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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?

Serotonin, often referred to as the "feel-good" neurotransmitter, is a vital chemical messenger in the brain and body that plays a crucial role in regulating mood, appetite, sleep, and overall well-being.

“Serotonin acts as a natural mood stabiliser, promoting feelings of happiness and contentment while also helping to manage stress and anxiety levels, explains psychologist, Dr Lyndsay Brown, from the Black Dog Institute.

“Maintaining balanced serotonin levels is essential for overall mental and physical health, and imbalances can contribute to conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, and even gastrointestinal issues.”

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 GP Dr Michela Sorensen 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

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

  • Tofu

How do I know if I have low serotonin levels?

Lyndsay points out that spotting low serotonin levels is mainly about noticing related symptoms and behaviours. These can include things like:

  • Ongoing feelings of sadness, anxiety

  • Irritability and mood swings

  • Disrupted sleep or insomnia

  • Changes to your appetite or weight

  • Decreased interest in activities you once enjoyed

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Low energy levels or fatigue

  • Physical symptoms such as headaches or digestive issues

“People experiencing a combination of these symptoms over an extended period should consider consulting with a healthcare professional, such as a GP, for an evaluation and diagnosis” says Lyndsay.

How to increase serotonin naturally

There are many scientifically proven ways to increase serotonin levels naturally, says Lyndsay:

1. Spend some time in the sunshine

Exposure to natural sunlight can stimulate the production of serotonin. Spending time outdoors during daylight hours, particularly in the morning, may help regulate serotonin levels and improve your mood. 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

Getting an adequate amount of quality sleep is crucial for serotonin production and regulation. Establishing a consistent sleep schedule and practicing good sleep hygiene habits can support healthy serotonin levels.

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

Regular physical activity, such as aerobic exercise and strength training, has been shown to increase serotonin levels. Aim to do at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days a week (enough to get your heart rate up) to experience the mood-boosting benefits.

4. Practice mindfulness

Chronic stress can deplete serotonin levels over time. Incorporating stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga, or spending time in nature can help manage stress and promote serotonin production.

5. Get social

Building and maintaining meaningful relationships and engaging in social activities can positively impact serotonin levels.

6. Book in a massage

Therapeutic touch therapies like massage may help stimulate the release of serotonin and promote relaxation.

For more information about mental health challenges including depression and anxiety and where to find help, visit the Black Dog Institute website.

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.