Foods That Boost Serotonin
Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions in the U.S. and is the leading cause of disability between folks ages 15 to 44. While there is no one single cause of depression, there are a variety of risk factors. Some of these factors you can manipulate while others, such as poverty, food insecurity and racism, are beyond your individual control.
When it comes to things that you can do to support your mental health, the food that you eat can play a critical foundational role. In order for our brains to function optimally, they need a variety of nutrients. One of the most important nutrients is protein called tryptophan because it is the precursor to the mood-modulating neurotransmitter serotonin.
In this article I will outline the connection between diet and depression, foods that boost serotonin, the role of a healthy gut, foods that are high in tryptophan and other coping mechanisms to help you manage your mental health.
What is the Connection Between Diet and Depression?
It should come as no surprise that since our brains and bodies are made up from the foods we eat, the food we eat can impact our mental health. Research continues to look at foods and their links to alleviating or increasing symptoms of depression.
An interesting meta-analysis was done on randomized trials that looked at the effectiveness of probiotic consumption and decreasing depression and found it had a significant impact. If you want to support your mental health, a great addition to the diet includes probiotics. Luckily, you can incorporate probiotic foods into your diet easily and affordably. Some of my favorites include:
- Apple cider vinegar.
- Kefir (water, milk, coconut).
- Beet kvass.
Make sure you look for unpasteurized versions, since the process of pasteurization kills off any beneficial bacteria in food or drinks.
Another common ingredient that has been used in Indian cuisine for millennia is turmeric. Research on one of the active components found in this spice, curcumin, shows promise in diminishing depression and anxiety symptoms and can be a well-tolerated addition to standard care and treatment.
Finally, other foods provide the base molecules and nutrients we need to create the neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, required for proper brain health and function. This neurotransmitter is complex and has many roles throughout the body. For our purposes it is important to know that it helps modulate mood, cognition, reward, learning and memory, which are all key players in developing or managing depression.
I think it is important to note here that about 80% to 95% of our serotonin is made in the gut. So, having a healthy-functioning digestive system is critical to taking the foods you eat and turning them into the neurotransmitters that you need. If you struggle with digestive issues such as bloating, constipation, gas, diarrhea and others, then it is worth working with a practitioner to improve your digestive function in order to reap the benefits of the serotonin-boosting foods.
What Foods Boost Serotonin?
When it comes to naturally boosting your serotonin, you will want to look for foods that are rich in a protein called tryptophan. This protein is a precursor to serotonin (and melatonin, which is necessary for proper sleep/wake cycles) and current research is looking at how levels of this nutrient can impact serotonin and mood. It is a protein that we cannot make in our bodies, so we must consume it in our diets.
In order to make tryptophan readily available in the body, you can eat foods that contain this protein in conjunction with slightly higher-carb foods. When we eat carbohydrates, our body releases a hormone called insulin. This hormone clears sugar and all proteins, except tryptophan, from the blood. That can make it more readily available for use.
Let's take a look at some foods high in tryptophan:
- Milk: If you can tolerate dairy, then milk is a great source of tryptophan, clocking in at about 211milligrams per a 16-ounce glass.
- Canned tuna: An affordable option for tryptophan is canned tuna, which contains 472 milligrams per ounce.
- Chicken and turkey: Perhaps the most famous source of tryptophan is turkey, but all poultry is a good source containing between 600 to 690 milligrams per a 6-ounce serving.
- Beef, lamb and pork: These meats are other great sources of tryptophan. The amount varies per cut and meat, but a 6-ounce pork chop contains 627 milligrams, a 6-ounce skirt steak contains 636 milligrams and 3 ounces of roasted lamb contains 353 milligrams.
- Firm tofu: If you are looking for a plant-based source of tryptophan, tofu contains about 592 milligrams per cup.
- Salmon: With salmon you are also getting the benefits of omega-3 fats, which your brain loves. Per a 6-ounce filet you will get about 570 milligrams of tryptophan.
- Oats: Oatmeal is a delicious comfort food that is higher in carbohydrates (remember insulin helps clear other proteins from the bloodstream) and contains about 94 milligrams of tryptophan per cup.
- Cheese: One of life's greatest gifts is high-quality cheese. It can also contain about 91 milligrams of tryptophan per ounce.
- Nuts and seeds: Depending on the type of nut or seed you choose, the amount of tryptophan can vary from 65 milligrams (peanuts) to 164 milligrams (pumpkin seeds) per ounce.
- Eggs: Eggs are a great source of protein, B vitamins and choline and contain about 77 milligrams per one large egg.
Helpful Coping Mechanisms for Depression
While eating certain foods can help support your mental health, there are many other contributing factors when it comes to depression. Some coping mechanisms I have used in the past to help manage my depression include:
Finding a Good Therapist
Having someone to talk to who is trained in supporting folks with depression and other mental health issues can make a huge difference when it comes to your care. Since the pandemic there are even online therapist hubs that can connect you to someone who understands your cultural context.
Working With Your Doctor
Your doctor can help you if you struggle with depression in many ways. They can connect you to further mental health supports and resources, they can recommend medication if needed and they can test for any underlying health issues, such as hypothyroid or nutrient deficiencies, that could be contributing to your depression.
Getting Out in Nature
I know when I have struggled with a depressive episode, getting up and going on a walk was usually the last thing I wanted to do. But if you can even drive to a park to sit outside for a little while, the connection with nature could help you feel more grounded.
Working With a Nutritionist
Finding a practitioner who works specifically with mental health support can be a great addition to your team (which includes your doctor and a therapist). Finding the motivation to make changes to your diet is extremely difficult when you are depressed, but having someone in your corner encouraging small, meaningful change can help you take those steps.
- National Network of Depression Centers (Get the Facts)
- Nutrients (Effect of Probiotics on Depression: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials)
- Taylor & Francis Online (Curcumin for depression: a meta-analysis)
- ScienceDirect (Serotonin in the gut: Blessing or a curse)
- Nutrients (Influence of Tryptophan and Serotonin on Mood and Cognition with a Possible Role of the Gut-Brain Axis)
- Nourish by WebMD (Top Foods High in Tryptophan)
- MyFoodData (Top 10 Foods Highest in Tryptophan)