When people are depressed or anxious, we often say they have a “chemical imbalance.” And in many ways, that’s true. When serotonin, a chemical that affects the brain, is low, we tend to feel down and more anxious than normal.
Natural mood enhancers, like healthy food and exercise, can help, but some of us need a little extra boost. Some turn to medications, others to supplements. Many use both.
Here’s the good news: Increasing serotonin in the brain isn’t as complicated as it sounds.
What is Serotonin?
Serotonin is nature’s high. It makes us feel good. This chemical is produced by our nerve cells, and it’s made from tryptophan, an essential amino acid.
The majority of serotonin is actually found in the digestive system. It’s also in the central nervous system and blood platelets, too, but for the most part, serotonin is found in the gut.
Tryptophan is found in a number of foods, including:
A deficiency in this essential amino acid can lead to lower serotonin levels, which can make us feel anxious or depressed.
Sunlight also stimulates serotonin production. That’s why we get a nice mood boost after spending some time outdoors.
When serotonin levels are just right, you feel:
How Does Serotonin Affect the Body?
Serotonin affects just about every part of the body, from your motor skills to your mental state. Think of this chemical as a mood stabilizer. It helps you sleep better, controls your appetite, and even helps you digest food more efficiently.
If your body is low in serotonin, it can impact your:
Mood: Anxiety, depression and moodiness are common in people with low serotonin levels.
Bowel Movements: This chemical is found mostly in the gut, so it plays a major role in regulating your bowel movements and function.
Sleep: Serotonin stimulates the areas of the brain that control sleeping and waking.
Bone Health: High levels of serotonin in the bones can actually lead to osteoporosis.
Sexual Health: When it comes to libido, too much serotonin is a bad thing. Lower levels of this chemical will increase libido, while higher levels will depress your sexual appetite.
How do you know if your serotonin levels are low? Talk to your doctor. A simple blood test can check your levels.
What’s the Normal Range for Serotonin Levels?
How do you know if you too much or too little serotonin? Your doctor will discuss the results of your test with you, but generally speaking, normal ranges are:
101-283 nanograms per milliliter
High levels of serotonin may be associated with carcinoid syndrome. But most people find that their levels are a little on the low side.
What Causes Low Serotonin?
Just about everything we do in our daily lives affects our serotonin levels. And for many of us, we lead lives that deplete our levels to the point where we feel anxious, tired or depressed all of the time.
Here are just a few reasons why your serotonin levels may be low:
You’re Not Exercising
When you’re depressed or anxious, the last thing you want to do is exercise. But exercise may be the one thing that will help you feel better.
Most of us lead sedentary lives. We work desk jobs. We go from the office, to the car, and to the couch. Over time, our inactivity can deplete our serotonin levels.
The more active you are, the more serotonin you will have in your system.
Several studies have shown that exercise is just as effective at boosting serotonin levels as serotonin-enhancing drugs.
You’re Not Spending Enough Time Outdoors
How much time do you spend outdoors every day? If you’re like most people, you probably spend very little time in the sun.
Too much sun exposure is dangerous and it’s important to protect your skin, but too little sun exposure is just as bad.
The sun stimulates serotonin production and helps our bodies make vitamin D. A simple walk in the morning, before the sun gets too strong, can help boost your levels naturally.
You’re Not Eating Right
The majority of serotonin is found in your gut. If you’re not eating right, there’s a good chance that your gut isn’t healthy.
Improving your diet and taking steps to heal your gut can boost serotonin levels in the body.
Also, simple carbohydrates, like pasta and bread, allow more tryptophan to enter the brain. That’s why these foods are so addictive – they make us happy. But they also cause high blood sugar levels that can become unhealthy over time.
Complex carbohydrates, like those found in sweet potatoes, carrots, blueberries, apples and chickpeas, boost serotonin without giving you a serious blood sugar spike.
You’re Stressed Out
Stress causes the body to produce cortisol. Too much cortisol depletes serotonin in the body.
Our daily lives are full of stress. We have deadlines to meet, kids to pick up, life to live.
I think it’s safe to say that most of us go through life feeling pretty stressed and anxious most of the time.
If you’re not taking steps to de-stress, you may be unknowingly depriving your body of serotonin.
Yoga is one way to de-stress, but meditation may be more effective. Meditation boosts 5-HIAA in the brain, which is directly related to serotonin.
How to Boost Serotonin Levels Naturally with 5-HTP
We’ve already discussed several ways to naturally boost your serotonin levels:
But there’s another way to get more serotonin in your system: supplements. One of the most effective is 5-HTP.
If you’re looking for a quick serotonin boost, supplements, particularly 5-HTP, are your best bet.
5-HTP, or 5-Hydroxytryptophan, is a compound that’s made naturally in the body. Our bodies create 5-HTP as a natural byproduct of L-tryptophan. We can’t make tryptophan – we need to get it from our diet.
5-HTP supplements are made from the seeds of the Griffonia simplicfolia plant, which is native to West Africa.
5-Hydroxytryptophan helps the body produce more serotonin. In fact, it’s the immediate nutrient precursor to this important chemical. It converts directly to serotonin in the brain.
Here’s the great thing about supplementing with 5-HTP: You don’t have to worry about side effects. The body produces it naturally, so supplementing rarely causes side effects (there are always exceptions, of course).
What is the Best OTC Serotonin Booster?
If supplementing is the best way to get a quick serotonin boost, which product should you choose? There are dozens of serotonin supplements on the market. As an all-in-one formula we were impressed with the Genius Joy product.
Here are my two top picks specifically to increase serotonin production:
Pure Encapsulations Serotonin Pills – Best Overall
Pure Encapsulations Serotonin Pills is a potent 5-HTP supplement, with 100 mg per dose. I like Pure Encapsulations because they don’t fill their supplements with junk.
This product contains:
No artificial sweeteners
No artificial colors
No magnesium stearate
No hydrogenated fat
The 5-HTP in this supplement is derived from the seed of the Griffonia simplicfolia plant.
The only problem with this supplement? It’s a little pricey. You’re paying for top quality, but not everyone has the budget for this supplement.
Luckily, there’s a great alternative…
Weyland 5-HTP – The Budget-Friendly Option
Weyland’s supplement also contains 100 mg of 5-HTP, and it’s also derived from the seed of the Griffonia simplicfolia plant.
This supplement is manufactured in the USA at an FDA-inspected, cGMP-compliant facility.
Both of these 5-HTP supplements are excellent for boosting serotonin levels. When combined with other natural treatments, like exercise and meditation, these supplements become even more effective.