Serotonin supplements like specific amino acids, vitamins, minerals and herbs increase serotonin levels, helping depression and other brain-related disorders.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a large role in mood, learning, appetite control, and sleep.
It’s widely believed that low serotonin is the main underlying cause of depression.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, and Lexapro are used by millions to relieve symptoms of depression by increasing brain levels of serotonin.
But SSRIs can have serious side effects and don’t work for everyone, possibly up to 40% of those who try them. (1)
One meta-analysis concluded that 68% of these drugs’ benefits were due to the placebo effect. (2)
Several other brain-related disorders besides depression are related to low serotonin, including autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, sleep disorders, and schizophrenia. (3)
Many people with depression or other serotonin deficiency symptoms and conditions are searching for better ways to increase serotonin levels naturally without the use of drugs.
If this is your situation, here are some serotonin supplements proven to help increase serotonin levels naturally.
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 these 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.
✓Tryptophan Supplements See Amazon.com for best selection and value
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.
How Tryptophan Supports Serotonin Levels for Good Mental Health
5-HTP could be considered as 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)
5-HTP Benefits for Anxiety, Depression, Sleep
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.
✓Tryptophan Supplements See Amazon.com for best selection and value
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.
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)
✓Serotonin Boosting Supplements See Amazon.com for best selection and value
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)
Balance Your Neurotransmitters to Take Control of Your Life
Vitamins and Minerals that Increase Serotonin
According to Dr. Datis Kharrazian, 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.
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
Vitamin B6 must be present to facilitate 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)
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)
✓Antidepressant Supplements See Amazon.com for best selection and value
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)
The Importance of Vitamins for Depression
SUBJECT: Sharper thinking, better mood
Nootropic brain supplements are growing ever more popular.
Nootropics are substances that can make you more focused, motivated, positive, and productive.
That sounds good, but many of the products containing these substances are neither helpful nor harmless.
We've looked closely at the market and found a supplement that combines many of the most proven, effective, and natural brain enhancers we know.
Deane & Dr. Pat
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.
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 Supplements See Amazon.com for best selection and value
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.
Serotonin Deficiency: Signs, Symptoms, Solutions
Magnesium is a mineral essential in over 600 different metabolic functions including nervous system regulation. (28)
It has a direct effect on serotonin balance. (29)
Patients treated with magnesium supplements have experienced rapid recovery from major depressive disorder. (30)
✓Magnesium Supplements See Amazon.com for best selection and value
Besides improving mood, it’s also been shown to increase focus and concentration, energy, and resilience to stress. (31)
Magnesium deficiency is a widespread issue with up to 75% of Americans being deficient. (32)
Zinc is another essential mineral with antidepressant properties. (33)
It’s normally present in high concentrations in the brain where it assists many brain functions.
✓Zinc Supplements See Amazon.com for best selection and value
Zinc deficiency is extremely common, probably affecting 2 billion people worldwide. (36)
Children, seniors, and vegetarians are most at risk for zinc deficiency.
8 Ways Magnesium Relieves Anxiety and Stress
Food-Based Natural Serotonin Boosters
There are a few serotonin boosting compounds that originate in food.
Theoretically, you could boost your serotonin level just from food, provided you consumed enough of the right foods.
It increase levels of serotonin and can make you more resilient to stress. (38)
✓L-Theanine Supplements See Amazon.com for best selection and value
It has the unique ability to increase alpha brainwave activity which puts you in a similar brainwave state achieved during meditation. (39)
You can take l-theanine supplements or get it from drinking tea.
Serotonin Foods and Mood Disorders
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 type of nutrients for overall brain health and function.
They’re essential for building healthy brain cells and promoting new brain cell formation. (40)
People with low serotonin levels commonly have low levels of omega-3 fats.
✓Omega-3 Supplements See Amazon.com for best selection and value
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. (41)
✓DHA Supplements See Amazon.com for best selection and value
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. (42)
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 70% of the population is omega-3 deficient. (43)
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.
✓Probiotic Supplements See Amazon.com for best selection and value
Lipopolysaccharides have numerous negative effects on your brain including lowered serotonin levels. (44)
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. (45)
Natural Antidepressants: 14 Proven Ways to Beat Depression Without Drugs
Herbs That Increase Serotonin Levels
There’s a fine line between food based supplements and herbal remedies.
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 that has many brain boosting properties.
This compound increases levels of both serotonin and dopamine. (46)
✓Curcumin + Turmeric Supplements See Amazon.com for best selection and value
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)
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. (49)
It may also help with weight loss by improving mood which reduces emotional eating. (52)
If you are taking an SSRI, do not take garcinia as this combination can lead to serotonin toxicity. (53)
Brain Inflammation May Be the Cause of Your Depression
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. (54)
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.
If you have brain fog, trouble concentrating, and low energy along with your depression, it’s an excellent herb to consider.
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. (55)
✓Serotonin Boosting Supplements See Amazon.com for best selection and value
And it’s an excellent serotonin booster that also decreases the stress hormone cortisol. (56)
Rhodiola rosea helps with a wide range of brain related disorders including depression, anxiety, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and memory loss.
It can also help overcome the stress, brain fog, and anxiety that often accompany fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. (57)
It has almost no side effects and works faster to reduce depression than antidepressant medications. (58)
How to Increase Serotonin with Supplements: The Bottom Line
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are usually prescribed for depression. They work by increasing serotonin levels.
But they are not the only way to increase serotonin.
There are a wide variety of supplements that can increase serotonin levels naturally.
But there are some finer points you need to know to use serotonin supplements safely and effectively.
It’s critical that you don’t “mix and match” serotonin supplements with other substances that increase serotonin or you put yourself at risk for potentially dangerous serotonin syndrome.
Unfortunately, just as with any antidepressant medication, there is no one serotonin supplement that works for everyone.
It may require some trial and error to figure out the one that’s right for you.