Feeling blue? We do not blame you. There is so much happening in the world right now and in our day-to-day lives, so you can probably pinpoint it down to a specific reason. Or, perhaps you are consistently struggling with happiness throughout the year without an obvious cause. Whenever you feel irritable, anxious, depressed, or sleep-deprived, it means your serotonin levels are low (when they are too high it causes symptoms like headaches, increased heart rate, excessive sweating and diarrhea, but that is likely due to a misdosage of medication in your routine). This chemical is produced in our brain and in our gut, and regulates everything from our mood to our thinking processes to sleep, explains Anthony Crifase, a dietitian, nutritionist and chiropractor. So, when we are lacking it, we can definitely feel it.
If you think that your serotonin is out of sorts, the first step is to check in with your doctor. They will help you understand if perhaps it is due to existing medication, your lifestyle or an underlying medical condition. Meanwhile, there are natural ways you can safely increase your levels of serotonin by implementing these habits into your routine:
Make time for exercise
Even when you just can’t, you should exercise, according to Hannah Braye, nutritionist and advisor for Bio-Kult. Exercise is not just about the physical benefits (although a healthy heart and stronger muscles are always a positive thing). Several lines of research suggest that exercise increases brain serotonin, and can even act as an antidepressant, says Braye. “Ideally you incorporate 30-60 minutes of daily exercises that challenge your body and brain,” says Allison Thibault, RDN. “Pay attention to what and how your body is feeling that day. If you are feeling a little sore or lower in energy, go for a walk and listen to your favorite podcast or try a slower paced yoga class. If you are feeling energetic, try a HIIT class or dance cardio. These different options and varieties will help keep your mind more focused and allow you to enjoy whatever movement you decide to incorporate,” says Thibault.
Find what draws you away from daily stressors and brings you peace and calm during your exercise and you can ride on the endorphins afterward. If you feel exhausted and it is negatively impacting your sleep, that exercise may not be best for you.
Find a reason to smile
Smiling can change our brain chemistry by releasing cortisol.
Some days when the laundry is piled up to the ceiling and your work inbox is flooded with urgent emails, staying positive through life’s craziness is easier said than done. Keep a short list of items that are guaranteed to make you smile. For example, make your desktop background a childhood photo of you and your siblings, watch your wedding video or check out something uplifting on Instagram (we love @upworthy). As Crifase explains, smiling can change our brain chemistry by releasing cortisol. It seems simple enough, but when we laugh or experience even a brief moment of joy, it tells our brain that we are happy, and in turn, our serotonin levels increase.
Improve your gut health
In the same way that our abdominal muscles tie to nearly every limb in our body, our gut impacts much of our internal health. Braye explains the microbiota-gut-brain-axis is an expanding area of research, where scientists have discovered certain specific strains of beneficial gut bacteria that are known to assist in the production of serotonin within our digestive systems. When this happens, we produce tryptophan metabolism, which ensures everything is running smoothly. In addition to fermented drinks like kombucha or kefir, talk to a physician about daily probiotics that could improve your gut by creating good bacteria.
When you are feeling down, it seems like the grass is always greener on the other side. But being thankful for what you do have not only makes us kinder, more thoughtful people, it is also great news for our brains. Research indicates focusing on what we’re lucky to have activated certain neural circuits in our brain, increasing serotonin levels, says Stephanie Catalano, a licensed clinical social worker, author and life coach. When this happens, those chemicals travel to the ‘bliss’ center of our brains, creating feelings of contentment, overall mood and perspective. Try a gratitude journal with inspiring prompts if you are having trouble coming up with something on your own.
Incorporate more tryptophan-rich foods
Braye says maintaining a balanced, nutrient-rich diet makes a difference in our mental health. One way to give your meals a serotonin boost is by incorporating foods that feature tryptophan as a star benefit. As she explains, studies have shown these specific groups have produced an improvement in anxiety, mood and depression scores, making them ideal for anyone who is feeling a bit low.
“Foods rich in tryptophan are luckily pretty easy to find in our everyday diets whether you are vegan/vegetarian or do not have any diet restrictions. Foods that are rich in protein, or at least have protein content to it, are most likely going to be a good source of tryptophan. These include nuts and seeds (like sesame, chia, walnuts, soybeans and pumpkin seeds), chicken, eggs, turkey, fish, dairy products, dark chocolate and soy,” says Thibault. It is recommended that we consume between 250-450 mg of tryptophan daily. “Just to give you an idea, three ounces of chicken/turkey offers 343 mg, one cup of oatmeal offers 147 mg, 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds offers 110 mg and three ounces of canned tuna offers 240 mg of tryptophan,” says Thibault.
Get more sleep
We know life gets busy but getting more sleep could just be a matter of making a few tweaks to your nighttime routine (i.e. avoid blue light from your electronics an hour before bed, keep the room cool, eat a light dinner, etc.). When we have solid sleep, our body and brain have time to recover, process and produce serotonin. “By sleeping, it also allows the body to counteract stress and limits the production and release of the stress hormone cortisol,” says Braye. “Stress hormones lower serotonin, so by having adequate sleep it allows your body to rest, restore, and reproduce more serotonin.”
Find the light
Spending just 30 minutes outdoors in the sunlight every day can help nurture serotonin levels, according to Braye. Or, if your free time is limited throughout the day, try to move to a desk near a window, where you will benefit from increased exposure (but do not forget to use SPF products even when you are inside). If you live in an area that has limited daylight hours, another option is light therapy (aka artificial light), which studies have shown increases serotonin-transporters.
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