• Serotonin is a hormone that helps regulate mood, sleep, memory, learning, and cognition.
  • To increase serotonin naturally, try daily exercise, more sunlight, and spending time with friends. 
  • Talk to a doctor if you're experiencing depressive moods that are interfering with daily activities.

Have you ever wondered why you suddenly feel happier after exercising or getting a really relaxing massage? There may be a reason for that. Serotonin, known as the "happy chemical" in your brain, is heightened by doing these activities. 

In fact, knowing how to naturally enhance your serotonin levels may help boost your mood. Here's how to increase serotonin levels and tips to integrate these practices into your daily life. 

What is serotonin?

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, meaning that brain and nervous system cells use it to communicate with one another. It's a hormone that maintains our mood and general well-being, while also regulating several brain functions like appetite, learning, sleep, memory, and cognition. 

If your serotonin levels are low, you may be more susceptible to depressive moods. To boost your mood, you can increase serotonin levels naturally in the following ways: 

1. Exercise regularly

According to a 2016 review, exercise can increase serotonin levels, as well as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) activity. The BDNF gene makes a protein that stimulates nerve cells and is found in areas of the brain that control body weight, eating, and drinking. BDNF and serotonin levels are thought to be related in regulating mood. 

"Because exercise stimulates BDNF activity, it is commonly associated with an improved mood," says Mimi Winsberg, MD, a psychiatrist in San Francisco and co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of Brightside, a mental health provider. "To put it simply, that's why exercise makes you feel better." 

 Any type of exercise that you enjoy — from walking to yoga to cycling — can be effective at boosting serotonin. Winsberg recommends getting at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise three times per week. 

2. Improve your diet  

Serotonin is derived from the essential amino acid known as tryptophan. Because your body does not naturally produce it, you must get tryptophan from your diet.

Incorporating foods into your meals that contain high amounts of tryptophan can increase serotonin levels. Some foods you can eat with high levels of tryptophan include:

  • Salmon
  • Eggs
  • Soy products like tofu and soy sauce
  • Poultry like chicken and turkey
  • Corn
  • Seeds and nuts like pumpkin seeds and walnuts

3. Get more light

If you've ever heard of the term seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), then you know how vital sunlight can be to your happiness and wellbeing. As winter approaches, it starts getting darker much earlier in the day, which may affect your mood and make you more prone to sadness. 

"The brain produces serotonin in response to sun and daylight," says Winsberg. "Lack of exposure to sun and daylight can cause SAD, which resembles depression in its clinical picture. If you are prone to depression or seasonal affective disorder, getting out once a day in mid-day for a short walk can be very helpful." 

 If you spend most of your days indoors due to work or school, you may want to invest in a specialized lamp that you can use in lieu of being outside. There are tons on the market that are specifically targeted to those who may experience seasonal depression. 

According to Winsberg, using it within the first hour of waking up for 20 to 30 minutes per day (at a distance of two feet, without looking directly at the light) can be especially effective

4. Try a massage 

According to a 2005 review, massage therapy can effectively boost serotonin levels by an average of 28%.

This is due to a decrease in cortisol, which is known as your "fight-or-flight response," or built-in alarm hormone, which lets you know when you're in danger. In other words, it keeps you on high alert and with a rapid heart rate. Massages are able to decrease cortisol and increase serotonin, making you calmer and thus helping to regulate your mood.

"This type of safe and nurturing touch can come from a loved one, partner, or a professional massage therapist," says Winsberg.

5. Use supplements 

Certain supplements can quickly boost serotonin levels by increasing tryptophan, the amino acid that you can get from the foods listed above. It's always important to check in with a doctor before taking any supplements, especially if you also take prescription medication. 

Winsberg says you should not take these supplements if you're already on antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). 

Some supplements you could take to boost serotonin include:

  • SAMe (S-adenosyl-L-methionine). Negative effects of SAMe are not common, but it may negatively impact those who are immunocompromised or have bipolar disorder. 
  • St. John's Wort. This supplement works for some people, but not all. It may make other medications like hormonal birth control, cancer treatment drugs, or blood clotting medication less effective.
  • 5HTP. A 2013 study found this supplement may work just as well as antidepressants, but only for those with early symptoms of depression. However, a 2020 systematic review of 13 investigations suggests that more research is needed. 

6. Support your gut bacteria

Researchers are beginning to probe deeper into the mind and body connection through what they call the gut-brain axis. The gastrointestinal tract, starting from the mouth and ending at the anus, produces more than 90% of the body's serotonin. 

The gut-brain axis is essentially a two-way communication network, meaning that what happens in the central nervous system affects the gastrointestinal tract and vice-versa. Research in mice—and to a certain extent in humans—suggests that balancing gut bacteria may be one part of the missing puzzle in treating depression and anxiety. 

Introducing good bacteria found in probiotic foods and supplements is one way to potentially boost serotonin and as a result, improve gut function. The influence of boosted serotonin from the gut has also been linked to reduced inflammation, suggesting a powerful connection between the mind and body. 

Foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, and kombucha are natural sources of probiotics. You also have the option to buy over-the-counter supplements. 

At this time, research suggests that probiotics are more effective when used with antidepressants, as opposed to a stand-alone treatment for depression. How they work for people with gut issues who aren't on antidepressants is still under debate among researchers.

7. Manage stress

Stress is often used as an umbrella term to describe situational circumstances and mood states. Although researchers have trouble agreeing on a single definition of stress, some recognize the need to distinguish between stressors and stress responses in health research.  

Stressors are events that cause stress, such as losing your job; stress responses include emotional or biological changes in response to a stressor, such as irritation, nervousness, increased blood pressure, or digestive issues. 

Regardless of the type of stress you're facing, when your brain releases cortisol and activates the fight or flight response, your mood changes, and so do your serotonin levels. According to an older study from 2001, elevated cortisol levels due to stress increase serotonin uptake, making less serotonin available in the brain. That's why stress management can be so effective for balancing serotonin. 

Managing stress includes activities such as meeting with a talk therapist, meditating, breathing exercises, or going into nature. Other methods for managing stress include:

  • Regular exercise
  • Quality sleep
  • Laughter
  • Limited caffeine intake
  • Limited alcohol intake
  • Journaling

8. Practice gratitude

The study of gratitude and serotonin is an ongoing research topic. Neuroscientists know that practicing gratitude enhances the release of mood neurotransmitters like serotonin. 

Gratitude refers to the ability to appreciate the positive and good aspects of life. It has far-reaching benefits for your mood, self-esteem, physical health, and happiness. 

Expressing gratitude in a meaningful way looks different for everyone. For example, to practice gratitude, record written or visual reminders to yourself or someone else. You can practice gratitude through meditation, journaling, or telling loved ones what you're grateful for. As a daily practice, gratitude may strengthen your brain's ability to release serotonin.  

9. Hug your pet

Oxytocin is another "happy" neurotransmitter associated with improved mood and sociability. Researchers speculate that increased oxytocin and serotonin have a reciprocal relationship, making them powerful therapeutic targets when considered together. 

Pet ownership is linked to repeated exposure to oxytocin, which reduces cortisol, blood pressure, and feelings of loneliness. 

The next time you feel sad, try hugging your pet. The closeness you feel at that moment is due to a release of oxytocin. As a result, you feel calmer and more joyful. Pets offer emotional support, which may have positive effects on serotonin levels.  

10. Spend time with loved ones

For decades, researchers have debated the role of serotonin in aggression, mood, and social interactions. 

Current neuro research suggests that deficiencies in the brain's amygdala could be linked to low levels of tryptophan and serotonin. As the brain's emotional processing center, amygdala dysfunction—among other things—is associated with increased aggression, irritability, and antisocial traits. 

Since depression and anxiety have the potential to affect a person's mood and desire to be around others, having a strong support system may help you feel less threatened and alone. 

When you let your guard down around friends or trusted family members, you can experience feelings of confidence, togetherness, and empathy. These emotions deactivate the amygdala's fear response and may boost serotonin. 

11. Get outside

Researchers express concern about the negative effect of rapid urbanization on mental health. Constantly being overstimulated in urban environments causes cognitive fatigue and stress, which is why some people choose to escape into natural environments.

Not only is nature associated with improved mental health, but being immersed in the outdoors may improve attention, especially in children. As for the effect of nature on serotonin levels, the underlying mechanism is still unclear, although researchers believe that interacting with nature may beneficially alter gut bacteria. 

12. Laugh

Scientifically, the saying "laughter is medicine" is attributed to the brain's release of serotonin, oxytocin, and other feel-good chemicals. Try watching a funny video or phoning a friend who makes you laugh when you're feeling down. 

The therapeutic benefits of laughter have to do with the power of positivity and its effect on serotonin brain activity. Laughing also triggers a natural release of endorphins, which can help with depressed moods.  

What causes a lack of serotonin?

At this time, it's difficult to pinpoint one specific cause of serotonin deficiency. While depression is associated with low serotonin, this does not mean that depression causes a lack of serotonin. When thinking about the causes of low serotonin, the following contributing factors may play a role:

  • Stress
  • Genes
  • An unbalanced diet
  • Low sun exposure
  • Minimal exercise
  • Certain medications
  • Hormonal changes and aging
  • Lack of serotonin receptors

Insider's takeaway

Overall, there are many ways to increase serotonin levels naturally. From food and light to massages and supplements, there are natural ways to elevate your mood. However, you should talk to a doctor when depressive symptoms become moderate or severe. 

"When symptoms enter the moderate to severe range and begin to interfere with social and occupational functioning, medication can be a helpful addition to manage and treat symptoms of depression," says Winsberg. "If you are unsure where on the range your symptoms fall, taking a free online evaluation can help figure out the best immediate next step."

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