Serotonin is a chemical messenger that’s believed to act as a mood stabilizer. It’s said to help produce healthy sleeping patterns as well as boost your mood.
It’s even been looked at as a treatment for depression. This is because people who have depression often have a low serotonin level. Studies show that serotonin levels can have an effect on mood and behavior, and the chemical is commonly linked to feeling good and living longer.
Serotonin is synthesized from the amino acid tryptophan. Many foods contain tryptophan, so the common belief is that by eating foods high in tryptophan, you can boost your serotonin levels. But is this true?
The relationship between tryptophan and serotonin is part of what’s commonly considered the food-mood connection.
Serotonin isn’t found in foods, but tryptophan is. Foods high in protein, iron, riboflavin, and vitamin B6 all tend to contain large amounts of the amino acid. Unfortunately, though, boosting your serotonin levels isn’t as simple as eating a “high tryptophan diet.”
The tryptophan you find in food has to compete with other amino acids to be absorbed into the brain, so it’s unlikely to have much of an effect on your serotonin levels. This differs from tryptophan supplements, which contain purified tryptophan and do have an effect on serotonin levels.
There’s a reason why foods like mac and cheese and mashed potatoes are considered “comfort foods,” especially when the weather is dreary.
While high-tryptophan foods won’t boost serotonin on their own, there is one possible cheat to this system: carbs.
It’s possible that eating foods high in tryptophan with a healthy serving of carbohydrates can have an effect on your serotonin levels.
When you eat carbs, more insulin is released into your system. Insulin promotes the absorption of amino acids into the heart, muscles, and organs. The tryptophan left behind now makes up a larger portion of the blood’s amino acid “pool,” meaning that it’s more likely that it will be absorbed through the brain barrier.
While they can’t compete with supplements — which you should not be taking without approval from your doctor — the foods listed below contain high amounts of tryptophan. Your best chance at achieving a serotonin boost without using supplements is to eat them often, with a serving of healthy carbohydrates, like rice, oatmeal, or whole-grain bread.
The protein in eggs can significantly boost your blood plasma levels of tryptophan, according to recent research. For dinner, try making a simple baked egg, which you can easily combine or cook with leftovers. Or get fancy with this spinach-and-mushroom frittata. Pro tip: don’t leave out the yolks! They’re extremely rich in both tryptophan and tyrosine, which are major contributors to the antioxidant properties of eggs.
Cheese is another great source of tryptophan. This classic mac and cheese recipe combines cheddar cheese with eggs and milk, which are also good sources of tryptophan.
Pineapples are a major source of bromelain, a protein that can reduce the side effects of chemotherapy as well as help suppress coughs, according to some research. Combine pineapples and coconut with chicken for this delicious piña colada chicken recipe.
Soy products are rich sources of tryptophan. You can substitute tofu for pretty much any protein, in pretty much any recipe, making it an excellent source of tryptophan for vegetarians and vegans. Try these tofu vegetable kebabs, and reap the benefits of other ingredients like ginger and vitamin C-rich bell peppers.
It’s hard to go wrong with salmon, which — as you may have guessed — is also rich in tryptophan. Follow this recipe and steam it with lemony zucchini, bake it with asparagus and crumbled feta, or go crazy on the tryptophan rush and combine it with eggs and milk to make a smoked salmon frittata!
Pick and choose your faves, because all nuts and seeds contain tryptophan. Studies show that eating a handful of nuts a day can lower your risk for cancer, heart disease, and respiratory problems. They’re also good sources of fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants. For a nutty dinner, try this recipe for Brazil nut-crusted tilapia or this one for almond couscous. Or just go straight for dessert with some no-bake oatmeal peanut butter cookies.
There’s a reason why the Thanksgiving meal is usually followed by a siesta on the couch — turkey is essentially stuffed tryptophan. Try this recipe for an Asian turkey rice bowl that’s both tangy and healthy.
Food and supplements aren’t the only ways to boost serotonin levels.
- Exercise: Research from the United Kingdom shows that regular exercise can have antidepressant effects.
- Sunshine: Light therapy is a common remedy for seasonal depression. Research shows a clear relationship between being exposed to bright light and serotonin levels. To get better sleep, or to boost your mood, try to work in a daily lunchtime walk outside.
- Positivity: Research shows that facing daily life and your interactions with others with a positive outlook can significantly boost your serotonin levels. As the Spice Girls once sang: “All you need is positivity!”