8 Foods to Boost Serotonin for Improving Mental Health

Camille Freking, MS Translational Pharmacology and Clinical Research
8 Foods to Boost Serotonin for Improving Mental Health

It’s impossible to overstate nutrition's importance to your overall health and well-being. You probably already know that a poor diet can negatively affect your weight and physical health. You might not know that it can also significantly impact your brain function, sleeping habits, and mental health

Obviously, many factors are involved when discussing health and nutrition. Every person is unique and faces their own nutritional restrictions and requirements. However, everyone has serotonin in their body, which plays a role in nearly every aspect of life

One key to living a healthy life is to follow a diet that allows you to maintain sufficient serotonin levels. Let’s take a look at ways to naturally boost serotonin levels.


What Does Serotonin Do? 

Serotonin, known scientifically as 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), is a monoamine neurotransmitter that also functions as a hormone. This diversity allows serotonin to be involved with various essential and complex bodily activities. 

Learning, memory, mood, sleep, hunger, sexual desire, and even your body temperature are all impacted by your serotonin levels. 

To be more specific: 

  • The serotonin in your brain helps to regulate your mood and emotions. At a normal level, serotonin can help you feel more focused, calm, and emotionally stable. At a low level, you’ll be at a much higher risk for mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.

  • The serotonin in your stomach helps to control your bowels, regulate digestion, and influence your appetite. The gut releases an excess of serotonin to help rid itself of toxic or irritating food products. The feeling of nausea can occur when this extra serotonin can’t be digested fast enough, and vomiting often follows.

  • The quality and duration of sleep are heavily influenced by melatonin, dopamine, and serotonin. Melatonin helps to promote sleep by putting you into a state of quiet wakefulness. Dopamine inhibits norepinephrine, a stress hormone that increases your heart rate and keeps you awake. Serotonin plays a role in creating melatonin and also promotes wakefulness when sleep is ending.

  • Blood platelets release serotonin to help heal wounds and injuries. The serotonin causes arterioles (the smallest blood vessels in your body) to narrow, lowering blood flow and encouraging clotting. The blood clots protect the wound, prevent additional blood loss, and eventually turn into scabs when they dry. 

You can probably imagine that a serotonin deficiency would negatively affect the overall quality of life. Unfortunately, serotonin deficiencies are an increasingly common issue. 

If you’re suddenly experiencing symptoms of depression, reduced energy levels, negative thoughts, tension, irritability, craving sweets, or reduced interest in sex, you might have a serotonin deficiency.


How Do You Treat Serotonin Deficiency? 

The easiest way to learn if you have low levels of serotonin is for a medical professional to test a sample of your blood. The ideal range for serotonin in your blood is between 50 and 200 ng/mL. Anything lower than 50 ng/mL is generally considered a serotonin deficiency. 

Unfortunately, exactly what causes someone to experience a serotonin deficiency is unclear. It’s most likely a combination of multiple factors, including age, genetics, stress, physical activity, brain chemistry, and overall health. Regardless of the cause, a lack of serotonin is directly linked to several mental health disorders, including anxiety, insomnia, and depression.

Getting your serotonin levels to stay in the optimal range usually requires a multifaceted strategy. There isn’t anything that you can do about your age or genetics. However, lowering your stress levels, increasing your daily amount of exercise, and improving your overall health might help to balance your serotonin levels

If these methods aren’t effective, you might need to talk to a doctor about prescribing selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to help. These antidepressants are often the first line of treatment for individuals with moderate to severe cases of depression or anxiety. The purpose of SSRIs isn’t to increase your serotonin levels but to help your body to use its supply of serotonin more efficiently. 

Making a few changes to your diet is another way that you can naturally improve your serotonin labels. For example, certain foods have been shown to negatively impact your serotonin production. Avoiding these foods may help prevent a deficiency, and then replacing them with foods that support your serotonin production could be a good next step. Fortunately, there are a lot of foods that may help.


Which Foods Increase Serotonin Levels? 

Serotonin doesn’t exist in any known foods. Instead, each human can naturally produce their own supply of serotonin from certain nutrients we get from food. 

The gastrointestinal tract is the primary area of serotonin production. It’s estimated that between 90 to 95 percent of your serotonin supply is created in your stomach. The remaining serotonin is produced, stored, and used in your central nervous system. 

Regardless of where it’s produced, the chemical composition of serotonin doesn’t change. The brain and the intestines need an ample supply of the amino acid tryptophan to produce serotonin

The bad news is that your body can’t naturally produce tryptophan. The good news is that plenty of foods are good sources of tryptophan. 

You can find tryptophan in both animal and plant-based proteins. The daily recommended intake of tryptophan is between 250 and 425 milligrams

Depending on your current diet, you might already be meeting this threshold. It’s estimated that the average American adult consumes between 900 to 1,000 milligrams of tryptophan each day.

There’s no guarantee that eating foods high in tryptophan will increase your serotonin levels. However, serotonin can’t be produced without tryptophan, so it can be a great option outside of chemical intervention. 

Here is a list of seven foods that have the highest concentration of tryptophan:



Turkey has a somewhat notorious reputation for making you fall asleep after you eat it. Countless Americans will blame their post-dinner naps every Thanksgiving Day on eating too much turkey. 

Technically, there is some truth to this reputation, as turkey is loaded with tryptophan. Remember that melatonin (the chemical that helps put you to sleep) is made out of serotonin. A higher concentration of tryptophan would mean more serotonin in your body that can be used to create additional melatonin.

The interesting thing is that turkey is the only poultry with a reputation for making you sleepy. You see, six ounces of ground turkey contains about 612 milligrams of tryptophan. That’s about twice the recommended daily intake of tryptophan, so it makes sense that you might feel sleepy after a turkey-heavy meal. 

However, a six-ounce chicken breast has roughly 687 milligrams of tryptophan. If turkey makes you sleepy, then chicken should knock you right out, which is what ultimately busts this Thanksgiving myth. 



There’s an old wives' tale that drinking warm milk before bed can help you fall asleep more easily. Research suggests that this home remedy can be effective for some people but not all. 

One of the reasons why milk can promote sleep is that it contains tryptophan. An eight-ounce glass of milk contains about 106 milligrams of tryptophan. It’s not enough to meet your daily needs, but a glass at the end of the day can be enough to help you get to sleep a little easier.

Cheese is another solid source of tryptophan. Cottage cheese is an excellent tryptophan source, as a half cup contains about 332 milligrams. 

Most cheeses, in general, will provide some tryptophan; a one-ounce serving of cheddar, mozzarella, or parmesan is good for around 155 milligrams of tryptophan. 



Nutritionists frequently recommend fish as a substitute for beef for individuals who need a leaner, more nutrient-dense source of protein in their diet. The main health benefits of fish come from the abundance of omega-3 fatty acids. 

These essential fats play a crucial role in several key bodily functions and can support cardiovascular health when consumed in large amounts. As far as serotonin is concerned, fish are also loaded with tryptophan. 

Salmon is the best seafood option when it comes to tryptophan. A six-ounce filet of salmon contains about 570 milligrams of tryptophan. Salmon might feature the highest concentration of tryptophan, but pretty much any fish will meet your daily intake requirements. 

For example, a six-ounce filet of tuna (570 mg), snapper (500 mg), cod (461 mg), or tilapia (451 mg) have enough tryptophan to last you an entire day. 



Few foods in the world are more nutritious than eggs. A single egg contains six grams of protein, nine essential amino acids, iron, phosphorus, omega-3 fatty acids, tyrosine, choline, selenium, and a wide variety of vitamins. All of these nutrients are provided with less than 100 calories. 

Naturally, tryptophan is one of the nine amino acids found in eggs. Eating an entire egg will provide you with roughly 77 milligrams of tryptophan. 

Casting aside the yolk and only eating the egg white will give you about 41 milligrams. One cup of scrambled eggs can give you between 163 and 306 milligrams of tryptophan. 



Soy is an extremely nutrient-dense protein that’s often considered a healthier protein alternative to animal meat. So far, this list has only consisted of animal-based products, which can cause quite a problem for vegans, vegetarians, or anyone with dietary restrictions. 

Fortunately, tryptophan isn’t exclusive to animals or their byproducts. There are plenty of plant-based tryptophan sources, soy products being among the very best.

Tofu is a great option for meeting your daily tryptophan requirements. One cup of firm tofu contains about 592 milligrams of tryptophan. You can also opt for the opposite end of the soybean and eat cooked edamame instead. 

A single cup of boiled edamame has about 416 milligrams of tryptophan. Soy milk is another solid source of tryptophan, as an eight-ounce glass provides about 92 milligrams. It might not have as much tryptophan as cow’s milk, but it will have much less saturated fat.


Whole Grains

Whole grains are complex carbohydrates that have a very high concentration of fiber, which can help you feel fuller for a longer period of time. 

Whole grains also include a variety of vitamins, minerals, and additional health benefits. Of course, plenty of whole-grain carbs also provide a large supply of tryptophan.

Oatmeal is one of the best options for tryptophan as it contains 94 milligrams per cup. It’s also extremely diverse culinary-wise, and you can flavor and prepare it in many ways. 

Teff and quinoa are also excellent options for tryptophan, as one cup each provides 103 milligrams and 96 milligrams of the amino acid, respectively. Opting for whole-grain bread is also a great place to start.



Seeds are considered a superfood, making them one of the healthiest snacks you can eat. These plant embryos are packed with calories, though, so you won’t want to overdo them. 

But, including a few more seeds in your diet can go a long way. The main benefit of seeds is their abundance of fiber. However, they also include healthy fats, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. 

Naturally, seeds are also loaded with a high concentration of tryptophan. Pumpkin seeds and squash seeds appear to have the highest concentration of tryptophan — a one-ounce serving of either will give you about 164 milligrams of the essential amino acid. 

Chia and flax seeds are also great sources of tryptophan, as a one-ounce serving features 124 mg and 84 mg of tryptophan, respectively. These seeds are often preferable as they’re more easily incorporated into a salad, oatmeal, yogurt, or smoothie.


Fermented Foods

Due to the connection between the gut and the brain, eating foods that support gut health is a great place to start supporting the gut's neurotransmitters. Fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha are rich in natural probiotics. 

Increasing your prebiotic consumption, whether in whole foods or supplements, can also feed the healthy gut bacteria involved in your gut microbiome, and ultimately, in the production of serotonin.


The Bottom Line

Very few things can affect your overall quality of life in the same way as serotonin. Maintaining adequate serotonin levels is one way to live a healthier life. The problem is that keeping your serotonin levels in an ideal range is not always easy.

Following a diet with plenty of the foods listed above can benefit serotonin production. However, if you’re still experiencing the side effects of low serotonin (depression, insomnia, irritability, anxiety, fatigue, etc.), it might be a good idea to consult a doctor. You might require additional methods to increase your overall serotonin levels.

Looking for more articles that can help boost your knowledge about all things brain health and wellness? Explore the rest of the MOSH blog here!



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