Can you increase serotonin with food and thus improve your mood?
This is a popular idea but is it really true?
(This is relevant to blood pressure because having higher serotonin levels is generally associated with feeling good and being less stressed. Since stress is a major cause of high blood pressure, reducing stress can help you reduce your blood pressure. So far, so good.)
One of the brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that is known to induce feelings of well-being and relaxation is serotonin.
Some therefore argue that getting more serotonin will make you feel better. Indeed, some of the most popular anti-depressants work to increase serotonin levels in the brain. However, anti-depressants can have side-effects (and can be expensive if you don’t live somewhere with free prescription medicines), and maybe you don’t need those and just want a wee serotonin boost now and again.
It would be nice if we could just eat a banana and feel better. However, whether eating certain foods can make a difference to the serotonin levels in your brain is quite a contentious issue.
Doesn’t eating foods rich in tryptophan increase serotonin?
You read a lot online about the notion that eating foods rich in tryptophan can increase one’s serotonin levels, and therefore improve one’s mood.
This is because serotonin is synthesised from tryptophan – an amino acid (protein component) – which is found in some foods, including turkey, chicken, fish, dairy foods, eggs, nuts, pumpkin and sesame seeds, soy and tofu. Some therefore advocate eating these tryptophan-rich foods to boost serotonin levels.
However, in order for tryptophan to be used to make serotonin, it has to get into your brain, and to do this it has to compete with other amino acids in your blood for entry. Many tryptophan-rich foods are high in protein and therefore contain lots of other amino acids. So eating such foods can actually result in very little tryptophan getting into your brain, and no change in brain serotonin levels or mood.
What about eating carbohydrates?
Some argue that eating carbohydrates can lead to temporarily increased serotonin levels and mood, however, because the insulin produced after consuming carbohydrates lowers the blood levels of most amino acids except tryptophan. Thus, tryptophan has less competition and can thus enter the brain and be converted to serotonin.
Even this theory has been largely debunked, however, with scientists pointing out that just 2% protein content in food can be enough to reduce the availability of tryptophan to the brain. (Even chocolate contains about 5% protein and so scientists think its mood-boosting potential comes from it stimulating the release of endorphins rather than serotonin.)
In any case, even if eating carbohydrates was helpful, it’s sugary foods that would give you the biggest serotonin boost, and only temporarily, and since eating sugary foods causes more volatility in your blood sugar levels, it would be unlikely to help your mood or your blood pressure in the long-run.
Tryptophan and vitamins?
You could try including more tryptophan-rich foods in your diet generally, as scientists speculate that having a higher proportion of tryptophan in your body on an ongoing basis may lead to increased serotonin levels.
Getting plenty vitamin B6 could help as it aids the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin. Vitamin D is also implicated in serotonin production and mood, so be sure to be getting enough of that too (as discussed here: Vitamin D and High Blood Pressure.
What about foods rich in serotonin itself?
Some foods actually contain serotonin itself – such as bananas – so surely this is one way you can increase serotonin with food. Indeed, you can increase the serotonin levels in your blood by eating serotonin-rich foods. However, unless it can get into your brain, it won’t make any difference to your mood. And scientists state that the serotonin from foods is not able to get into the brain at all – it can’t cross the ‘blood-brain barrier’.
So eating foods containing serotonin won’t make any difference to brain serotonin levels, and its the serotonin in the brain which affects how you feel.
Eating foods you like can make you feel better in other ways – partly just from the pleasurable sensation of enjoying the food, and also because eating foods you enjoy may increase the endorphins produced by your body. Endorphins are hormones which can also improve mood and make you feel better.
Mood-boosting foods? There are easier ways to improve your mood!
In conclusion, it’s probably not worth bothering trying to improve your mood through eating specific things. In fact, there are far easier ways to boost your feel-good hormones and brain chemicals, such as having a quick blast of energetic activity or just stepping out into sunlight.
Yes – doing some activity that gets your heart and lungs working harder will stimulate your body to release endorphins as well as serotonin to really give you a lift (see our article on exercise and blood pressure).
So if you can go out for a nice walk or jog in the sunshine, then you’re pretty much guaranteed to feel better. Even if it’s not sunny, natural daylight is still much brighter than most artificial light so will still give you a lift.
More ways to lower your blood pressure
There are actually loads of different ways to alleviate stress, lift your mood, and reduce your blood pressure. What you eat and drink are also crucial. Just a few simple changes to your daily diet can have profound effects on your blood pressure.
If you’ve researched this a bit already, you’ll know that there’s a lot of information out there on lowering blood pressure naturally. However, to make it easy, we’ve put together a step-by-step guide:
As the (highly imaginative) title suggests, the guide is arranged into nine steps which you can follow at your own pace. Each step is easy to follow and gives clear guidance on the different aspects of lowering blood pressure naturally.
There are tips on different kinds of exercise to lower blood pressure. (Even gentle walking can help, and there’s also a blood pressure-lowering exercise that you can do on your sofa.)
There’s loads of info on good foods and drinks for lowering blood pressure, along with a few recipes.
And we outline a host of techniques to de-stress.
The guide is designed to be easy to follow and to help you live a healthier and happier life. Lowering your blood pressure doesn’t have to be about denial. There are enough tasty foods, refreshing drinks, enjoyable activities and relaxing practices to keep you going – with lower blood pressure – for a lifetime…
Post by Alison.
Can you increase serotonin with food? Some references
As I said, this issue is contentious. Read different views here:
PubMed – The effects of nutrients on mood – a debunking of the carbohydrate theory
Columbia University (US) – Go Ask Alice – an overview of the interactions between serotonin levels, food and how we feel
WebMD – Food, Mood and Serotonin – a brief summary of food, mood and serotonin
Psychology Today – Carbohydrates and Serotonin – thorough explanation of how food may affect serotonin production, following with advice on how this affects weight gain and loss
Mark’s Daily Apple – serotonin boosters – one man’s take on foods and activities which boost your mood
PubMed – Neuroprotective effects of cocoa – chocolate, mood, and food (scroll down for ‘Chocolate and Mood’ section)