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What is serotonin and how do I increase it?

Known as the happiness chemical, it helps regulate our mood

Two young women laugh while out for lunch
Two young women laugh while out for lunch

When it comes to the neurotransmitters that send information around the body through the nervous system, serotonin is perhaps the best known.

What is serotonin?

Often known as ‘the happiness chemical’, it plays a key role in regulating our mood.

“Increased serotonin levels have been linked with overall greater feelings of happiness and decreased serotonin can be linked with mood disorders such as depression and anxiety,” GP Dr Michela Sorensen explains.

Not getting enough sleep or not doing enough exercise can affect our serotonin levels. Taking recreational drugs, such as ecstasy, can also mess with them.

What does serotonin do?

As well as mood regulation, serotonin is critical for good cognitive function and also helps regulate sleep, appetite, digestion and muscle movement.

But, despite it being frequently heralded as the key to a good mood, serotonin shouldn’t be considered a cure-all for mental health issues. As Michela explains, managing depression is more complicated than focusing solely on serotonin.

“There’s some evidence linking lower levels of serotonin to depression and it is the target for a lot of medications currently used to treat depression,” she says. “But putting the entire spectrum of depression down to one chemical would be a gross oversimplification. There are many genetic, social and environmental factors that interact to lead to clinical depression.”

Besides serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins also play important roles in regulating mood.

Related: The importance of happiness chemicals

A young man smiles as he eats a colourful salad

Can you have too much serotonin?

It is possible to have too much of this feel-good chemical, which can result from certain medications and dietary supplements. Known as serotonin syndrome, this can cause effects such as shivering, diarrhoea, fever, seizures and, in severe cases, death.

Sources of serotonin

According to Michela, many of the ingredients in a common breakfast or brunch meal have been linked with increasing serotonin, including:

  • Eggs

  • Salmon

  • Poultry

  • Spinach

  • Nuts

  • Seeds

How to increase serotonin naturally

There are many scientifically proven ways to increase serotonin levels naturally, says Michela. Here’s how:

1. Spend some time in the sunshine

Studies have found a link between low sunshine exposure and mood. In fact, a commonly used therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a light box (which simulates outdoor light). However, you don’t need one to reap the benefits of sunlight. “Just getting outdoors and enjoying some sunshine and fresh air can boost your serotonin levels,” says Michela. However, make sure you keep your sun exposure within safe limits – excessive levels of sun exposure can be dangerous.

2. Get a good night’s sleep

A study from the journal Sleep found that not getting enough shuteye gradually desensitises serotonin receptors, so aim to get between seven and nine hours’ sleep a night. If a lack of sleep is affecting your mood, see your GP for personalised advice.

Exercise increases both serotonin production and release so staying active is key to a good mood

3. Exercise most days each week

Research has found that exercise increases both serotonin production and release so staying active is key to a good mood. Aim to do at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days a week (enough to get your heart rate up).

4. Practise mindfulness

Research shows mindfulness can increase serotonin levels and as little as 10 minutes a day of focusing on your breathing in a balanced way can also improve concentration and memory.

Looking for ways to boost your overall mental wellbeing? Experts say building resilience can enhance our relationships, help us navigate life changes, approach new situations with confidence and improve our mental health. Check out our article 1 month to mental strength: What is resilience and how do I build it? for more.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

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