12 Ways to Boost Your Serotonin
Serotonin is a funny one. Although the prevailing sentiment is that we want to “increase serotonin,” it’s not that simple. There’s no indication that more serotonin is necessarily better in every situation, or even generally. The link between serotonin and “happiness” or “mood” isn’t so clear-cut as the experts would have you believe, either. So […]

how to boost your serotoninSerotonin is a funny one.

Although the prevailing sentiment is that we want to “increase serotonin,” it’s not that simple. There’s no indication that more serotonin is necessarily better in every situation, or even generally. The link between serotonin and “happiness” or “mood” isn’t so clear-cut as the experts would have you believe, either. So while I am going to tell you how to “boost” serotonin levels because serotonin is a vital neurotransmitter, I plan on sticking to foods, supplements, and behaviors that promote physiological levels of serotonin. Boosting serotonin beyond what the body is designed for may not help you, and it may have unpleasant and unwanted effects.

Is Serotonin a Mood Booster?

Yes and no. For evidence, I submit two items. The first is clinical research and the second is pure anecdote, albeit personal anecdote.

Everyone has heard of SSRIs, or selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. The most common form of antidepressants, their purported mode of action is to reduce the re-absorption of serotonin by neurons which increases the circulating concentration of serotonin in the brain. They increase brain levels of serotonin so it’s able to act longer. The evidence in favor of SSRIs in treating depression is mixed. Not everyone benefits, and it often takes several months to take effect. But they do help some people.

In recent years, depression studies have pitted SSRIs against another drug—tianeptine—that does the opposite: increases the absorption of serotonin by neurons and decreases the concentration of serotonin the brain. If the “serotonin=happy” hypothesis is correct, tianeptine shouldn’t improve depression. It should worsen it. But that’s not what happens. Both tianeptine, which lowers brain serotonin, and SSRIs, which increase it, have been shown to improve depression symptoms in patients with clinical depression. If anything, tianeptine might even be more effective.

This doesn’t mean that serotonin has nothing to do with depression, or that it’s bad for depression. It just means that the story is a little more complicated than we thought.

Now the anecdote. Back when I was doing some research for a new probiotic supplement, I tried one that had been shown to increase serotonin levels: B. infantis. This is how I do things usually. Most all my products are created to solve a problem in my own life. I figure that if something appeals to me or fixes an issue affecting me, it will help others too. So this time, I added the powder to a smoothie and down the hatch it went. About half an hour later, I got the distinct sense of what I can only describe as emotional numbness. There was just this big blank emptiness in my heart and mind. I felt robotic, except I was a robot who had memories of what it was like to feel. It was a very uncanny, unnerving feeling that I don’t ever want to feel again.

Maybe the dosage was too high. Maybe I shouldn’t have been taking a probiotic strain meant for human infants (B. infantis is present in infant guts and breast milk). Maybe if my baseline levels of serotonin were lower, the probiotic would have helped. But that’s not the point of all this—it’s that boosting serotonin isn’t necessarily good for mood and happiness.


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What Does Serotonin Do?

Serotonin facilitates communication between neurons, making it a major regulator of mood, learning, memory, and sexual desire. Adequate levels of serotonin help us deal with stress, while chronic stress can deplete serotonin. As the precursor to melatonin, serotonin also has a powerful effect on sleep and circadian rhythm.

The underrecognized effect of serotonin on the brain’s ability to learn may explain why increasing serotonin levels through SSRIs can help depression patients. We usually think of learning in the context of knowledge or skill acquisition—learning a language, learning calculus, memorizing state capitals—but it also applies to mood acquisition. We aren’t happy just because. We are happy because we experience positive stimuli and the resultant good mood is reinforcing our continued pursuit of said positive stimuli. The good mood is how we learn, and we learn with the help of serotonin. And because we’ve learned to associate good moods with positive stimuli, the effect sustains itself. Depression alleviated. Meanwhile, in a low-serotonin state, a patient can experience positive stimuli without learning that it’s actually positive. They never make the connection. Or, rather, they never feel the connection.

Low brain serotonin is also linked to increased rumination—getting stuck on the same thoughts or thought patterns—another manifestation of decreased connectivity between neurons in the brain. Thoughts don’t “flow”; they get stuck.

Although we mainly think of serotonin as a neurotransmitter acting on the brain, our guts are the biggest producers of serotonin. About 90% of the serotonin in our bodies is produced in the gut, where it helps trigger the contractions that push food through the GI tract and initiates nausea and vomiting (when necessary). Gut serotonin may also travel to the brain via the vagus nerve, the “highway” that allows our gut to interface with our brain.

Serotonin also has other peripheral effects. For instance, it plays a role in bone formation and maintenance, with brain serotonin maintaining bone formation and gut serotonin inhibiting it.

How to Increase Serotonin

While you don’t necessarily want to boost serotonin to supernatural levels, it’s quite clear that low brain serotonin can have some unwanted effects. How do you make sure you’re making enough serotonin in your brain to enable optimal neuronal communication and melatonin synthesis, minimize rumination, and improve mood?

  • Eat tryptophan foods
  • Get plenty of natural light
  • Get sun or take vitamin D
  • Eat seafood or take omega-3s
  • Spend time in nature
  • Eat some carbs
  • Take curcumin
  • Move
  • Drink coffee
  • Get a massage
  • Get your micronutrients
  • Take tryptophan on an empty stomach

Eat Tryptophan Foods

We often forget that “thoughts” and “feelings” aren’t just ephemera floating around inside our heads without a material representative. Every thought, feeling, emotion, or mood we experience is a physical thing made of matter. We don’t just “feel better.” To feel better, we manufacture serotonin using an amino acid called tryptophan as the precursor.

Whether it’s turkey, eggs, dairy, beef, lamb, chicken, or fish, animal protein is a reliable source of tryptophan. Studies show that whey protein and egg protein both acutely increase tryptophan availability in the brain.

Get Plenty of Natural Light

Sunlight is a direct trigger of serotonin synthesis. The brighter the sunlight, the higher the serotonin production. This may explain seasonal affective disorder, where depression spikes during colder, darker months. It may also explain why sun exposure increases cognitive function in both depressed and healthy subjects, or why bright light exposure prevents bad moods after tryptophan depletion.

Without light, you can’t convert tryptophan into serotonin.

Bright light doesn’t imply full blaring sunlight. Going outside on a cloudy, late autumn day will expose you to far more bright, natural light than you’ll experience sitting inside with the lights on. I’d guess the main reason winter is worse for serotonin is that people are less likely to go outside and brave the bad weather.

Get your light as early as possible. A 10-15 minute walk just after sunrise (no sunglasses; bathe in the light) sets the tone for the day.

Get Sun or Take Vitamin D

Vitamin D—which we synthesize from UVB exposure—allows the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin.

I recommend getting most of your vitamin D from the sun. It’s better regulated that way, and you get the added benefit of lots of natural light. If you need or want to supplement (probably a good idea for most people during the colder seasons when sun exposure is low), look for a high potency formula. Here’s what I take.

Eat Seafood or Take Omega-3s

Not only does seafood provide ample amounts of the amino acid tryptophan, the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in marine fat increase serotonin production in the brain and improve serotonin transport across neurons.

You might take cod liver oil or eat the actual livers, as that provides both vitamin D (for increased tryptophan conversion) and long-chain omega-3s. However, a good daily dose of omega-3 supplementation through high potency, pharmaceutical-grade fish oil works fine, too, for those who get ample vitamin D otherwise.

Spend Time in Nature

I’ve written about forest bathing in the past for its ability to lower stress hormones, improve mood, reduce blood sugar levels, and even increase natural killer cell activity, a marker of anti-cancer ability.

Don’t Avoid Carbs Entirely

Carbs spike insulin, which shuttles amino acids out of the blood and into cells. This leaves tryptophan as the dominant amino acid in the bloodstream, because it’s bound to albumin and inaccessible to insulin. When amino acids compete for conversion into neurotransmitters, tryptophan wins, and serotonin rises, because no one else shows up.

Many readers of this blog prefer lower-carb diets. I’m the same. If you feel like your serotonin levels need a boost, consider increasing carb intake a little. Just one meal containing carbohydrates should get enough tryptophan into your brain for conversion into serotonin.

Take Curcumin

Turmeric has emerged in recent years as a powerful antidepressant, in many cases equalling or even surpassing the effects of prescription antidepressants. Turns out that turmeric (or curcumin, rather) increases brain serotonin levels in a dose-dependent matter.

So maybe you need curcumin, the isolated polyphenol found in turmeric, to really affect depression. Maybe your chicken tikka masala isn’t replacing your SSRI. But absent outright depression or serotonin-based mood disorders, cooking with turmeric should help regulate normal serotonin levels.

Move

Exercise increases serotonin via two pathways. First, the activation of motor neurons increases the firing rate of serotonin neurons, thus boosting the synthesis and release of serotonin. Second, exercise consistently elevates tryptophan levels in the brain, even for hours after the session. This is probably why going for a walk or grabbing a quick workout is a surefire way to beat ruminating thoughts.

Drink Coffee

Generic alternative health gurus will tell you caffeine depletes serotonin. It sounds right, doesn’t it? What they won’t say is that caffeine has actually been shown to increase brain serotonin, at least in rats.  It also makes the brain more sensitive to the effects of serotonin. Personally, I’m drinking my coffee.

Get a Massage

Conventional experts will say “massage just feels good.” Well, yeah. That’s the point. Getting a massage boosts serotonin by 28%.

Get Your Micronutrients

This should really be standard advice for any health issue. Many problems go away when we eat more micronutrients—vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients—because micronutrients are essential to fundamental physiological processes and pathways. It’s a safe bet that all of us are at least mildly deficient in a handful of important nutrients—like B6, which regulates serotonin synthesis.

One study found that a food-based multivitamin/multimineral supplement drink called Lavita increased tryptophan and serotonin levels in healthy subjects. While that product does purport to offer a boost in many micronutrients, a solid Primal diet with quality meats and good, varied vegetable intake should provide the same nutrient base. Of course, many of us choose a comprehensive multivitamin/multimineral supplement as well.

Take Tryptophan on an Empty Stomach

Taking tryptophan on an empty stomach eliminates the competition for brain uptake with other amino acids you’d encounter when eating tryptophan-rich foods, allowing tryptophan to flood the brain and trigger serotonin synthesis.

That’s what I have for today, folks. Thanks for stopping by. Share your thoughts and questions on the comment board, and have a good week.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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About six months before I turned 50, a friend tried to convince me to enter a physique contest. He had just turned 40, and was thrilled to be in the over-40 category because there were fewer guys for him to compete against. He said to me, “Kirk, you can win the over-50 category. There are only a few guys who enter. But, you have no lats or traps—most older dudes don’t. Work on your back and you got it in the bag ! ” I wasn’t too excited to enter a competition with “no competition, ” but I was pretty peeved to hear him say I had no lats or traps. My back was better than that. Although I had no intention to enter the competition, I started doing more single-arm dumbbell rows to work my back. Now, a few years later, it’s one of my favorite dumbbell exercises. Importantly, I’m not trying to break any records when it comes to weight here, like I might have in my younger days. Quality reps at low weight is the bigger focus.

There are variantes of the exercise where you see guys use a bench for support, using a hand or even placing a knee on the bench. These have their merits ( although MH sport director Ebenezer Samuel, C. S. C. S. would rather you not put a knee up ). However, I mostly do the version with no assistance from the bench with both feet on the ground as points of contact. This version works your traps, rhomboids, rear delts and rotator cuff zones musculaires, but you also get some core work, something you greatly need as you get older. Remember, though, that the way do the exercise is subjective to your own abilities. If you need some extra support for balance, don’t hesitate to put a hand down.

tera set up for my preferred variation, pick up a light dumbbell, especially to start. Stand with your feet in a parallel stance about shoulder-width apart. Hold the dumbbell in a neutral place at your side, as if you would for a hammer curl. Place your free hand behind you, with the back of your hand on the small of your back ( you can also extend your off arm out to balance ). Next, bend over by pushing your butt back and hinging at your waist, with your knees slightly bent. There should be no rounding of the spine, and you should keep your gaze down at the floor in a neutral neck place. Lastly, as you’re hanging onto the dumbbell with your arm pointing to the floor, squeeze your shoulder blades together so your shoulders lock in place and don’t slump.

From this starting position, use your back to pull the dumbbell up without twisting your spine. Pull up as high as you can, pause for a moment at the top and squeeze your shoulder blades together even more. Then release by lowering the dumbbell back to the starting position. to control my pace, I usually sweat up for 2 seconds, squeeze at the top for 2 seconds, then release back to the starting place in 2 seconds.

By doing the dumbbell row unilaterally ( one arm at a time ), you’ll feel yourself being pulled off balance. You must fight with your abs and obliques to maintain balance and stability, which is why I love this exercise so much. Although you won’t be able to load up with as much weight as you would using the bench for stabilization, the extra core work you’ll get makes this version well worth putting in your arsenal of exercises. Try 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps during upper body workouts to get started.

We all know that it’s common for men to skip the doctor until they become sick, injure themselves or are faced with a serious health problem. And a majority of men will postpone seeking care for a few days to see whether they feel any better. It’s the whole ' if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it ' line of thinking.

But there are steps the men in your life can take today to improve their vitality and help prevent health problems down the road. Of course, there are some things that can’t be changed, such as family history and age, but every day choices can have a big effet on their current and future health.

Eating a diet that’s low in fat ( less than 7 percent of calories should come from saturated fats ), cholesterol, and salt, and packed with fresh fruits and vegetables ( two cups of fruit per day; three cups of vegetables per day for men up to age 50 and two and a half cups for men aged 51 and over ), whole grains and fiber can help improve your health, prevent heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers.

Try to get 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days of the week. Taking a walk, jogging, swimming and mowing the lawn all count. But don’t be a weekend sports warrior. Start slowly if you aren’t normally réactive and gradually build up. No time ? Research shows that even short bursts of physical activity—as few as 10 minutes of soutenu activity several times a day—can help men improve their health. Talk to your doctor about the right exercise program for you.

It’s important to maintain a healthy weight. Excess weight, especially around the waist, can be hard on your body. Carrying too much body fat forces your heart to work harder and increases your chances of heart disease and stroke, even if you have no other risk factors ! So, try to curb weight gain as you age.

Tobacco smoke contains more than 4, 000 chemicals and is a known cause of cancer. Smoking also increases the likelihood of high blood pressure, heart disease, lung problems and other health problems. And if you think chewing tobacco is safer, think again. Not only is chewing tobacco a known cause of cancer ( carcinogen ), it also contributes to gum disease and tooth loss and may be linked to fertility problems. And, few could argue that chewing and spitting is attractive to a partner. If you smoke or chew, talk to your health care professional about ways to quit. Consider nicotine replacement therapy products that include self-help programs, if appropriate.

Whether it’s pulling out the weed whacker, going for a bike ride or grilling with the neighbors, safety is key. Here are just a few examples : Take care when moving heavy objects. It’s easy to strain yourself when lifting boxes, furniture and other heavy items. Use your knees and legs and not your back for leverage. And ask for help, if you need it. Wear appropriate protective gear for your eyes and ears when using leaf blowers, lawn mowers and other machines at home or work. Excessive exposure to noise is the most common cause of hearing loss. Wear a helmet when you ride a bike or ski and throw on reflective clothing if you go for a run after dark. When grilling, never leave the grill unattended, especially when small children and pets are around, and keep a fire extinguisher handy. The grill should be at least 10 feet from your house or any building. to protect your skin, avoid prolonged exposure to the sun and apply ( and reapply ) sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or greater that provides protection against UVA and UVB rays.

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