One way to combat anxiety and feelings of depression is to increase the levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a kind of chemical messenger that helps the brain function. More specifically, serotonin is a “feel good” neurotransmitter and a mood stabilizer that boosts feelings of wellness and balance. When serotonin levels are optimal, you are able to think more clearly, act rather than react, and address stressful situations with calm and clarity.
Natural Ways to Increase Serotonin Levels in the Brain
If you have low serotonin levels, you may suffer from anxiety, sleeplessness, depression, agitation or lack of focus. Fortunately, there are ways to naturally increase the serotonin levels in the brain to reduce those feelings.* Here are five ways.
1. A Healthy Diet
A healthy, balanced diet is important for optimal serotonin levels. In particular, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, pineapples and complex carbohydrates (like fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains) increase serotonin levels. It is also important to limit added sugars because sugar disrupts normal chemical reactions in the brain, which can inhibit serotonin processing and production. Supplement your healthy diet with B vitamins, fish oil, holy basil, rodiola and L-tyrosine, all of which help the brain produce more serotonin.
2. Exercise and Body Work
Exercise is medicine — not just for your body, but for your brain. The most effective way to increase serotonin levels is with exercise. There are no side effects, and it always works. As little as 30 minutes of brisk walking three times each week will help.
In addition, body work methods including massage, acupuncture, acupressure and reflexology relieve stress and boost serotonin levels.
3. Grabbing Sunlight
Many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in the winter months when there is much less sunlight. This is because the brain has less serotonin when there is less sunlight. Spend at least 15 minutes each day in the sun. Go for a walk before work or after lunch, or sit by a sunny window on the commuter train. You can also purchase a light box for your office or home. (See “You Need a Mini-Break” for ideas on achieving healthy relaxation.)
4. Using Your Mind
Thinking about past happy experiences, or looking at photos of those experiences, can boost serotonin levels. The same is true for keeping a gratitude journal and daydreaming about happy times. Spending time with loved ones and doing talk therapy with a trusted therapist are also great ways to get out of your own head and allow serotonin in. And a regular meditation practice (as little as five minutes a day) gives the brain space to relax and produce serotonin.
5. Taking Two for Well-Being
Ideally, you’ll work the above tips into your daily and weekly life to increase and sustain your serotonin levels. But as a gift to yourself, try to take one day each month for a mental health day. As my friend Vanessa Price advised in “A Matter of Time,” take two days if you can. Use the first day to catch up on stuff. (Don’t let your colleagues know you are working so that you have time to handle existing tasks without new tasks being added.) Then use the second day as a true day off to boost your serotonin levels by finding some peace and mental clarity.
* If you are taking medication for anxiety or depression, do not stop your medication without discussing it with your doctor. Medication can be necessary for some people and some circumstances.