Serotonin Supplements to Boost Mood Naturally (a review)

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

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Specific amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and herbs effectively raise serotonin levels, helping to reduce depression and other mental health disorders.

Serotonin-boosting supplements are an effective, non-drug option for increasing serotonin, a major neurotransmitter largely responsible for a positive mood.

Many mental health disorders are 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.

However, the most common serotonin-boosting drugs, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can have serious side effects and don’t work for about half of those who try them. (2a, 2b)

Serotonin supplements can be a viable option.

How Supplements Increase Serotonin Naturally

Before you try any serotonin-enhancing supplements, it’s important to understand a little bit about them and especially how they work together.

There are many kinds of nutritional supplements that increase serotonin levels by various mechanisms.

Some provide building blocks of serotonin, such as amino acid precursors. 

Others are essential cofactors required for the synthesis of serotonin. 

" 90% of your body’s total serotonin is synthesized in the intestines, not in the brain.

Some have their own natural antidepressant properties, while others work synergistically with other serotonin-boosting substances.

Conversely, there are times when some of these supplements can react adversely with medications or other serotonin supplements.

Amino Acid Serotonin-Boosting Supplements

Some of the most widely used supplements for increasing serotonin are amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. 

The first two, tryptophan and 5-HTP, are precursors to serotonin, as illustrated in the image below.

diagram of the tryptophan-serotonin synthesis pathway
The pathway of tryptophan-serotonin synthesis.
Image courtesy of Dr. Katherine Chung

Later, we’ll discuss vitamins and minerals (in the green boxes above) that are cofactors needed to synthesize serotonin.

1. Tryptophan

Tryptophan is an amino acid commonly found in protein-rich foods like animal products.

Since tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, eating foods containing tryptophan would seem to be a sound approach to boosting serotonin.

But surprisingly, less than 1% of tryptophan from food enters the brain, while tryptophan supplements have been shown to effectively increase brain serotonin levels. (3)

Thus, tryptophan supplements are a better choice for increasing serotonin than tryptophan-rich foods. (4)

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2. 5-HTP 

5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) is another amino acid that gets converted directly into serotonin provided the right cofactors are present. 

It naturally occurs in substantial amounts in the seeds of Griffonia simplicifolia, a woody African shrub. (5)

In the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom, 5-HTP is sold as an over-the-counter supplement most commonly used for depression and appetite suppression, and as a sleep aid. (6, 7)

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. (8)

Tryptophan or 5-HTP? An Ongoing Debate

There’s an ongoing discussion in the natural health community about 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 be converted into serotonin.

The evidence currently favors tryptophan supplements.

First, studies have not found conclusively that 5-HTP helps depression.

Second, 5-HTP is not suitable for long-term use.

While it increases serotonin levels, 5-HTP depletes dopamine and norepinephrine, two other neurotransmitters critical for positive mood. (9)

Within a few months, 5-HTP stops working and often causes a cascade of negative side effects.

3. SAM-e 

SAM-e (s-adenosyl methionine) naturally occurs in every cell of the body and brain, and fuels over 100 metabolic reactions.

SAM-e is 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. (10)

Several studies have shown that SAM-e works as well for depression as some antidepressant medications by increasing serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine levels. (11)

It’s particularly helpful for Parkinson’s and schizophrenia patients who also have depression. (12, 13)

SAM-e should not be taken with drugs that affect serotonin release, such as levodopa, Demerol, or Ultram, or the over-the-counter cough remedy Robitussin DM. (14)

Vitamins and Minerals That Increase Serotonin

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 (pyridoxine) must be present to facilitate the conversion of either 5-HTP or tryptophan into serotonin. (15)

5-HTP or tryptophan supplements often contain B6 for this reason.

5. Folic Acid (vitamin B9)

People suffering from major depression consistently have low blood levels of folic acid, also known as vitamin B9. (16)

Folic acid deficiency, in turn, can cause low serotonin levels.

Folic acid works as an antidepressant by modulating serotonin receptor activity in the brain. (17)

One study concluded that everyone with depression should be taking folic acid along with vitamin B12 since the potential benefits are so great. (18)

Folic acid magnifies the effects of both SAM-e and antidepressant medications such as Prozac. (19)

6. Vitamin C

Vitamin C is another serotonin cofactor that can act as a natural antidepressant. (20)

One study found that participants who were given vitamin C reported feeling happier, often within as little as one week. (21)

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 deficient vitamin for your brain and mood.

Deficiency is rampant, with an estimated 77% of Americans not getting enough. (22)

A low level of vitamin D is thought to be responsible for the type of depression, known as winter blues or seasonal affective disorder, that many people feel in the winter. (23)

Vitamin D regulates the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin. (24)

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 that they work synergistically to optimize serotonin levels. (25)

8. Magnesium

Magnesium is a mineral that’s essential in over 600 different metabolic functions, including nervous system regulation. (26)

Magnesium deficiency is linked to lower serotonin levels. (27)

Patients treated with magnesium supplements have experienced rapid recovery from major depressive disorder. (28)

Besides improving mood, it’s also been shown to increase focus and concentration, energy, and resilience to stress. (29)

Magnesium deficiency is a widespread issue with up to 75% of Americans being deficient. (30)

9. Zinc

Zinc is another essential mineral with antidepressant properties. (31)

It’s normally present in high concentrations in the brain where it assists many brain functions.

It increases the uptake of serotonin in certain areas of the brain and shows potential as a treatment for major depressive disorder. (3233)

Zinc deficiency is extremely common and is believed to affect 2 billion people worldwide. (34)

Children, seniors, and vegetarians are most at risk for zinc deficiency.

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Food-Based Supplements That Raise Serotonin Levels

There are a few serotonin-boosting compounds that originate in food.

Theoretically, you could raise your serotonin level from your diet alone if you consumed enough of the right foods.

But practically, that would be hard.

10. L-Theanine

L-theanine is a brain health-promoting amino acid found almost exclusively in true teas — white, green, oolong, and black — that come from the leaves of the Camilla sinensis bush. (35)

L-theanine increases the level of serotonin and can make you more resilient to stress. (36)

It has the unique ability to increase alpha brainwave activity, inducing a brainwave state similar to that achieved during meditation. (37)

You can get l-theanine from drinking tea or taking an l-theanine supplement.

11. Omega-3s

Omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) are found mainly in cold-water, fatty fish like salmon and mackerel.

Omega-3s are one of the most important groups of nutrients for overall brain health and function.

They’re essential for building healthy brain cells and promoting new brain cell formation. (38)

People with low serotonin levels commonly have low levels of omega-3 EFAs.

Two major types of omega-3s are DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), both of which are involved with serotonin activity.

DHA makes serotonin receptors more receptive, while EPA increases the release of serotonin from neurons. (39)

DHA is generally considered the most important of the omega-3s for brain function.

Low levels of DHA are linked to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, memory loss, and attention disorders. (40)

You could get enough omega-3s from your diet if you ate wild salmon every day, but few of us do. 

It’s estimated that 80% of the world’s population is omega-3 deficient. (41)

Omega-3 supplements are available in the form of fish oil, krill oil, or algal oil. 

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12. Probiotics

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. (42)

Probiotic supplements can help if you don’t regularly eat fermented foods.

Lifestyle factors that disrupt your gut flora balance include: (434445464748, 49)

  • stress
  • exposure to environmental toxins
  • consumption of sugar, artificial sweeteners, alcohol, and food emulsifiers

So does the widespread use of antibacterial soap and hand sanitizers. (50)

Interestingly, 90% of your body’s total serotonin is synthesized in the intestines, not in the brain. (51)

Herbal Supplements to Increase Serotonin 

The members of this last group, herbal serotonin-boosting supplements, are derived from plants, but are not normally consumed as food. 

13. Curcumin

Curcumin is the active ingredient in the spice turmeric which has many brain-healthy properties.

This compound increases levels of both serotonin and dopamine. (52)

Curcumin supplements have proven to be as effective for depression as the antidepressant Prozac. (53)

Isolated curcumin is not well utilized by the body, so look for a curcumin supplement that has enhanced bioavailability.

Most commonly, the action of curcumin supplements is augmented by the addition of piperine, a compound found in black pepper that increases curcumin absorption by up to 2,000%. (54)

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 purportedly works by decreasing appetite while increasing the body’s ability to burn fat.

Studies show that it’s minimally effective as a fat burner, but it does suppress appetite by increasing serotonin levels. (5556)

It may also help with weight loss by improving mood, thereby reducing emotional eating.

If you are taking an SSRI (a type of drug commonly prescribed for depression), do not take garcinia as this combination can lead to serotonin overload. (57)

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. (58)

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 time of the ancient Greeks to boost overall physical and mental vitality.

It’s considered an adaptogen, a natural substance that increases your resistance to stress. (59)

Besides increasing serotonin, it’s also an excellent energy booster. (60)

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 can work faster to reduce depression than antidepressant medications. (61)

If you have brain fog, trouble concentrating, and low energy along with your depression, it’s an excellent herb to consider.

Safety Warning When Using Supplements to Boost Serotonin

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, putting you at risk for a potentially dangerous condition known as serotonin syndrome. (62)

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.

It is not safe to mix these supplements with antidepressants or with each other. (636465)

Serotonin syndrome should be taken very seriously since symptoms range from mild to fatal.

Prescription antidepressants aren’t the only drugs that can raise serotonin levels too high.

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 the consumer advocacy organization Drugwatch.com.

If you have any doubts as to whether you should be taking any of these supplements, we urge you to talk with a knowledgeable health care professional.

Serotonin Supplements: Take the Next Step

Prescription antidepressants are the standard medical treatment for depression, but they aren’t right for everyone.

There are a handful of supplements — certain amino acids, herbs, vitamins, 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 ones work best for you.

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