Serotonin supplements like specific amino acids, vitamins, minerals and herbs increase serotonin levels helping depression and other brain-related disorders. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a large role in mood, learning, appetite control, and sleep. It’s believed that low serotonin is the underlying cause of depression.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, and Lexapro are used by millions to relieve symptoms of depression by increasing brain levels of serotonin. But SSRIs can have serious side effects and don’t work for everyone, possibly up to 40 percent of those who try them (1). Some research shows they work no better than a placebo (2).
Several other brain-related disorders besides depression are related to low serotonin, including autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, sleep disorders, and schizophrenia (3). Many people with depression or other serotonin deficiency symptoms and conditions are searching for better ways to increase serotonin levels naturally without the use of drugs. If this is your situation, here are some serotonin supplements proven to help increase serotonin levels naturally.
The Types Of Supplements That Increase Serotonin Naturally
There are many kinds of nutritional supplements that increase serotonin levels — amino acids, vitamins, minerals, herbs, and more. Before you take any serotonin supplement, it’s important to understand a little bit about them and especially how they work together. Sometimes there are vital synergistic relationships between these various serotonin boosting substances. There are several co-factors required to make the most commonly used serotonin supplements do their job. Conversely, there are times when these supplements can react adversely with medications or other serotonin supplements, and you need to know about those, too.
Amino Acid Serotonin Supplements
Three of the most widely used serotonin supplements are the amino acids tryptophan, 5-HTP, and SAM-e. Note that it is not considered safe to mix any of these amino acid supplements with antidepressant medications (4). Do so only if you are working with a knowledgeable health care professional. Together, they can cause too large an increase in serotonin, which can result in a potentially serious condition known as serotonin syndrome. Serotonin syndrome should be taken very seriously. Symptoms range from mild to fatal.
Tryptophan: Tryptophan might seem like a logical serotonin supplement to try first since tryptophan is a precursor of serotonin. Tryptophan is an amino acid commonly found in protein-rich foods like animal products. But since protein blocks serotonin synthesis, eating a meal containing protein will actually cause both tryptophan and serotonin levels drop. However, tryptophan supplements can increase brain serotonin even though eating foods containing tryptophan does not (5). Tryptophan supplements fell out of favor when a contaminated batch from Japan caused thousands to fall ill in the 1980s. For decades, manufacturers shied away from selling this supplement, but it’s now readily available and widely known to be safe.
5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan): 5-HTP could be considered as either an amino acid or herbal supplement. It comes from Griffonia simplicifolia, an African woody shrub. Griffonia’s seeds contain 20% 5-HTP (6). But we’ve put it in the amino acid category since it’s so closely associated with tryptophan. In the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom, 5-HTP is sold as an over-the-counter supplement for ADHD, anxiety, depression, fibromyalgia, migraines, sleep disorders, and weight loss (7). Elsewhere in Europe, it’s available as a prescription drug (8). Unfortunately, this supplement’s usefulness for depression may be more hype than substance. A review of 108 studies on 5-HTP revealed there is still no definitive evidence that it helps depression (9).
Tryptophan or 5-HTP? An Ongoing Debate: There’s an ongoing discussion in the natural health community whether it’s better to take tryptophan or 5-HTP to increase serotonin levels. Tryptophan more readily enters the brain, but 5-HTP requires one less step to convert into serotonin. We prefer tryptophan supplements not just because studies have not conclusively found that 5-HTP helps depression, but because 5-HTP is not intended for long-term use. While it’s increasing serotonin, it’s depleting other neurotransmitters like dopamine. Within a few months, this inevitably causes a cascade of negative side effects (10). Dr. Datis Kharrazian, author of Why Isn’t My Brain Working?, lists these co-factors as needed for the synthesis of either tryptophan or 5-HTP to serotonin — vitamins B3, B6, and B12, folic acid, and magnesium. Look either for serotonin boosting supplements that contain these along with the main active ingredients or add them separately with a high-quality multivitamin mineral supplement.
SAM-e (s-adenosyl methionine): SAM-e naturally occurs in every cell of the body and brain and fuels over 100 metabolic reactions. SAM-e supplements are synthetically derived and sold in the U.S. as a supplement. In Europe, SAM-e is used as a prescription medication for depression, liver disease, and osteoarthritis (11). Several studies show that SAM-e works as well for depression as some anti-depression medications by increasing serotonin, dopamine, and other “feel good” brain chemicals (12, 13). It’s particularly helpful for Parkinson’s and schizophrenia patients who also have depression (14). SAM-e should not be mixed with drugs that affect serotonin release such as levodopa, Demerol, or Ultram, or the over-the-counter cough remedy Robitussin DM (15).
Vitamins And Minerals That Increase Serotonin
All of the B vitamins are needed for a healthy, functioning nervous system and several are needed to synthesize serotonin (16). Here are a few that are integrally connected to serotonin production.
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine): Vitamin B6 must be present to facilitate conversion of either 5-HTP or tryptophan into serotonin (17, 18). Often 5-HTP or tryptophan supplements also contain B6 for this reason. People suffering from major depression consistently have low blood levels of both vitamins B9 and B12, both of which are needed for SAM-e to be utilized by the brain (19).
Vitamin B9 (folic acid): Folic acid deficiency will cause low serotonin levels. It can act as an antidepressant, possibly by affecting serotonin receptors within the brain (20). One study concluded that everyone with depression should be taking folic acid since its potential benefits are so great (21). Folic acid enhances the effects of both SAM-e and antidepressant medications such as Prozac (22).
Vitamin C: Vitamin C increases serotonin and can act as a natural antidepressant. Study participants who were given vitamin C reported feeling happier, often within as little as one week (23).
Vitamin D: Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, may be the most important “missing” vitamin for your brain and your mood. Deficiency is rampant with up to 75 percent of Americans not getting enough (24). Low levels are thought to be responsible for the depression many people feel in the winter known as seasonal affective disorder (25). Vitamin D regulates the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin (26). If you spend most of your time indoors or live in the northern half of the U.S., vitamin D supplementation is a must.
Magnesium: Magnesium is a mineral essential in over 300 different metabolic functions (27). It has a direct effect on serotonin balance (28). Patients treated with magnesium supplements have experienced rapid recovery from major depressive disorder (29). Besides improving mood, it’s also been shown to increase focus and concentration, energy, and resilience to stress (30). Magnesium deficiency is a widespread issue, with up to 80 percent of Americans being deficient (31).
Zinc: Zinc is another essential mineral with antidepressant properties (32). It’s normally present in high concentrations in the brain where it assists many brain functions. It increases the uptake of serotonin in certain areas of the brain and shows potential as a treatment for major depressive disorder (33, 34). Zinc deficiency is extremely common, probably affecting 2 billion people worldwide (35). Children, seniors, and vegetarians are most at risk for zinc deficiency.
Food-Based Natural Serotonin Boosters
There are a few serotonin boosting compounds that originate in food. Theoretically, you could boost your serotonin level just from food, provided you consumed enough of the right foods.
L-theanine: L-theanine is a brain boosting amino acid found almost exclusively in green tea. It increases levels of serotonin and can make you more resilient to stress (36). It has the unique ability to increase alpha brainwave activity, which puts you in a similar brainwave state to that achieved during meditation (37). You can take l-theanine supplements or get it from drinking green tea — 3 cups of per day should deliver real brain benefits (38).
Omega-3 essential fatty acids: Omega-3 EFAs are found mainly in coldwater fatty fish like salmon and mackerel. They are one of the most important nutrients for overall brain health and function. They’re essential for building healthy brain cells and promoting new brain cell formation (39). People with low serotonin levels commonly have low levels of omega-3 fats. Two major components of omega-3s are DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and both are involved with serotonin. DHA makes serotonin receptors more receptive, while EPA increases the release of serotonin from neurons (40). DHA is generally considered the most important of the omega-3s for brain function. Low levels of DHA are linked to depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, memory loss, and Alzheimer’s (41). You could get enough omega-3s from your diet if you ate wild salmon every day. But there are very few people who wouldn’t benefit from omega-3 supplementation — in the form of fish oil or krill oil — since 99 percent of the population is omega-3 deficient (42).
Probiotics: Probiotics are good bacteria found in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, and unpasteurized sauerkraut. They can help establish a normal balance between good and bad bacteria in your intestines, and that is surprisingly relevant to the health and function of your brain. An overabundance of bad bacteria in the gut is called dysbiosis and creates toxic byproducts called lipopolysaccharides. Lipopolysaccharides have numerous negative effects on your brain including lowered serotonin levels (43). Probiotic supplements can help if you don’t regularly eat fermented foods. Lifestyle factors that mess up your gut flora balance include stress, alcohol, sugar, exposure to toxins, and taking antibiotics or birth control pills (44).
Herbs That Increases Serotonin Levels
There’s a fine line between food based supplements and herbal remedies. Herbal remedies are derived from plant parts — seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark, and flowers — and are used medicinally. This last group, herbal serotonin supplements, is derived from plants but not ones we normally eat.
Curcumin: Curcumin is the active ingredient in the spice turmeric, which has many brain boosting properties. This compound increases levels of both serotonin and dopamine (45). Curcumin supplements have proven to be as effective as Prozac for depression (46). Isolated curcumin is not very bioavailable so look for a curcumin supplement that has taken measures to enhance bioavailability. For example, the addition of piperine, a compound found in black pepper, increases curcumin absorption by up to 2000 percent (47).
Garcinia Cambogia: Garcinia cambogia is a sour tropical fruit that’s used in traditional Asian cuisine. Garcinia extract has become a wildly popular weight loss supplement that supposedly works by decreasing appetite while increasing the body’s ability to burn fat (48). Studies show it’s minimally effective as a fat burner, but it does suppress appetite by increasing serotonin levels (49, 50). It may also help with weight loss by improving mood, which reduces emotional eating (51). If you are taking an SSRI, do not take garcinia for either increasing serotonin or weight loss as this combination can lead to serotonin toxicity (52).
Rhodiola Rosea: Rhodiola rosea goes by many common names — Arctic root, golden root, rose root, western roseroot, Aaron’s rod, and king’s crown — to name a few (53). And it has almost as many uses as it has names! Rhodiola rosea has been called an herb that’s good for whatever ails you. If you have brain fog, trouble concentrating, and low energy along with your depression, it’s an excellent herb to consider. It’s been used since the ancient Greeks to boost overall physical and mental vitality. It’s a potent adaptogen that increases resistance to stress (54). And it’s an excellent serotonin booster that also decreases the stress hormone cortisol (55). Rhodiola rosea helps with a wide range of brain related disorders including depression, anxiety, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and memory loss (56). It can also help overcome the stress, brain fog, and anxiety that often accompany fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome (57). It has almost no side effects and works faster to reduce depression than antidepressant medications (58).
How To Increase Serotonin With Supplements: The Bottom Line
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are usually prescribed for depression. They work by increasing serotonin levels. But they are not the only way to increase serotonin. There are a wide variety of supplements that can increase serotonin levels naturally. But there are some finer points you need to know to use serotonin supplements safely and effectively. It’s critical that you don’t “mix and match” serotonin supplements with other substances that increase serotonin or you put yourself at risk for potentially dangerous serotonin syndrome. Unfortunately, just as with any antidepressant medication, there is no one serotonin supplement that works for everyone. It may require some trial and error to figure out the one that’s right for you.
Messing with your serotonin levels can be dangerous, and should only be done very carefully. The list of drugs/foods that can interact with it are much larger than listed. I got serotonin syndrome via a mix of my Tramadol prescription, a pre-workout drink containing 5-HTP, and drinking a grapefruit juice. Grapefruit juice can severely inhibit enzymes required to synthesize many medicines, herbal or prescribed.
Anyway, not fun. And i suggest if you take anything listed in this article, google it’s interaction with serotonin and anything else in your diet.
Deane Alban says
I’m sorry you went through that. I hope what happened to you will be a warning to others to do be extra-careful of mixing ingredients, even that seem safe on their own. Unfortunately neither 5-HTP or grapefruit juice “plays well with others”.
Free Truth says
Excercise also increases serotonin naturally
Deane Alban says
James Biehl says
This is a great list and information!
I’d like to share some of my knowledge on good brands / forms of aforementioned supplements.
Vitamin B12: Methylcobalamin
Folic Acid: 5-MTHF
These are the methylated forms of these vitamins. These can be found in good B vitamin complex brands like Doctors Best, for example.
Vitamin C: Ester-C with bioflavonoids (500mg)
Vitamin D: D3 form. Combine with K2 for enhanced absorption + K2 benefits. Sublingual best is best for absorption. 5000 – 10,000 IU daily, depending on body weight. Take in morning.
Magnesium and Zinc: Liquid Ionic Mega-Mag, Zinc. Brand: Trace Minerals Research.
This is the natural form of magnesium / zinc reduced from Utah Salt Lake. Taste is strong, mix with some juice (like tart cherry concentrate – Dean Alban, does tart cherry play a role in serotonin from it’s antioxidant or COX-2 activity?)
L-Theanine: brand, Suntheanine.
Omega-3: brand, Nordic Naturals Omega 3 (best purity, form) Swanson’s Vitamins also has a great price on Calamari DHA.
Probiotics: brand, Primal Defense by Garden of Life. These are soil based organisms (SBO’s) Talked about by experts. Other SBO brands are Prescription Assist and Orthomolecular Research Probiotic 3. Can also eat type 4 resistant starch (such as Bob’s Red Mill unmodified potato starch) to feed your lower gut bacteria.
Curcumin: Brand, NOW Foods Curcubrain (supposedly crosses blood brain barrier) Also combine with some Piperine as stated (brand, Bioperine)
Rhodiola Rosea: There is a very potent RR extract from Ceretropic, called Super Rhodiola.
To (respectfully) add to the list, I would mention TMG as a means to increase methylation, lower homocysteine, produce more SAM-e naturally, and increase utilization of B vitamins. I would also recommend Concentrace Trace Mineral to take along with the liquid ionic magnesium and zinc (to get complete spectrum of minerals). These is also available in capsule form from Swannsons Vitamins. Lithium is also related to serotonin (not related to clinical use of lithium; lithium is an essential trace mineral related to brain function and development). Lithium can be taken from the aforementioned Concentrace capsule form.
Also worth mentioning is a quality whey protein concentrate, which has some studies about its relationship to serotonin. Lastly would be a quality collagen hydrolysate power, which is abundant in many amino acids, including glutamic acid which can aid in sleep. Collagen combined with a few droppers of ionic magnesium, potato starch and tart cherry concentrate works wonders.
For more information on amino acids and their role in mental health, consult Julia Ross’ book “The Mood Cure”
Deane Alban says
Thanks, James, for sharing all this great info! Taking supplements from reputable companies is SO important. Time and time again it’s found that supplements don’t contain what’s on the label. (Case in point the recent expose on herbal supplements from Walmart, Target, GNC, and Walgreens.)
Great question about tart cherry juice. I believe it works by increasing available tryptophan by inhibiting an enzyme that degrades trytophan. You can read more about that here: http://www.choosecherries.com/press-material/study-tart-cherry-juice-increases-sleep-time-in-adults-with-insomnia/
It should be noted that serotonin cannot enter the brain, whereas 5HTP and tryptophan can. Therefore it’s actually better to take your B6 an hour or two after taking your 5HTP or tryptophan in order to give the substance time to work its way into the brain. This is another reason I prefer tryptophan; the fact that it’s two steps away from serotonin gives it more time to enter the brain before its converted.
This piece wrongly buys into the now largely discredited theory that depression is caused by a “chemical imbalance” and shortage of serotonin. That idea was prevalent among researchers for a time but mostly has been trumpeted by drug companies to provide a simplistic (and false) rationale for SSRIs, as well as doctors seeking an easy and reassuring explanation for their patients, and has taken on a life of it’s own in the media and among the general public because of our endless desire for simple, mechanistic explanations and quick chemical fixes. But it increasingly appears to be wrong–you can easily read up on this yourself. As one example of how basically dead this theory is in the research and psychiatric community, my own quick google search brings up this editorial in Psychiatric Times by Ronald Pies (an academic psychiatrist and former editor of the publication) taking it as a given that there is no evidence for a serotonin imbalance and arguing (improbably, I think) that his profession never really bought into the idea! http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/blogs/couch-crisis/nuances-narratives-chemical-imbalance-debate
Notice also that the author’s definitive statement that “several other brain disorders ARE related to low serotonin” (whatever exactly a “brain disorder” is) references a single, rather minor article that refers to serotonin “as the POSSIBLE missing link tying together why
vitamin D and marine omega-3 fatty acids MIGHT ameliorate the symptoms
associated with a broad array of brain disorders.” In other words, there is no clear evidence at all for what she is saying.
Mohammed Miyan says
Increased water intake also increases serotonin.
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Marc Kraft says
Fantastic article Deane. This is the most in-depth, well-researched article I’ve read on the best supplements for serotonin.