Serotonin and dopamine are two neurotransmitters that play a critical role in how we feel, and since low levels of serotonin and dopamine can lead to all kinds of issues, I’ve put together a list of how to increase serotonin and dopamine levels naturally.
Our brains are made up of a collection of chemicals, and depending on the varying levels of those, hormones, and everything else fluctuating in our bodies, this can affect how we feel.
Serotonin is perhaps best known as a neurotransmitter that modulates neural activity and a wide range of neuropsychological processes. Most serotonin is found outside the central nervous system, and virtually all of the 15 serotonin receptors are expressed outside as well as within the brain.
Serotonin regulates numerous biological processes, including cardiovascular function, bowel motility, ejaculatory latency, and bladder control. But it is also known as one of the “happy” chemicals.
Serotonin helps to stimulate areas of the brain that are in control of sleep-wake behavior, and we all know that a proper night of sleep can do wonders for our mental health. Serotonin also increases our feelings of happiness and joy, which may reduce feelings of depression and anxiety.
Dopamine is another well-known neurotransmitter, otherwise known as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter. Dopamine is strongly associated with pleasure and reward and is involved in neurological and physiological functioning.
It’s a contributing factor in motor function, mood, and even our decision-making. It gets released when our brain is expecting a reward—it may spike up when you get a nice text message or at the idea of dessert after a workout.
Oftentimes, low levels of serotonin and dopamine lead to depression and anxiety. Because these two neurotransmitters are so important to our mental health and keeping us feeling not just healthy in our bodies but healthy and happy in our minds, it’s important to keep these levels in check.
Here are some ways to increase serotonin and dopamine levels naturally.
Increasing Serotonin Levels Naturally
Serotonin is known for being the neurotransmitter that most people feel they are “lacking” when they feel depressed. Below are just a few ways you can help boost your serotonin levels in a healthy, natural way.
Certain foods can help boost levels of serotonin. These include whole-wheat bread with turkey or cheese, oatmeal with a handful of nuts, or salmon with brown rice. Foods that contain tryptophan help to convert serotonin in the body.
(I’m a big fan of salmon, which has a ton of additional benefits).
Working out our bodies can also trigger tryptophan and increase our serotonin levels. Even just a brisk, short walk can do wonders for your mind and body.
(Yoga is especially helpful to get your body moving while also practicing meditation!)
Being around light (whether that’s outside or with the use of light therapy) can help increase levels of serotonin. If you notice in the wintertime that you’re feeling low or sad, that might be because the days are shorter, or that you’re staying inside because it’s cold out.
Trying to get some exposure to light each day can help. (Even if it’s just for a few minutes!)
Receiving a massage may help to increase, while also helping to also to decrease cortisol, a hormone your body produces when stressed.
(I personally try to prioritize my budget so I can get a massage every month).
Our brains are so powerful. What we feed it—not just with nutrition, but with our thoughts—is important. Our brains are capable of changing. Neuroplasticity allows us to actually change the way our brain works if we can learn to self-regulate and feed our brains with positive thinking.
(If you’re afraid of sitting alone with your thoughts for too long, try a guided meditation. This can be a great first step towards allowing yourself to accept the thoughts as they pop up, or to focus on one image at a time).
As noted below, you might need the help of a doctor to prescribe what works for you, and that’s okay!
If you follow all these tips, you’ll be able to increase your serotonin and dopamine levels naturally.
Increasing Dopamine Levels Naturally
We often think of dopamine as a “feel good” neurotransmitter, especially when it comes to unhealthy/addictive behaviors (i.e., gambling).
But there are plenty of healthy, natural ways you can increase your dopamine levels. Here are some ways you can generate more dopamine naturally.
Eating high-protein foods
Like serotonin, dopamine can be released more when eating certain foods. High-protein foods that tyrosine will help with the production of dopamine. These foods include turkey, beef, eggs, dairy, soy, and legumes.
(Eggs are a favorite of mine).
Avoiding saturated fats
On the one hand, you can increase dopamine by eating certain foods, but you can also avoid foods that may deplete your dopamine levels.
These include saturated fats, such as those found in animal fat, butter, full-fat dairy, palm oil, and coconut oil, which may disrupt dopamine signaling in the brain when consumed in very large quantities.
(You don’t have to avoid them entirely, but cutting one or two out of your daily routine could go a long way!)
Listening to music
Music activates that pleasure/reward system in our brain. Studies have shown that there was a 9% increase in brain dopamine levels when people listened to instrumental songs that gave them chills.
Go ahead and turn that music up!
The gut plays an important part in regulating dopamine levels, which is why probiotics can be helpful. You can take them as a supplement or consume them when eating yogurt.
(Chobani is my personal favorite!)
Increasing Serotonin and Dopamine Levels Naturally Isn’t Always Enough
These are just a few of the many ways we can increase our levels of dopamine and serotonin. However, if you feel that you do whatever you can to increase the levels, and you still feel that you are experiencing low energy, fatigue, sadness, etc., you may still be feeling depressed or anxious.
Simply going for a walk outside and eating salmon for dinner won’t “cure” your depression or anxiety. Many times, no matter what we do to try to keep our bodies and brains healthy, our chemical build doesn’t allow for as much natural production of these “happy chemicals” to make us feel like we’re at a good benchmark.
Remember, too much of anything isn’t healthy. If you have too much serotonin in your body, you could experience serotonin syndrome, which can leave you with dry mouth and even anxiety/depression, which is the opposite of what we’re trying to do.
Similarly, if you get too attached to the feeling that you get when you have a “dopamine hit,” you might be prone to addictive behaviors like smoking cigarettes or overeating sugary foods.
While these things might feel good in the moment, doing this frequently over time can become addicting and hard to break the habit. Even exercising, which is healthy, can be overdone. Your body needs rest, as well as your mind.
There is No Shame in Using Medication to Increase Serotonin and Dopamine
For those who experience depression and anxiety, those levels may be off and you may not be able to control them no matter what you do naturally. That’s why it is so important to talk to your doctor about the symptoms you are experiencing.
Your doctor may be able to prescribe you a medication specific to your situation/chemical make-up (with some trial periods to see which kind of medication you respond best to).
There is no shame in using medication to help increase your serotonin and dopamine levels.
There’s a wide range of medications, from SSRIs to SNRIs that can target these needs more specifically. Regardless of your situation, taking care of your body and eating the right foods can really help your mental health.
A Note About Supplements and Serotonin and Dopamine Levels
Some may read this and think, “why can’t I just take supplements of these different ingredients?” For example, why go out in the sunlight, when I could just consume vitamin D?
While you may be able to take natural supplements that promise to boost levels of serotonin and dopamine, be wary that these supplements aren’t always regulated or approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and may not give you the results you’re looking for.
Also, supplements are not as effective as consuming the ingredient in whole, healthy foods. Sunshine is important for our bodies and minds—taking a supplement of vitamin D might help, but it cannot replace the natural rays that our bodies need.
As you continue on your mental health journey, consider some of these natural tips to increase your dopamine and serotonin levels, or use them to supplement with your medication.
What do you do to increase your serotonin and dopamine levels? Let me know in the comments.