Before I get into all the goods of this topic, I quickly wanted to share a reminder about what Serotonin is – for those who might not be so familiar! Serotonin is often described as our “feel good chemical” or our “happy hormone.” It acts as a neurotransmitter, carrying signals between nerve cells throughout the body. (1) The functions within the body in which serotonin helps to regulate are vast and varying! A few of the many include; helping to regulate appetite, sleep, digestion, sexual function, and mood. The role in which serotonin plays on mood levels is huge, as most often too low of levels are a major contributing factor to both anxiety and depression.
Interestingly, over 90% of serotonin produced within the gut! This is one of the many reasons as to why numerous people talk about the “gut brain connection” and also a reason why doctors, scientists, and nutritionists like myself are constantly emphasizing the importance of focusing on gut health – as so much of our health is controlled by the bacteria in our guts!
In this post, I’m sharing 5 diet tips to help boost your serotonin production in order to reduce your anxiety!
1. Eat more Fermented Foods:
Eating more fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, lacto fermented pickles, miso, tempeh, yogurt, kefir, and kombucha is a great way to help boost serotonin production! These sorts of foods contain tons of important microbes and healthy bacteria, which when consumed by humans, help to diversify ones microbiome (2). Since a whopping 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut with the support of the beneficial bacteria living here, it is essential one includes enough fermented foods in their diet to help increase their levels of healthy gut bacteria.
To prove the importance of healthy bacteria for serotonin production, a recent study was performed on 2 groups of mice; one group with normal levels of bacteria, and one “germ free” group without gut bacteria. It was found that the group of mice who had healthy levels of bacteria were able to produce 60% more serotonin than the germ free group (3). The study went on to find that as researchers started to incorporate different species of gut microbes in the germ free mice, their serotonin levels began to increase. Not only this, they also found that with the addition of bacteria into the germ free mice, the movement of food through their digestive tract also increased (3)! This can explain why often times people with anxiety also struggle with poor digestive health.
2. Eat Enough of the “Right Types” of Carbohydrates:
Yes! You read that correctly! Eating enough carbohydrates is actually essential in helping your body to produce more serotonin. In the book, “The Serotonin Power Diet”, the authors explain that carbohydrates are actually the fuel for serotonin production, just as gas is to a car (4). In the book they also explain that serotonin not only helps improve conditions such as anxiety, it also has a key role in regulating appetite. This means, when you eat enough of the “right” types of carbs, serotonin is released, helping to trigger to your body that you are in fact satiated. For this reason, they even go on as far to say that carbohydrates are absolutely necessary for weight loss. The important thing is to eat the “right” types of carbohydrates. These types of carbs are “complex carbohydrates” and take longer for your body to break down than simple carbohydrates such as refined sugars. It’s also important to know that you should eat carbs interspersed throughout the day, not just carb load at one meal.
A few examples of complex carbs include:
– Whole grain sourdough breads (rye, buckwheat, spelt, etc.)
– Starchy veg (yams, sweet potatoes, squash, beets, carrots, etc.)
– Brown rice
– Quinoa, millet, kamut, etc.
– Beans/ legumes
3. Eat Tryptophan Rich Foods with Carbohydrates:
Tryptophan is an amino acid (a protein building block) that produces serotonin. One of the main reasons point number 2 is true, has to do with the fact that carbohydrates are essential for helping tryptophan to pass through the blood brain barrier to get in the brain. Without carbohydrates, tryptophan would just remain in the bloodstream, instead of being transported and then converted to serotonin. The reason carbs are essential to eat with tryptophan rich foods has to do with the fact that when carbohydrates are eaten, insulin is released. The insulin helps carbohydrates move from the blood into the cells of the body, and it simultaneously pulls amino acids into the cells along with it. This means the body can use tryptophan, found in the foods one eats, to go on and produce serotonin within the gut (5).
Sources of tryptophan rich foods to eat with complex carbs (listed above) include:
– Pasture raised eggs
– Wild fish
– Tofu & soy beans
– Pumpkin & sesame seeds
– Pasture raised meats (poultry is especially high in tryptophan – just be sure it’s of the highest quality if you do choose to consume it)
– Legumes such as: kidney beans, black beans, peanuts, & lentils
4. Eat a Wide VARIETY of Fresh Fruits & Veg
Eating a wide variety, such as 30+ different types of fresh fruits and veg per week can greatly help to increase serotonin production. Not only do these sorts of foods contain healthy carbohydrates needed for the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin, they also contain important micronutrients, such as vitamin C, B vitamins, zinc, and magnesium, that the body needs in order to produce serotonin (8). Eating a wide variety of different types of fruits and veg will also ensure your microbiome is getting the diversity of healthy bacteria it needs in order to be able to produce serotonin within the gut.
5. Eat Organic (aka pesticide free) Food:
Eating foods grown without pesticides is essential for serotonin production! The pesticides and herbicides used in conventional agriculture do two critical things to degrade our ability to produce and regulate serotonin. Firstly, when these chemicals enter our bodies through our food, water and air, they destroy the important bacteria living in our gut that are essential for Serotonin production (as explained in point 1). The second concern focuses on what glyphosate, the worlds most widely used weed killer, actually does to plants. Glyphosate works by blocking the Shikimate Pathway within plants, which is the pathway used to produce 3 essential amino acids; tryptophan, phenylalanine, and tyrosine (7). This is greatly problematic, because as we know now, tryptophan is the precursor for serotonin production within the human body. Simply put, when our vegetables aren’t able to synthesize these essential amino acids, humans are deprived of 3 very important biological building blocks to help regulate all sorts of functions within the body (9). It isn’t an exaggeration to say that eating foods laced with agricultural chemicals is having a HUGE effect on your serotonin production, thus leading to anxiety.
- Eat more fermented foods
- Eat enough complex carbohydrates throughout the day, along with tryptophan containing foods
- Eat a wide variety of different fresh fruits and veggies (aim for 30 + of different varieties a week)
- Do your best to choose organic (pesticide free)