By: Dr. Francesca Vazquez
For far too long, research in traditional psychiatry has been focused on figuring out which drugs can help us feel happier, calmer, more balanced. While these studies have been responsible for our better understanding on mental health issues, it’s only in recent years that we’ve been focusing on how to prevent mental health issues all together. Research on these topics typically study neurochemicals, one of them known as the “feel good chemical” serotonin. Serotonin is a neurochemical involved in mood regulation and it is hypothesized that when it is low, it can lead to depression and additional mental health conditions. Drugs designed to increase levels of serotonin have been found to be beneficial in treating severe depression. However, when mild or moderate in nature, we can actually treat mood disorders naturally through diet and lifestyle interventions, obtaining better results. These natural interventions can also be used as a preventative tool for taking care of our mental health and becoming more resilient to stress.
When in need of a mood boost or adopting a lifestyle aimed at keeping your mental wellness at best, these 4 strategies have been found to naturally increase levels of serotonin in the brain:
1.Improve your nutrition by eating foods that increase production of serotonin
The quickest and probably most effective way to increase levels of serotonin in the brain is through nutrition, as serotonin has been known to be created in the gut. Many times when people hear "improve your nutrition", they immediately think eating a vegetarian or vegan diet is "good nutrition". When it comes to mental health, that is not always the case. A vegan diet without proper guidance may not be the optimum diet for brain health, although it has been found to be beneficial for other health conditions. While it is true that most nutrients for brain health are found in plant-based foods, this doesn't necessarily mean you need to eliminate animal protein all together. Instead of focusing on the foods you need to eliminate, try focusing on eating more of the right, nutrient dense foods instead.
The first step is learning what vitamins and minerals are in each of your foods. We recommend you focus on increasing magnesium, vitamin B’s (especially vitamins B6 and B12), vitamin C and vitamin D rich foods. These may include spinach, dark chocolate, citrus fruits such as grapefruit and oranges, red peppers, grass fed beef, nuts and seeds such as almonds and sunflower seeds, eggs, bananas, oats, asparagus, avocados, and beans. You should also increase your consumption of foods high in tryptophan (as tryptophan is the precursor of serotonin). Foods high in tryptophan include salmon, chickpeas, turkey, seeds, and lean meats.
2. Exercise often
Exercising 3-5 times a week is recommended when trying to increase your levels of serotonin naturally. When you exercise, your body releases neurochemicals in charge of helping your nervous system function optimally in order to regulate your mood. By increasing the production of neurochemicals such as serotonin and endorphins, you become more resilient to stress, decrease pain, and boost your mood, improving depression and decreasing anxiety. Exercises such as yoga have an even greater benefit, as it also decreases levels of cortisol and increases levels of GABA (both involved in your body's stress response and mood disorders).
3. Spend time outdoors
During colder months, serotonin levels seem to drop due to our limited exposure to sunlight. This, in turn, can bring on a low mood, a condition that, when symptoms become clinically significant , is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder. This discovery leads us to the understanding that spending time in the sun and outdoors may actually act as a preventive tool in mental health and as a mood regulator. When we are in direct exposure to sunlight, our body creates serotonin, which later in the day is transformed into melatonin, a hormone involved in sleep health. Therefore, exposure to sunlight acts as a mental health super power, aiding in increasing serotonin for better mood and improving our sleep, another self-care strategy that is important for taking care of mental health and the brain.
4. Reduce Stress through self-care and meditation
Some techniques that have been found to change the neurochemistry in the brain, include practices known to reduce stress and bring on the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (in charge of the rest-and-digest response). The most well-known strategy is meditation. Meditation has not only been found to increase levels of serotonin but it can also lower cortisol levels, resulting in a decrease of stress and anxiety. In addition to meditation, any activity that brings on this relaxation effect can have an impact on mood. These may include restorative yoga, massage therapy, and deep breathing exercises. Activating the parasympathetic nervous system daily through the self care techniques mentioned can rewire the brain to become more resilient to stress and therefore, reduce or prevent mental health issues.
Photo via: @tessmaretz
Dr. Francesca Vazquez is a licensed clinical psychologist and yoga instructor based in Miami, FL. She completed her training at Jackson Memorial Hospital and UF Health Cancer Center, specializing in behavioral medicine. She has worked in neuropsychology, pain management, stress management, wellness counseling, addiction rehabilitation and with cancer patients.
She currently provides nutritional psychology and behavioral medicine services at a holistic private practice. She is the creator of lifestyle website, Ease to Wellness , where she curates and edits health and wellness related content. To schedule a professional consultation or learn more, visit her personal website here.