All of us are susceptible to catching a case of the blues every now and then — it's part of the human condition.
For those who have been battling blue moods more frequently, here's how to increase serotonin, one of the body's natural mood-enhancing compounds.
If you're currently taking antidepressants (which boost serotonin levels), don't stop taking your medication without first consulting your doctor. Those with severe depression may not be able to naturally boost serotonin levels.
But for those with moderate mood swings, there are plenty of ways to naturally increase serotonin.
Boost your immune system
The majority of your immune system and your serotonin lie in the gut. The healthier your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, the healthier your immune system. The healthier your immune system, the more serotonin you'll have.
Making sure your immune system is operating to its fullest capacity — and thus increasing the likelihood you’ll boost serotonin naturally — means you'll want to pay attention to the following:
- Exposure to sunlight
- Stress levels
Eating cakes, cookies, pastries and any other comfort foods with refined sugars and white flour might give us a temporary mood lift but it can suppress the immune system. Carbohydrate-rich foods may indeed actually increase serotonin levels, but only temporarily.
That sugar crash you feel after you've eaten a simple carbohydrate like a brownie leads to low-blood sugar levels and the release of insulin. Insulin spikes can lead to the release of adrenaline, which in turn can interfere with the production of serotonin.
So while carbohydrates may indeed boost serotonin, the high feeling you'll get after a sugary snack is a false friend. Opt instead for slower burning carbohydrates like oatmeal and whole grains. These foods have the amino acid tryptophan, which is converted into serotonin.
Alcohol and caffeine should also be enjoyed moderately as excess levels can interfere with the body's natural ability to produce serotonin. Limit coffee to one cup in the morning.
Does exercise increase serotonin?
There have been numerous studies linking exercise to elevated natural mood enhancing neurotransmitters and chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and endorphins.
The good news about exercise and serotonin is that it doesn't take a two-hour workout to boost serotonin levels. Most medical experts recommend 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five to seven times per week.
In other words, you don't need to train for an Ironman competition to reap the benefits of your body's ability to increase serotonin. Actually, high intensity exercise can stress the body. Although high intensity exercise can produce a powerful endorphin effect, it can also lead to elevated levels of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone.
Splitting up three 10-minute moderate intensity exercise sessions can be very effective at increasing serotonin.
Speaking of stress
Even if you exercise moderately and daily, eat a healthy balanced diet, and don't abuse stimulants, your body's ability to increase serotonin will be diminished if your job and relationship are stressing you out.
Take control of stress. One way to do this is to keep your nervous system operating like a finely tuned engine. Meditation can be profoundly effective at keeping stress at bay and boosting your immune system.
Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man ... increase serotonin
Although everybody is biochemically unique, most of us have similar circadian rhythms. In a healthy human body, cortisol production should be lowest at night and highest first thing in the morning. Staying up late can stress the body’s immune system. If possible, shut off all lights and as many electronic devices as possible by 10 p.m.
And speaking of light, try to get 15-20 minutes of sunlight exposure per day to activate production of serotonin. If you live in an area that gets little natural sunlight at certain times of the year, there are full spectrum lights that can prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Hugs, not drugs … and lots of laughter
Intimacy and laughter are well known to elevate serotonin and endorphin levels. But too much serotonin can actually suppress sex drive. This is a common side effect of antidepressants. When you artificially flood the body with serotonin, the body becomes satiated, eliminating the desire for sex.
If you are on antidepressants and have the desire to boost your sex drive, speak with your doctor about some of these ways to increase serotonin. You may eventually be able to ditch the drugs.
Judd Handler is a health writer based in Encinitas, Calif.