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image of serotonin and a smiing brain

The Happy Hormone

Serotonin is a molecule that acts as a hormone and a neurotransmitter, which is essential in mental and physical health. It is a key component of good immune function (1). Serotonin is associated with positive mood. It is our ‘feel good‘ or ‘happy‘ hormone.

I write this article to inform you that there are proactive ways to positively modify your serotonin levels. 

Research shows that adequate blood levels of serotonin are associated with positive moods and people with low levels tend to be prone to anxiety and depression.

“…negative emotions were associated with increased disability due to mental and physical disorders, increased incidence of depression, increased suicide and increased mortality up to 2 decades later. Positive emotions protected against these outcomes.” (2)

In 2007, Dr Simon Young, PhD, editor in chief of the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience wrote an editorial “How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs” (2).

Here is a brief summary.

Four ways to increase your serotonin levels:

  1. Create your own happier, positive moods -self inducing positive moods is proven possible.
  2. Exposure to bright light – like outdoor light or therapy lamps
  3. Exercise – or physical activity of your choice
  4. Nutritional intake of tryptophan may help too

1. Creating your positive emotions

Research shows that serotonin levels can be influenced by self-induced changes in mood. Now, more than ever, is the time to learn how to foster inner peace and happiness. Meditation and mindfulness practices, as well as building and maintaining a social support structure, are meaningful ways to improve positive emotions. (For an introduction to a simple mindfulness practice, click here.) You can also boost your feel good hormones by simply practicing feeling gratitude. If needed, behavioral therapy should be considered.

I find Taiji-Qigong practice to be an excellent way of combining exercise and mindfulness. Yoga can serve the same purpose. I will say more about exercise below.

2.  Shining a Bright Light

Exposure to bright light enhances serotonin production in the body. Even on a cloudy day outdoor light can reach a level of 1000 Lux. This level of light is not normally achieved indoors.arms wide facing bright light sunshine

You should get outdoors when the weather permits, whether it’s to play, exercise, do yard chores or simply do some of your reading.

You can also acquire “happy lights” or full spectrum therapy lamps. These are available in stores or online. They have been used to treat seasonal affective disorder. You don’t need to be diagnosed with this disorder to make use of them. I am writing this article on a rainy Saturday afternoon, sitting next to my Verilux HappyLight Energy Lamp.

3.  Exercise for your mood

In his editorial, Dr Young reports that exercise increases serotonin function in the human brain (2). This is well supported by research. The mechanism may have to do with improved metabolism of the amino acid tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin. Exercise and physical activity do indeed improve mood. Whatever the mechanism, finding ways to indulge in aerobic physical activity….and even better in the bright light of the outdoors, is highly likely to boost your serotonin levels.

4.  Eating right can help

The fourth way to improve your serotonin levels may be to increase dietary intake of the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin in our bodies.
foods to boost serotoninStudies have shown that tryptophan supplementation can have positive effects on anxiety and depression (2,3,4). While I won’t give specific dietary or supplementation advice here, it may be worth consuming foods high in tryptophan, because tryptophan deficiency will lead to low serotonin levels.

Foods high in tryptophan are: nuts and seeds (pumpkin and squash) , salmon and other fish, soy food, beans and lentils, eggs or egg protein, cheese, turkey and chicken, oats and oat bran.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that simply eating foods with higher tryptophan content will automatically increase your serotonin levels. That is to say, I am suggesting it is important to have adequate amounts of this precursor so that this essential building block is available when you create the right circumstances. 

Balanced diet is always key to good health. Please consult with a registered dietitian to help determine your specific needs.

In conclusion, I encourage you to find strategies that work for you to maintain a positive and proactive approach to maintaining a healthy immune system. I hope to have given you food for thought in finding a combination of exercise, meditation/mindfulness practices, positive thinking and proper diet. These are just a few thoughts to keep you focused on positive things, because, more than ever, we need to occupy ourselves with good things to detract from all the negative stuff going around.

In the upcoming days, I will endeavor to continue to build on these ideas, and more, to help you find what works for you.

You can contact me via email or phone to discuss any concerns or questions  you may have.

Domenic@HealthyMoves-pa.com  or 610-725-0995

  1. Herr et al. Effects of Serotonin on Immune cells. Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine. July 2017 doi: 10.3389/fcvm.2017.00048
  1. Young, SN. How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. J Psychiatry Neurosci 2007;32(6):394-9.
  1. Friedman, M. Analysis, Nutrition, and Health Benefits of Tryptophan. International Journal of Tryptophan Research. 2018; Volume 11: 1–12
  1. Lindseth et al. Effects of Dietary Tryptophan on Affective Disorders. Arch Psychiatr Nurs. 2015 April ; 29(2): 102–107. doi:10.1016/j.apnu.2014.11.008.20

About the Author
Domenic Lopez B.Sc., Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Licensed Massage Therapist, is owner and operator of Healthy Moves, a private practice where massage therapy and movement education help you achieve better living.