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Serotonin is a monoamine neurotransmitter found in the blood platelets, digestive tract, brain and pineal glands that sends chemical messages between different nerve cells. Low levels of this neurotransmitter can increase aggressive behavior, depression, anxiety and sleep disorders. Serotonin, also known as hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), is commonly referred to as the “feel good hormone” because in appropriate levels it can make you feel positive and balanced.
The main function of serotonin is to maintain the emotional balance of a person while also minimizing stress and depression and regulating sleep patterns. When serotonin is low and feelings of being sluggish and depressed arise, people often seek out a “quick fix.” This is usually a sugar-rush or temporary “high” achieved from grabbing a sugary snack like a donut. This sugar rush will last temporarily, but since the serotonin level will remain unaffected, the rush will crash and the depressive feelings will resurface. Opting to grab something sugary when feeling low will also lead to weight gain — which will only increase the negative feelings and thoughts.
There are many different foods and habits, however, that will naturally increase serotonin levels in the body. These kinds of foods will gradually lead to a permanent fix instead of one that is temporary and often regretted. Foods that will naturally boost serotonin levels range from proteins to carbohydrates.
Any food that is rich in protein will contain the amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan is a precursor of serotonin; it is converted to serotonin in the brain.
These protein rich foods include:
Poultry – eggs, chicken, turkey
Meat — (LEAN) pork, lamb
Fish — salmon, tuna
Dairy — low fat milk, yogurt
Soy — beans, nuts
Legumes — peas (including green, black-eyed and chick), beans (green, black, lima and kidney)
Carbohydrates are also used to naturally increase levels of serotonin. This is not the sugary pastry that creates a temporary high, or the “comfort food” pasta dinner. Those types of foods are simple carbohydrates. The body needs complex carbs that will digest slowly, get into the blood stream and be transported to the brain, to raise serotonin levels. Complex carbs will also enhance insulin production which allows tryptophan to reach the brain quicker (and therefore be converted into serotonin).
These complex carbohydrates include:
Nuts — almonds, walnuts, pecans (unsalted is healthiest)
Vegetables — sweet potatoes, squash
Dark Chocolate — Yes! (In limited amounts)
To help the production of serotonin in the body, it is important to maintain a diet rich in vitamin B and omega 3 fatty acids. Foods with ample amounts of vitamin B include brown rice, chicken, eggs, legumes, nuts and peas. Omega 3 fatty acids are most often found in fish oils, salmon, tuna, etc. Omega 6 fatty acids, found in canola oil, flax, grape seed oil, etc., are also beneficial to the production of serotonin.
Besides food, there are different ways to increase the levels of serotonin in the body and create a more balanced, healthy self.
Exercise is very important! This idea is one that will help every aspect of the body, not just raising serotonin. Exercise is always necessary and should never be forgotten. If the body takes in all the aforementioned foods to increases levels of serotonin but is not given the appropriate amount of movement, the food will not be nearly as effective as its potential. Exercise can be fun. Classes like yoga, Zumba or aerobics will provide an excellent, fun workout without feeling overworked. Swimming or walking are both great methods of exercise where a gym membership is not required. Setting aside time at least three times a week will help get serotonin flowing in the body.
Sleep is extremely important in the production of serotonin. The number one way to determine if Serotonin Deficiency Syndrome is present in a person is to monitor sleep habits. Most sleeping disorders are related to serotonin deficiencies. The brain will change serotonin into melatonin (the sleep hormone) during the night, so the amount of serotonin is always proportional to the amount of melatonin. The body needs at least six to eight hours of sleep each day to run properly. The best way to establish better sleep habits is to go to the bed at the same time every night; the television, radio, etc., should be off and not used as a sleep aid.
Food, exercise and sleep may not be enough to raise the levels of serotonin in everybody. This is when Serotonin Deficiency Syndrome plays a role and it is advisable to schedule a visit with a doctor. There are serotonin supplements that a doctor might recommend or prescribe. These supplements can raise serotonin considerably and should not be taken without medical supervision.