How To Boost Serotonin Naturally

Image Credit: semarr / Flickr. This image has been modified.

How To Boost Serotonin Naturally

A strange letter was recently published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience suggesting fruit as a treatment for depression. It starts out detailing how bad the disease can be; how abnormally low levels of neurotransmitters like the “happiness hormone” serotonin in the brain may be responsible; and that we now have SSRI drugs like Prozac that appear to work by boosting serotonin levels. However, these medications can carry significant side effects, so the researchers suggested a novel strategy: How about using “high-content sources of serotonin to provide our body with these substances,” such as “plantains, pineapples, bananas, kiwis, plums, and tomatoes.”

Since when do plants have animal neurotransmitters? Since forever, I was surprised to learn. In my 2-min NutritionFacts.org video Human Neurotransmitters in Plants I show how plants may contain levels of dopamine, serotonin, and melatonin at concentrations high enough to actually alter levels in our bloodstream. We don’t need serotonin in our blood, though; we need it in our brain. Serotonin can’t cross the blood-brain barrier, but the precursor to serotonin can. This precursor is an amino acid called tryptophan that we get from our diet.

Back in the 70’s experiments showed that when people were given specially concocted tryptophan deficient diets, their mood suffered. They became irritable, annoyed, angry, and depressed. Likewise, you can give people tryptophan pills to improve their mood, and, not surprisingly, it became a popular dietary supplement… until people started dying from something called eosinophilia–myalgia syndrome (EMS).

As I note in my 2-min video The Wrong Way to Boost Serotonin, EMS is an incurable, debilitating, and sometimes fatal flu-like neurological condition that can be caused by the ingestion of tryptophan supplements. It may have been due to some unknown impurity, but better safe than sorry. Instead of supplements, there are dietary strategies one can use to improve mood.

When people think tryptophan, they think Thanksgiving turkey, but researchers at MIT dispelled those myths about a decade ago. Tryptophan is one amino acid among many found in proteins, and they compete with one another for transport across the blood-brain barrier into the brain. Since tryptophan is present in most animal proteins in relatively small quantities it gets muscled out of the way. When we eat plant foods, though, the carbohydrates trigger a release of insulin that causes our muscles to take up many of the non-tryptophan amino acids as fuel, potentially leaving our tryptophan first in line for brain access.

Animal foods can even make things worse. In the experiment I describe in my 2-min video A Better Way to Boost Serotonin, those given a turkey/egg/cheese breakfast experienced a drop in tryptophan levels, whereas those given a waffle/orange juice breakfast saw their levels rise. This may actually explain the carbohydrate cravings one sees in PMS—your brain may be trying to get you to boost tryptophan levels to feel better. One study I cite concluded “Consumption of a carbohydrate-rich, protein-poor evening test meal during the premenstrual period improved depression, tension, anger, confusion, sadness, fatigue, alertness, and calmness scores among patients with premenstrual syndrome.”

Ideally, though, it would be more than just carbs. Since the main determinant of brain tryptophan and serotonin concentrations appears to be the ratio of this amino acid with others that compete with it for uptake into the brain, to maximize the mood elevating benefits of diet, one would ideally choose a snack with a high tryptophan to total protein ratio, which would mean primarily seeds, such as sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin. Check out the final video The Best Way to Boost Serotonin in this four-part series for more detail.

The findings of better mood scores in those eating vegetarian in that video is consistent with both cross-sectional and interventional findings I’ve reported previously. In addition to the drop in brain tryptophan levels associated with animal product consumption, arachidonic acid present in animal foods may also contribute to negative mood states through an inflammatory mechanism. See, for example, my videos:

Michael Greger, M.D.

Discuss

Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.


22 responses to “How To Boost Serotonin Naturally

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  1. This is interesting and could work for some people but it is not based on psychiatry research.

    I is not as simple as increase tryptophan (which could also be toxic do to inflammatory processes, see Michael. Maes) but serotonin, so this needs good transporters. Also, it is not just an increase in serotonin but stabilization in certain brain areas (see Peter Kramer)

      1. You can, however, provide the full reference so that people can search for the abstract, at a bare minimum, which probably should be included with rhis article. My apologies if it’s already here but I am using an iPhone and I don’t see even the issue, year, or author mentioned.

      2. can you please elaborate when you say tryptophan products. does this include 5htp? ive had good experience with it but dont want an imbalance leading to further trouble. i also give it to my dog, who has anxiety and and hypoactive thyroid

  2. I read somewhere that tryptophan made people sick because it was a genetically engineered version from Japan…also organic pumpkin seeds should be consumed since I heard from a lecture by Jefferey Smith that pumpkin is now GM.

  3. I am reading a book by Dr Julia Ross, about treating mood disorders with Nutritional Therapy. She recommends eating lots of protein (preferably animal), fish oil (omega 3) and saturated fats, and also using amino acid supplements. Is this wrong?

    1. Yes, it is. I would return the book. This is another fad diet trend. Here are some helpful places for more information on this subject here on this website.

      The link below is part of a series, click “next video” in the right hand panel once you have watched it.
      http://nutritionfacts.org/video/higher-quality-may-mean-higher-risk/

      The links below are a variety of videos on the subject of fish oil and saturated fat
      http://nutritionfacts.org/?s=fish+oil
      http://nutritionfacts.org/?s=saturated+fat

  4. Article about how to boost serotonin naturally and no mention of St. John’s Wort? I realize that you’re trying to advocate a whole foods’, plant-based diet, but I find it disingenuous not to report the efficacy of St. John’s Wort.

  5. My idea: prisoners and mental patients desprately need to go vegan. Vegetarian isn’t enough… people wonder why they are depressed after going vegetarian… because you get pumped full of cow hormones…lmfao… if only common sense were real…
    Coffee + vegan (no meat, eggs, dairy) = very happy person and I am desprately looking for more proof!
    Come on America. Let’s give it a try.
    Dr Greger, you should donate your book to hospitals and mental hospitals all around the world–doctors just might not know about the benefits of health. Ha I’m going to give my doctor a copy of your book and hopefully get my whole family to read it.
    Have a great day!

  6. Robert: It is extremely insensitive to refer to mental health facilities and patients as ‘mental.’

    Dedicated mental health hospitals were eliminated more than 40 years ago in this country.

    Are you aware that 1 in 4 persons are on an SSRI for anxiety or depression?

    Please be a little bit more politically correct when addressing mental health.

    Thank you,

    M.D.

  7. Dear dr. Greger,

    I was given this link to your website by my brother who is your biggest fan!
    I suffered depression for a long time that was probably caused by my excessive drug use when I was younger.(This was 20 years and more ago)
    I used about every drug there is but mostly XTC and Cocaïne and lot’s of it.
    I know ….it’s bad….Now I wonder after using Prozac for several years and quitting just half a year ago because it just didn’t have the effect I needed, cause I was still depressed, suffered alot of PMS!! and was (still am) a very difficult person to be around. I am not a happy woman at all, and I thought that by using so much XTC in the 90’s (every day a couple of pills) my serotonine levels are just completeley gone!!
    Now my brother keeps on telling me to start with the plant based diet and gives me links to your website to convince me to at least try it.
    Oke now my question, is it all reverseable, the damage I did to my brain and my serotonin levels? And are the seeds you mentioned enough? Or is this a whole nother level of depression caused by excessive drug use in the past? I am almost 49 years old and still feel like an 18 year old when it comes to my “emotions”….I know drugs slow down your evolvement but I don’t use any more for at least 10 years now. But I do still use Suboxone (for an opiat dependancy), at a minimal dose, so that I don’t relapse.
    Will Seeds do the trick?? Or do I have to do the whole plant diet thing, cause that is almost impossible for me. I don’t eat alot of meat, maybe twice a week, but I love my dairy! Can’t give up the Ice Cream either….
    I know I sound like somebody that is looking for a quick fix but aren’t we all?

    Thank You
    Ilona

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