An Ongoing Debate
There’s an ongoing discussion in the natural health community whether it’s better to take tryptophan or 5-HTP to increase serotonin levels.
Tryptophan more readily enters the brain, but 5-HTP requires one less step to convert into serotonin.
We prefer tryptophan supplements, not just because studies have not conclusively found that 5-HTP helps depression, but because 5-HTP is not intended for long-term use.
While it’s increasing serotonin, it’s depleting other neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine. (12)
Within a few months, this inevitably causes a cascade of negative side effects.
3. SAM-e (s-adenosyl methionine)
SAM-e naturally occurs in every cell of body and brain and fuels over 100 metabolic reactions.
SAM-e supplements are synthetically derived and sold in the US as a supplement.
In Europe, SAM-e is used as a prescription medication for depression, liver disease, and osteoarthritis. (13)
It’s particularly helpful for Parkinson’s and schizophrenia patients who also have depression. (16)
SAM-e should not be mixed with drugs that affect serotonin release such as levodopa, Demerol, or Ultram, or the over-the-counter cough remedy Robitussin DM. (17)
Vitamins and Minerals That Increase Serotonin
According to Harvard researcher Datis Kharrazian, PhD, DHSc, author of Why Isn’t My Brain Working?, numerous vitamins and minerals are cofactors required to synthesize serotonin.
Here are a few that are integrally connected to serotonin production.
4. Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
Vitamin B6 must be present to facilitate the conversion of either 5-HTP or tryptophan into serotonin. (18)
Often 5-HTP or tryptophan supplements also contain B6 for this reason.
People suffering from major depression consistently have low blood levels of both vitamins B9 and B12, both of which are needed for SAM-e to be utilized by the brain. (19)
5. Vitamin B9 (folic acid)
Folic acid deficiency will cause low serotonin levels.
It can act as an antidepressant, possibly by affecting serotonin receptors within the brain. (20)
One study concluded that everyone with depression should be taking folic acid since its potential benefits are so great. (21)
Folic acid enhances the effects of both SAM-e and antidepressant medications such as Prozac. (22)
6. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is another serotonin cofactor that can act as a natural antidepressant. (23)
One study found that participants who were given vitamin C reported feeling happier, often within as little as one week. (24)
Vitamin C is also required to produce dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine — neurotransmitters that boost physical and mental energy and feelings of reward and satisfaction.
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7. Vitamin D
Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, may be the most important “missing” vitamin for your brain and your mood.
Deficiency is rampant, with an estimated 77% of Americans not getting enough. (25)
Vitamin D regulates the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin. (27)
If you spend most of your time indoors or live in the northern half of the US, vitamin D supplementation is a must.
TIP! Take vitamin D along with a fish oil supplement. Researchers have discovered they work synergistically to optimize serotonin levels. (28)
Magnesium is a mineral essential in over 600 different metabolic functions, including nervous system regulation. (29)
Magnesium deficiency is linked to lower serotonin levels. (30)
Patients treated with magnesium supplements have experienced rapid recovery from major depressive disorder. (31)
Besides improving mood, it’s also been shown to increase focus and concentration, energy, and resilience to stress. (32)
Magnesium deficiency is a widespread issue, with up to 75% of Americans being deficient. (33)
Zinc is another essential mineral with antidepressant properties. (34)
It’s normally present in high concentrations in the brain where it assists many brain functions.
Zinc deficiency is extremely common and is believed to affect 2 billion people worldwide. (37)
Children, seniors, and vegetarians are most at risk for zinc deficiency.
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Food-Based Natural Serotonin Supplements
There are a few serotonin-boosting compounds that originate in food.
Theoretically, you could boost your serotonin level just from food, provided you consume enough of the right foods.
L-theanine is a brain-boosting amino acid found almost exclusively in black and green teas. (38)
It increases levels of serotonin and can make you more resilient to stress. (39)
It has the unique ability to increase alpha brainwave activity, putting you in a brainwave state similar to that achieved during meditation. (40)
You can take l-theanine supplements or get it from drinking tea.
11. Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids
Omega-3 EFAs are found mainly in cold-water, fatty fish like salmon and mackerel.
They are one of the most important types of nutrients for overall brain health and function.
They’re essential for building healthy brain cells and promoting new brain cell formation. (41)
People with low serotonin levels commonly have low levels of omega-3 fats.
Two major components of omega-3s are DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and both are involved with serotonin.
DHA makes serotonin receptors more receptive, while EPA increases the release of serotonin from neurons. (42)
DHA is generally considered the most important of the omega-3s for brain function.
Low levels of DHA are linked to depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, memory loss, and Alzheimer’s. (43)
You could get enough omega-3s from your diet if you ate wild salmon every day.
But there are very few people who wouldn’t benefit from omega-3 supplementation, in the form of fish oil or krill oil, since it’s estimated that 80% of the world’s population is omega-3 deficient. (44)
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Probiotics are good bacteria found in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, and unpasteurized sauerkraut.
They can help establish a normal balance between good and bad bacteria in your intestines, and that is surprisingly relevant to the health and function of your brain.
An overabundance of bad bacteria in the gut is called dysbiosis and creates toxic byproducts called lipopolysaccharides.
Lipopolysaccharides have numerous negative effects on your brain including lowered serotonin levels. (45)
Probiotic supplements can help if you don’t regularly eat fermented foods.
Lifestyle factors that mess up your gut flora balance include stress, alcohol, sugar, exposure to toxins, and taking antibiotics or birth control pills.
Herbal Serotonin Supplements
Herbal remedies are derived from plant parts — seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark, and flowers — and used medicinally.
This last group, herbal serotonin supplements, is derived from plants but not those we normally eat.
Curcumin is the active ingredient in the spice turmeric which has many brain-boosting properties.
This compound increases levels of both serotonin and dopamine. (46)
Isolated curcumin is not very bioavailable so look for a curcumin supplement that has taken measures to enhance bioavailability.
For example, the addition of piperine, a compound found in black pepper, increases curcumin absorption by up to 2000%. (48)
14. Garcinia Cambogia
Garcinia cambogia is a sour tropical fruit that’s used in traditional Asian cuisine.
Garcinia extract has become a wildly popular weight loss supplement that supposedly works by decreasing appetite while increasing the body’s ability to burn fat.
It may also help with weight loss by improving mood which reduces emotional eating.
If you are taking an SSRI, do not take garcinia as this combination can lead to serotonin toxicity. (51)
15. Rhodiola Rosea
Rhodiola rosea goes by many common names — Arctic root, golden root, rose root, western roseroot, Aaron’s rod, and king’s crown — to name a few. (52)
And it has almost as many uses as it has names!
Rhodiola rosea has been called an herb that’s good for whatever ails you.
It’s been used since the ancient Greeks to boost overall physical and mental vitality.
It’s a potent adaptogen that increases resistance to stress. (53)
And it’s an excellent serotonin booster that also decreases the stress hormone cortisol. (54)
Rhodiola rosea helps with a wide range of brain-related disorders including depression, anxiety, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and memory loss.
It has almost no side effects and works faster to reduce depression than antidepressant medications. (55)
If you have brain fog, trouble concentrating, and low energy along with your depression, it’s an excellent herb to consider.
Serotonin Supplement Safety
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) all work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain.
While the serotonin supplements we’ve discussed are safe on their own, not all of them can safely be taken with antidepressants or with each other.
It’s possible to raise your serotonin level too high which puts you at risk for a potentially dangerous condition known as serotonin syndrome. (56)
Symptoms of serotonin syndrome include high fever, irregular heartbeat, and seizures.
Warning: If you experience any of these symptoms or suspect you have serotonin syndrome, seek medical attention immediately.
While most serotonin-boosting supplements will not cause this problem, three that can are the amino acids tryptophan, 5-HTP, and SAM-e.
Many people are tempted to use these supplements to wean themselves off their antidepressant medication, not realizing the hazards of mixing these substances.
Antidepressants aren’t the only drugs that can raise serotonin levels.
To confirm if any drugs you’re now taking can contribute to high serotonin levels, review or download Medications That Raise Serotonin Levels, a comprehensive PDF list of prescription medications created for us by Drugwatch.com.
Serotonin Supplements: Take the Next Step
Prescription antidepressants are the first-line standard medical treatment for depression, but they aren’t right for everyone.
There are a handful of supplements — amino acids, herbs, vitamin, minerals, and food-based supplements — that can increase serotonin naturally.
However, there is no one serotonin supplement that works well for everyone, so it may require some trial and error to figure out which works best for you.
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