For many, the reduced amount of natural light, bright colors and warmth during the winter results in the blues, lowered energy and chaotic cravings. Serotonin, the chemical messenger mainly produced and stored in the intestinal tract, also plays a role in these factors.
While only about 5% of the body’s serotonin is found in the brain at any given time, it has emerged as a powerful mood stabilizer.
When your serotonin levels are normal, you feel (1):
- more focused
- less anxious
- more emotionally stable
The exact mechanism of how serotonin actually supports folks with anxiety and depression is still unknown, but the consensus, according to recent studies, is that low levels of serotonin are linked to alterations in mood and behavior. (2)
The most common type of medications to keep serotonin levels high are called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These block the re-absorption of serotonin and allow for higher levels in the blood to be maintained.
SSRIs can be extremely beneficial to individuals with depressive disorders, however, they can also have side effects that are downright frightening.
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Shift Your Perspective
There is a growing body of evidence that suggests serotonin and mood work as a two-way street. Studies have linked a positive mood to higher levels of serotonin and a negative mood to lower levels – suggesting that serotonin levels can influence mood, and by changing your mood, you can influencing your serotonin levels. (3)
This is the first time studies have found that changing your mind to have a more positive, optimistic outlook on life can actually change your serotonin levels and allow you to maintain a healthier and more positive mental make-up.
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Soak Up Some Bright Light
Studies show that serotonin is produced in larger quantities during the brightest time of day. Studies also show that serotonin production is higher in the summer compared to the winter. (3) Serotonin is a natural precursor for the sleep hormone, melatonin, and studies have found that the more bright light exposure we have during the day, the more melatonin is produced at night. (4)
Circadian science is telling us that we need more sunlight and more sleep. One study conducted in sunny San Diego found that middle-class, middle-aged adults spent less than 4% of their time or 58 minutes outdoors, and much of that time was spent in their car. People in less sunny climates generally spend more time indoors.
If you don’t have access to outdoor bright light, light boxes have also been shown to boost both mood and serotonin levels. (3,6)
Exercise has been shown to boost serotonin levels and mood. Working out has also been shown to raise tryptophan levels, which is the amino acid precursor to serotonin. Regular exercise and exercise fatigue has been shown to boost tryptophan levels and block branched-chain amino acids, which inhibit tryptophan production.
Studies show that this exercise surge in tryptophan in the brain is linked to increased serotonin levels and a more stable mood. (3)
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It has been long-thought that eating foods that contained high levels of tryptophan would boost mood by raising blood tryptophan levels, and then serotonin would be raised in concert.
While more research needs to be done here, studies have shown that while the amount of food-based tryptophan say, in turkey, is higher than most foods, it is still a tiny amount compared to the massive number of other amino acids that are competing for the same transport system to deliver these amino acids to the brain. Foods, according to this study, do not raise brain tryptophan levels. (3)
Other foods that contain high levels of serotonin, such as bananas, also will not change the levels in the brain as serotonin does not cross the blood-brain barrier. (3)
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Mood Food Possibilities
One group compared the tryptophan content of wild chickpeas and cultivated, domesticated chickpeas. The mean protein content (per mg dry seed) was similar for 73 cultivars and 15 wild varieties. In the cultivated group, however, the tryptophan content was almost twice that of the wild seeds. Interestingly, the greater part of the increase was due to an increase in the free tryptophan content (i.e., not part of the protein).
In the cultivated modern chickpea group, almost two-thirds of the tryptophan was the free form, suggesting that because of the higher ratio of free tryptophan to other amino acids in this food compared to other foods, chickpeas may very well be a viable way to boost tryptophan and serotonin levels and as a result—your mood! (3)