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Foods That Boost Serotonin and Dopamine
Picture this: You’ve been feeling down in the dumps lately, but you can’t pinpoint exactly why. There hasn’t been a change in your job performance or your relationships; everything is going well. You think that maybe the cloudy winter weather may have something to do with this funk. Your friends tell you that maybe you have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and that you may want to consider checking your serotonin levels. You have kinda heard of serotonin, but you never realized that it could have such a profound effect on your moods.
Well, the truth is, is that it can!
Every year millions of people find themselves in a situation like this one- with a serotonin deficiency without really being aware of what that is, how they got it, or what they may be able to do to correct it.
The fact is, even making changes to the foods you eat can help boost levels of serotonin in your body, as well as levels of serotonin’s happiness brother, dopamine.
What is serotonin?
Serotonin, also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine, is a chemical in our body that plays a vital role in many bodily functions. A neurotransmitter, a hormone, as well as a vasoconstrictor, serotonin is largely produced in the epithelial cells lining your intestines (~90-95%), while the remaining amount is produced by neurons located in our brain stem. It can also be found in our blood platelets.
A neurotransmitter sends signals from one neuron, or nerve cell, to another. Without neurotransmitters, it would not be possible for the body to function at even the most basic level, as these signals tell our bodies what to do.
Many of us have heard of serotonin in relation to moods and mood disorders, but they may be surprised to learn that serotonin is so much more than a mood stabilizer.
Serotonin as a neurotransmitter is involved in our processes of learning, memory, happiness (ie mood), temperature regulation, sleep cycles, and sexual behavior. Serotonin also acts as a hormone and is involved in vasoconstriction, as well as digestion.
Here is a list of serotonin’s functions that we have come to learn of in the last sixty years, though in reality there may be many more:
- Vasoconstriction and vasodilation. When your body suffers a cut or wound, serotonin is released by blood platelets to help constrict blood vessels, which slows blood flow and helps the blood clot.
- Mood regulation. Serotonin stabilizes our moods. Adequate serotonin levels in the body mean feelings of happiness and calm, while a deficiency in serotonin is believed to lead to low mood, depression, and anxiety.
- Sleep regulation. Serotonin helps produce melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Adequate serotonin and dopamine levels are also important in maintaining a good quality of sleep.
- Digestion (bowel function). Research supports the idea that serotonin is involved in at least a few functions in our gut. Serotonin influences the movement of the smooth muscle of the digestive tract. It also appears to be a factor in the production of gastro and colonic mucus. An imbalance of serotonin may lead to gastrointestinal disorders.
- Bone health. Research has shown that high levels of serotonin in your gut may be associated with low bone density or osteoporosis.
- Sexual desire. Serotonin is involved in our feelings of sexual desire, though perhaps not in the way you might initially think. Studies have found that serotonin may inhibit sexual desire, meaning high levels of serotonin may be a factor in low sexual desire, and conversely, low levels of serotonin are associated with a higher level of sexual desire.
- Cardiovascular function. Serotonin regulates the electrical conduction and valvular closure of the heart.
- Lactation. There is a link between serotonin and breast milk production.
How is Serotonin Produced?
Serotonin is produced by the metabolism of L- tryptophan, an essential amino acid that we get from our diet. Tryptophan is also used to make the neurotransmitter melatonin as well as niacin (Vitamin B3).
Roughly 10% of serotonin is produced in neurons found in the raphe nuclei- a cluster of nuclei located in the middle of our brainstem.
Enterochromaffin cells produce most of the serotonin in our bodies- between 90-95% of our body’s serotonin. Enterochromaffin cells are a type of epithelial cell found in the lining of our intestinal walls. These cells are “chemosensors” that transfer information from the gut to our central nervous system, such as by the release of serotonin.
What Does Serotonin Deficiency Look Like?
Considering all of the important roles that serotonin plays in the body, a serotonin deficiency can have devastating effects on the body.
Serotonin deficiency is simply when the body is not producing enough serotonin to perform the body’s functions effectively.
Because serotonin regulates nearly all of the brain’s functions, including mood, aggression, appetite, reward, attention, and sexuality, as well as much of our body’s digestive functions, when there is a deficiency of serotonin, this can lead to:
- Compulsive behaviors
- Mood disorders, such as depression
- Digestive issues, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS); constipation
- Panic disorders
- Suicidal thoughts
What Causes Serotonin Deficiency?
Serotonin deficiency can be caused by a number of factors.
- Stress. Chronic stress affects serotonin’s ability to act as a neurotransmitter in the brain, which can ultimately lead to abnormal behaviors and other negative effects.
- Digestive issues. Impaired breakdown and absorption of food can contribute to serotonin deficiency.
- Lack of sunlight. Research has found a correlation between available sunlight and levels of serotonin in the body. It was found that a study group had higher levels of serotonin in late summer and fall, and lower levels in spring.
- Poor diet. Serotonin is created from the amino acid tryptophan that is not produced by the body, but instead, we have to obtain it through our diet. Consuming caffeine, simple carbs, and “junk food” are all good ways NOT to get enough tryptophan and lower serotonin levels. Instead, focus on eating complex carbohydrates found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, as well as eat tryptophan-rich poultry, tofu, and fish.
- Genetic factors. For some people, certain genetic traits may mean serotonin isn’t utilized as efficiently in the body as it should be.
- Toxic substances. Drugs, pesticides, heavy metals. Substances such as these can cause permanent damage to the nerve cells that produce serotonin.
How to Increase Serotonin in the Body
Increasing the amount of serotonin in the body can come by way of making some dietary adjustments.
The essential amino acid L-tryptophan is the main ingredient in the production of serotonin, which means that a diet containing generous servings of tryptophan-rich mood foods can be one of the first steps taken in increasing low serotonin levels.
Foods that Boost Serotonin
Tryptophan can be found in these foods:
- Egg whites
- Seeds (pumpkin, squash)
- Fish (canned tuna, salmon)
- Cheese (cheddar, parmesan, mozzarella)
- Poultry (Turkey meat, chicken)
- Meat (pork, beef)
- Beans (soybeans, edamame)
Boosting serotonin levels in the body isn’t as easy as eating tryptophan-rich foods. In order for tryptophan to affect serotonin levels, this amino acid first has to pass through the brain’s very selective blood-brain barrier.
To do this, it’s necessary to consume carbohydrates so that the body can make the glucose that will release insulin. This insulin helps tryptophan get absorbed by the brain so that serotonin can be produced. However, it’s no easy journey- tryptophan has to compete with other amino acids on its journey to the brain.
In addition to eating tryptophan-rich foods, making sure you get enough sleep, sun exposure, sunlight, and supplements can help boost those serotonin levels as well.
Not one to be left out of a good mood/vibes party, we have to give mention to serotonin’s close relative, dopamine.
Like serotonin, dopamine is a monoamine neurotransmitter and sometimes hormone (aka “neurohormone”) that plays a big role in many important functions in the brain, particularly in the brain’s reward center.
Together, these two neurohormones are responsible for much of the body’s moods and reward centers. A shortage of either dopamine or serotonin can have a negative effect on one’s mood.
While serotonin is produced in the gut and brain stem of the brain, dopamine is produced in the substantia nigra, ventral tegmental area, and the hypothalamus of the brain.
Dopamine has a role in your body:
- Motivation and reward
Foods that Increase Dopamine
As with serotonin, increasing levels of feel-good dopamine can be helped by what we consume in our diets.
Dopamine is produced by the amino acid L- tyrosine and magnesium. Make sure that your diet is rich in these compounds in order to increase your levels of dopamine.
Foods that contain high levels of L-tyrosine (aka “dopamine foods”) are:
- Pumpkin seeds
A study of serotonin and dopamine can leave you in awe of the profound effect they have on the body and just how important they are for many of our body’s functions.
What is just as incredible is how much influence our behaviors can have on our levels of serotonin and dopamine, and ultimately our feelings of happiness and well-being.
“You feel what you eat!” would be an appropriate expression allocated to these two neurotransmitters.
Emma Dallmeyer is an expert content writer with over 15 years of writing experience. Emma has completed over a thousand copywriting services throughout her decade-long career. She is a passionate traveler and progress-oriented woman who seeks to help business and cooperate organizations grow and scale their business using her writing service.