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  • Writer's pictureStephen Luzar

8 Foods to Boost Serotonin and Improve Mental Health

8 Foods to Boost Serotonin and Improve Mental Health


Low serotonin can impact your well-being. Learn how you can boost your serotonin levels with food and what to add to your diet.



Serotonin is a chemical messenger that your digestive tract and central nervous system produce. This “happy hormone” can directly impact your mood and mental health.


Neurotransmitters carry out important signaling between the cells of the brain (called neurons) that govern essential brain functions like mood, cognition, focus, and rest,” says Uma Naidoo, MD, a nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, and author of “This Is Your Brain on Food.”


According to Naidoo, low serotonin levels are typically associated with mental health conditions such as:



If you’re low on serotonin, eating certain foods can increase your serotonin production. You may even get a boost in your mood as a bonus.



“While we generally can’t get serotonin directly from whole-food sources (with a few exceptions), there are a variety of nutrients and plant compounds that can promote our body’s ability to produce serotonin and other mood-boosting neurotransmitters in the brain,” Naidoo says.


A research review from 2016 mentions that serotonin is synthesized from the amino acid tryptophan. Therefore, eating tryptophan-rich foods may be key to improving your mood and feeling better.


“Aside from boosting serotonin, however, incorporating certain groups of foods into a healthy, balanced diet can drastically improve your mental health,” Naidoo says.



Here are eight types of food that may produce serotonin and could help improve your mental health:


Eggs dairy Tofu nuts and seeds

fermented foods spinach fruits and vegetables turkey


Eggs

Research [from 2015] found that even small amounts of tryptophan-rich egg protein influenced serotonin levels and significantly improved the moods of female participants aged 45 to 65,” Naidoo says.


For the best nutrient sourcing, Naidoo recommends pastured eggs from cage-free chickens. Consider starting your day with:


scrambled eggs an omelet a baked frittata


Dairy

“Foods like cow’s milk, cheeses, or plain yogurt are noted to be naturally rich in the protein alpha-lactalbumin, which was shown in [2005] researchTrusted Source to increase blood tryptophan levels and improve sleep quality and mood,” Naidoo says.


Consider trying whole unsweetened Greek yogurt with live cultures to help improve both your gut and mental health. Naidoo suggests adding a handful of wild blueberries for natural sweetness, gut-loving fiber, and mood-boosting antioxidants.


Tofu

If you’re vegetarian or vegan or otherwise don’t eat eggs or dairy, soy products such as tofu are a great protein option.


“Organic non-GMO-sourced tofu is an excellent, versatile protein that’s rich in tryptophan [and] soy isoflavones, which have a demonstrated association with [fewer] symptoms of depression,” Naidoo says.


You might try tryptophan-packed tofu as a substitute for meat-based proteins.


Nuts and seeds

Certain nuts and seeds may help you produce more serotonin.


Naidoo says that eating a handful of walnuts each day has been associated with a reduced risk of depressive symptoms, according to a 2019 study.


You might consider eating a handful of nuts and seeds as a snack on their own or sprinkling them into a salad or cup of yogurt.


Fermented foods

Fermented foods are rich in important bacteria that nourish your natural gut microbiome and may improve your mental health.


You could try adding any of these fermented foods to your diet:


kimchi miso sauerkraut

unsweetened coconut milk cashew milk yogurt

Other prebiotic foods, such as garlic, leeks, and onions, may help too.


Spinach

“Rich in iron and folate, spinach packs a powerful dose of key vitamins and minerals that are absolutely necessary for the production of serotonin in the brain,” Naidoo says.


“In fact, folate deficiency shares a significant association with symptoms of depression, and therapy with folic acid has shown to improve these symptoms.”


Consider tossing spinach into:


an omelet a smoothie a salad


Fruits and vegetables

Many fruits and vegetables may help increase serotonin. Some tryptophan-rich fruits and veggies you may want to try are:


pineapple bananas kiwis plums beans


“For an extra veggie punch, pair spinach with sweet potatoes and cherry tomatoes — shown to be among the richest sources of plant serotonin — for a delicious, mood-boosting breakfast hash,” says Naidoo.


Turkey

If you celebrate Thanksgiving, then you may have heard that turkey is high in tryptophan.

Consider sliced turkey on whole-grain bread for an easy sandwich or turkey


Let’s recap


To boost serotonin levels and your mood, consider eating the following foods:


Eggs dairy Tofu nuts and seeds

fermented foods spinach fruits and vegetables turkey


“[Nutritional psychiatry] brings back to the individual the notion that the power to care for your own mental health rests, in large part, in your hands,” says Naidoo. “It’s what’s on your plate and at the tip of your fork.“


The bottom line is that eating nutritious foods may have a positive impact on your mental health — and research can back that up. For instance, research shows that a well-balanced Mediterranean diet may benefit mental well-being.


Changing your diet can feel hard, but healthier eating is possible — even when you’re on a budget.


A note on accessibility


In 2016, as many as 40.6 million Americans lived in poverty, many of whom experienced food insecurity. Despite food stamp programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), not everyone can always afford to eat healthily.


Many people don’t have access to fresh and nutritious foods because they may live in food deserts or food swamps, where dollar and liquor stores might be the only options for buying foods and drinks.


If some of the healthier food options suggested in this article are inaccessible to you, know that it’s not your fault.


Remember that frozen and canned foods, such as frozen fruits and veggies or canned fish, can be healthy options too.


It’s also important to keep in mind that dietary changes are not the only self-care strategy you can try to boost your serotonin levels. If you want to learn about other things you can do, consider reading this article.


Therapy may also be a viable option, but you’re unsure of how to afford it, these tipsand free resources may get you started.



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