The Happy Chemical: Do You Have Enough?
We rely on serotonin for a lot more than just a good night’s rest. Serotonin is essential to many bodily processes. Often called the “happy chemical” because it supports wellbeing and happiness, serotonin not only regulates our sleep-wake cycles, but also protects us from depression and anxiety, helps us to heal from wounds and infections and even supports our libido! Serotonin also controls how quickly or slowly food moves through our digestive tract.
Stress causes our bodies to produce more cortisol, but not much serotonin. Ensuring sufficient serotonin production requires both an appropriate diet (so we have the right materials to produce serotonin) and stress management (so our serotonin does not become quickly depleted.)
Recipe Spotlight: Serotonin
Stress depletes serotonin. In order to keep our reserves of this essential neurotransmitter at a healthy level, we have to consume the right foods to allow us to produce serotonin as rapidly as we deplete it. Let’s take a look at the nutrients that are necessary for serotonin production and the foods that are the best sources:
- 5-HTP: Derived from tryptophan, an amino acid that we are unable to produce and therefore must get from the foods in our diets. Good dietary sources of tryptophan include dark leafy greens like spinach and collards, butternut squash seeds, sea vegetables like kelp and spirulina, cucumbers, walnuts and mushrooms.
- B Vitamins: Vitamins B6 and B12 are necessary for production of serotonin, along with many other important bodily functions. You’ll find plenty of B6 in bananas, watermelon, sweet potatoes, avocados, hemp seeds, Brussels sprouts, sunflower seeds, figs, garlic and leafy greens. You can get your B12 from fermented foods like tempeh, sauerkraut and kimchi as well as spirulina and nutritional yeast.
- Magnesium: Magnesium controls blood pressure and regulates nerve cell function. It also aids in healthy digestion by allowing your bowels to relax between waves of peristaltic contraction, increasing the efficacy of the next contraction. Magnesium is essential to maintaining healthy levels of serotonin. Great food sources of magnesium include: dark chocolate, avocados, beans, almonds, pumpkin and flax seeds, quinoa, bananas and leafy greens.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C is essential for production of serotonin, as well as dopamine and adrenaline. And we all know it’s an essential nutrient for immune support. You can ensure you’re getting plenty of this antioxidant superfood by consuming chili peppers, guava, parsley, kale, kiwi, broccoli, lemons, lychees, papayas, strawberries and oranges.
Reduce Stress with Meditation
Stress depletes serotonin, so another way to ensure that there’s enough of it in our system is to take steps to reduce our stress levels. We usually can’t control or prevent stressful events from occurring in our lives, so we must take measures to return our nervous system to a relaxed state.
Meditation reduces stress and anxiety and promotes emotional health. A daily meditation routine is essential to balancing a hectic schedule full of competing demands.
Although many people are intimidated about trying meditation, it’s actually a lot easier to get started than you might think. Once you get in the habit of treating yourself to a time of quiet and stillness you’ll wonder how you ever went with it.
- Choose a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed and make yourself comfortable. Sit comfortably with your hands resting in your lap. If you’re comfortable in a cross-legged position that’s great, but don’t worry at all if you’re not. Just choose a position that you can comfortably maintain for at least 15 minutes. Set a timer as you get started so you won’t be distracted by wondering how long you’ve been sitting. 15 minutes is a great goal, but may not be a realistic starting point. It would be better to begin with sitting for just 5 minutes everyday and gradually working up to longer sessions than to attempt to sit for longer and become discouraged when you find it is too difficult to be still and focused for as long as you would like.
- Close your eyes and begin taking slow, deep breaths. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Don’t force it, just let your breath flow naturally. It may be shallow at first but will become slower and deeper as you settle into your practice.
- Bring your attention to your breath. Notice the way the air moves through your body, the sound it makes and the way you feel as you become calmer and more relaxed. Try to quiet your mind of other thoughts. Certainly other thoughts will arise. When they do, simply notice them, let them go and gently bring your attention back to your breath. Don’t get frustrated or feel critical of yourself if your mind is busier than you think it should be. Just keep retraining your focus on your breath. You will find that it gets easier and easier with practice.
- When your session is complete, open your eyes, stretch your body and gently begin to move. Notice how differently you feel compared to when you began.
Other Ways to Boost Serotonin
Diet and stress management are not the only ways to support adequate serotonin levels. Here, from Psychology Today magazine, are 4 ways to increase your serotonin. And while changing your diet and committing to a new meditation routine can be challenging, these are tips that you’re sure to be happy to indulge in!
- Sunlight: Getting sunlight has a similar effect as taking an antidepressant. That’s because UV rays from the sun stimulate vitamin D production in our skin and vitamin D supports production and release of serotonin. Maximize your vitamin D levels by exposing as much of your skin as possible during the middle of the day, when the sun is brightest. For those with dark complexions, it may be necessary to spend several hours in the sun in order to produce a sufficient amount of vitamin D, while those with light complexions may need as little as 15 minutes and would, in fact, not be advised to endure direct sun much longer than that.
- Massage: Massage therapy increases levels of not only serotonin but also dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin. No wonder it feels so good to receive bodywork! Massage also soothes the nervous system, relieves muscle pain, reduces inflammation and enhances immune function. Massage is even detoxifying! Boost your health and support a healthy gut by receiving massage therapy regularly.
- Exercise: Daily exercise is of utmost importance for our health. Did you know that in addition to all the wonderful things we already commonly associate with exercise – like its benefits for cardiac health, bone strength and healthy metabolism – that it also helps us to produce short chain fatty acids that are essential for the health of our guts and brains? Exercise also boosts our serotonin levels. To maximize the benefit of being active every day, opt for aerobic exercises like hiking and running, and try to have a positive attitude about doing it. Feeling resentful about your chosen activity actually decreases the impact on serotonin production!
- Remembering happy events: Simply reflecting on fond memories will stimulate serotonin production in your brain! If your serotonin is depleted and you tend to feel depressed, it can be hard to remember feeling happier. It can be helpful to talk to an old friend or look at pictures. If you notice your friends or loved ones seem depressed, then be sure to help them out by sharing memories of happier times.
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So while diet and stress management are essential to maintaining healthy serotonin levels, if you’re not ready to commit to a big change, perhaps you could ease into it by enjoying a massage or spending the afternoon at the beach!