How to boost serotonin naturally – advice from the experts

Improve your mood with these simple serotonin-stimulating habits

Woman smiling when she realises how to boost serotonin levels through hugging
(Image credit: Getty Images)

From probiotic supplements to sunning yourself by a window, you won't believe how easy it can be.

Widely researched due to its link with depression, serotonin is a hot topic. If you struggle with low mood, or often wonder ‘Why am I so tired’, then knowing how to boost serotonin naturally is very useful information. Whatever your symptoms, there are a number of ways to top up your serotonin tank, which could include going teetotal (improved serotonin levels are one of the benefits of not drinking alcohol) or filling your diet with mood boosting foods.

Don’t know what serotonin is? Psychology expert and neuroscientist Laura Ellera explains: "Serotonin is a chemical. It's called a hormone when it’s in your body, or a neurotransmitter when it’s in your brain, and it plays different roles depending on where it is found.” Recently, a University College London review questioned if low serotonin levels did in fact cause depression, as had been thought. This in turn cast some doubt on the widespread use of SSRIs to treat the condition. Neuroscientist Laura says: “Depression is multifaceted and doesn’t just stem from one neurotransmitter. While reduced amounts of serotonin alone are unlikely to be the cause of depression, studies have shown they play a role.” 

How to boost serotonin

1. Watch your diet

Neuroscientist Laura says: “Serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan. You can't eat serotonin, but you can increase your intake of tryptophan through certain foods.” 

While turkey is high in this amino acid, it isn't as simple as eating turkey in every meal. Neuroscientist Laura continues: “It can be quite difficult for your body to convert tryptophan into serotonin. One way to get past this problem is to get your tryptophan intake from complex carbs such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. This helps to bypass other, competing processes and increase your serotonin levels.” These foods include pineapple, bananas, tomatoes and plums.

In general, eating a diet rich in whole foods and low in unprocessed foods will benefit both your physical and mental health. People who reported eating more ultra-processed foods (think sugary drinks and packaged snacks) were significantly more likely to report more mentally unhealthy days in a Public Health Nutrition study.

Finally, consider giving up alcohol. While drinking alcohol can boost serotonin levels in the brain in the short term, over time this can lead to lower levels. This is why drinking alcohol isn't advised if you are also taking SSRIs, according to the NHS.

2. Stress less

If you can manage it, it’s a great way to safeguard your serotonin levels. Medical scientist and founder of Functional Medicine Associates Pete Williams, explains how this works: “Higher levels of stress interfere with the normal production, transport and receptor effectiveness of serotonin.” But stress is not always something we can control. So what happens when that work meeting is pulled forward at the last minute or you have a worrying doctor’s appointment in the diary?

Instead of trying to avoid stress, check in with your stress levels regularly and alter your reactions to triggers when you can. Neuroscientist Laura says: “Breathing is the most direct and accessible way to reduce stress levels.” Try taking a deep breath in and then breathe out slowly out through your mouth as if through a straw. Do this several times. It can help reduce heart rate, calm your nervous system and increase your serotonin levels.

3. Be kind

Being kind goes beyond politeness. It involves going out of your way to do something or help someone, often without reward or praise. You could even build this into your week officially by volunteering. 

Neuroscientist Laura says: “Acts of kindness positively affect mood due to increased levels of oxytocin. But oxytocin also provokes the release of serotonin.” This is supported by a 2010 survey by Harvard Business School, which found that those who were more generous reported greater happiness.

Other things that increase oxytocin levels – and therefore serotonin – are hugging, cuddling, giving someone a massage and holding hands.

4. Exercise more

And running isn’t the only thing that works. Medical scientist Pete explains: “Any form of physical activity increases the uptake of amino acids that are normally competing with tryptophan to cross the blood-brain barrier. In other words, exercise reduces the amount of competition, so more tryptophan can cross into the brain, increasing serotonin levels.”

This has been proven by several studies. In one Canadian study of moderately depressed people, 20-40 minutes walking, three times per week for six weeks successfully reduced depression symptoms.

5. See the sun

Neuroscientist Laura says: “When sunlight enters our eyes, it triggers the production of serotonin. This is why people tend to be happier on sunny days.” Five 30-minute sessions of light therapy using a lightbox were shown to have an antidepressant effect in a Canadian study.

In reality, this means prioritising going outdoors in daylight hours. Or you could sit in a sunny window for 15 minutes a day. Neuroscientist Laura says: “Even if it’s not bright sunshine, you will still get some benefit. And double points if you exercise in natural daylight!"

6. Look after your gut

Medical scientist Pete Williams says: “Gut bacteria manufacture about 95% of the body’s supply of serotonin – provided you have a healthy gut microbiome.” This means that a healthier, more balanced gut should increase the levels of tryptophan in your blood. In turn, this increases the chance of more crossing the blood-brain barrier. A systematic review in the Annals of General Psychiatry found strong evidence that probiotic supplements can ease symptoms of depression through this action.

Wondering how to improve gut health? Firstly, try to add more prebiotics and probiotics for gut health to your diet. The former includes foods like bananas, onions and garlic, while the latter includes yogurt and kimchi. You could also try a probiotic supplement, such as Bio-Kult Everyday.

Bio-Kult Everyday supplement - £10.48 for 30 | Amazon

Bio-Kult Everyday supplement - £10.48 for 30 | Amazon

Bio-Kult Everyday is scientifically developed to target the digestive system. The advanced multi-strain formulation contains 14 live bacterial strains and is designed to complement your existing gut flora.

It’s also worth noting that the gut-brain connection works both ways. Stress can reduce diversity in your gut, which will have double the knock-on effects on your serotonin levels. This was proven by an Australian study which tested stool samples from university students before term started and then during exam week. The researchers found fewer lactobacilli (a type of probiotic ‘good’ bacteria) in the samples taken when the students were stressed by their upcoming assessments. This suggests that looking after your serotonin levels via several methods may be more effective than focussing on just one.

And have you ever wondered why going to the loo feels good? Neuroscientist Laura explains: “In your gut, serotonin controls peristalsis, which pushes food down through your gut. It's thought that this is the reason you feel relieved when you go to the toilet!”

What causes a lack of serotonin?

As there are many ways to increase your levels of serotonin, there are also many potential causes of insufficiency. However, one of the most common causes is chronic stress

Neuroscientist Laura says: “Stress puts such huge pressure on the body. It sucks energy away from other important functions, such as regulating hormones.” 

There are many different causes of stress. They include lack of sleep, sunshine or movement, not socialising with people you feel close to or eating an unhealthy diet, which can cause an imbalance in your gut microbiome. Short bursts of stress are normal, but when this continues over a long period of time, it can be problematic.

Other causes of serotonin insufficiency that we are less able to control include genetics and certain medications or drugs. Medical scientist Pete says: “Some individuals have gene variants that mean their body does not produce or use serotonin as it should.”

What are the signs of low serotonin levels?

  • Mood disorders such as depression and anxiety
  • Poor gut motility - this could mean constipation or bloating
  • Sleep disorders
  • Increased pain

Neuroscientist Laura explains: “Low serotonin levels have historically been associated with low mood, depression and anxiety. But they’re also linked to stomach problems, including bloating and cramps, and sleep problems. The latter is due to serotonin’s link to melatonin production, which is the hormone that induces sleep.”

Other mental health conditions such as OCD are also linked to low serotonin levels, as a Free University of Berlin study showed. Indeed panic disorders and panic attacks appear to be made worse by lack of serotonin too, according to research.

Video of the week

Laura Ellera headshot
Laura Ellera

Laura is a psychology expert, neuroscientist, integrated success coach and certified therapist known as ’The Neuroscience Knowledge Sharer’. Having navigated severe anxiety, depression, crippling imposter syndrome, suicidal tendencies and two mental breakdowns whilst she learnt how to understand her own body and mind, Laura is determined to spread the word and the science of how our nervous system impacts every aspect of our lives.

Pete Williams headshot
Pete Williams

Founder of Functional Medicine Associates, Pete is an exercise and medical scientist. Pete has had over 20 years of experience applying functional medicine in clinical practice and is seen by his peers as one of the leading figures in functional medicine in the UK. Throughout this time, he has treated people with a wide range of chronic diseases.

Jenny Rowe
Senior Health Writer

Jenny Rowe joined Future in January 2022 as Senior Health Writer on Woman&Home, Woman and Woman’s Own magazines. She graduated from Oxford University with a degree in English Literature in 2016. Since then she has worked within the editorial teams at Country & Town House and The Chelsea Magazine Company, alongside writing for The Independent, Breathe and Planet Mindful. She’s a keen cross-country runner and triathlete with a love of the great outdoors and a passion for the world of women's wellness.