Ever wondered why you feel so good after a long walk outside in the fresh air, or after a funny catch up with a friend? Well, a lot of it is down to the hormone serotonin. Often known as the ‘happy hormone’, serotonin is a naturally occurring neurotransmitter, which allows your cells to communicate and relay information to your brain. “Serotonin enables your nervous system and brain cells to communicate with each other, making it crucial for mood regulation and memory,” explains nutritionist Gail Madelena (thenaturalbalance.net). On the flipside, a lack of the hormone can lead to feelings of sadness, anger and anxiety. “Interestingly, serotonin is produced predominantly in your gut, which means it also has a huge role in your digestion. It also plays a part in your sleep-wake cycle, sexual function, bone health and blood clotting.” This may all sound scientific and out of reach, but fear not, as raising your levels of serotonin doesn’t need to be complicated. In fact, there are several things you can do that’ll naturally elevate levels of this happy hormone…
1 Love your gut
There’s a reason why your gut – the long tube that runs from your mouth down to your bowel – is often referred to as the ‘second brain’. “Due to the significant serotonin production housed there, the gut has its own independent nervous system, consisting of millions of nerve cells embedded in the gut wall,” explains Gail. “There’s evidence to suggest serotonin plays a role in the growth of the cells in your central nervous system, so when new cells are being formed, serotonin has a direct impact on how they manifest and function. For example, if your nerve cells are damaged, you can experience mood disorders.”
Plus, the millions of different bacteria found in your gut also has an impact on serotonin. To give yours a leg-up, eating a diet rich in fibre and pre- and probiotic foods can help increase the number of healthy bacteria: “Fruits, vegetables, lentils, wholegrains and nuts are all high in fibre, while probiotic foods include kefir, fermented foods, such as kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, apple cider vinegar and tofu, pickled foods and live yoghurts.”
2 Eat foods rich in tryptophan
Serotonin is produced from an essential amino acid called tryptophan. “This amino acid can’t be produced naturally by the human body,” says Gail. So by including foods rich in tryptophan, and therefore serotonin, is key. “Enjoy turkey, red meat, bananas, beans, eggs, cheese, leafy greens, oily fish, nuts and seeds.” Eating carbohydrates alongside these foods can also increase the amount of tryptophan that reaches your brain. Try a banana sandwich, beans on toast or a warming turkey chilli with brown rice. Gail adds that you can also boost serotonin production by increasing nutrients such as vitamin B6, vitamin D and omega 3 fatty acids.
Tuna, salmon, chickpeas and starchy vegetables such as potatoes are great sources. Still lacking in the B vitamin? Essential for maintaining good health, the Vitamin B Complex from Birch and Wilde combines all eight bioavailable B vitamins in one capsule, adding vitamin C, inositol, choline and PABA to create a well-rounded supplement that’ll leave you feeling great. Get your 60-day supply from £18, birchandwilde.co.uk.
3 Take 30 to exercise
Just half an hour of aerobic exercise, such as walking, running, swimming or biking will lead to a rise in serotonin levels and feel-good endorphins. Exercise can also increase levels of tryptophan, while also reducing other amino acids which can, in fact, get in the way of tryptophan absorption. Not a big cardio fan? “You can also get a small serotonin boost from less energetic forms of exercise like yoga, Pilates and weight training,” says Gail. To increase your serotonin levels even further, take your exercise outside on a sunny day and lap up the natural light.
4 Head out for a walk in nature
If the lockdowns taught us anything, it’s that walks outside can be an instant mood-booster. Abbas Kanani, lead medical advisor for Chemist Click (chemistclick.co.uk), says that being outside and breathing in fresh air can help to raise oxygen levels in your brain which, in turn, increases serotonin levels. “Getting away from daily stresses – such as screens, work and people – and going for a walk outdoors in nature can leave you feeling refreshed, calmer and happier.” It also helps your mind to switch off, and walking in particular helps get those endorphins pumping. You don’t need to be neighbours with a huge national park to reap the benefits either – even taking a stroll in a small patch of green amid a busy city can help quieten your mind to switch off.
5 Do a selfless good deed
Often, when you do something kind for someone, such as a friend, colleague or family member, you might subconsciously expect a favour in return however, helping someone just because you care is an unbeatable feeling. Case in point: “Start your day and think, ‘what can I do for someone else today?’” suggests Abbas. “Whether it’s helping a colleague with a work task or buying a homeless person a coffee, when you do nice things for people, your brain releases endorphins as well as serotonin.” Doing something kind every day for someone can do wonders for your mood and mental health in the long term.
6 Have a cuddle
Nothing beats a good hug with someone you love, be it a partner, friend or family member. And, when you’re wrapped in a warming embrace, feel-good hormones including serotonin and dopamine are released. Another one that comes into play here is oxytocin AKA the love hormone. “Oxytocin is released in an area of your brain called the hypothalamus; human touch leads to the release of oxytocin. This could be from holding hands, hugging, kissing, and of course, sexual intercourse,” explains Dr Deborah Lee, a medical writer at Dr Fox Online Pharmacy (doctorfox.co.uk). No one around to squeeze? Hugging yourself can actually provide the same benefits!
7 Laugh out loud
When was the last time you really laughed? As in, a belly laugh that left you in stitches? A survey conducted by US management company Gallup, found that after the age of 23, the number of times you laugh or smile in a given day reduces dramatically. However, as Abbas explains, laughing is one of the easiest things you can do to help boost our mood and boost serotonin levels. “Much like the wellknown runner’s high, when you laugh, you’re increasing your intake of oxygen, which stimulates your heart and lungs, and increases the number of endorphins that are released by your brain.” To get your giggle on, plan a get together with friends in real life or via Zoom. After all, having a chuckle doesn’t just help our mood – it has a multitude of other benefits, from boosting your immune system through to decreasing stress levels.