Serotonin is known as the happy mood chemical, so many people are seeking out serotonin supplements to help their mood.
But, can supplements really help with improving serotonin levels in the body and the mind?
The short answer is yes.
While we don’t have the extensive clinical trials that serotonin medications have, there is some promising research to show that natural supplements are useful for people to boost their mood.
A big disclaimer, however, is to always check with your doctor or healthcare provider before starting these supplements if you are on medications to treat depression or mood issues.
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Serotonin Supplements Overview
If you want to boost serotonin levels, there are many things to keep in mind.
First, our moods are affected by many things and serotonin is just one of them.
Second, the reason you may be low in serotonin may be different than the reason it is low for another person.
Third, you must have adequate nutrients in your diet for your body to make serotonin.
Fourth, if you have chronic inflammation, your body’s ability to make serotonin will be reduced.
Fifth, if your digestive tract isn’t working well, you won’t be able to make serotonin well.
Sixth, if you are taking a medication called a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), you must use extreme caution and ALWAYS check with your doctor first before taking any serotonin supplements.
But, keep in mind, there is no way for your doctor to check serotonin levels-it simply isn’t a test that is available. Serotonin deficiency is more of a theory than an actual condition for this reason.
And finally, sometimes a low mood isn’t related to serotonin at all. Depression is multi-factorial, which means that serotonin-boosting supplements won’t help you if low serotonin is not the reason you are feeling off.
Still natural serotonin supplements may be helpful in many situations, and we will review these next.
Serotonin Supplements to Consider
If you are looking for supplements to increase serotonin, there are a lot of options. But keep in mind that what increases serotonin isn’t necessarily going to be what helps your mood. This is because serotonin is just one aspect of keeping your mood healthy.
Your body needs plenty of other neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine, GABA, and more to keep your mood balanced.
Having good stress management, high-quality sleep, and healthy social life are also critical to keeping your serotonin levels optimized.
L-tryptophan is an essential amino acid, meaning that our bodies can’t live without tryptophan. Of the serotonin sources in your diet, L-tryptophan is the most direct because it is essential in making serotonin.
By far the most researched supplement to increase serotonin naturally is L-tryptophan as 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP). And this makes sense because tryptophan is the building block of serotonin. Because of this, tryptophan is like an instant serotonin boost.
A review of 13 clinical studies concluded that 5-HTP yielded a depression remission rate of 65%, but of course, the recommendation for larger clinical trials is made.
Serotonin, made by tryptophan, also helps make melatonin, so having enough serotonin is critical for having good sleep quality.
Without enough tryptophan, people become depressed and this is not a disputed fact. So at a minimum, people should eat tryptophan-rich foods like meats, fish, poultry, eggs, cheese, nuts, and seeds.
As far as doses go for tryptophan supplements, typical doses of 5-HTP in research range from 100-300 mg of 5-HTP per day. A 4-ounce serving of meat, chicken, or fish has more than 300 mg of tryptophan per serving as a comparison.
Recently, elderly patients with mood disorders were given a tryptophan-rich diet (25 mg/kg/day) and the result was an improvement in mental health and tryptophan metabolism.
Tryptophan-rich foods are turkey, other poultry, beef, pumpkin seeds, spirulina, cheese, and eggs.
Without enough vitamins, the body can’t efficiently make enough happy chemicals including serotonin. This is especially true for B vitamins like vitamin B12 and folate. When it comes to serotonin, vitamins are an essential aspect of its production.
Importantly, antidepressant medications and mood stabilizing medications may deplete the body of vitamins, making it extra important to get enough vitamins in your diet and necessitate taking natural vitamin supplements.
For example, niacin, also known as vitamin B3, is not readily made in the body with the use of SSRIs.
Additionally, some research shows that B vitamins like folate and vitamin B12 enhance the effectiveness of anti-depressant medications. But vitamins for serotonin and dopamine should be a broad spectrum of all the vitamins and minerals because each and every nutrient required by the body plays a role in maintaining a healthy mood.
Vitamin D plays a critical role in mood, and part of the reason it may help mood is because it helps the body make serotonin. A review of 25 supplement trials concluded that vitamin D supplements reduce negative emotions, especially in people with low blood levels of vitamin D.
While none of this proves that vitamins will help your mood as an individual, they hold little-to-no harm if taken in moderate doses.
Probiotics in the gut may influence the amount of tryptophan that is available to make tryptophan in the gut. This means that probiotics help to make more tryptophan available to make serotonin. Thus, probiotics may help make you feel happy.
Supplemental probiotics helped to maintain tryptophan levels according to a recent clinical study in athletes who tend to have tryptophan depletion due to physical stress. The probiotics used in this study were Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium lactis, Enterococcus faecium, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus brevis, and Lactococcus lactis and were given for a period of 12 weeks.
Regardless of whether or not probiotics affect serotonin levels, compelling research shows that probiotics improve mood.
The healthy fats in fish oil have a clear benefit on brain health and heart health. Some early evidence also suggests that eating fish and taking fish oil helps promote mental health too.
This could be because healthy omega-3 fats help improve serotonin sensitivity and release in the body.
Using fish oil supplements has clear benefits for the central nervous system, but the form of fish oil that you take may affect its ability to promote brain health. For example, cod liver oil absorbs better than many over-the-counter fish oil supplements because it is in triglyceride form.
Cod liver oil users are less likely to have depressive symptoms according to a study conducted in Norway of over 20,000 participants.
Unfortunately, many clinical trials don’t specify the type of fish oil that they use which may explain why the research shows mixed results on its effects on serotonin and depression. If you do take fish oil, make sure to find it in triglyceride form.
St John’s Wort
St John’s wort has been used as far back as the ancient Greeks and was used for many purposes, including insomnia, depression, and wound healing.
Today, research shows that this medicinal herb can both increase brain serotonin production and work as an SSRI. This means that St. John’s wort works similarly to many prescription anti-depressant medications that are commonly prescribed.
However, if you are currently taking an anti-depressant medication, you should avoid taking St John’s wort because of the risk of developing serotonin syndrome.
According to the Journal of Affective Disorders, St. Johns wort is an effective treatment for mild-to-moderate depression.
What is more, some studies show that St. John’s wort may be more effective than SSRI medications and has similar effectiveness to medications called tricyclic antidepressants. Additionally, St. John’s wort has fewer side effects and is safer than these medications.
But it is very important to talk to your healthcare provider before taking St. John’s wort.
If you are wondering how to increase serotonin, magnesium is a supplement to consider.
Magnesium is an essential nutrient that has over 300 functions in the body. It comes as no surprise then, that magnesium plays a role in keeping the mood in a relaxed and happy state. Among the natural supplements you can take, magnesium reduces the symptoms of mood disorders like depression.
Logically this makes sense because essential nutrients like magnesium help the body and mind maintain balance. When it comes to serotonin supplements, magnesium may help to make serotonin receptors, noradrenergic receptors, and dopaminergic receptors work more effectively.
And magnesium deficiency causes neuron damage and dysfunction. Sadly, over half of Americans have a low intake of magnesium and most don’t know it. I’ve even met clients who eat a diet heavily focused on eating magnesium-rich foods like nuts, seeds, and grains but still have magnesium deficiency.
Some people speculate that soil concentrations have become so depleted in magnesium that it is almost impossible to get enough magnesium through foods alone. Additionally, gut conditions are rampant, such as irritable bowel syndrome, so the absorption of magnesium for many people may be impaired.
Taking magnesium has minimal to no side effects too, making it a safe supplement to try. However, taking larger doses pulls water into the gut which creates a laxative effect. It makes sense to start with a low dose of magnesium and increase it as needed.
SAMe is an amino acid found naturally in the body that donates methionine and also helps make neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine in the body. So if you are looking to increase serotonin, SAMe may be a good choice as one of the safe serotonin supplements.
Research shows that SAMe is beneficial for mood and alleviating depression as shown by a review of 11 studies in over 1100 people.
Impressively, its effectiveness was equal to that of prescription drugs-escitalopram and imipramine for depression. The dosages of SAMe used in these studies were typically 200-300 mg per day.
Another benefit to SAMe is that it has minimal to no side effects. It stands to reason, however, that it helps people more if they have methylation issues in their bodies than if they don’t.
SAMe with Betaine
Both Betaine and SAMe are similar natural substances. But, Betaine is what helps the body make SAMe and it also helps make tryptophan and other neurotransmitters. Early research shows that the combination of both SAMe and Betaine help to reduce depressive symptoms better than the antidepressant medication called amitriptyline. This is why SAMe with Betaine are some promising serotonin supplements for depression and anxiety.
Using Betaine as an add-on to SAMe helps SAMe to work better in improving mood too according to one small study.
Many people who take Betaine alone report improvements in mood according to product reviews and I personally have found many benefits from Betaine.
But be aware that there are two forms of Betaine on the market. One is called Betaine HCL which is used for stomach health and Betaine as TMG which is the betaine used for improving mood.
Both Betaine and SAMe may be more likely to be helpful if you have MTHFR gene variants.
L-carnitine is an essential compound in the body. Its deficiency is itself a risk factor for depression. Exclusively found in meats and animal-based foods, L-carnitine can be lacking in people who limit or avoid eating meats. It can also be low due to certain medications like mood stabilizers and anti-seizure medications. Also, some people have a genetic tendency to not make enough L-carnitine in the body.
One of the reasons that L-carnitine supplementation is beneficial is that it may increase serotonin production in the brain. Because of this L-carnitine is one of the natural ways to increase serotonin. It has many other benefits in the body including increasing muscle and decreasing body fat. Like other nutrients, carnitine has many roles in the body and may even reduce pain, improve exercise capacity, improve heart health, and improve eye health.
Impressively, a review of 12 clinical studies with a total of 791 participants found that L-carnitine reduced depressive symptoms. 3 of these studies found that L-carnitine supplements were as effective as established anti-depressant medications.
Because L-carnitine is safe, it is one of the serotonin supplements to seriously consider.
L-theanine is an amino acid that has many health benefits and just one of them being that it improves mood. In fact, many of green tea’s benefits are attributed to its L-theanine content.
Although L-theanine is more well-known to promote calming effects in the body, some research suggests that it may help depression too. Another big benefit of L-theanine is that it helps people focus while at the same time relaxing.
Interestingly, early research shows that L-theanine may reduce brain serotonin levels, but at the same time improve mood.
Additionally, L-theanine promotes improvement in memory and brain function.
Zinc is a mineral that is essential for proper immune function and it also has the ability to help regulate mood. In fact, low zinc levels are related to an increased risk of depression with the lowest zinc levels having the worst symptoms of depression.
Supplemental zinc at 7 mg per day helped to improve mood in a small study of young women. A review study also concluded that zinc supplements as an add-on treatment to antidepressant medications help as a treatment for depression. This means that zinc could be one of the safe serotonin supplements to try.
Saffron is an herb that is used both as a medicine and as a spice.
This antioxidant-rich spice surprisingly has 5 clinical research trials that demonstrate its anti-depressant effects. Unlike antidepressant medications, saffron works to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor and nerve growth factor.
A review of these studies concluded that while more research from larger trials is needed, saffron reduced symptoms of depression better than a placebo and is as effective as SSRI medications.
However, saffron is not safe for pregnant women to take, so it must be avoided in pregnancy.
Rhodiola is a traditional medicine originally used to treat fatigue and is a common adaptogen plant. Adaptogens are used to help people combat stress and provide balance in the body.
When it comes to increasing serotonin levels, little is known about Rhodiola’s effect in this regard. However, research shows that it may help dampen cortisol which is known as the stress hormone.
Like other adaptogen herbs, Rhodiola has multiple actions. It appears to increase serotonin activity, promote a healthy adrenal response, and increase GABA.
One study did find that a standardized extract of Rhodiola reduced symptoms of mild-to-moderate depression better than a placebo.
Rhodiola is generally regarded as safe, but some people find that it may cause dizziness or dry mouth.
In today’s world, foods are lacking in many nutrients and essential compounds. Organ meats are very rich in many of these nutrients, including choline, L-carnitine, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants like coenzyme Q10. Because of this organ meats supplements are serotonin supplements to increase serotonin naturally.
While no clinical studies have confirmed the effects of eating organ meats or supplementing organ meats in the diet, there are countless reviews that suggest the mental health benefits of eating organ meats.
If you have iron overload or hemochromatosis, however, you should avoid adding in organ meats to your diet.
Ashwagandha, like Rhodiola, is considered an adaptogen that helps the body cope with stress. Some research even shows it helps reduce depressive symptoms. If you are wondering how to get more serotonin under stressful situations, ashwagandha may be worth a try.
In fact, a review of 5 research studies shows that ashwagandha can boost mood and may do so by increasing serotonin as a natural serotonin supplement. Additionally, it helps promote healthy sleep too.
However, like other supplements listed here, you must check with your healthcare provider before adding in ashwagandha to make sure it doesn’t interact with any medications you are taking.
In some people, a lack of dopamine contributes to depressive symptoms.
A combination of tyrosine and tryptophan can be useful in these situations as serotonin and dopamine supplements. This is because L-tyrosine helps the body naturally make dopamine, which is a compound in the body that helps people feel satisfaction and pleasure from daily life.
While more clinical trials are needed, some research shows that L-tyrosine improves mood.
L-tyrosine is safe with minimal side effects. However, people can get a headache, nausea, or irritability at higher doses.
Related post: L-Tyrosine Changed My Life and It May Change Yours Too
A big part of our mental health and mood depends on getting adequate and high-quality sleep. Valerian root is an herb that fits the bill for helping people sleep better.
In a review study of 18 clinical trials, valerian root indeed did improve sleep quality and reduced insomnia with minimal to no side effects.
Additionally, one clinical trial showed that valerian root reduced depression symptoms in a group of people receiving hemodialysis.
While more research is needed to prove that valerian root helps with mood, it is worth a try for improving your sleep habits as one of the serotonin supplements.
Before adding any serotonin supplements it is important to review them with your doctor or healthcare provider for safety. This is because too much serotonin is dangerous and can cause a life-threatening condition called serotonin syndrome.
Adverse drug reactions may occur with some serotonin supplements as well. For example, we don’t know whether a class of medications called monoamine oxidase inhibitors interacts with serotonin supplements.
It is best to be cautious when using supplements if you are on medications for depression, in other words.
Heidi Moretti, MS, RD is The Healthy RD. A registered dietitian for 23 years as well as a book author of the new book Gut Fix and The Whole Body Guide to Gut Health, Heidi has a passion for functional nutrition and natural medicine. She has researched supplements and natural medicine throughout her career. One of her biggest loves is helping people gain function and vitality by tackling the root causes of illness.