Good mood food: Can diet impact serotonin levels?

When choosing which foods to eat, we often spend a lot of time thinking about the effect they’ll have on our bodies. We eat plenty of fruits and vegetables to stave off future heart disease and cancer; when we overload on dessert, we worry about the impact on the scale.

But remember that mind-body connection? Our bodies and our minds are inextricably linked. The foods we eat affect our minds and our moods as much as they affect our physical bodies.

Take serotonin, for example. This neurotransmitter affects our mood, sleep patterns and appetite. 1 We’re happier when our serotonin levels are high and sadder when our serotonin levels are low. But 80 to 90 per cent of the serotonin in our bodies is actually found in the gut, not the brain. Choosing the right foods can increase our serotonin levels, which in turn can improve our moods and lower our risk of depression.

Eating for serotonin production

You may have heard that foods such as bananas are beneficial for depression because they contain serotonin. Serotonin, in its complete form however, cannot pass through the brain-blood barrier. Instead, we need to eat the building blocks that help create serotonin, so our bodies can produce it naturally.

The amino acid that’s key to serotonin production is tryptophan.  Almost all foods that contain protein contain tryptophan, but some foods contain more tryptophan than others.

Excellent Food Sources of Tryptophan:

  • Chicken
  • Soybeans
  • Sardines
  • Tofu
  • Spinach
  • Asparagus

On top of eating more tryptophan-rich foods, we need to make sure we’re also getting the other vitamins and minerals we need to be able to process it. Vitamin B6, vitamin C, folic acid and magnesium are all necessary in order for our bodies to process tryptophan and turn it into serotonin. 

Tryptophan: Food sources or supplements?

Although we may be eating plenty of tryptophan-rich foods, the amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine can compete with tryptophan for absorption. In some cases, tryptophan supplements may be required to achieve therapeutic results. A healthcare practitioner can help you determine if supplementing with tryptophan is right for you. 

The dangers of dieting

It’s not just what kinds of food we eat that affect our tryptophan levels – it’s also how much.

Have you ever gone on a crash diet for a few days, only to find yourself so depressed and miserable that you end up overeating in order to make yourself feel better? One study showed that caloric restriction can have a dramatic negative effect on serotonin and tryptophan levels, especially in women. 

Low serotonin levels have also been associated with eating disorders, leading to a vicious cycle: Restrictive eating can lower serotonin levels, triggering an eating disorder, which leads to more restrictive eating and even lower levels of serotonin. 

The bottom line

The foods we eat don’t just impact our bodies – they also impact our minds. By eating plenty of tryptophan-rich foods and other vitamins and minerals, we can help our bodies produce enough serotonin to keep us happy and healthy.

I am a clinical nutritionist and functional medicine specialist. Though my practice is based in Toronto, thanks to modern technology, my client base extends worldwide. I have had the privilege of teaching clinical nutrition for several natural health colleges and am the first Canadian nutritionist to be accepted into the Institute for Functional Medicine Certification Program, where I am currently pursuing certification as an Institute of Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner (IFMCP). I also appear as an expert for various media outlets including CTV News and CityTV. Meet this expert

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