Feeling blue? Your brain’s serotonin supplies may be depleted. The ‘S’ in DOSE, serotonin is the happy hormone responsible for regulating our mood. The chemical for rest and recovery, when we seek it out we are rewarded with greater relaxation, wellbeing, confidence and belonging. A yin to balance out your yang within the four happy hormones, by knowing the right ways to increase serotonin through exercise, meditation and eating the right foods, we can hack our happiness and feel heroic.
We consulted the experts on the secrets behind serotonin – from what it is, how to tell if we have enough and how we can increase our supply to feel as high as the sky…
What is serotonin used for?
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that relays signals back and forth from the brain. It is estimated that serotonin impacts all of the 40 million brain cells within our heads, whether that be directly or indirectly. This is throughout various functions:
- Mood regulation
- Blood clotting
To put it simply, serotonin plays a vital role in our every day lives; it definitely isn’t something we want to neglect. If we fail to nourish our serotonin needs, we risk serious illnesses and mental health conditions.
Where is serotonin produced?
Happy gut = happy mind
Only 5% of serotonin is produced in our brain; the other 95% is made in the gut. Often labelled as the second brain, our gut contains the second largest network of nerves and neurotransmitters in our body. These nerves communicate back and forth with our brain via the brain-gut axis. Irritation in the gastrointestinal system can therefore send signals to the central nervous system, triggering mood changes. Indeed, this explains why a higher than normal percentage of people with digestive issues such as IBS develop depression. In order to increase serotonin and boost our mood, we must have a well nourished gut.
As Professor Green states in our hacking happiness podcast, “All of the large traumatic events I’ve had in my life have always gone to my gut, whether related or not. If I get stressed, it goes to my gut…if I get happy it goes to my gut”. He’s recently worked with scientists to create Aguulp, a new supplement that supports the brain-gut axis and improves serotonin production.
Serotonin deficiency symptoms
While depression is most commonly linked to low serotonin levels, having too little of the happy hormone can cause other disorders:
- Anxiety and panic disorders
- Attention disorders
- Eating disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Seasonal affective disorder
- Social phobias
- Irritable bowel syndrome
Too much serotonin
The dose is the poison. Too much serotonin can cause serotonin syndrome, a potentially life threatening condition.
- Rapid heart rate and high blood pressure
- Dilated pupils
- Loss of muscle coordination
- Heavy sweating
- Goose bumps
How to increase serotonin levels?
A spritz of serotonin
Essential oils are a valuable pathway into hacking our happiness and managing our mood. When inhaled they are able to affect our brain’s limbic system, prompting the release of serotonin. Whether we want a spray of energy to get us through the day, or a spritz of serenity to zen out on an evening, aromatherapy is our latest wellness weapon. Serotonin was part of the inspiration behind our essential oil based mist – Smells Like Yoga with calming lavender and ylang ylang to promote relaxation.
You knead a massage
Feeling tense? Put it in the past tense, and make time for a massage – you’re never too busy. One session of massage therapy can significantly increase serotonin levels, while lowering the stress hormone cortisol. Why not make it a date night ritual and invest in some massage oils for you and your partner to enjoy? Seek your serotonin out the sensual way.
Get down and dirty
Dirt is being labelled the “new Prozac”. I beg your garden? Yes it’s true. Research has found that antidepressant microbes found in soil cause cytokine levels to rise, which leads to increased serotonin production. Go on, get dirty and banish those Sunday blues.
If in doubt, breathe it out
Breathwork and meditation are great ways to move from fight or flight mode, to rest and digest. As Stuart Sandeman explains, ‘by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, we reduce our heart rates causing our bodies to relax and minds to slow’. Boost your mood and find your calm within the chaos by breathing it out. Here are some of the best breath teachers to guide you on your journey from Wim Hof to Richie Bostock.
Peace of mind
Serotonin production and mood are a two-way conversation. Just as serotonin is able to affect your thoughts, your thoughts can affect serotonin levels. Why not start a wellness journal? Not only will it improve your overall life satisfaction, but it will also help to increase serotonin levels. Win-Win!
Run in the sun
Psychologist Dr Audrey Tang explains how humans are biophilic – we are drawn to nature and it can revitalise us without us even trying. Exercising in the sun is a great way to increase serotonin levels whilst soaking up some immune boosting vitamin D. It’s essential that we spend at least 15 minutes outside daily. However, investing in a light therapy box can provide a handy alternative for unpredictable British weather.
Foods that increase serotonin
When looking at foods to increase serotonin, we must concentrate on two components: gut loving nutrients and tryptophan filled foods.
Best foods for gut health:
Feed your gut with whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables that all contain prebiotic fibre. Aim for 30g a day.
Our gut bacteria can’t get enough of these powerful plant chemicals! Try sourcing them from olive oil, coffee, green tea and red wine (in moderation) to aid digestion.
Encourage good bacteria in the gut to grow with healthy fats found in oily fish, nuts and avocados.
Why not try out some gut loving recipes?
Foods that contain tryptophan:
“Serotonin is made from an essential amino acid called tryptophan, which we must get through the foods we eat. If dietary intake is low, this can have a knock-on effect,” hormone expert Henrietta Norton says. Moreover, we can increase serotonin production even further if tryptophan proteins are combined with carbohydrates. The DNA dietitian points out that “when we’re feeling low and craving sugar it’s because our bodies want more carbohydrates to combine with tryptophan, in order to produce more serotonin”.
Find tryptophan, the building blocks for serotonin, in proteins such as milk, tofu, cheese, fish, meat, eggs, nuts and seeds.
Supplements to increase serotonin
Happy insides, happy outsides
If you can’t face eating fermented foods, pop a probiotic to increase serotonin production. A 2013 study found that women who ate yogurt mixed with probiotics, twice a day for four weeks, were calmer when exposed to images of frightened faces compared to the control group. More recently, scientists are researching psychobiotics: a species of bacteria that can be given to an individual to help reduce SAD. Certain probiotic strains are able to produce serotonin themselves, aiding mood regulation.
Sunshine in a pill
Advice from Public Health England is that everyone should be taking a daily supplement containing at least 10mcg of vitamin D. The vitamin plays an important role regulating TPH2 (in brain) and TPH1 (in gut), within serotonin synthesis pathways.
Hemp, not high
Although CBD doesn’t necessarily boost serotonin, it may affect how our brain’s chemical receptors respond to the supply already within our system. When we’re stressed, it’s a sign that our endocannabinoid and serotonin system is out of whack. By supplementing our system with phytocannabinoids (phyto meaning ‘plant’) such as cannabidiol or CBD, we can help restore balance back to the ECS system. As neuroscientist Yasmin Hurd explains, “The brain is about a symphony; CBD can bring the entire symphony into harmony”.
Liked this article on ‘how to increase serotonin: the happy hormone’? Why not explore ‘Postbiotics – everything you need to know about the gut health trend’?
By guest contributor Helena Holdsworth
Main image – gut stuff
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Born and bred in Yorkshire, English Literature student Helena divides her time between the dance floors of her university town of Exeter and her Northern home. And also a fitness and wellness author at WYD. She likes her steak as rare as a Sunday morning gym session and woe betide anyone who tries talking to her before she’s had an oat milk cortado upon waking.