Serotonin boosting foods are items that help our bodies increase serotonin production and/or inhibit reuptake as part of our body’s natural response to them, without the aid of SSRIs or other medications that may have unwanted side effects. This list is limited to foods that are generally accepted as nutritious and appear on more than one list from reputable nutrition or mental health experts. I cited my sources at the bottom of the page, and I divided them into primary (peer reviewed) sources and secondary (industry) sources.
How Do You Know Which Foods Boost Serotonin?
How do I – or anyone, for that matter – know which foods boost serotonin? Two main ways: observation and deductive logic. These two tools are best used together. The logic bit is aided by the scientific process and our (i.e., scientists’) understanding of biochemistry. Our bodies need tryptophan to manufacture serotonin.
What Is Serotonin?
Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that our body produces from tryptophan, and it helps us regulate our moods. Some people call it the “happiness hormone,” but it’s more than that. There are at least 15 known serotonin receptors found in various parts of our bodies, and the chemical “regulates numerous biological processes including cardiovascular function, bowel motility, ejaculatory latency, and bladder control. Additionally, new work suggests that serotonin may regulate some processes, including platelet aggregation.” (Berger, et al., 2009)
For the purposes of this discussion, we’re interested in the mood regulation role of serotonin.
What is Tryptophan?
You may know tryptophan as the chemical in your Thanksgiving Day turkey that makes you feel drowsy. And it is that, indeed. But it’s also something a bit more important: Tryptophan is one of the nine essential amino acids in humans. Amino acids are the chemical building blocks for proteins in all living organisms. Essential amino acids comprise a subset of these chemicals that the human body cannot manufacture on its own.
So tryptophan is a building block for proteins that your body cannot produce on its own. Consequently, you have to eat foods that have tryptophan in them in order to survive.
The Tryptophan-Serotonin-Mood Triangle
Tryptophan is used to make serotonin, and serotonin helps us feel happy. Or at least less unhappy.
Recall from above that you can’t make tryptophan by yourself. So, you have to eat it, and whatever you consume is all your body has as a resource for making serotonin.
Less tryptophan means less serotonin. And less serotonin means less happy. Or poorer mood regulation. Or both.
A lot of researchers seem to think that we need to consume our tryptophan with carbs in order to elevate our insulin levels. Then, increased insulin elevates our absorption of amino acids. Yes, our bodies are annoyingly complicated. No,there’s nothing mystical about this, and it makes a lot of sense from a biochemistry standpoint. Either way, what you need to get out of this paragraph is that you should eat your serotonin boosting foods with low glycemic index carbs like oatmeal.
Also, serotonin to work, you need a balanced diet taken together with exercise and time in the sun. So, for the best results, all three components are necessary. Here, the term “balanced diet” means a diet that provides all the essential amino acids, adequate energy (carbs), and adequate fats. Therefore, I recommend a varied, colorful diet of whole foods, few added sugars, and no artificial sweeteners. Additionally, it’s a really good idea to minimize your consumption of alcohol and take it easy with the coffee or other sources of caffeine. Then, get your body outside, move it as much as possible, and enjoy the combined effects of nutrition, exercise, and Vitamin D.
Serotonin Boosting Foods – Fruits
- Nuts and seeds
- Tofu and soy
- Oat bran
- Beans & lentils
Serotonin Boosting Foods – Meat
- Turkey and other poultry
- Fish and shellfish
Popular press and commercial sites
Healthline article on 7 foods that help boost serotonin
Another article on 7 serotonin boosting foods from Pure Recovery California
MadlinePlus article on Tryptophan
Myfooddata.com article on foods high in tryptophan
Berger, M., Gray, J. A., & Roth, B. L. (2009). The expanded biology of serotonin. Annual review of medicine, 60, 355–366.
Richard, D. M., Dawes, M. A., Mathias, C. W., Acheson, A., Hill-Kapturczak, N., & Dougherty, D. M. (2009). L-Tryptophan: Basic Metabolic Functions, Behavioral Research and Therapeutic Indications. International journal of tryptophan research : IJTR, 2, 45–60.
Wurtman R. J. (1983). Food consumption, neurotransmitter synthesis, and human behaviour. Experientia. Supplementum, 44, 356–369.
Wurtman R. J. (1987). Nutrients affecting brain composition and behavior. Integrative psychiatry : IP, 5(4), 226–257.