5 Natural Ways To Boost Your Serotonin Levels

Hormones are kind of having a moment. Hacks like the raw carrot salad trend promise to balance out-of-whack hormones, and over on TikTok, creators, and coaches have made "cortisol" and "dopamine" a part of our everyday lingo. Another hormone that you might've heard of is serotonin. According to Cleveland Clinic, serotonin is a pretty busy hormone in the body, affecting learning, memory, digestion, and even body temperature, but one of the most crucial roles serotonin plays is in mood regulation. Generally, the more serotonin you have flowing through your body, the happier and calmer you feel.

Unsurprisingly, the reverse can also be true. Low serotonin levels can result in depression, anxiety, phobias, and other mood disorders. Without enough of this happy hormone, you might not feel your best emotionally. When this happens, a doctor might prescribe SSRI or SNRI antidepressants, both of which increase serotonin in the brain, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

While medications can be useful for some people struggling with depression and other mental health issues, there are natural ways to boost serotonin levels too. If you feel stressed or a little on the gloomy side lately, practical adjustments to your diet and lifestyle could give you the serotonin you need, without a prescription.

Watch what you eat

You can eat your way to happiness, and not just when the food you're munching on tastes good — your diet can actually help your body produce more serotonin, according to Medical News Today. While you can't actually eat serotonin, you can consume tryptophan, an amino acid found in some foods that helps the body make its own serotonin. Salmon, chicken, eggs, seeds, nuts, dairy, and soy (basically, most foods high in protein) often contain tryptophan. Try pairing these foods with healthy carbohydrates to increase their serotonin-boosting properties.

It's also a good idea to incorporate gut-friendly foods into your meals. "To support serotonin production, we want to ensure that we are looking after our microbiome — the collection of microorganisms that reside in the gut and manufacture serotonin and other neurotransmitters," registered nutritionist Clarissa Lenherr shared with Stylist. A 2018 study published in "Integrative Medicine: A Clinician's Journal" claims that a whopping 95% of the body's serotonin is produced in the gut, though serotonin levels may dip if you don't follow a healthy diet. To keep your gut in tip-top shape, eat plenty of fiber-rich prebiotics and probiotics (think yogurt and other fermented foods).

Be sure to also limit foods that deplete serotonin. "A diet that includes refined ingredients can impact your body's serotonin production, which in turn can affect your mood," Dr. Caroline Leaf, a communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist, explained to Well+Good. When possible, steer clear of refined sugars and other highly processed foods.

Spend time outside

Heading outdoors can help improve your overall health in many ways, including upping your serotonin levels. According to a 2020 study published in the "International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health," women who spent time in a forest saw a higher increase in serotonin compared to women in an urban city.

Even if you don't have access to a forest, going outside might boost your body's serotonin, as long as you go out when the sun's up. "The brain produces serotonin in response to sun and daylight," Dr. Mimi Winsberg, a psychiatrist and co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of Brightside Health, told Insider. "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." Or, try moving your exercise routine outside. One study conducted by the University of Queensland, Australia (via University of Waterloo) found that people who headed outdoors to work out had higher serotonin levels than those who worked out indoors.

Listen to feel-good music

It's no surprise that music can impact your mood, whether it's the sappy playlist you lean on when grieving a break-up or your go-to dance jams to get you hyped up. It makes sense, then, that pressing play could boost your serotonin levels. "Music triggers the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine — the "feel-good" hormone — and serotonin, which contribute to the euphoric feeling we get when we hear our favorite song," Dr. Jeff Smith, a consulting music professor at Stanford University and co-founder/CEO of karaoke platform Smule, revealed to Better by Today.

This effect can be seen in multiple studies. For example, a 2023 study published in "BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies" that focused on children with ADHD (who are often thought to have lower levels of serotonin) discovered that music therapy was associated with an increase in serotonin. Animal studies have also found a link between music and serotonin, such as a 2018 study published in "Neuroscience Letters" that focused on rats. In the study, after the rats were exposed to music, a higher concentration of serotonin was located in the areas of the brain responsible for pleasure, reward, and motor control.

If you're not sure what counts as a serotonin-boosting bop, try turning on something upbeat. Or, as Dr. Smith noted, many mood-enhancing songs include a catchy 4/4 time signature or an I–V–vi–IV chord progression.

Tackle stress

Serotonin helps you feel less stressed, but stress can also have the opposite effect on the hormone — in other words, high stress levels can actually lower serotonin. A 2014 study published in the journal ​​"Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews" suggested that chronic and severe stress weakens serotonin functioning in the brain while promoting depressive behavior. This can create a runway for the development of mood disorders, according to the researchers. An older 2001 study published in "Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience" also points out that cortisol (the body's stress hormone) lowers serotonin levels.

If you suspect you're already deficient in serotonin and you're struggling with depression or another mental health condition, managing stress can be easier said than done. Consider seeing a doctor or therapist who can help you create a personalized treatment plan. Otherwise, try adopting one new habit at a time to keep stress in check. Try the viral "finger breathing method" when you notice yourself feeling antsy, or take up a relaxing hobby like running or painting.

And pro tip: Don't stress out about being stressed — that discomfort may actually serve a purpose. "A little bit of stress is important," Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, shared with Forbes. "Learning how to cope with challenge is very necessary and it can have positive outcomes, especially if you overcome it."

Hang out with loved ones

There are several ways to boost your serotonin levels by yourself, but some natural remedies require a hand from a friend or loved one — literally. According to Mayo Clinic, massage therapy and other forms of physical touch have been shown to increase serotonin in the body. Not only does a hug or shoulder rub feel good physically but it can also feel good emotionally.

If physical touch isn't your thing, laughing might be. A 2016 research review published in "The Tohoku Journal of Experimental Medicine" concluded that laughter reverses stress and ups serotonin. Joking around with friends or watching a funny sitcom with family might be all it takes to naturally stimulate the body's happy hormones.

No matter how you choose to bond, it's crucial to make time for socializing and connecting with loved ones. "Spending time with friends and family can help to increase serotonin levels naturally," Dr. David Seitz, medical director at addiction treatment center Ascendant Detox, revealed to Real Simple. "Engaging in meaningful conversations, activities, or hobbies with those close to us can provide a sense of purpose and happiness that will boost our moods."